Christian Identity and Communities of Memory: Renewing the Public Life at the Parish Level (Part 2)

Christian Identity and Communities of Memory: Renewing the Public Life at the Parish Level (Part 2) May 6, 2009

Part 1: Introduction

The Challenge of Individualism

We are Catholics, but we are Americans at the same time. It is an illusion to think that we can live our lives as “good” Catholics while being isolated from the larger American society. Inevitably, if we are to engage American culture, we have to confront and understand the essential aspects of how Americans view themselves, their neighbors, and the world around them.

Since the birth of our nation, as seen in the founding documents, the understanding of the individual has been essentially Lockean[1] in that the individual is defined prior to society. On this view, society becomes subservient to the individual rather than the individual forming part of a larger whole and contributing to the good of the whole. According to Locke, the only reason why men should join together in forming a society is to ensure the preservation of their individual rights. It is this emphasis on the individual that brings about the individualism that pervades the American consciousness and inescapably shapes our thoughts, decisions, and behaviors. We can see how individualism manifests itself in how we are, for the most part, concerned primarily with our private lives: our individual material success, physical well-being, and safety. We tend to either subtly ignore or leave social, economic, or political concerns to politicians if such issues do not have a direct and immanently negative effect on our private lives. In the case that there is a public concern that directly clashes with our private values, we take action, but it is limited to voting. In doing so, we hope that the vote by itself will somehow translate into the result we desire. Rarely we find ourselves gathering with fellow neighbors or parishioners to discuss matters that affect our community or other neighboring communities.

In America, the individual, alienated from its greater social context, has become the center of gravity, so to speak, the beginning and the end. The self-centered individual, rather than the community, is the basic cell of American society. The overemphasis on the individual that reigns in our culture has led individuals to mark their own physical, natural and spiritual spaces or territories—to build fences around themselves to keep away those who are not directly contributing to their happiness or immediate satisfaction of some sort. In this context, the challenge for Catholics in America who are trying to weave the message of the Gospel into the fiber of American society is enormous. Jesus said to his apostles that his disciples would be known by their love to one another (Jn 13:34). But how are we going to love one another deeply and sincerely when we find ourselves in a culture that only tells us to love ourselves? Loving our neighbor requires a complete self-emptying—a change of focus from oneself to the other. Dostoevsky, through his character Ivan Karamazov, rightly understood the challenge of this commandment when he observed that “One can love one’s neighbors in the abstract, or even at a distance, but at close quarters it’s almost impossible.”[2] In the abstract, we romanticize and idealize love, an understanding that has been fueled by our individualistic culture. However, “at close quarters” we realize that love is challenging: that we have differences of views, which may lead to conflicts. These challenges that naturally arise in our relationships with our neighbors—spouses, children, family members, parishioners, friends, coworkers, or even strangers—can discourage us and prevent us from maintaining a dialogue and from trying to reach a consensus.

In our self-contained lives, our sense of relatedness has broken down. We have difficulty identifying who is our neighbor. It is no longer natural for us to care for others, not because we simply do not care, but rather because we feel inadequate to do so—we have left the task of caring to professionals.[3] For Catholics, performing the corporal works of mercy, which stand at the heart of Christian action and constitute the life of service of the Church, have become almost an afterthought—something we, as lay people, are not capable of doing due to lack of professional training. We learn from individualism that if Catholics are to properly and effectively participate in public life, they cannot embark on such process by themselves as isolated individuals. To enter the public sphere, we must first know ourselves and we can only discover who we are through our relationships with others.

Part 3: The Person, the Other, and the Community in communio Ecclesiology


[1] Influences of other figures such as Montesquieu, Hobbes, Burlamaqui, among others, should not be taken for granted. However, Locke stands as the crucial figure when speaking of who influenced the Founding Fathers on the notion of individual rights.

[2] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Constance Garnett (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004), 220.

[3] See Parker J. Palmer, The Company of Strangers (New York: Crossroad, 1991), 98.

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