The suburban way of life goes against nature

December 3, 2000

Dear Friends and Benefactors,

The season of Advent which started today means the season of preparation of our hearts and minds for the coming of Our Lord. But in what real environment will he find these on December 25, 2000? At least surrounded, if not more or less tainted, by the sentimentalization and commercialization of everything "Christmassy"?

This primacy of feelings and money is basically to be blamed on Protestantism, but through the environment it has created, Protestantism gets to all of us in ways we think not of. A year and a half ago, this letter accused the suburban environment of being the immediate cause of the notorious school shooting in Colorado. Yet most "Traditional Catholics" come from suburbs. For the penitential season of Advent, let us reflect further on the modern suburban way of life.

Preliminarily, we must recall that environment is only environment. No soul is determined to salvation or damnation by its environment. Some souls have become great saints by rising above the worst of environments, and the best of environments have not prevented other souls from becoming the worst of sinners. The inner governs the outer. It is, ultimately, souls that determine environments rather than environments that determine souls. Salvation and damnation are by grace and free will, neither of which are determined by surroundings.

Nevertheless, for human beings supernatural grace has to come in to land within their natural surroundings, within which their free will also has to be exercised. Man is by nature a social animal, always reaching out to the human beings who surround him. Therefore a man's surroundings play a large part in his life on earth and in his eternal destiny. St. Paul quoted from a Greek poet that "Evil communications corrupt good manners" (I Cor XV, 33). And in 1989 Archbishop Lefebvre told a congregation of 20,000 Catholics celebrating his 60th priestly anniversary to "go back to the country". Suburban surroundings are something relatively new in history. Catholics need to think about them.

"Suburbs" are defined (by Webster) as "city environs". A suburb is "an outlying district of a city or town". Now did not cities always have their outlying districts, or suburbs? So what is new? What is new is that as long as men travelled on foot or on horseback or in horse-drawn carriages, they would, if they left the city, find themselves soon in the country. See maps of Philadelphia or Boston in George Washington's time. On the contrary modern suburbs are apt to sprawl for dozens of miles around city-centres.

Modern suburbs were created over the last 200 years firstly by the rise of industrialization, and secondly by industrialized means of transportation. Beginning in England in the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution, by its invention of new machines to create heavy and light industry, also created a new kind of city. Multitudes of workers had to be herded together off the land around the new factories where the crowding, smoke, grime and noise often created an environment which by all previous standards was disagreeable and inhuman. The middle classes with some money began to look for somewhere else to live, but still close to the factories or populated centers where the money was to be made. Thus began the suburbs, and with them the custom of separating all day long the father from his family, with unhappy consequences for both.

However, the under-powered means of transportation available at that time strictly limited how far those suburbs could reach out from any city or center, which is why the late 19th century saw a tremendous push to invent new machines of transportation, of which some failed like the steam-bus, some succeeded for a while like the trolley-bus, some succeeded well like the motor-bus, and one succeeded sensationally —— the motor-car.

Winston Churchill once wondered if the invention of the internal combustion engine had really been a blessing for mankind. In any case, from being the tail wagged by the dog, the motor-car rapidly became the dog wagging the tail. From being created by modern man's need for transportation, the motor-car became the virtual creator of modern man's way of life: his horizons, his work, his leisure, his holidays, the relations between his muscles and his nerves, his morals, his countryside and his cities are all revolutionized by his motor-car. And when, thanks to what most men call "progress", nearly every man owns a motor-car, then, necessarily, it becomes next to impossible to live in his new suburban surroundings without a motor-car. At which point, although few people (outside the despairing rock musicians) seem to stop to think about what has happened, we are into a new world.

We are into a new world! Given how important a part man's surroundings play in his life, and given the decisive part a man's earthly life plays in his eternal destiny, how can so apparently few Catholics be thinking about our revolutionized environment?

We are into a new world. The old-fashioned city and the old-fashioned country are both virtually gone. In the place of agriculture is agri-business. In the place of country farms are ever larger corporations exploiting by machines and chemicals enormous tracts of land to generate the quantities of cheap food demanded by the democratic multitudes now cut off from the land. In the place of towns or small cities focused around — as it often used to be — a church or cathedral, there are now dozens upon dozens of square miles of drive-in banks, drive-in cinemas, drive-in eateries, etc., etc., focused around — mega-shopping malls! What community life do the youngsters — or oldsters — here have? Doing the "wave" at a sports stadium, and drifting around the shopping-mall! Look and see! How on earth does anyone expect vocations out of these new heavens and new earth?

The contrast between the pre-suburban and post-suburban worlds is most striking in a historic country like France, where the network of motorways with their attendant liens has been slapped down upon the ancient landscape of farms and villages like a machine stamp on a medieval manuscript. How can anyone make it boring to drive through France? By constructing a motorway. But democracy and the motor-car are in command. Too many people want the motorized way of life for the construction of motorways to be about to slow down.

For what does the motorized and suburban way of life give people? Independence and comfort. In other words, pride and sensuality. No wonder the new world has such an apparently irreversible grip on the fallen sons of Adam! But nature (let alone the Lord God) has not spoken her last word. Nature is speaking through the young who are not "grown up" enough to "fit in" — through the children who have to be dosed with Prozac and Ritalin to stop them breaking down their so-called homes and schools, through the adolescents screaming in rock music at the meaningless adult life that lies ahead of them. As for the adults, the independence of their motor-car and the sensuality of their suburbs have, as it were, reconciled most of them to any lingering sufferings of their higher nature. They are in a comfortable stupor and do not want to be woken up.

But by their nature men need to belong to a family and to a community of families. The tightness of modern city street-gangs under their leader shows how boys (and girls) need brothers and a father. The mindless fanaticism for this or that sports-team shows how adults need to feel part of a larger association. Alas, the suburban way of life undoes the family by undoing father and mother, and it undoes community by making all associations unreal.

The suburbs undo the father by taking the virility out of bread-winning. No longer is his manhood at a premium by his muscles handling the horses to plough the fields, which mother's muscles could never do. Instead it is at a discount by his working-week being spent in an overheated office pushing papers at underdressed secretaries. As for mother, the suburbs take the integrity out of her home-making. Washing for the family yesteryear at the village-well, she could talk with other real wives about real husbands and children, but now the isolation of her luxurious home and the leisure provided by her washing-machine drive her, if she stays in her man-less home, to fulfill her need for family interest by watching the notoriously popular and improper soap-operas on television. As for suburban associations, reality has been emptied out of them by industry and electronics. The chemical food and synthetic clothing arrive by the ton at the local shopping-mall in massive motorized trucks, while the entertainment is disgorged trouble-free in the home on a series of magic lanterns, each more unclean than the last. If no real need associates men together, how can their associations still be real? Needs cannot be artificially fabricated to be real.

Therefore the suburban way of life may suit original sin, but it goes against nature, and it will not last. And since the suburbs are now interlocked on a global scale, the ending risks being dramatic.

"Fear not, little flock", says Our Lord, "for it hath pleased your Father to give you a kingdom" (Lk XII, 32). The Catholic Church, however reduced, will survive all upheavals. The Second Vatican Council, wrought, precisely, by suburban popes and bishops, was a tremendous upheaval, but the Church is still here. Like a cork on a storm-tormented ocean, it may seem to have disappeared, but when the storm dies away, it will re-appear, serenely floating on the water.

Probably most readers of this letter live in suburbs and many cannot "go back to the country" even if they wanted to. Nor would a merely physical move into the country make much difference if they took their suburban way of thinking with them. But, wherever a Catholic finds himself, he must "watch and pray". I must stop and think. Can I deny that in my way of life, men are unmanned and women are unwomanned? Can I deny that this is, with the rest of the suburbs' undoing of reality, a major cause of the lack of vocations? Is this also stopping salvations? Is it going to stop salvation?

Dear readers, no human obstacle can stop Our Lord coming to the soul that seeks Him. The Vespers Antiphons of Advent are beautiful, drawn mostly from the Old Testament prophets. Here are three: "Behold the Lord will come, and all His Saints with him: and on that day there will be a great light, allelujah" (Zach XIV, 15). "Behold our Lord will come with power, and illuminate the eyes of His servants, allelujah" (Is. XL, 10). "Sound the trumpet in Sion, because the day of the Lord is close: behold, he will come to save us, allelujah, allelujah" (Joel 11, 1).

May Our Lord find a real landing-place in our hearts and minds this Advent and Christmas.

Sincerely yours in Christ,