The following post originally appeared in the Jan 25th Catholic School Matters newsletter
Several years ago, I was struck by Robert Putnam’s insights in Bowling Alone. He contends that Americans have become disconnected by failing to participate in social clubs and group activities such as bowling leagues. Now Americans are bowling alone. As attendance and participation in churches has also declined, the impact on Catholic schools has been significant. Vibrant Catholic schools at the center of vibrant parishes seem to be the exception, not the norm.
I grew up in that type of vibrant milieu. My mother was in the guild and the parish bridge club. My father helped organize the adult coed volleyball league and helped coach soccer teams. My parents were in a Renew group, various prayer groups, and were confirmation sponsors. Our lives revolved around the church and school, both of which were full. Although SMM is still a vibrant school, I have seen former classmates drift away from the church and have seen weaker ties from those who remain.
As we all try to recruit more students to our schools and draw more back to our pews, we all confront the struggle of how to create a community which people want to join. We all can recognize the divisions in our society, our politics, and in our church that continue to pull us all apart.
So I was intrigued by the topic of Putnam’s new book The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again. He points out that the Social Gospel—emphasizing community and equality—took root during the Progressive era of the late 1800s and replaced social Darwinism and the American individualist and market capitalism mindsets.
Progressivism is receiving new scrutiny these days with some critics simply calling it socialism. If you go back to the early 1900s, all parties had progressive elements (including the original cowboy president, Teddy Roosevelt) and the reforms were popular, including: secret ballot, initiative & referendum, popular election of senators, women’s suffrage, federal income tax, Federal Reserve system, protective labor laws, minimum wage, antitrust statutes, food & drug regulation, public utilities, the high school movement, libraries & parks, etc. (318) The New Deal was an outgrowth of progressivism and represented a time (along with World War II) when America displayed more social cohesion.
Putnam traces a number of different factors which showed that America became less cohesive after the middle of the last century in similar ways to the previous century. He maintains that a movement to unite around common principles could bring about a change in our collective mindset to focus on the common good. This focus might lead to stronger community associations like Catholic parishes, Catholic schools, and even bowling leagues.