The Idler: In Paul’s Footsteps

The migration of the Catholic vote in the United States from the Democrats to the Republicans has been much discussed. It is topical: The swing from the nominally Catholic John F. Kerry to the more sympathetically Methodist George W. Bush was substantial. Catholics were once reliable Democrats; we would seem now to be reemerging as part of a Republican consensus.

The Catholic swing told against the Democrats in both city and country, although it tended to be lost against a larger picture of population density that seemed to explain the election more completely. The red states, indeed the red counties everywhere, are now usually the ones least urbanized; the more urban the county, the more likely it is blue.

This is not a picture of “Two Americas,” as some excitable and unhappy Democrats have suggested, but of one America with some lively urban and rural contrasts. Their use of the expression “flyover country,” for the bits between the coasts, is especially poignant. Urban alienation is an old theme.

Are Catholics, by nature, city mice or country mice? Of course we are both, though our history in North America, outside French Canada and north of New Spain, seems exceptionally urban. The city was where immigrant Catholics were most immediately welcomed, if only into a safe anonymity, by a culture that has long been overwhelmingly Protestant. Cities, from very ancient times, have been places of refuge.

This goes back to Genesis. Cain and his descendants are presented as founders of the first city. The scholars have puzzled over this, since Cain is also presented, before and after the murder of his brother Abel, as being progressively banished from the face of God. More liberal scholars find it odd that Cain would be hidden or exiled in a city—surely there was some mistake, and he really went off to beget wandering tribes. Whereas I, though a city boy most of my life, do not find this odd at all.

In the country you can see the stars. In the city you can’t see the light, because you are in it. And the glare of the city is observed by our ancient Hebrew fathers. Adam was given a garden, not an apartment; and by the end of Genesis we have received quite unflattering views not only of Cain’s city, the refuge of the murderer, but of the arrogance of Babel and the perversity of Sodom. Abraham leads an exodus from the Mesopotamian cities, and as we continue reading, Moses leads an exodus from the Egyptian ones. Joshua assaults the cities of Canaan.

And even so late in the day as the New Testament, an echo of the ancient disapprobation of city life might be detected in Paul’s remarks to Corinth, or apocalyptic references to the Whore of Babylon, and to Rome.

Yet the gospel message is shockingly urban, even urbane. Christ comes to a Roman world that is suspiciously modern and settled, with its taxes and bureaucracy and multiculturalism and highways, and his human story is a journey through smaller cities toward Jerusalem and His Temple at the center of it all. He goes to the big city to be crucified. His disciple Paul, “a citizen of no mean city,” spreads this gospel through cities from Antioch to Rome.

This was something that struck me on the morning of 9/11 when we watched so many “working-class Irish” and Catholic New York cops and firemen rushing into the Twin Towers to lay down their lives for the office workers trapped on upper floors.

Perhaps it is that, as Catholics, we have a special calling to take the explicitly Christian part of the message now associated with red-state America, at some personal risk, back into the heart of our cities. Perhaps Catholics have found themselves better placed than anybody to resume the mission of Paul.


  • David Warren

    David Warren is a Canadian journalist who writes mostly on international affairs. His Web site is

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