A (Neoliberal) Church of the Few

New York Times columnist Bill Keller recently created something of a controversy by following the president of the Catholic League, Bill Donohue, in claiming that liberal Catholics who find themselves out of sync with the magisterium should leave the church. While for Keller this would be a move to liberation, for Donohue doing so would leave the church smaller but more energized—a sentiment echoed by a priest recently interviewed in the Times about changes in the Philadelphia diocese.

Reacting to Keller in the National Catholic Reporter, the theologian and journalist Jamie Manson pointed out that leaving the church is not an option for the many Roman Catholics who live not in middle class comfort in the global North but who lack the social, economic, and cultural framework to leave.

Keller and Donohue’s suggestion, as well as Manson’s reply, puts the spotlight on an important broader transformation in the self-understanding of the Roman Church: in some (but not in all) places, we witness that the church is moving from a community of familial belonging to one of rational choice.

Consider how historian Robert Orsi described the fabric of Catholic identity among Italian immigrants in pre-War New York City in his magisterial book The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950. For these migrants from small Italian villages to the megalopolis of finance and industry Catholicism was primarily anchored in the home—in the rituals, stories, mutual obligations, and travails of the family. The shrine to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, anchored the Italian presence in the neighborhood. However, it did so less an administrative outpost of a supranational central authority (the Vatican) but more as Mary’s family home. In her house, she could welcome the happy and the weary and meet her children by giving and withholding blessings. In contrast the celibate priests of the community were eyed with a suspicion typical for the Italian anti-clericalism fostered by the fact that large parts of the country was literally a feudal fief of the popes. Priests were particularly problematic because they had no family home—they did not belong to a family with its rhythms and constraints of mutual responsibility. Nuns and male religious fared a bit better, since their communities were seen as such a home, as their families. They weren’t free agents.

The idea that Roman Catholics could or should simply walk away from their church communities and chose different ones clearly requires a novel model of belonging. One cannot “simply” walk away from family—and even if a person is forced to make this painful decision, everyone will carry a modicum of pain, including the family members who remain. The head of the household may try to enforce obedience with warnings like, “As long as you sit at my table…” Yet, doing so acknowledges already that something is wrong.

Presenting “walking away,” therefore, as a viable option in which the remaining community remains unchanged or even changed for the better requires a paradigm shift — away from the model of the church as family to one of the church as a community of choice for rational free agents.

This shift is underway clearly in many countries of Western Europe where Roman Catholicism (and mainline Protestantism) does not coincide any more with the belonging to specific social milieus or ethnic groups. To the degree that, for example, Germans still identify as Roman Catholics, they tend to do so with an attitude that sociologists call “belonging without believing.” In contrast, these Germans might endorse religious convictions without forming strong social ties to religious institutions (what is called “believing without belonging”).

Religious beliefs (or political ones, by the way) become unmoored from proximate familial or social ties and thus present themselves as a matter of consumer choice. If Max Weber was right, then this move is the outcome of Protestant attitudes about religion and economy.

This behavior is not available to people in societies that are not organized based on the neoliberal consumer model. Where family, milieu, and communal ties organize self and society, “walking away” is clearly not an option. What we witness perhaps in Keller’s and Donohue’s suggestion is the next frontier of the Protestantization of Roman Catholicism in the United States: moving from a community based on the model of a patriarchal family to one based on consumer choice.