Oct 31, 2022

The Christian Withdrawal Experiment

Feeling out of step with the mores of contemporary life, members of a conservative-Catholic group have built a thriving community in rural Kansas. Could their flight from mainstream society be a harbinger for the nation?

Emma Green
The Atlantic

Half an hour down the highway from Topeka, Kansas, not far from the geographic center of the United States, sits the town of St. Marys. Like many towns in the region, it is small, quiet, and conservative. Unlike many towns in the region, it is growing. As waves of young people have abandoned the Great Plains in search of economic opportunity, St. Marys has managed to attract families from across the nation. The newcomers have made the radical choice to uproot their lives in pursuit of an ideological sanctuary, a place where they can raise their children according to values no longer common in mainstream America.

St. Marys is home to a chapter of the Society of St. Pius X, or SSPX. Named for the early-20th-century pope who railed against the forces of modernism, the international order of priests was formed in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church's attempt, in the 1960s, to meet the challenges of contemporary life. Though not fully recognized by the Vatican, the priests of SSPX see themselves as defenders of the true practices of Roman Catholicism, including the traditional Latin Mass, celebrated each day in St. Marys. Perfumed with incense and filled with majestic Latin hymns, the service has an air of formality and grandeur. To most American Catholics under the age of 50, it would be unrecognizable.

Throughout American history, religious groups have walled themselves off from the rhythms and mores of society. St. Marys isn't nearly as cut off from modern life as, say, the Amish communities that still abjure all modern technology, be it tractor or cellphone. Residents watch prestige television on Hulu and catch Sunday-afternoon football games; moms drive to Topeka to shop at Sam's Club. Yet hints of the town's utopian project are everywhere. On a recent afternoon, I visited the general store, where polite teens played bluegrass music beside rows of dried goods. Women in long, modest skirts loaded vans that had enough seats to accommodate eight or nine kids—unlike most American Catholics, SSPX members abide by the Vatican's prohibition on birth control. At housewarming parties and potluck dinners, children huddle around pianos for sing-alongs.

In their four decades in St. Marys, the followers of SSPX have more than doubled the town's size. Even with six Masses on Sundays, parishioners fill the Society's chapel to capacity; overflow services are held in the gym of the Society's academy, which inhabits an imposing campus built by the Jesuit missionaries who called St. Marys home in the 19th century. The school is constantly running out of classroom space. The parish rector, Father Patrick Rutledge, has to scramble each summer to accommodate rising enrollment. Real estate sells at price points closer to those of Kansas's big cities than of its other small towns.

Newcomers are attracted by the opportunity to live beside like-minded neighbors. But many are pushed here as much as they are pulled. When they lived in other places, many SSPX families felt isolated by their faith, keenly aware that their theological convictions were out of step with America's evolving cultural sensibilities and what they perceive as the growing liberalism of the Catholic Church, especially on issues such as gay marriage and abortion. They were wary of being labeled bigots by co-workers and even friends. They worried that their children would be exposed to sin: A friend's parents might let their kids watch violent television shows; teens might encounter pornography on a classmate's phone. "We can't keep things out that we'd like to keep out completely," Rutledge told me. But the environment in St. Marys is "as conducive as possible for children to save their souls."

In 2017, the conservative writer Rod Dreher published The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, in which he describes growing hostility to Christian values in the secular world. Dreher, a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, argues that sexual expression has become secular society's highest god. He laments that Christians have been pressured to accommodate and even celebrate LGBTQ identity. In the face of what Dreher calls the "barbarism" of contemporary American life, he believes the devout have no option but to flee—to build communities, churches, and even colleges where they will be free to live their values and pass the gospel on to the next generation.

Among the conservative-Christian intelligentsia, Dreher's book was explosive. Charles Chaput, the outgoing archbishop of Philadelphia and an influential figure in the Catholic Church, described it as "a tough, frank, and true assessment of contemporary American culture." The New York Times columnist David Brooks called it "the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade." The Benedict Option prompted a flurry of essays in evangelical magazines, panel discussions at Christian colleges, and at least one spin-off book from a young Dreher acolyte. Dreher himself continues to write about so-called Ben-Op communities springing up around the country, from Alaska to Texas to the suburbs of Washington, D.C.

When they lived elsewhere, many St. Marys residents felt isolated by their faith, keenly aware that their beliefs were out of step with America's evolving cultural sensibilities.

Dreher addressed his book to fellow conservative Christians, but in calling for a strategic retreat from society, he tapped into an impulse felt by a range of groups in America. In Philadelphia, Baltimore, and D.C., contemporary followers of Marcus Garvey, the 20th-century Pan-African activist and thinker, have built infrastructure designed to free black people from systemic oppression: community gardens to provide food in neighborhoods devoid of grocery stores, and Afrocentric schools that teach black pride. Young leftist Jews skeptical of assimilation have founded a number of Yiddish-speaking farms in upstate New York, in an effort to preserve their ethnic heritage as well as Judaism's agrarian tradition. Environmentalists have established sustainable settlements in rural Virginia, which serve as both utopian experiments in low-impact living and shelters for the climate disasters ahead.

These groups ostensibly have little in common, but they share a sense that living according to their beliefs while continuing to participate in mainstream American life is not possible. They have elected to undertake what might be termed cultural secession. Katherine Dugan, an assistant professor of religion at Springfield College, in Massachusetts, who studies Catholicism in the U.S., describes the desire for protected, set-apart communities as "a natural American response to not liking what the cultural context is."

In some ways, these groups are merely practicing an extreme form of the insularity many Americans have already embraced. Deep-blue enclaves such as Berkeley and brownstone Brooklyn are similarly homogenous, sought out by people with a certain set of values and hopes for their children. But the rise of more radical self-sorting poses a challenge to America's experiment in multicultural democracy, enshrined in the motto e pluribus unum—"Out of many, one." The dream of a diverse society is replaced with one in which different groups coexist, but mostly try to stay out of one another's way. The ongoing experiment in St. Marys suggests what might be gained by such a realignment—and what might be lost.

Michelle and francis snyder moved to St. Marys seven years ago, just as Barack Obama was about to win his second term as president. The high-school sweethearts had grown up attending SSPX chapels, and wanted to raise their children with a strong Catholic faith, but in the early years of their marriage they struggled to make this vision a reality. Moving from job to job around Buffalo and Syracuse, New York, Francis found it difficult to earn enough money to support the large family the couple wanted. To make ends meet, he worked construction jobs seven days a week, skipping Mass for months at a time. Michelle had made sandwiches at Panera after high school, but quit after she gave birth to their first child.

It was only after the couple moved to St. Marys that Michelle realized how lonely her life in New York had been. In St. Marys, few married women work, especially once they have children. Mothers trade strollers and bassinets and coordinate a constant supply of casseroles when a new baby arrives. Michelle relies on her neighbors for carpooling and in emergencies, trusting them implicitly. "We're all Catholic," she told me. "We're all raising our children to get to heaven." Francis now works for a manufacturing business that, like many of the companies in town, is owned by a fellow SSPX parishioner. He gets time off to attend Mass and observe holy days of obligation.

Michelle and Francis, now in their mid-30s, have six children, three born since they arrived in St. Marys. They are raising their daughters—11-year-old Anna, 5-year-old Lucy, and an infant, Evelyn—to follow in Michelle's path. If they aren't going to become nuns, she said, the girls should be preparing to become wives and mothers. "I would not mind if they went for a career, but once they got married, I would encourage them to focus on their family," she said as she nursed Evelyn in the family's light-filled living room. "We're having children and raising them and educating them. And in the Catholic faith, that's priority."

That education takes place at St. Mary's Academy. (The town spells its name with no apostrophe; the academy uses the possessive form.) Students are strictly separated by gender. Little girls wear Mary Janes and jumpers to class on the upper part of campus. The boys, in crew cuts and ties, learn in the buildings of the lower campus. Female students can compete in intramural sports, such as volleyball and archery, but only against other girls. The boys compete against sports teams in the area, although the school attracted controversy in 2008 for forfeiting a basketball game when a woman showed up to referee. ("Teaching our boys to treat ladies with deference," SSPX said in a statement at the time, "we cannot place them in an aggressive athletic competition where they are forced to play inhibited by their concern about running into a female referee.")

In the classroom, students are instructed in the Catechism. Latin is the only foreign language offered, and teachers favor blackboards over computers. A classical education, the school believes, is the foundation of students' Catholic future. The day I visited, I watched ninth-grade girls discuss G. K. Chesterton and the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Newcomers find st. marys appealing precisely because it is built around uncompromising theological principles and shared social values. But for those who aren't affiliated with the Society, the town has become a less welcoming place since SSPX arrived.

As the SSPX community in St. Marys has grown, parishioners have come to dominate the town's civic life. Francis Awerkamp is an SSPX parishioner who serves in local and state government and is a co-owner of the business where Francis Snyder works. He told me it makes sense that Society parishioners hold the mayoralty and every seat on the city commission, since members of SSPX make up the majority of the town's population. Most of the matters that commissioners deal with are crushingly mundane, he said: installing a new drainage ditch, or rezoning the golf course. "Government has a certain role in a community. And that role, in St. Marys, mainly revolves around infrastructure," he said. "Is there stuff that gets into religion? No."

Doyle Pearl tells the story differently. A longtime St. Marys resident, Pearl is the last "townie"—as non-SSPXers have taken to calling themselves—to have served as a commissioner. In the early days, he said, Society parishioners disapproved of the town swimming pool, the first concrete-bottomed pool in Kansas and a source of pride for old-timers. Society members were worried about seeing girls in skimpy bathing suits; their kids would try to swim in jeans, which left behind fibers that taxed the pool's filtration system. Later, Society members on the city commission pulled funding from a chamber-of-commerce event, citing concerns about an allegedly ribald country-and-western band. While the local economy has grown, the chamber has shrunk.

SSPX's insularity, and the order's controversial history, have bred suspicion in town. Among the post–Vatican II changes the Society rejects is the Church's declaration regarding its relationship with non-Christian religions, including a passage repudiating the long-held belief that Jews are responsible for the death of Christ. In 1989, a Nazi collaborator convicted of committing war crimes in Vichy France was caught hiding out at an SSPX monastery in Nice. Two decades later, Richard Williamson, a former SSPX bishop, gave an interview denying that the Nazis had used gas chambers and claiming that no more than 200,000 to 300,000 Jews had died in the Holocaust. (During my visit to St. Mary's Academy, I noticed a photograph hanging in the school's main administrative building in which Williamson is a central figure.) For years, townies whispered about alleged weapons stashes in the steam tunnels beneath the academy. When I asked Rutledge about this, he laughed. To his knowledge, he said, no weapons are now or have ever been stored on campus.

Pearl and his wife, Laura, are pleased that their hometown has a growing population and a lively Main Street. Doyle told me he even feels "a little envious" of the Society's vibrant church life and constant baptisms. "Their children continue their religion," he said. "They seem to follow the values that their parents have." But the town barely resembles the place where the Pearls grew up. Its bright future doesn't necessarily feel like their future.

Townies look wistfully to Wamego, a small city just down Highway 24 that has established itself as Kansas's hub for Wizard of Oz tourism. "They'll have the Tulip Festival. They'll have Octoberfest. They have a Fourth of July that, I think, is the biggest fireworks in Kansas now," Doyle said. "People sometimes say, 'Well, they're doing it. Why aren't we?' " Laura supplied the answer: "Because we don't have a community."

For the snyders, and many other recent arrivals, moving to St. Marys has liberated them to practice devout beliefs without apology. But what feels like freedom to some can feel like a prison to others. While parents may choose SSPX for their children, those children don't always want to live according to its moral strictures. And the Society spares little room for dissent.

Tiffany Joy-Egly moved from Tulsa to St. Marys with her parents and two sisters in 1979, when she was 6 years old. Tiffany grew up immersed in the SSPX world: learning about the dangers of rock music, skipping adolescent experiments with makeup, avoiding any behavior that might tempt men into sin. But Tiffany was possessed of a skeptical mind. "I would question in religion class," she told me at a Starbucks in Topeka, where she works as an emergency-room nurse and lives with her husband and two daughters. "If God gave us a brain, how come we can't use birth control? Because that makes more sense than having 12 kids that you can't afford to feed." This attitude was not welcome at the academy. "I was in detention a lot," she said.

Her siblings, too, chafed at the constraints of life in St. Marys. One sister got engaged to a Catholic man who attended Mass at Immaculate Conception, the townie church. According to Tiffany, the SSPX priest announced from the pulpit that anyone who attended the wedding would be committing a sin.

What the Society has built in St. Marys is more like a haven for those retreating from the culture wars than a training ground for battle.

Tiffany herself started using drugs and alcohol, but later resolved to return to the SSPX fold. She went to confession and delivered a litany of her sins, but the priest stopped her when she shared that a friend had recently had an abortion. This, the priest said, was unforgivable. While Tiffany herself had not terminated a pregnancy, she had failed to stop another woman from doing so. The priest declared that she would be excommunicated. (With proper penance, SSPX officials said, she could be reconciled with the Church.)

St. Marys "is a little, safe community," Tiffany told me. People go there to escape "a world that is considered unsafe." When she started building a life for herself outside St. Marys, however, she experienced less fear than relief. Small things like going to the mall and wearing shorts were revelatory; she finally felt she had choices about how to pray and when to get married. In St. Marys, that hadn't been possible. "You give up everything to come into this community," she said, "and do what you're told."

At a time when American politics is so fractured and dysfunctional, the idea of huddling among our own holds undeniable appeal. SSPX parishioners believe they know God's way and try to follow it, largely unencumbered by those who do not share their views. But there is peril in the premise that we would all be better off living among our own. Democracy depends on the friction that comes from encounters with difference. The movements for abolition, enfranchisement, labor dignity, and civil rights all stemmed from factions of Americans demanding rights and basic respect from their neighbors. If the country's most fervent believers, whether Catholics, evangelical Christians, civil-rights advocates, or environmentalists, were to simply give up their visions for a better nation, the American project would stagnate.

On the eastern side of the St. Mary's campus, the stone entrance is guarded by twin knights representing the school's mascot, the Crusaders. The SSPX bookstore is filled with toy soldiers and warring knights from Catholic history—the perfect gift, a salesman told me, for a little boy's First Communion.

But as much as SSPX may still think of itself as raising children to be warriors in the faith, the metaphor is no longer a good fit. What the Society has built in St. Marys is more like a haven for those retreating from the culture wars than a training ground for battle. Safe behind its walls, parishioners can seem uninterested in the moral failings of the outside world and untroubled by the country's political turmoil. "There's a lot to do," Paul-Isaac Franks, a priest and a music teacher at the academy, told me. "I don't have a daily ritual of reading the news." Jim Vogel, the editor of Angelus Press, which publishes SSPX literature, says that people in St. Marys are engaged in local politics, but "we can't really do much about what's happening in Washington." Here, at least, parishioners can be confident that the tradition and truth they crave can be preserved.

In a field high above the academy's campus, the Society is planning to construct a new church called the Immaculata, named for the old Jesuit church that burned down decades ago. For now, the space is marked only by metal rods sticking out of the overgrown grass, but once it's built, the church will seat 1,550 and stand 12 stories high. Father Rutledge hopes the Immaculata will be visible from the road for miles around, a beacon on the Plains calling to those in search of refuge.

This article appears in the January/February 2020 print edition with the headline "Retreat, Christian Soldiers."EMMA GREEN is a staff writer at ​The Atlantic, where she covers politics, policy, and religion.


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