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Dear catholic.com visitors: This website from Catholic Answers, with all its many resources, is the world's largest source of explanations for Catholic beliefs and practices. A fully independent, lay-run, 501(c)(3) ministry that receives no funding from the institutional Church, we rely entirely on the generosity of everyday people like you to keep this website going with trustworthy , fresh, and relevant content. If everyone visiting this month gave just $1, catholic.com would be fully funded for an entire year. Do you find catholic.com helpful? Please make a gift today. SPECIAL PROMOTION FOR NEW MONTHLY DONATIONS! Thank you and God bless.

The Moral Dangers of the Suburbs

Today’s Catholic should be made aware of the acute moral danger of life in the suburbs. In most quarters, including Catholic ones, the ‘burbs are treated as if such perils practically do not exist, or as if ethical immunity from the virus of modernism dwells there. As the book of Genesis makes clear, no such immunity exists anywhere under the sun. In fact, this misconception only serves to heighten the danger of the ‘burbs. After all, a malady does the most damage when the sick patient assumes himself healthy.

That unaware sick patient is all of us in the ‘burbs. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the moral dangers in the suburbs are precisely the same as those of the city—just better veiled and in more prosaic form.

Namely, these dangers are neo-paganism and progressivism. The former equates to the postmodern worship of (physical and human) nature, as it was understood in the savage, pre-Christian world. The latter generally indicates any worldview that affirms the Marxist principle that ethical change is both inevitable and salutary.

Broadly speaking, the combination of these is called modernism. In Pascendi Dominici Gregis, Pope Pius X boldly called this fatal malady “the sum of all heresies” for its combination of neo-paganism and progressivism, a one-two punch against the naïve conscience:

Were anyone to attempt the task of collecting together all the errors that have been broached against the faith and to concentrate into one the sap and substance of them all, he could not succeed in doing so better than the Modernists have done (PDG 39).

Most potent, perhaps, of all the dangers of modernism’s neo-pagan/progressive bromide is its ability to fool even two very opposite sorts of people. Neo-paganism and progressivism assume disparate forms in the city and the suburbs. But their danger remains the same.

We in the American suburbs have spent so much time distinguishing from our own supposed virtue all the imaginable vices of city life that we have forgotten our own fallen human nature and its plain implication. We have wrongly distinguished “bad” city morals” from “good” suburban morals.

A false dichotomy

Like most cultural dichotomies in twenty-first-century America, the ‘urbs versus the ‘burbs, figured to situate every American into the one setting or the other, turns out to be a false one. Urbanites and suburbanites have far more in common than either likes to admit. (Not to mention there exists an overlooked, viable third option: the rural scene.)

This false cultural distinction of today has a strong historical precedent: two variant sixteenth-century ideologies dominated early America’s religious landscape. These two worldviews from the 1500s—Enlightenment and Reformation thought—still mark today’s predominating ideologies in America. Our day’s members of the progressive “secular left” are the intellectual grandkids of the Enlightenment; the Protestant “religious right” are the grandkids of the Reformation. They are opponents in all matters cultural—or so they think.

As a matter of fact, one finds the two far more alike than unlike when examining the mores of the domains of the American landscape they tend to inhabit: the secular left’s cherished ‘urbs and the religious right’s hallowed ‘burbs.

By the way, the only locale in the American landscape that lacks the modernist taint is the rural scene. “Real America” still lives in the big spaces. The American spirit of hardnosed, devoted Christianity (of both Catholic and Protestant stripe) survives in these rural places.

Back in the cities, too many urbanites hold up civic ugliness with unexpected hubris: the fruits of post-Christian cubist architecture everywhere, a metropolitan sense of “squalid chic” in the gentrified districts and amoralist know-how when it comes to “navigating the streets.” And on the outskirts of these metropolises, suburbanites take the same perverse pride in suburban heinousness: comfier but equally functionalist eyesores of concrete and glass, barren soccer fields stretching to the power-line horizon, and a generally neuter, adventureless repudiation of the “pilgrim” challenges and mortifications of the Christian life.

In both places one finds hollow creature comforts at every turn. In neither domain does one find beautiful basilicas, directing the gaze to heaven. Both sides characterizing the other side malignantly, each misses the point: American cities and suburbs are both wimpy. Our cities and suburbs are both ugly. They are both profane and irreligious. We suburbanites would do well to remember that.

(Oh, you’re not wimpy simply for living in a ‘burb or an ‘urb, as most of us do: you’re wimpy if you celebrate the nasty ethos of either, each standing against the manly spirit of our republic, such as it originally was.)

After asserting that neo-paganism and progressivism are merely more visible—rather than more abundant—in the city than the suburbs, we must now identify the specific forms they take in the latter. Generally speaking, suburban neo-paganism appears as humanism and environmentalism, while suburban progressivism appears as feminism and futurism.

Neo-paganism as humanism

The first mark of American neo-paganism is the self-worshipping humanism one encounters everywhere in the ‘burbs. Much as with its urban character foil, this self-worship entails routine-worship and wealth-worship (although “yuppie” wealth-expenditure is different), which really both boil down to comfort-worship.

As much as our country has already forfeited its moral basis for righteous pride, one still hears the coarse ballad of Americanist self-worship played around every corner of the ‘burbs. Just as Plato warned of corrupted democracies in Book VIII of The Republic, parents in our own America have come to worship their young. This is the science of refractory self-adoration. Suburban parents’ pocketbooks and schedules center on the near-constant entertainment of their children.

Many good folk in the suburbs will join in grousing about the sovereign new world order of “no-scorekeeping, universal-trophy-awarding” in sports. They will gladly lend a voice to the battle cry, “Let the best man win!” This is a good sign. Often they will even harken back to a time when children ran around neighborhoods scraping their knees and entertaining themselves without being mollycoddled by their parents. This was back when “play dates” and organized children’s activities were but a twinkle in the eyes of a young Generation X, who would go on to reify such silliness.

But too often these same folks miss the bigger point: the new fixation on the young stems not from some unpalatable change in style. It comes from the suburban retreat from the Christian religion. The adulation of one’s children and/or one’s schedule is the coronation of one’s own displaced ego. Pick your euphemism: “kids’ activities,” “our wacky family routine,” “the schoolyear grind.”

Authentic love among family members begins with quietude and downtime spent. Be restless around the house together, rather than spending time and money away from home. It eventually yields prayerfulness, creativity, and even entertainment.

We fathers must remember Christ’s parable of the rich fool, which admonishes against the utopianism of stockpiling: “You fool . . .” God alone can give us respite from worry for our children, just as he alone can provide the proper context for our worldly cares.

Neo-paganism as environmentalism

As above, the cultivating and conserving of nature’s resources is doubtless worthwhile until it becomes either an end in itself—where inanimate objects like planet Earth are accorded pseudo-personal dignity—or a surrogate for religious faith. While a limited, healthy sort of conservationism is second nature to parents, the neo-pagan sort of “Earth first” environmentalism seen in the suburbs has become both.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the point of rightminded environmentalism is, in the first place, oriented to the proper worship of God, not nature: “Creation was fashioned with a view to the Sabbath and therefore for the worship and adoration of God. Worship is inscribed in the order of creation” (CCC 347).

In the second place, right-minded conservationism concerns responsible use of nature, not per se, but for the sake of human beings. This is called stewardship. While we should not be cruel to animals, “one should not direct to them the affections due only to persons” (CCC 2418). Dignity should be reserved uniquely for human beings, not nature, meaning that nature is ours to manage responsibly.

The Church has always been crystal clear about this point: “the Seventh Commandment enjoins respect for the integrity of Creation. Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity” (CCC 2415).

Out in the ‘burbs, we are all familiar with the petty practice of “keeping up with the Joneses.” From rentable solar paneling to electric cars to the rabid organic foods craze (attention, young mothers!), trend-tending hangers-on well understand that the Joneses have brought the suburban contest du jour to the realm of “going green.”

Small businesses cash in on the opportunity provided by this thought trend by “going paperless” and refusing all manner of paper printouts. Mothers of infants compete with friends to reduce their “carbon footprints” and consumption of even useful products. Such boutique environmentalism turned into cultish neo-paganism the moment it ceased to be stewardship and crossed over to Earth-adoration.

Much of the time, conserving, re-sourcing, and recycling products can be somewhat advisable. As such, it is a conditional good (just as failing to do these things can in certain situations become a conditional evil). But, in principle, neither conserving nor failing to conserve are inherently good or bad.

The best “tell” for the sort of neo-pagan environmentalism put forward by a given group involves examining the posture such a group affects toward human beings. Earth cults within pockets of the so-called “green lobby” will almost always advance the overpopulation myth, vilifying humans’ pestilence against the ostensible altruism of “Mother Earth.” Often this rationale is used to justify abortion, forced contraception, and euthanasia.

Another of Christ’s parables resolves the environmentalism question: aptly named, the parable of the dishonest steward clearly states “no servant can serve two masters.” The parable specifically proscribes greed and dishonest trade, but it also firmly implies that stewardship should never idolize what it seeks to conserve—in this case, nature.

Progressivism as feminism

Out of all four aspects of suburban neo-paganism or progressivism, the new strain of feminism found in the suburbs is the most noxious. The worldview has far more to do with hatred of and opposition to men than it involves women.

Sensing how rabid its advocates have become, the leaders of the feminist movement have coined palliative clichés to offset the popular damage done by its frothier advocates. They will often set aside “good feminism” or “third-wave feminism,” as if they have just made some sort of a concession. They have not.

As with misogyny, communism, or racial supremacy movements, there is simply no such thing as good feminism. “Christian feminism” is a circular square as much as is “Christian misogyny.” Unlike humanism or environmentalism—which err with a simple excess of humanism or environmentalism)—feminism is fundamentally vicious to many Christian values. It has been the “third wave” of the movement that has joined forces with the destructive gender ideology.

The ‘burbs are the new locus in quo of the feminist movement. In the suburbs, feminism is slightly less wont to ridicule mothers for rearing their children at home, but there the attack has been modified from the more candid, urban feminism. Within the procreative suburban context, feminism—characterized by a hatred of the two sexual natures designated by God— has translated the attack on the family away from the full, frontal, metropolitan assault. Here the institution of family is eroded from inside, having assumed commercial form, wherein men are portrayed as docile, lumbering orangutans who require the oversight of their smart, sassy, confident wives even to tie their shoes. Just watch television commercials!

Out in the ‘burbs, where the majority of American babies are born and raised, even apolitical couples don’t say “She’s pregnant” but rather “We’re pregnant.” Bafflingly, in the next breath they’ll return to the supposed “independence” of modern women. One puzzles at the dual impulse to supplant husbands and, at the same time, to most intimately involve him in the one biologically female-specific act: carrying and birthing offspring.

Which is it, connectedness or disconnectedness of the sexes? Suburban feminism, being feminism all the same, wants to hijack all that is male and forfeit all that is female.

Progressivism as futurism

Generally speaking, folks are safe, healthy, and comfortable out in the American ‘burbs. And going forward, suburbanites want only more safety, health, and comfort. Cue the pop-scientific role of technology in our lives. As such, futurism in the form of science- and technology-worship turns out to be progressivism’s most fundamental form.

As we saw above, man is the rational animal whose practical reason involves the ability to manipulate nature and “improve living” via technology. One is always on promising but cautious scientific ground these days. Since before the advent of the wheel, technology has provided a constant tempting of the human race toward worldliness and away from otherworldliness.

Just as a faith-based humanism or a highly limited environmentalism may circumvent neo-paganism, a cautious optimism about science and the future can reasonably hope to avoid progressivism. But in the suburbs one encounters a vigorous devotion before technology, medical science, and even nutritionism that threatens to swallow up popular Christian soteriology. The proposition of perennial physical health and comfort is antithetical to the very idea of Christianity—the world’s one true challenge wrought of mortification, martyrdom, and monasticism.

Once more, we should acknowledge the suburbs as a forum especially susceptible to perversion of potential desiderata like technology or optimism because, unlike our cityscapes, family life gives us something noble to fight for. With family, there is usually selflessness behind wanting one’s continued comfort and good health (or wealth). Unlike the unmarried denizen of the city, the people of the suburbs are mostly living with and for family.

As in the cities, there is a thin line between counting one’s blessings and coming to depend on them. And with futurism, one sees a strong connection to both aspects of neo-paganism above involving the technological interaction between the studious human subject (and his faculties) and the studied object of nature (and all its resources).

The Christian optimist can easily slip into progressivism simply by missing the purpose of his uniquely human faculties: to survive long enough and comfortable enough to get time to unite with God. The focus must remain upon the next life.

Contrast this with the progressive’s utopian obsession with life-giving elixirs springing from fountains of youth: like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s life-starved character Dr. Heidegger, the progressive will not be satisfied until human beings survive to a thousand years old—and probably not even then.

In this alluring sense, technology becomes cultish. The great danger of futurism is that, unlike humanism or environmentalism, it appears able to provide a specific answer as to how its promises will plausibly come to fruition. This illusion may well be the most dangerous possible temptation against our Faith.

Conclusion

The heart of man is, as John Calvin said (but oversimplified), “an idol factory,” ever building up faulty towers. But it is also a crucible, ceaselessly melting down the false it has reified. The methodology of the heart—the push and pull of civilizations arising within us—is taxing. Moreover, the human heart bears occupancy for just a single sovereign: “Where your heart is, there is your treasure.” As American suburbanites, we must choose this single treasure among prizes competing for our sympathies.

Suffice to say that both of Christ’s parables applied above—the rich fool and the dishonest steward—apply generally to suburban life. Both forms of neo-paganism, the worshipping of both human and physical nature, and aspects of progressivism, involve the quest for otherwise innocuous contingent material goods (money, health, routine, culture). It is natural to want these things. Yet somehow, we must reorient these contingent goods toward the one, true Good.

We twenty-first-century Americans are, as Saruman contemptuously called King Théoden of Rohan, “lesser son(s) of greater sires.” We already know this. We’ve long dwelt in forefathers’ shadows. The republic may not be salvageable. The suburbs of America are merely the overproduced sets where the melodrama winds itself out. While it may be already too late for America in terms of macroeconomics and politics, it is never too late in the case of individual souls. The logic of salvation is inexorable: we must stop allowing our comfort to preclude our salvation.

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