A Bishop Takes On the Suburbs

May 15, 1995|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

Cleveland -- Is there a moral dimension to the new expressways and subdivisions, the fresh strip malls and sewers and utility lines that keep pushing suburbia ever outward, even as older cities and suburbs wither?

Anthony M. Pilla, the Roman Catholic bishop of Cleveland and eight counties of northeast Ohio, believes so. Sprawl and its consequences, he insists, have helped to trigger the deep and alarming fissure that now plagues American society -- on the one side upwardly mobile Americans on the cutting edge of incessant suburban growth, on the other side the poor left behind in disinvested inner-city neighborhoods.

Bishop Pilla, a 62-year-old prelate in line to become president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops this autumn, has become a pioneer among religious leaders of all faiths in raising the issue of how metropolitan regions are growing. He not only insists that sprawl is sapping the vitality of cities where the poor and minorities live, but that concerned Catholics should be challenging governments and developers to turn much of the same investment back toward older urban and suburban communities.

The Catholic Church itself, the bishop acknowledges, is paying a heavy price for outmigration. As thousands of parishioners move out of old industrial cities like Cleveland and Akron, they imperil whole parishes, leaving large aging church buildings and hard-pressed parochial schools behind them. Arriving in the new suburbs, this growing population requires expensive new schools with larger staffs.

But, he insists, the moral implications are the worst: Outmigration cuts off the poor from the mainstream of society, choking off natural contacts and opportunity. People's lives are stunted -- an issue which ''the love of Christ compels us'' to address, the bishop wrote in a March 1994 ''Church in the City'' pastoral statement for his diocese.

In the last two years Bishop Pilla has moved to mobilize his diocese of almost 1 million people to take a hard look at urban and land issues and then mobilize for action. Some 1,200 Catholics took part in a diocesan consultation on the issue. An implementation plan, calling on the diocese to undertake a ''prophetic role to overcome poverty, racism, crime and violence,'' is being debated by the individual parishes.

Personal and spiritual issues will be addressed. Among them: ''the moral dimension of choices on where we live;'' the impact of ''moving up'' and ''moving out'' on neighborhoods and family life, and ''the challenge of interconnectedness'' between urban and suburban areas.

But targeted public advocacy is foreseen, too, starting with a diocesan committee on regional land-use policies which will argue before governments and private corporate boards ''for policies that are economically, socially, environmentally and morally responsible.''

Translation: Invest more in cities and older suburbs; save the ''greenfields'' on the urban edge.

Quiet persuasion and networking are part of the plan, too. Bishop Pilla has faulted not just the pro-suburban tilt of government policies but ''builders, real-estate brokers, developers and banks'' who focus virtually all their attention on far-out suburbs, indirectly inflicting deep harm on the inner cities and their people. His hope is that individual Catholics will quietly network with people they know personally, whether in government or business, urging that investment be focused back on the cities and older suburbs.

With Catholics constituting 30 percent of the Cleveland region's population, there's clearly dramatic potential to influence both public policies and private decisions. But the bishop also envisions an ecumenical effort, with multiple denominations and faiths joining in.

And while he promises not to push the effort on the entire National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Pilla has received interested queries from dioceses across the country and would clearly be pleased to see his effort duplicated elsewhere.

Even on his home ground, however, the effort is controversial. Many suburbanites ask him -- ''Why pick on us? What's so bad about wanting to improve our own condition?'' He seems especially pained, as a bishop, by such reactions as ''Why do you dislike people in the suburbs?'' Or -- ''I moved out of the city to get away from those people.''

More in sorrow than anger, Bishop Pilla chooses to interpret those reactions as those of uninformed but well-meaning people. His intent has always been to balance development, not to condemn suburban growth and suburbanites.

''Some Catholics immediately respond to the Gospel,'' he says, ''Others are Americans first, consumers second, Republicans or Democrats third, and only then Catholics.''

And he acknowledges there has to be ''a conversion experience'' for many people to grasp the interdependence of ++ cities and suburbs, to understand that Christian obligations to serve one's fellow man stretch beyond personal salvation and a single parish church to moral issues involving an entire diocese and the global church.

Recently, he reports, more and more of his flock, especially young people, have approached him to say they're encouraged to see their church taking on an issue as serious and pressing as the future of cities and the fate of the poor.

Bishop Pilla intends to press on: ''If you love God and all he has created, this is an issue you must consider.''

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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