It has become a known fact of modern life that nearly all cultural institutions are crumbling. Fewer people are involved in local organizations, clubs, and churches, and more spend the majority of their time online. Among the younger generations, this phenomenon is far more pronounced; far more youth seek their 15 minutes of fame on YouTube rather than make a difference in their community. Some may attribute this development to the rise of technology, mass media, and bad education, but the real root of all this is the loss of friendship.
According to a recent survey by OnePoll, the average American is making fewer friends. Others reveal a growing “loneliness epidemic” where people have less contact with others and almost no meaningful relationships. Put together, these findings suggest that most people today keep to themselves and their communication is primarily superficial and meaningless.
The typical Catholic response to this has been to boost outreach efforts and promote pastoralism. At the parish level, this means more fish fries, autumn fests, Bible studies, men’s and women’s conferences, youth retreats, and other such social events meant to foster interaction among parishioners and draw in visitors. At the global level, this means relaxing standards, softening definitions of Church teachings, and hosting more synods.
As even the most hopeful Catholics can attest, these efforts tend to fall short of expectations. While social events at the parish serve in the short term, they make little difference in the long term. The same small group of people organizes these events and programs year after year, but the great majority of people stay as disengaged as ever. And attempts by Church leadership to open the Church and “walk together” with people on their faith journey may win praise from the secular press and liberal Catholics, but it has effectively pushed away more Catholics than it has brought in.
This is because friendliness is not the same as friendship, which is what organizations neglect and undermine when they institute what amounts to surface-level remedies to deep-seated problems.
As defined by Scripture and classical philosophy, friendship is a close relationship between two people who mutually desire the good of the other. The bond between true friends transcends circumstance, and both parties are actively and equally involved. In the Gospel, Christ calls his disciples “friends” instead of “servants”: they are equals (in the context of their relationship) working towards the same goal, and they would give up everything for one another.
It is important to note that nothing about this friendship is immediately convenient or useful. The disciples are not classmates, coworkers, or fellow members in a tribe merely crossing paths at a certain moment. In fact, they must overcome these labels as a condition of their friendship. If their relationship was predicated on anything less—as most relationships are—it would be more an instance of acquaintanceship, that is, something reliant on an external situation.
Some people may experience true friendship, but most people do not. Rather, they have passively made and lost supposed friends many times over in their lives. The setting (school, work, etc.) required it, and, as soon as they made it through that setting, those friends disappeared. Understandably, loss of friends and one’s social circle is a common experience for adults in their 20s coming out of college or leaving home.
In truth, friendships are active and require time and effort. Among many other things, friends must be ready to talk, listen, plan, host, visit, learn, teach, trust, and be trustworthy. If a person is vain, selfish, impatient, temperamental, or dishonest, he will never make friends. By contrast, if a person is humble, self-controlled, open, fair, and honest (for reference, read the beatitudes), he will have strong, fulfilling friendships.
At this point, it is worth noting the difference between popularity and having friends. The two are not at all synonymous, but are treated the same way in today’s culture. A popular person has followers—people who may like him but do not really know or interact with him. What holds these followers together is a shared agenda or similar preference. As comedy writer Keri Smith says in an article about the cancel culture, they “don’t have friends, they have allies.” When someone steps out of line, the bond quickly dissolves.
However, a person with friends is a person among equals. A group of friends is necessarily small since truly knowing another person requires time and effort, which are limited commodities. The person—not his political agenda or preferences—is what matters. A shared faith and morality can enhance friendship, but friendship is still possible without this. Over time, a true friend learns to love the sinner and hate the sin; an ally or follower does the opposite or neither.
Friendship is an obvious good for the Church and something both the clergy and laity need to pursue together. For the priests and bishops, this means preaching about it and tying the demands of friendship to the demands of Christian discipleship. No Catholic should feel comfortable refusing friendship out of laziness or fear, nor should anyone continue outsourcing important social interaction to secular organizations.
For the laity, making friends would first mean removing the barriers that discourage it. For most people, including myself, this means putting away the screen. Not only does the screen take up a person’s time, but it saps the desire to make friends. All too often, the instant gratification of digital entertainment will overwhelm the delayed gratification of cultivating a friendship.
Once time is made available, one must make the effort of actually socializing. As Catholic writer Leah Libresco argues in her book Building the Benedict Option, this step is instrumental to building an authentic Catholic community. In the spirit of friendship, Catholics should set up game nights, form essay clubs (an easier alternative to book clubs), and host dinners. Early efforts will be somewhat forced and not always reciprocated, but the relationships will generally improve with time and persistence.
Moreover, these plans should start with those at hand—family members, coworkers, classmates, and the people at church. Even though close proximity and shared responsibilities should not serve as the sole basis of a friendship, they can and should facilitate it. Telescopic charity—loving strangers abroad more than relatives nearby—has grown more popular in the wake of globalization, but it is just as hypocritical and counterproductive for Christians today as it was during the time Dickens wrote about it.
Once solid friendships are made, their goodness will inevitably radiate out to the community. What so many progressive Catholic evangelizers fail to understand is that people outside the Church are attracted to true friendships, not slick salesmanship and constant affirmation from the pulpit. People are drawn to the families who eat together, the men who drink together, the mothers who organize playdates with other mothers, and the children who play games together. Hence St. Augustine extols the blessings of friendship on many occasions, recognizing it as a pathway to holiness as well as a source of rejuvenation for a moribund Church.