Monday, July 23, 2007

Hidden Dangers of the Intentional Community

The thread below this one has generated a lively and thought provoking discussion on the idea of Catholic education and the possibilities of small, private Catholic schools providing a values-laden, truly Catholic education.

I'm still as convinced as ever that homeschooling through high school is what the Cardigan family has been called to do; unless God tells me otherwise in the form of some catastrophic event that makes it impossible for our family to continue to homeschool, I have every intention of teaching my children at home.

At least one of my concerns centers around the ability of our poisonous culture to impact our children when they are too young to appreciate its dangers, too immature to handle its ramifications, and too inexperienced to stand boldly against it. In a sense, everyone who accepts the reality that our culture is broken beyond mending has taken a radical and hostile stance toward it; is it really the job of our children to be culture warriors in the world when their ages demand that they should still be under our thoughtful parental protection?

Much of the discussion in the comment thread below has focused on one particular school which is trying to be a sign of contradiction to the values of the world. In theory, I appreciate their efforts; in practice, I see them as usurping the proper function of the family, whom they should support and serve but not command. In a very real sense, these are also my concerns about a growing topic of conversation regarding a similar issue: the discussion of the intentional community.

It's a topic that has been in the news lately. While, as the article cited mentioned, state and local laws didn't allow certain restrictions Mr. Monaghan had planned for the town called Ave Maria, there's no denying that more than a few Catholics will move there. They, like others who have formed intentional communities, will try to make Ave Maria a place where Catholics will be in the majority, able to foster and create an atmosphere far removed from the ugliness of modern American culture. Though the visionary founder wasn't able to restrict the kinds of cable channels people could subscribe to, there will be plenty of gentle pressure among the Catholic residents of the town for everyone to join in fighting against the wickedness and depravity that permeate much of modern existence.

And what could possibly be wrong with that?

Again, in theory, nothing. It's when theory meets practice that these things often fall apart.

What if a Catholic Town were to be built right where you live? What if you and your family moved there, full of excitement and optimism?

What follows is merely a thought experiment, but it is based on some reading I've done about intentional communities, and the pitfalls which may lurk there for the unwary. Most of the communities I read about were Christian rather than Catholic, though there was a detailed account of an erstwhile Catholic community as well:

Diary of Our Move to Heavenly Peace:

Day 1: We're finally here! J. and I and the kids are so excited, but we're exhausted too. Lots of our new neighbors came to welcome us, which slowed down our unpacking a bit, but who's complaining? They all said they love living here; it's great to be with such good Catholics. One slightly weird thing--well, maybe two. One of them said something about "all our nice furniture" as the movers were carrying things in--didn't have the heart to tell them it's all flea market stuff (J.'s so good at reupholstering and repairing things!) And the casseroles they brought us (how great is that!) were all, well, vegetarian. They said something about each street "adopting" an extra day a week to go meatless, and here on Blessed Ollegarius Street they've chosen Wednesdays. They made it sound like it wasn't optional...

Day 12: What a great place! Meatless Wednesdays--what a good spiritual sacrifice! And there's daily Mass at six a.m., the Rosary at noon, and evening prayers at six p.m. Well, that last could be changed a bit...I've been asked why J. doesn't join us for evening prayers, but of course with his crazy work schedule...

Day 20: Just finished our meeting with our "spiritual buddies." We were assigned the O'Rillys, who've been here eight years. Lots to think about. Are we still too much of the world? J.'s late hours barely pay the bills--is God really calling him to find a job where he'll be able to be at church by six every night? The evening prayers are wonderful, and all that, but I think J.'s job is, too...

Day 59: Had a bad night with Maria Grace Therese; she's teething. Anyway, too tired to make Mass this a.m. Phone started ringing at six thirty nine--doorbell by 7:15. So many people worried about us not being there! It's nice, in a way, but I could have used a little extra sleep...

Day 74: Still getting pressure from the "buddies" about J. not making evening prayers. Probably need a meeting with the Director...

Day 86: Met with Director--he was very understanding about J.'s job, and promised to talk to the O'Rillys. Odd, though; he asked a lot of questions about J.'s job, his salary, our assets, etc. Maybe he needed to be convinced that J. really can't switch jobs right now...

Day 108: The O'Rillys seem to think we've been given special "permission" to miss evening prayers; they said something weird about some people giving spiritually and others giving financially. We make donations to the Community, of course, but we're stretched pretty thin right now, so I hope they aren't suggesting we should be giving more...

Day 124: We're in trouble. Not only did the O'Rillys and the Director ask us to increase our donations, but several people aren't speaking to us: we had a birthday party for Ambrose Xavier Matthias on Wednesday, and some of the pizzas we served had sausage (his favorite) on them!
It's not that we forgot, but it was his birthday, after all. Dara Martin, who has always seemed a little distant, called me up afterward. She mentioned that she and Mel are putting their house on the market, and then she offered some advice that was strange: "Next time pretend it's sausage-flavored tofu, even if it isn't. They'll never know the difference." I told her I was uncomfortable being dishonest, but she just laughed nervously and then hung up...

Day 132: Some people still aren't talking to us. Unfortunately the O'Rillys are; they were over when Ambrose opened his grandmother's gift, a toy robot from that new movie. They were shocked, took us aside, and argued with us about our duty to send it back with a note explaining we don't allow such evil things in our home. J. said we'd seen the movie and thought it was cute and totally harmless--you'd have thought we were satan worshippers or something from the way they reacted to that! Eventually they left, but it was a miserable evening...

Day 138: Sunday Mass was uncomfortable. The Director glared at us at coffee and donuts--oh, wait, that's decaf coffee and whole grain bagels--after Mass, and said something loudly to the person he was talking to about the spiritually blind and financially selfish. Is he right? Are we putting our souls in danger?

Day 156: Things have been better since we wrote that check. Of course, it means not having the money to visit J.'s parents until next year, but at least we don't feel so ostracized. Tomorrow is my turn to host the Parents Against Fiction Society, and I've gone through the house with a fine-tooth comb making sure that anything that could be criticized or viewed as un-Catholic was hidden in the attic. I'm a nervous wreck that I might have missed something...

Day 157: Well, I missed something, all right. Apparently teddy bears are really evil, because they call to mind Native American fetishes and were foisted on unsuspecting children by Teddy Roosevelt because he was a Mason who wanted children's souls to be open to demonic influences. I called Dara Martin's new phone number, and asked her for the name of the realtor who sold her house so fast...

Day 180: It looks like our house has sold. By this time next month we'll be in our new home. No one will scold J. for owning an electric guitar or tell me teddy bears are evil or hint about more and more money or frown at sausage on a pizza. It will be peace. It will be heavenly...

8 comments:

Opal said...

YIKES!
I bet it won't bet that bad.

Some boundaries would go up and fAsT! Nice fence, electric of course....oh so sorry mr director mean man, did it zap you? I'll have to turn it up..uu, I mean down. :0)

Sounds sort of like the Amish in a way.

spectator 2 said...

I would be very interested in the source of the diary. Was it a book? A website?

Red Cardigan said...

Umm, spectator 2, it was my own head--it's completely fictional as written.

But I draw from the experiences of people who have lived in communities like these, in particular one Christian and one Catholic community. If you will e-mail me at the address on the left of the blog I will try to provide some links to some online accounts of this type of thing, but I'm not comfortable posting those links at the present time.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly enough, we exerienced many subtle "pressures" such as you described in our TLM church - a diocesan approved FSSP parish. After this experience, I have come to the conclusion that too many ultra-conservative Catholics can poison a church/parish just as easily as too many kooky liberals. They are all, really, after the same thing -to change the faith into something that conforms with their own image.

I hope the new town of Ave Maria is successful. But I have already seen "fractures" arise at the college. It will be interesting, to say the least.

~Anonymous for this comment~

Opal said...

Where do we fit in?

We come for a mixed family (meaning not all Catholic and not all the Catholics take or know faith seriously).

These communities seem GREAT at first, so does the school, but what happens when our daughter is struggling with an issue, eg Godfather has now remarried outside of Church and she is concerned about him? Would she be introducting something into the society that is "unwanted" but is something we as American Catholics are going through?

We have been excluded from groups because of this and others; eg our neice, who is not Catholic, marries man who has 3 children out of wedlock. When she wants to discuss these things we are looked upon as outcasts or something less disireable. OR the other Catholics we do know, wonder what our problem is...why are we so concerned that one has divorced and remarried/God Loves Everybody!
So we are in the middle. And we don't seem to fit anywhere.

We are purposefully looking for a diocese where we might "fit" in. Not a particular town as in ave maria, but gosh. Do we divorce our family because some are nominal catholics?

Where do "we" fit?

John Thayer Jensen said...

Nearly fourteen years ago a storm hit our family that, a little over two years later, brought us into the Catholic Church (for which God be eternally thanked! The terminally bored can read about it here:

http://home.ps.gen.nz/~susanj/Jensen_Family/jj_cath/jj_cath_index.html

).

When I was going through the throes of conversion - well, when, in fact, I was converted and was contemplating RCIA, I was moaning in e-mail to a US Catholic friend about the really pretty dreadful character of RCIA, and of clarity of teaching generally, in our parish. The friend was vigorous in telling me that I didn't need to go through that, that if I knew a really orthodox priest (I did), that he could receive me, why go through that nonsense, etc - and that I should then find a parish where the faith was really taught well, etc, etc.

I must admit I was tempted. Things are pretty dismal at times. Nevertheless, my response was that I had spent twenty-five years as a Protestant (I only became a Christian at age 27) searching for the better and better church, and sometimes commuting long distances for the purpose. I decided that I was not going to be a Protestant Catholic. The Church has the parish system. Short of real major damage and heresy in the local priest, we would be local Catholics.

I have not regretted that decision. It has meant that instead of us creating our own community in our image, we have accepted what God has given us.

jj

PM said...

You have some very good and true thoughts on the subject. I think that these things can be present in a Catholic parish also.

There will always be certain groups of people who feel that they are doing soemthing that is God's only way and that everyone should be doing it. Creating this sort of we are holier than you type of atmosphere.

A friend of mine lives close to one of these communities. It has been made clear to her that it is an inclusive community and certain requirements need to be met in terms of education and number of children in order to be part of it. She has 2 kids and because she almost died giving birth to each of them her and her husband use NFP to avoid a pregnancy. Well, they are not holy enough. (She is not interested in joining just saddened by the her experience with them)

Kimberly K. said...

Hi. I am a Catholic who lives in an intentional Christian community (not a town, but a building that houses about 400 people). I think there are real dangers to community life but also great joys and gains. My community has rules and suggestions but we don't ostracize people. It's a balance. I think a lot of people are inclined to associate large groups that agree on one thing with controlling monster cults (however well meaning) that expect everyone to fit in a box. Here at my community, we are all (or mostly all) Christians but that's where the similarities end. I guess all I'm really saying is that all communities are not equal and, to those of us who do live in community, it can be really saddening to people tell you what your life is"probably" like, without any first hand experience.

As a side note, a great book on community is Community and Growth by Jean Vanier (founder of L'Arche) who is also Catholic.