Building the city of God

Catholics confront the regional challenge of outmigration

Bishop Anthony Pilla of the Cleveland Catholic Diocese delivered the following speech in November 1993 to an urban ministry conference in Cleveland. The remarks are based on his white paper, "The Church in the City."

I'm here today to talk about building new cities.The kind of cities our society desperately needs. Cities where people of different incomes, races and cultures can live together, and be enriched by one another. Cities where the poor and disadvantaged can achieve human potential. Where the weak and the powerless are free from the chains of fear forged by violence and drugs. Where children live in decent homes, have sufficient food, and are properly educated for meaningful employment.

Utopia? Not at all. That word implies the stuff of impossible dreams. This dream is not impossible. But it is certainly a brave new world...a world mandated by the teachings of Jesus Christ. A world of justice and peace.

An illusion? Again, not at all. The Church can do a lot to help transform society so that people can reach their full potential. We not only can do this. We must do it. To borrow St. Augustine's term—we must strive to build a city of God.

There will be some who object to the Church inserting itself into a discussion that seems beyond its purview—those who will say our primary mission is to proclaim the message of Jesus Christ. And they're right, in the sense that our primary mission is evangelical.

But Christ's message must always be related to the particular circumstances of the people to whom it's spoken. Otherwise the message might not be what Christ intended it to be: liberating.

We must recall the words of the 1971 Synod of Bishops: "Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or in other words, of the Church's mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation."

This, then, is a call to action...a framework and a focus for serious discussion in the Diocese of Cleveland for the purpose of developing a formal plan to rebuild our cities.

Moving out from the cities

First, some background. Cleveland, Akron, and Lorain/Elyria are the three largest urban centers in the Diocese of Cleveland. The populations of Cleveland and Akron are declining. The suburbs around these cities continue to grow. While Lorain and Elyria have grown, the Lorain County suburbs have grown even more.

Let's look at Cleveland and Cuyahoga County as our example. In 1950, the population of Cleveland was 914,808 while the rest of Cuyahoga County was 474,724. By 1990, those figures were essentially reversed. The city's population stood at 505,616, while the suburban population was 906,524. Cleveland alone has more than 50 suburbs, including townships and villages.

As the population has shifted, so has the tax base. As the more affluent people have moved from central cities to the suburbs, our cities—and consequently our city parishes—remain home to growing concentrations of low-income people who have little educational opportunity...and no access to employment in the suburbs where the jobs have moved as well.

In spite of these adversities, they remain good, hard-working people with the same dreams, ideals and spiritual values as those in the suburbs. Still, the need for education, job retraining, and social services has never been greater. Because government entitlements are increasingly difficult to come by, this financial burden has shifted to the private sector—and especially to the churches.

The Catholic Church has served the people in our cities for many years. We have made remarkable contributions through our schools, our human services, and the dedication of women and men who have ministered in the city in so many different ways.

These contributions must and will continue. Pope Paul VI wrote in Octagesima Adveniens: "Let Christians, conscious of this new responsibility, not lose heart in view of the vast and faceless society; let them recall Jonah who traversed Nineveh, the great city, to proclaim therein the good news of God's mercy and was upheld in his weakness by the strength of the Word of Almighty God."

Undermining the region and the church

In hindsight it is clear: over the past 40 years, there has been little balance between the building of suburbs and the re-building of cities—particularly city housing. A better balance would have given people more choice between city and suburb—since not everyone wants to move farther out.

This social and economic separation is problematic not only because of its destructiveness, but also because it is costly—for everyone. City and suburb are linked in a single economy. In regions all across America, studies show that where the income of city residents stagnates, the income of the city's suburban residents stagnates as well.

The Cleveland-Akron-Lorain region suffered drops in employment and household income between 1980 and 1990. At the same time, the household income in Cleveland's central city dropped almost 14 percent. Meanwhile, in the Charlotte, North Carolina region, household income increased more than 11 percent during the same period. Is that surprising? It shouldn't be. When a business wants to relocate or expand, it's likely to choose an area that can accommodate its needs and the needs of its employees. It wants to invest in a healthy, growing region.

This is the cost of 40 years of uncontrolled outmigration in our diocese.

The Church, too, is paying a price. Many of our city parishes are left with large, aging buildings—and far fewer parishioners to support them. Faced with the loss of population, and the consequent loss of financial support, parish schools are closing—as well as some parishes.

While these problems are most evident in the cores of cities, they are also at the doorsteps of the inner suburbs. The outward flow of population that undermined our cities will do the same to the suburbs—starting with the inner suburbs. Like city and suburb, the urban and suburban churches are linked by a single economy. So the problems of the city parishes soon become the problems of the suburban parishes.

In 1950, there were 62 suburban parishes in Cuyahoga, Summit and Lorain Counties combined. Now there are 101. Even the most affluent of the suburban churches are not financially equipped to deal with the demands that outmigration is placing on them. And as sudden growth demands new suburban parish buildings and larger staffs, Catholics relocating to the suburbs are often faced with both a home mortgage and a church mortgage, stretching their financial resources.

Imbalanced investments

Outmigration began in earnest in the years immediately following World War II. Today, people move to escape crime and to find better schools for their children. But 40 years ago, the main reasons for moving were to escape city pollution, noise and congestion.

Blockbusting was also widespread. This sorry practice, which played upon racial fears, was perhaps the most influential factor in outmigration.

Outmigration was encouraged and facilitated by building highways, by widening roads to accommodate increased traffic, by building water and sewer extensions to accommodate developers. Almost all new housing is built in the outer suburbs, adding more and more fuel to the fire. These policies continue today.

The government isn't doing this out of ill intent. It's simply meeting public demand. This isn't the issue here. At issue are the urban problems that have been exacerbated due to the imbalance in the deployment of the government's resources. Billions of government dollars—that is, public dollars—have been spent in paving the way for new suburbs, with little or no thought given to the consequences for existing communities.

A recent example here is Route 422, which was extended from Solon in Cuyahoga County into Geauga County. The cost? Some $65 million. The impact of that highway on the inner eastern suburbs of Cuyahoga County and the city of Cleveland is bound to be serious, because it makes moving to Geauga County that much more attractive.

I'm not suggesting the highway should not have been built. But ignoring its impact has urther undermined the city of Cleveland, as well as the eastern inner suburbs. Investment in Route 422 calls for a counter-investment in the communities negatively affected by it. This is what I mean by imbalance.

And the private sector shares in this responsibility. The need for reinvestment in our cities has not received the needed emphasis, thereby denying opportunity to those who live in the city, by choice or otherwise.

No one wins

If this imbalance of investment continues, we can expect even more urban decline. Stable neighborhoods will erode. The inner suburbs will soon follow. Spreading decline will spawn even more stress among people and institutions. The fiscal strength of county government will weaken, further jeopardizing the region's ability to compete in the global economy. Health care facilities in the city will close, only to re-open in the outer suburbs. The utility companies will likewise re-deploy their will libraries, schools, public transportation and recreational facilities.

Will this make our region more competitive in the global economy? Will it reduce unemployment? Build racial harmony? Create community stability? Inspire us to treat each other with kindness and decency? Most surely not.

We must change course—drastically—if we are to create a society where "social groups and their individual members [have] relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment" (Gaudium et Spes).

If outmigration trends continue, the Church, too, will be affected. More and more buildings, too large and expensive to maintain, will be left in the central cities and inner suburbs. Congregations will decrease and not be able to support their parishes. Parishes will end up serving people who return to their old neighborhood for Mass—people who are anxious to preserve buildings and traditions, but not always anxious to serve the people who now live in the neighborhood. Catholic schools in the cities will serve an increasingly poorer population—and will face ever increasing financial difficulties.

Meanwhile, the parishes in the outer suburbs will continue to spend more and more of their parishioners' money to build for the increasing population. And that money is limited. The suburban church will feel the strain because the parishioners will feel it. They are feeling it already,

So no one wins. Under the present trend, increased hardships await people in the city, as well as those moving outward.

Principles for a new urban future

It is clear, then, that we are challenged on two fronts: we must recognize and respond to the needs of the urban poor, who have been hurt by outmigration. And we must change governmental policy relative to outmigration.

The first challenge is entirely within our own hands. The decision to recognize and respond to the needs of the urban poor is an individual decision.

However, changing government policy is an arduous undertaking. Some of us might feel that it's even a hopeless undertaking—that a change of such magnitude, involving such deeply-rooted attitudes, is beyond realistic expectation.

I don't feel that way at all. Hope is greatest when we face reality. So let us face it. And let us join with our neighbors, our public officials, and our community leaders in the hopeful endeavor of building a new urban future for Northeast Ohio.

Let me suggest five principles we might embrace in order to meet these challenges.

Social justice. The practice of charity is different from promoting change that furthers social justice. We are called to work for changing the underlying causes of injustice. We must focus on governmental policies and practices that strongly favor outmigration over moving inward or simply staying in one's community.

The point is not to stop outmigration. People are free to move about as they please. Rather the point is to help balance government policies to allow for the redevelopment and maintenance of cities and inner suburbs.

Ideally, this shouldn't be a struggle. But it is because it will require unprecedented cooperative action on the part of public officials across the region. But rebuilding our cities means more than simple bricks and mortar. It means rebuilding in ways that will heal the wounds and close the separations that have been opened and aggravated over the past 40 years... in ways that further the cause of social justice.

Redevelopment. Government policies that support the development of suburbs while neglecting the redevelopment of cities have contributed to the problems caused by outmigration. Similarly, the Church can fall victim to this same myopic strategy by concentrating on the development of the newer parishes in the suburbs, while older parishes in the city are allowed to decline.

For government, banks, developers, real estate brokers and others, redevelopment means creating and investing in projects such as Church Square and Central Commons in Cleveland and Opportunity Park in Akron. For the Church, redevelopment means renewing its commitment to cities and finding ways to provide necessary resources for our ministry there.

Interdependence. City and suburb are linked by a single economy. City and suburban churches are similarly linked by a common mission. Many differences exist between ministry to city and ministry to suburbs—but a single mission to reveal God's love binds them together.

There are gifts present in every church, urban and suburban, which can be shared among all churches. In order to deal effectively with outmigration, we must find ways of sharing these gifts more widely with one another. The parish that does not, in some way, extend its work beyond its own boundaries fails to be a church in its most complete meaning.

In our diocesan commitment to stewardship, we must seek to define stewardship in a way that encompasses the urban and suburban churches, with their unique gifts and their individual problems.

Restructuring. In order to efficiently and effectively serve people living in the city, it will be necessary to restructure the parishes in such a way that they will be able to offer proper ministry to their people, and remain financially stable—and, as much as possible, independent of diocesan subsidy.

This restructuring will not in any way diminish the Church's commitment to the city. It will in fact increase our effectiveness. And in considering the right way to accomplish this restructuring, we must take special care to be sensitive to the cultural diversity of the city's residents.

Preferential love for the poor. The love of Christ compels us to turn our attention to the needs of our poorer sisters and brothers. Following the example of St. Vincent de Paul, the Apostle of Charity, we cannot relax our efforts to assist the poor in their need. We must be especially mindful of women and children, who are often the primary victims of social neglect.

The New Jerusalem

Shifting populations challenged the Church and its mission in the past. From its earliest days, the Church in northeast Ohio has been challenged and shaped by the movement of people. As early settlers crossed the Alleghenies into Ohio, pockets of Catholic families were served by missionaries on horseback who traveled long distances to offer Mass in places like Wooster, Chippewa and Valley City.

With modern outmigration, history is repeating itself. The Church in the Diocese of Cleveland is being called to respond as creatively and as effectively as it did in earlier times.

Pope Paul VI wrote in Octagesima Adveniens: "In the Bible, the city is in fact often the place of sin and the pride of man who feels secure enough to be able to build his life without God. But there is also the example of Jerusalem, the Holy City, the place where God is encountered, the promise of the city which comes from on high."

The New Jerusalem of the Book of Revelation is a promise, a challenge and an invitation.

It is a promise of God's final manifestation of power and justice, which will restore the world to its original harmony and order.

It is a challenge because it reminds us, as Pope John Paul ll says in Sollicitudo Rei: "to 'have' objects and goods does not in itself perfect the human subject unless it contributes to the maturing and enrichment of that subject's 'being'; that is to say, unless it contributes to the realization of the human vocation as such."

And it is an invitation to begin now to participate in the life of that heavenly city by practicing the mercy and justice that will make our earthly cities a reflection of the city which is to come.

Even as we wait for new heavens and a new earth, let us begin to build a new city of justice and peace. I invite all people of good will to cooperate in the work of creating such a city. I ask our government officials to renew and increase their efforts to develop and redevelop our urban centers. In a special way, I call on all Catholics in every part of our diocese to join me in this commitment to our cities—and the churches in our cities.

I am asking that throughout the diocese discussions take place to suggest practical means of implementing this vision. These suggestions will be placed in the hands of a committee charged with the task of developing a formal plan of action.

Jesus loved the city of Jerusalem and wept over its impending destruction. May we imitate Jesus in His concern for the city as we begin our work—rebuilding our cities as places where people can dwell in life-giving relationships with God, and with one another.


Back to top

EcoCity Cleveland
3500 Lorain Avenue, Suite 301, Cleveland OH 44113
Cuyahoga Bioregion
(216) 961-5020
Copyright 2002-2003

Back to Corn Fields contents



In hindsight it is clear: over the past 40 years, there has been little balance between the building of suburbs and the re-building of cities—particularly city housing. A better balance would have given people more choice between city and suburb—since not everyone wants to move farther out.

This social and economic separation is problematic not only because of its destructiveness, but also because it is costly—for everyone. City and suburb are linked in a single economy.


go to home page

Related Links:









Partner Links