I wrote this piece as a reply to a thread in a Facebook group called “Catholic Village Movement: Rebuilding Christendom.” The idea was floated that, “Many of us came from cities just 100 years ago. Maybe cities are the Catholic’s natural environment. Ugh. Gross. But also maybe true.” I am not so sure. In fact, I doubt it!
Here is my response – please read “Catholic” or “Catholics” to include all branches of the Church Catholic, including not only those of the Roman observance, but our Eastern Orthodox brethren, and of course, those of us who are Anglicans – slightly cleaned up and elaborated upon from the original:
I have just been an observer of the conversations on this group heretofore, but for what it’s worth (maybe nothing), here’s another perspective on the urban-vs-rural thing. Yes, “pagani” meant, roughly, “country bumpkins.” Actually it meant, literally, “dwellers in the pagus,” with “pagus” meaning – interestingly enough – “village,” but also district, countryside, rural portions of a civitas (http://latinmeaning.com/pagus-latin-to-english-translation/). It had, by the early Christian era, acquired a slightly pejorative cast to it, like “hicks” or “rednecks.”
So the question to ask ourselves is, why did those who clung to their pre-Christian religions (shades of Obama’s infamous “bitterly clinging to God and guns” remark…) become known as “pagani” (“pagans”)? Because a) new teachings took longer – a lot longer – to percolate out to the countryside, in those pre-hi-tech (and, for many, pre-literate) days, and b) because the cities had become inhospitable to them, having been largely converted to the new religion, Christianity. The situation is similar today, although the roles are reversed.
Ask yourself, where is the greatest survival of Christian (not only, but including, Catholic) belief and practice today? Hint: it’s not in the big, densely-populated coastal urban enclaves! It’s in the “flyover states,” and in more rural sections of the rest of the states. And for many of the same reasons that the “pagus” remained “pagan” long after Christianity had begun to gain traction in the more urban areas: cities are not, and never have been, amenable for those who want to maintain traditions.
Peer pressure still exists in cities, but it takes a different form than in smaller and more integrated communities. It is less personal, more corporate. Individuals can hide in cities more easily than they can in the countryside, but that doesn’t immunize them from the effects of urban existence. They may not have Aunt Margaret telling them they’ll go to Hell if they don’t say the rosary, or asking them why they don’t want to be a priest, but cities are capable of exerting a tremendous weight of inertia. The effect of non-stop dominant-culture bombardment should not be ignored or minimized.
So some may ask, “but then, shouldn’t our job be to convert them?” Well, yes – if one has that vocation and charism. It will be a daunting task, even for those who do! But what of the ordinary man, who is merely trying to maintain his own faith and morals, and that of his family, in a hostile environment? And cities can be very hostile to Christian faith and practice! The “Benedict Option” is almost becoming trite, these days (poor Rod Dreher!), but it is a historic fact that even so great a saint as Benedict had to withdraw from the cities of the time to tend to his own faith and that of his companions (“familia”). And he didn’t have TV and the internet to deal with!
This weekend began the 4-H & FFA Fair in my community (which has historically been rural and agricultural, is but rapidly becoming a bedroom community for Baltimore and DC). The kids there – and at many other similar fairs, across the nation – are some of the most mature, responsible, and hard-working young people you will ever see.
And why? For at least two reasons: one, they live in communities where traditions, including the tradition of working hard for one’s living, are still important, and passed down. And two, they live on, or have easy access to through their 4-H and FFA chapters, working farms. They see – they live! – a direct, immediate, and obvious connection between that hard work and the production of tangible, practical goods (primarily food and fiber) that they and others need to live. And while they have smart phones and the internet, they’re not completely obsessed with them in the way that many urban and suburban kids are, because they have real work to do.
They also have, by and large, good role models. They are likely to be part of multi-generational farming families – often on the same land their parents and grandparents farmed, maybe even further back (“century farms,” land farmed by the same family for 100 years or longer, are rare but not unknown). Their parents are likely still married to their original partners; their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins may live nearby. They go to the church down the road, every Sunday. Their ancestors are buried in the nearby cemetery. They are linked to the land, and to tradition.
Their families are not, furthermore, people who claim that it’s “conservative” to amass huge sums of money through questionable means; the values they learn are biblical and Christian values, whether portrayed in precisely those terms or not (they often are): work hard, do good to others, take care of the land, be frugal, help each other, and so on.
The countryside is a refuge for truly traditional thought and action in a way the city is not, never has been (especially once so much of its life became industrialized, automated, technologized), and never – at least in any kind of foreseeable future – will be.
So, is the “native environment” of Catholics urban? Well, the native environment of Christians – Catholic and otherwise – can be wherever God calls them to be. And it is true that the then-new teachings of Christianity caught on among the jaded, pessimistic urban folk of late Hellenistic antiquity; it may do so again, in the years and centuries to come. But who were Jesus’ disciples? They were, by and large, country folk. Villagers. Fishermen. Pagani. And again, where does Christianity survive the most, here in the States? In the countryside. Where, for that matter, did traditional Catholic teachings survive the best, during the Reformation? Again, in the countryside!
Obama may have been rude, but he was right, at least in part: country folk do cling – not, it is to be hoped, bitterly, but rather faithfully – to God and to the means of defending themselves, their families, and if need be, their faith and traditions. The re-conversion of the cities may well be in the future, and it may well be essential for the long-term future. But the survival of the faith depends, at least for the time being, I suspect, on the countryside, on the villages, on small, local, and mostly rural communities.
Just my two cents’ worth.