The latest issue of the Georgia Bulletin, newspaper of the Atlanta Archdiocese, announces a new pastoral plan aimed at expanding and unifying the congregation. The plan is the result of a survey that drew nearly 15,000 responses, followed by delegate sessions in ten deaneries and a Convocation of Priests. Initially, four hundred recommendations came in, which have now been refined to fourteen key issues.
Three of them are troubling. The first one reads as follows:
Move to a family formation model that recognizes the diversity of family units today and that emphasizes the head of the family’s role in faith formation.
The question to ask here is a semantic one. What does “recognizes the diversity of family units” mean? And we must add a categorical request: what are the different “family units” that make up this diversity?
Next, under the heading “Living Our Faith” appears another questionable exhortation. “Prioritize charity and service as the epitome of living out the faith,” it says. But isn’t the first priority, ever and always, “You shall love the lord your God with all your heart . . .”? To call charity the “epitome” of faith is to make the love of God merely a personal condition, not an act of living in itself.
Finally, the list ends with “Create a welcoming and nurturing environment for all cultures within the parish.” That sounds nice, and clearly the intention is to open the Church to immigrants from different backgrounds, non-English speakers, the rich and the poor, etc.
But the indiscriminate opening to “all cultures” fails to draw a necessary line. The parish has many cultures that don’t belong:
- A hip-hop industry packed with obscenity, violence, and misogyny
- A thriving city-wide bar scene
- A college and professional sports culture that secularizes Sunday
- A retail sector aggressively pushing degrading commercial values.
These aren’t minor features of Atlanta. They are central to cultural life. So let’s insert after “all cultures” the phrase “supportive of holiness.”
This is not the time for the Church to go vague on words and meanings. A reference in the news story to the Archdiocese’s “rapidly changing demographics” indicates a motive for the initiative. Times are changing, the population is diversifying, the Church must adapt.
It’s the old progressive call for relevance. But as our cultures slide ever further into secular coarseness and irreverence, the Church in Atlanta should consider another element in its self-profile. Here, it might announce, is not a mirror of contemporary trends. No, we are a reprieve from secular living, a slowdown of the rush of change, not diversity but universality.
If we wish to attract congregants, we must assure them that the Church gives something the world cannot give, and that includes transcendence of all the differences the pastoral plan proposes to “recognize.”
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.