Intentional Communities

I got an e-mail from a reader (I have a reader! Sweet) regarding my Ave Maria posts. The reader asked whether I thought that there is a rise in people splitting off and forming their own communities of those who agree with them, whether those communities are real or virtual.


The first thing that strikes me is that the idea of community has changed. If you think back to previous societies, community was simply the place where you happened to be born, since chances are you were never leaving that particular village. Community, like race or religion or culture, was something you just received in the lottery of life, and you had to make the best of it.

Now we can move from one place to another, and so we have the ability to choose which community we wish to associate with, based on whatever criteria we choose. That applies not just to geographic and economic factors, but also to cultural factors. If you want to be a movie star, you probably need to move to LA—but if you just want to hang out and be friends with movie stars, in other words to take part in the culture of the movies, you also have to move to LA.

It also seems to me that there is a progressive quality to this process, in the sense that it has a tendency to build more and more momentum behind it. Let’s say you are born in Omaha, Nebraska, and you like to think about movies, and hang out with other people who like to discuss movies. If no one could ever leave Omaha, then you and all of the other people from Omaha who happen to be movie fans could hang out and talk about movies. But now, some of those folks are going to leave Omaha and movie to LA to hang out with movie stars. This makes it harder for you, as a movie fan, to stay in Omaha, since there are now fewer people to talk movies with. Even if you would just assume stay in Omaha, the fact that other people leave makes it more likely that you too will leave.

Once you decide to leave, it makes sense that you are going to want your new destination to be exactly the way you imagine it—after all, moving is no fun, and you need a pay-off to make it worthwhile. So, why spend some of your time around movie fans when you can spend all of your time around movie fans? If mobility, whether actually physical mobility or the ability to communicate across distances with the Internet, allows you to make a community that is exactly the way you want, why participate in one that is only kind of what you want?

After all, Ave Maria’s existence is premised on the fact that there are a critical mass of people who a) have head that there is this place in Florida where everyone is a conservative Catholic, and b) are capable of picking up stakes and moving to Southwest Florida. Both of those things are not possible 100 years ago, and are probably not really possible 40 years ago.

Is this a good thing? My gut reaction is to say no, but the one thing that makes me stop short is the problem of Catholic culture. Catholicism is not, or should not be, simply a series of propositions that you assent to intellectually. It really is about a shared experience of community and practice. There was a very strong and cohesive thing called Catholic culture in previous generations. That seems to be gone or at least greatly diminished. A big part of that reduction is, as I mentioned before, the fact that you used to be basically stuck with whatever culture you happened to be born with. But, nevertheless, if you think Catholic culture is something worth preserving, maybe this is the only way to do it, where you have a critical mass of people who are all truly committed to living the culture.

On the flip side, and this is an interesting question, could you recreate Catholic culture using virtual travel instead of physical travel? My survey of examples of Catholic culture on the Internet make this a bit of a frightening proposition, but it is worth thinking about. I’ve got a couple of posts about examples of Catholic culture on the Internet that I am putting together, so perhaps this is a good direction to go in.

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