I opened the newspaper not long ago to see the oldest Catholic church in Washington gleaming in restored splendor in a photograph. Holy Trinity, a Georgetown landmark for more than two centuries, had undergone an $8 million expansion and renovation, catching the eye of the architecture critic of The Washington Post. He was taken with the spare elegance of the new chapel and the understated gracefulness of the new wings. Holy Trinity, he wrote, was now "a pleasure to mind and eye."

As a former parishioner of Holy Trinity, I come not to praise the renovated church but to bury it.

For more than 30 years, Holy Trinity reveled in its well-deserved reputation as the very model of what a post-Vatican II church should be. Its liturgies, preaching, and music were exquisite. The theologically liberal Jesuits who operated Holy Trinity allowed the laity a significant role in governing the parish, and many parishioners embraced Christ's injunction to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.

Holy Trinity had not come by its social conscience easily. In the spring of 1978, in the midst of a previous, more modest renovation of the church, a nearly unknown homeless-rights advocate named Mitch Snyder showed up on the parish's doorstep demanding that some of the $1 million spent to beautify and modernize the dilapidated building be funneled to organizations that helped the homeless--specifically, his own. When the parish refused, Snyder and a few colleagues staged a fast on the playground of Holy Trinity School that lasted, on and off, in one form or another, until December.

The parish didn't capitulate, but the fast set Snyder on the road to secular sainthood--officially bestowed in 1986, when Martin Sheen portrayed Snyder in the TV movie "Samaritan." The fast also helped awaken Holy Trinity to its responsibilities as a wealthy congregation to its less fortunate neighbors. Shortly after the hunger strike, which brought the parish no end of bad publicity, Holy Trinity decided to give 10 percent of its annual revenue to organizations that worked with the poor.

Beginning in the early 1980s, the parish poured an ever-increasing amount of money into soup kitchens, women's shelters, mobile medical clinics, the Jesuit Refugee Service, and Holy Trinity's two sisters parishes--one on the nasty northern edge of Capitol Hill and the other in a San Salvador slum. This activism, this willingness to make the Word flesh, is what drew me to Holy Trinity.

The parish also solved certain ethical problems for me. Like most of those who worshipped at Holy Trinity, I was affluent, well educated, and professionally well placed. But like many Catholics whose parents had grown up in more meager circumstances, I could neither square my abundance with the scarcities that afflicted much of Washington nor give that abundance away. The vigor of the parish's commitment to the poor, the diligence with which it brought its affluence and expertise to bear on the problems of the underclass, struck me as evidence that comfort and Christianity could be reconciled--that an enlightened middle class, emboldened by the social teachings of the Church, could, at least sometimes, transcend its own narrow interests and be a light to the world. (Not incidentally, in their willingness to give away their "time, talent, and treasure," as the Jesuits always put it, the parishioners of Holy Trinity seemed a living refutation of the frequently voiced criticism that liberal Catholicism was nothing more than baby boomers trying to make life easier for themselves.)

But all that was five years and $8 million ago. When it again came time to renovate Trinity's decaying buildings and create more space for the parish's myriad activities, a different ethic took hold. The pastor decided to make the buildings as large as zoning regulations would allow. He also decided that none of the revenue from the campaign conducted to finance the project would be donated to the poor. I expected an outcry, but a great majority of the parish, although nourished almost weekly by Jesuit homilies on social justice, accepted these decisions with docility.

In the aftermath of our pastor's decisions about the capital campaign, I joined a small group of parishioners who supported a tithe for the poor out of the renovation funds. After several nights of discussion, we realized that our only hope of changing the pastor's mind was to apply public pressure: to alert the media, start a protest, do something along the lines of what Mitch Snyder had done.

But we had reservations about Snyder's tactics, we didn't want to be seen as troublemakers, and we were all busy with our jobs. In other words, our economic, professional, and social aspirations limited our ability to resist. In the end, we were able to negotiate a fairly lame compromise that sent $100,000--1/80th of the project's cost --to our sister parishes. That was all we had the nerve for.

Initially, I believed that the parish had betrayed its deepest principle, but I've come to realize that I misunderstood what that principle was. The people of Holy Trinity are at home in the upper reaches of the American meritocracy. They belong to a managerial culture that values professionalism, that rewards adherence to the standards and practices that make complex organizations work. And they expect other, albeit rather different, organizations--such as their church or their children's sports teams--to operate under the same principles.

But this emphasis on doing things well often obscures the question of whether a thing is worth doing at all. It sidesteps the knotty issue of whether the values of the workplace are appropriate for the business of the church. It conflates meritocracy and Christianity, substitutes "excellence" for fidelity, and confuses the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the gospel of Tom Peters.

My family and I left town on a sabbatical not long after the capital campaign began, and when we returned I decided to worship elsewhere. I haven't seen the renovated church, but it looked good in The Post. Sometimes I think of it as the parish's monument to itself, and sometimes I think of it as a monument to Mitch Snyder, who committed suicide in 1990 and who would have known how this story was going to end.

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