Parish the thought

Here’s a question to spice up your next Catholics-only conversation: Is it better to attend your geographic parish or a parish that you feel comfortable in?

I was at a meeting of young theologians recently — bright men and women who love the Church and respect each other even when holding a variety of positions on a variety of topics. I expected lofty debates on the grand issues of our day, and that may have taken place after I left. But the issue that really stirred the pot was the question of parishes.

Since then, I’ve noticed that this issue stirs a lot of pots. It cuts across the normal conservative-liberal divides, and it seems to arouse complicated feelings in many of us.

First things first: Most dioceses no longer require you to attend your geographic parish. This is a far cry from days of yore, when leaving your parish for another parish was perhaps not equivalent to leaving the Church, but it felt that way. Today, dioceses are just glad you are going somewhere!

The theologian who first raised the issue referred to a “boutique parish.” At least in academic circles, this phrase means a parish with the appropriate amount of hipness: Good social justice. Eloquent homilies. Inspiring music. Organic, shade-grown coffee poured after Mass. Of course, this is only one definition of a boutique parish. It could just as easily be a parish with Gregorian chant, where Mass is solemn, sermons are strict, and the parishioners can sing along in Latin. In other words, boutique parishes are where people of like-mind choose to gather in community.

This is a trend in secular society, as Bill Bishop’s book “The Big Sort,” proves. The Fox News crowd hangs out in one neighborhood, and the CNN crowd in another. With precinct vote totals getting more lopsided with each election, Bishop argues that Americans are self-segregating by ideology.

Something similar may be happening in segments of the Church. Conservatives seek out one parish, liberals another. Some of my theological acquaintances argued that this is not a problem. Indeed, for folks who have a running interior monologue all through Mass — critiquing the liturgy, the homily, the music, the vestments and more — picking a more compatible church, should that option exist, would be preferable to the temptation of such pharisaical nattering. A boutique parish may be a faith-saver.

On the other hand, several of the theologians felt those who pick and choose their parishes are missing the whole point of community. Coming together with folks you don’t know, maybe don’t agree with, is at the heart of Catholic community. We are a big rambunctious, diverse Church, and this is true back to the time of St. Paul. What means the Mystical Body of Christ if we who are hands choose only to associate with hands, and we who are feet associate only with feet?

A parish isn’t about “how good it makes me feel.” It is about me getting outside of myself and caring about others who are not like me at all, yet are brothers and sisters in Christ. For those defending geography, the pick and choosers risk making the Mass an entertainment that we vote for with our presence, rather than a miracle we are privileged to share.

I left the gathering that evening with the issue unresolved, but I’ve been having fun provoking others with the topic. Until a coworker mentioned that she was attending a parish outside her geographic boundaries exactly because hers was more diverse — economically and ethnically — than her geographic parish. Her “boutique parish” was the messier one, in other words, and what do I say to that?

Where’s a theologian when you need one? 

Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.