There is a growing realization that Christians need community. As Pope Francis wrote in Fratelli Tutti: “No one can face life in isolation… We need a community that supports and helps us, in which we can help one another to keep looking ahead. How important it is to dream together.” By itself, natural community is not sufficient; and yet without community, we will not be able to sustain or even understand the Church that Jesus came to found.

Christianity for Individuals?

In the letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul said that all fatherhood is modeled on God the Father. In our actual experience, however, it is the other way around. We come to know human father figures first, and God only later, and so we tend to construct our initial image of God in the image of our fathers. If the father figures in our lives are absent or defective, our understanding of God can suffer. Even those of us with good fathers need to purify and refine our image of God, so that we can come to a full appreciation of his goodness and power.

In the same way, communities are only good insofar as they foreshadow or participate in the ultimate community of the Church. One danger is that our experience of human community can unduly color our understanding of the Church. By the same logic, however, we can barely envision the Church as it should be without some experience of community life. Those of us in the “overdeveloped world” epitomized by the United States have very little experience of true community life. As our economy grows ever larger, more and more things that were once done for love are now done for money. Everything from childcare to conversations with friends has become commodified. In our suburban communities, it is easy to avoid personal interactions with our neighbors; where we would have once called on them for assistance, we now turn to apps and bureaucratic organizations.

This lack of experience with community has left our vision of the Church stunted and distorted. Even worse, most of us are unaware of this lack in our lives; we don’t know what we don’t know. The Gospel calls us to a supernatural way of life, a participation in the kingdom of God. Grace builds on and perfects nature. Our problem is that we haven’t even achieved the natural level. Rather, we are in many ways unnatural due to our individualistic culture.

Symptoms of this unnatural way of life are all around us, and yet we fail to notice them. As children grow up, they move through an age-segregated educational system in which they are expected to socialize predominately with their peers. On average, an American moves once a decade; even if children are lucky enough not to move while growing up, they’ve probably moved through a series of different schools by the time they graduate high school. After that, they’re almost certain to leave their hometown for college. In the meantime, they’ve learned to define their abilities by their grades—grades that can wield immense power over their future lives—never mind the fact that human intelligence is a complicated factor that can’t be reduced to a set of simple numbers. (In fact, “grades” are a recent innovation that would have baffled any previous culture.) And they have learned to define their worth by their ability to compete in a never-ending contest of consumption; children from poor families are shamed by their inability to buy the very latest fads in clothes and gadgets.

After college, most Americans move through a rapid series of jobs, many of which have no relevance to their lives beyond the all-important paycheck. Despite the lip service we give to “being a team player”, everybody realizes that they are dispensable; loyalty is not rewarded or encouraged by the conditions of entry-level employment. It is no wonder that people come to focus on what they consume rather than on what they produce; at least one can freely choose what one consumes. This is the origin of the throwaway culture; every person and thing is valued for just as long as it proves useful, before being discarded in favor of something else.

These transitions and insecurities are often accompanied by more geographic relocations, burdening young couples who are trying to start families. They are also hampered by a lack of intergenerational and social support; it sometimes seems that every new parent has to reinvent the wheel when it comes to caring for their children. The prevailing “dis-integration” of our lives certainly doesn’t help. Every compartmentalized aspect of life competes with every other aspect; time given to family is time taken away from work, and time given to religion is time taken away from recreation. (We say that we “work” at the office, but we “live” at home; it is instructive to consider the meaning behind this linguistic usage.) Community in particular can be seen as an “extra”, and is often the first thing to be dropped when the going gets rough; we just don’t have enough time and energy to cultivate real-life friendships.

We’ve come to assume that it is normal to spend our lives saving up for an uncertain future. Despite our best efforts, however, these savings never seem to be enough. The wealthy few can retire to Flordia or Arizona for a few years of hedonistic consumption and irresponsibility but for most people, retirement is defined by isolation and insecurity. The elderly are left behind by a rapidly changing society. Instead of being honored and respected as elders, they are simply ignored as they grow old and feeble in their crumbling and empty houses and cling desperately to the fading illusion of independence.

The lack of perspective produced by such an unnatural life can lead to absurd misunderstandings about the Gospel. It is sometimes assumed that Jesus relaxed the strict rules of the Old Testament. While that may be true of certain ritual and legal details, it would be more true to say that Jesus lifted the moral code found in the Old Testament to new heights. There are many examples of this elevation of moral norms; the following represent only a few of them.

Jesus calls us to love strangers just as we love our neighbors. In the Old Testament, this love of neighbor is codified in great detail. We’re told that we must freely lend to our neighbors without exacting interest, that we must assist them when they are facing difficulty or want, and that we must protect them from injustice. Similarly, traditional cultures around the world held a high view of neighborly obligations. By contrast, we hardly know our neighbors; by the standards of most traditional cultures, we treat them as strangers, rarely going beyond mere civility and a friendly attitude. And so we feel that we’ve fulfilled our obligations if we are civil and respectful toward all, with no inclination toward entering into their problems and difficulties.

Jesus calls us to care for others as if they were family. The Old Testament emphasized the duty individuals have to their family members. Traditional cultures around the world expected individuals to sacrifice for the sake of the family group. Individuals were defined by their familial relationships. But in our society, individuals are seen merely as individuals. Living within extended family groups is the exception, rather than the norm. We worry about “becoming a burden” to our families; we’ve been taught that a good American is self-sufficient and self-reliant. Rather than treating everyone as family, we tend toward treating family as if they were just anyone.

Jesus calls some of us to leave home and family for the sake of the Gospel, just as Abraham was called to leave his homeland to follow God’s promise. In every culture, leaving home and family was seen as one of the greatest renunciations that could be made. But for us, it is no big deal; every young person blithely leaves home and family and native place for the sake of a career and the promise of “self-realization”.

Most fundamentally, the Gospel calls us to renounce all things for the sake of Christ. But in the modern world, all traditional ties have already been broken for the sake of individual freedom. Since this freedom has been elevated to become a key virtue, giving it up seems to be out of the question. And so the Gospel was reinvented as a project of individual self-improvement in this life and the individual achievement of salvation in the next. Parishes became mere “sacrament stops” where a disconnected collection of individuals get their weekly allowance of grace. Salvation becomes a cramped affair of following arbitrary rules to avoid spending eternity in hell. In the meantime, some journaling or Gregorian chant tracks might give us the peace of mind needed to deal calmly with an annoying coworker, smoothing our climb up the corporate ladder of success. And the Church’s moral and theological teachings can provide comforting intellectual certitude, ensuring that we’re never puzzled, confused, or at a loss for an answer. Of course, this means that any Christian who disagrees with our certain vision has to be eliminated, and so Christianity becomes a collection of competing fundamentalisms.

Building Communities?

Realizing the dangers of modern individualism, some Catholics set out to rectify it by building community. This is great; we all need more community in our lives. As C. S. Lewis said, however, the devil sends errors into the world in pairs. There are at least two dangers to avoid in our search for a more communal way of life.

The first is simply that community can’t really be built, as such. It is rather like teaching. A teacher can’t, in one sense, educate students. Teachers can assist students, present information, and share their experience; but in the end, learning is something that students have to do for themselves. The best teacher in the world can’t make people learn.

Similarly, community depends on the growth of relationships among individuals. Like learning, this growth is slow and unpredictable; it can’t be built at will; at most, we can foster its development. In fact, community is really just friendship. As everyone knows, there is no magic formula for creating friendship. It can’t be forced, and too much focus on “building friendship” will actually impede the process. Rather, friendships form naturally when diverse individuals come together around a shared good or interest. Communities form in the same way. Healthy communities don’t arise from a desire for community as much as from a vision shared by the individuals of which they are composed.

And the importance of this shared vision highlights the second danger. Christians can end up conflating the Gospel with the natural community. Instead of the shared vision of the Gospel, they can gather around something else instead. Struck by the apparent novelty of a slightly more communal way of life, they forget that “even the good pagans do as much”. Potlucks with friends and Tolkien reading groups are very fine things—but they are not the kingdom of God. At the extreme, such a pursuit of community for its own sake can lead to a selfish search for “the good life”, and the creation of self-referential Christian enclaves.

While the mistaken individualism mentioned above is a uniquely modern problem, Christians have always been tempted to reduce the Church to the natural level. Too often, Christians have seen the Faith merely as a marker of group identity, and as a rallying cry against outsiders. We are tempted, not primarily by bad things, but by good things. Community and family belonging are the very best of natural goods, and so can be the most dangerous if they are not redeemed.

The Self-giving Community of the Church

Grace works to perfect and divinize our human nature—but if we do not accept Christ’s cross and die with him, we will not even retain its natural goodness. All good things were given to us so that we might give them away. If we clutch them to ourselves, they will die; but if we give them away, they will be perfected.

What is true of our possessions, our time, and our very lives is also true of our communities. The beauty of human community is given to us so that can share it with others, so that we can welcome Christ in the stranger. Without a community, we can not properly care for those in need; we will have nothing to offer, nothing into which to invite them. Communities exist for the sake of hospitality, and for this reason, a community that does not welcome the stranger has failed to serve its purpose. If we try to keep our communities “safe” from outsiders, they will eventually wither and die. This is the origin of modern individualism; it resulted from the death of traditional Christian cultures that had become closed and self-satisfied.

A shared vision is essential for the growth of healthy communities, and only one vision will lead to the growth of healthy Christian communities: the vision of the Gospel. If we are faithful to the Gospel vision, our communities must be marked by a commitment to the poor, by a sacrificial frugality of life, and by a hospitable love that knows no limits.

To achieve this vision, we should focus on what we are (or desire to be) rather than what we are not. It is tempting to focus on rejecting the individualism of the modern world, the hedonistic consumerism of our culture, and the instability and chaos of modern life. Such a negative focus, however, will only turn us into a mirror image of what we dislike. Rather, we must know and consider who and what we are. We are Christians; that is, we are followers of Jesus Christ.

Jesus comes to expand the boundaries of community, tearing down every dividing wall, both between God and humanity and between every human group. Natural communities that die with Christ, opening themselves in sacrificial love to those outside, will rise as a part of the Mystical Body. In the second chapter of Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis speaks about the danger of forming closed and isolated groups, a danger that was already apparent in the early Church. The love of Christ knows no boundaries; in the community of the Church, no one can be defined simply as an outsider. Through the redemptive blood of Christ, we can “create one great family, where all of us can feel at home.” (Fratelli Tutti, chap. 2, para 62)

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, photo of Colorado Springs taken by David Shankbone

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Malcolm Schluenderfritz hosts Happy Are You Poor, a blog and podcast dedicated to discussing radical Christian community as a means of evangelization. He works as a graphic design assistant and a horticulturalist in Littleton, CO.

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