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Mary Jo BaneNovember 04, 2000

The jacket of Robert Putnam’s new book, Bowling Alone (2000) has an illustration on the front cover that depicts a solitary bowler. On the back flap is a photograph of the bowling team the author belonged to in about 1955. Putnam takes his title from the fact that although about 91 million Americans bowl, the proportion who bowl in leagues has declined almost 75 percent since the 1960’s.

Bowling leagues are but one small illustration of what Putnam sees as the collapse of American community over the last four decades. There are almost a hundred graphs in the bookPutnam is a thorough fellowmost of them showing a rise and then a fall in some indicator of social capital. Membership in chapter organizations, for examplegroups like the P.T.A., Boy Scouts, Knights of Columbus, Rotary Clubsrose dramatically as a percentage of the relevant population over the first half of the century and then fell by almost half between the 1960’s and the 1990’s. The decline is echoed in many other measuresin union and professional association membership, for instance, involvement in community projects, card games and picnics. Civic engagement is perhaps the most important. There have been declines in the proportion of the population that voted, attended a public meeting on town or school affairs, served as an officer or on a committee of a local group, signed a petition or wrote a letter to a representative or senator.

You’re probably asking yourself, Did he look at X? Many people asked him that, and whatever X is, he probably looked at it, which is why the book is 541 pages long. His findings are quite consistent, despite self-help groups and Internet chat rooms. My reading of the data, like his, is that something real is clearly going on.

The findings are troubling. Putnam’s book documents the losses to society that the decline of social capital brings. His earlier work, on political and economic development in Italy, reported an intriguing finding: that the best predictor of whether an Italian province was progressing was whether it had a choral society. This was a proxy, of course, for the whole stock of social capital in the area. But its importance is supported by contemporary American data on state-to-state differences in areas like children’s well-being, crime, health, tolerance and economic equalityall of which are related to the state’s social capital, measured by an index of organizational life, volunteerism, informal sociability and social trust.

Putnam argues that we can and must develop new structures and policies to foster civic engagement, so that the benefits of social capital will once again enrich society. He calls for new efforts to promote volunteerism and community service. He sees the churches as a crucial reservoir of social capital, and, secularist though he is, he calls for a new, pluralistic, socially responsible great awakening,’ so that by 2010 Americans will be more deeply engaged than we are today in one or another spiritual community of meaning.

Parishes and Catholic charitable organizations do not, to be sure, exist for the purpose of building social capital to shore up the secular society. But should we not be promoting community in its broadest sense precisely because of our mission as Catholics? Catholics are all called to discipleship, to witness and to membership in the community of faith. We live that call by following Jesus in his ministry of healing, liberation and bringing the good news to the poor. We live that call in communities of caring and service and in encounters with those in need.

Catholics are cheated when they are not challenged and provided opportunities by their church to live the demanding life of discipleship. They are cheated when parish preaching fails to address issues of community, social justice and faithful citizenship. They are cheated when Catholic charitable institutions assume that the clergy know best, or that the professionals do it better, or that the models of good work are corporations, bureaucracies or dot-coms. Many Catholic institutions are obsessed these days with enriching their Catholic identity. Let me make the argument that Catholic identity ought to come not from crucifixes on the walls or prayers to begin meetings, but from a full identification with the mission of the church and a commitment to make the community of disciples a lived reality.

Social capital is developed through the pot luck suppers, bingo games and small groups that most parishes sponsor. It certainly grows through worship and celebration of the Eucharist in the diverse, inclusive community that is our church. It can perhaps be most successfully developed through caring and service to one another, both church members and the wider community, through both personal and organization-based volunteering and through opportunities for political deliberation and engagement. Parishes faced with staff and money shortages, and Catholic agencies under pressure for efficiency and cost-effectiveness, may be inclined to cut back on labor-intensive and often irritating social activities and volunteer programs. But doing so is a disservice to Catholics. And if we accept the findings of Mr. Putnam’s research, it is a disservice to civic society as well.

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