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Should I Stay or Should I Go? Catholics Discern Moving Over Social Values

By Jonathan Liedl/National Catholic Register

Jose Galvan wasn’t necessarily eager to move away from the Golden State. After all, the husband and father of four describes himself as a “born and bred” Californian. He’d spent most of his life in northern Cali, and was fond of his Sacramento parish and Catholic community.

But his sense of belonging began to fragment in recent years. Pandemic restrictions limited access to the sacraments at his local parish for more than a year, a measure that Galvan found detrimental to his family’s spiritual wellbeing. This coincided with the imposition of a political agenda by the state government that he said ran “counter to our Catholic faith,” including taking steps to make California an “abortion sanctuary” and mandating instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity to elementary school students.

Altogether, Galvan said the state he loved had become “an unfriendly place for practicing, faithful Catholics.” California’s sky-rocketing cost of living — 39% higher than the national average—also didn’t help.

“I couldn’t in good conscience continue to live somewhere that is so very expensive with so little regard for our beliefs,” Galvan told the Register.

And so, after a long period of discernment and a similarly long search for housing, the California native left. The Galvan family, including his mother-in-law, relocated to Eastern Tennessee in June 2022, drawn by its affordability, natural beauty, slower pace of life, and more pervasive Christian culture.

It’s a move that Galvan described as “bittersweet” at the time, still with its share of difficulties, but one that he says he’d make again.

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“My parents were immigrants, they left their countries for a better life here, and I in turn am doing the same,” he said. “I say this not to be dramatic, but because I have left behind familiarity, some family, dear friends, and all that I have known for a new start.”

Rise of the “Value Movers”

Galvan is one of many U.S. Catholics who in recent years have taken the plunge and moved to a new state, at least partially motivated by a desire to both escape an adverse socio-cultural situation and also put down roots among those who share similar convictions about family life and faith.

These “value movers” are leaving places on the East and West Coasts and in the Upper Midwest, where already political establishments pushing policies antithetical to a Christian view of human flourishing have become more deeply entrenched and aggressive in recent years, and where some Catholics often feel powerless to resist. Instead, they’re heading for new homes in the South, Great Plains, and Big Sky states.

Although exact numbers of Catholics who’ve moved for these reasons are unavailable, conversations with diocesan and parochial personnel in the involved regions confirm it’s an emerging trend—or at least something many Catholics are talking about. For instance, a recent tweet by John Monaco, a theology grad student, asking for recommendations for where a young Catholic family should move garnered over 105,000 views and nearly 500 replies.

Kevin Donohue and his family are moving to Arkansas in July, where his wife just received a teaching position at the state’s flagship university following a two-year post-doc at Harvard.

After time spent on both coasts, the Catholic school principal and father of four told the Register that the move to a more conservative state is partially based on “the increasingly prominent displays of anti-Catholic policies and beliefs in the liberal cities we have lived in”—Los Angeles and Boston. Additionally, the Donohues have loved the “vibrant” Catholic community they’ve discovered on visits to Fayetteville.

“Taking the job at Arkansas and feeling comfortable was really a recognition that we need to pursue what is best for our family—economically, spiritually, and socially.”

“Best for Our Children’s Souls”

Charlie Van Patten is another California émigré, except he and his wife chose to relocate their family to Florida. Like Galvan, he thought he’d be in California for the long-haul after moving with his wife to her hometown, Thousand Oaks, in 2015. But, citing many of the same factors, Van Patten told the Register that “the state’s increasing antipathy toward traditional Christian values drove us away.”

In addition to progressive social policies, Van Patten included California’s lack of affordable housing as an obstacle to his and his wife’s convictions about how they’re called to raise their family.

Chris Van Patten and wife on the road to Florida.
Chris Van Patten and wife on the road to Florida.(Photo: Courtesy photo)

“We want to be open to new life, but the cost of living made it difficult to have more than one or two children, even with a six-figure income,” said Van Patten, a lawyer.

Amid a year of prayerful discernment, the family planned a vacation to Florida in mid-2021—and a position at the Catholic Foundation of Central Florida opened up just two weeks before. Van Patten, who had been hoping to work more directly for the Church, applied, interviewed for the job while on vacation with his family, and was offered the position. The Van Pattens moved to the Orlando area at the end of 2021, and welcomed their fifth child earlier this spring.

Van Patten told the Register that he misses elements of life in California, such as its beauty and the proximity to his wife’s family (although they visit often). And while he’s grateful that lawmakers in Florida are pursuing pro-life measure and policies more consistent with a Catholic vision of education, he’s also under no illusion that the same cultural focus that became dominant in California aren’t also in play in Florida.

The Van Patten family plays on the shores of the Florida coast.
The Van Patten family plays on the shores of the Florida coast.(Photo: Courtesy photo)

Still, he’s confident that he and his wife made the right decision, in part because “there’s no end in sight for the madness in California”—which passed a bill last year to make the state a self-described “refuge for transgender healthcare” for minors.

“All things considered, we believe it was best for our children’s souls to raise them outside of California.”

Considering the Options

Other Catholics in similar situations are considering following suit.

Angela Erickson, a resident of a Minneapolis suburb, told the Register that she and her husband have talked about leaving Minnesota “off and on” for the last three years due to what she describes as “the encroachment of the government on our family life…especially with regard to human sexuality and flourishing, but also in education and health decisions.” An anti-abortion activist for over ten years, Erickson has been greatly troubled by Minnesota’s codification of abortion access into state law, as well as the ongoing effort to repeal all abortion restrictions.

Erickson said that places like Tennessee, Wyoming, and Idaho are on her mind as possible destinations, but that “ultimately we’re leaving it in God’s hands and trusting him to let us know if, when, and where we ought to move.” Criteria like “pro-life and pro-family values,” as well as the presence of “a strong traditional Catholic community” and Catholic homeschooling options are important to her and her husband as they raise their five young children.

In Chicago, Lawrence Semann and his wife are even more confident in their desire to relocate, and are actively searching for a new home. Semann, who was originally excited to live in Chicago when his wife’s work brought them there in 2016, says that repressive COVID restrictions and the resulting economic blight and crime surge have essentially turned Chicago into a “big, decaying city,” where “all of the positives of big city life practically vanished.” He says that the recent mayoral election of Brandon Johnson, who once advocated for defunding the police, is also a deciding factor.

The Semanns are looking at places near Des Moines, Iowa, and Kansas City, Missouri. Currently parishioners at Chicago’s St. John Cantius, they’d ideally like to find a similar community that celebrates the Traditional Latin Mass or the novus ordo reverently, and “should be able to move within a year, no more than two.”

Staying Put

But other Catholics, equally concerned about their state or city’s socio-cultural situation, aren’t making any plans to move. For some, like Paul Arias of Franklin Park, New Jersey, the importance of remaining close to extended family has trumped any thoughts of leaving—even while others in his community have made a different choice.

The Van Patten's pose for a picture after their daughter's first communion.
The Van Patten’s pose for a picture after their daughter’s first communion.(Photo: Courtesy photo)

“We’ve done our best to convince other families to stay, [with] mixed results due to enormous social and political pressure,” said the father of two. “In the end, we are making the costly decision to stay and help remake the political community.”

That’s a sentiment that Dena Fredrickson in Washington can get behind, especially in the wake of two good friends leaving the Tacoma area for “red states,” Alabama and Texas, respectively.

“I take the view that someone has to stay in the field of ‘blue state crazy’ if we are to make things better and try to reach who we can,” she told the Register regarding Washington, which just passed a law eliminating parental notification requirements for shelters housing trans-identifying youth.

Fredrickson added that her friends who moved, whom she described as “more doom and gloom,” are finding out that there are still cultural battles in more conservative places. “I kind of feel that here where I am in Washington, the people who are faithful are truly committed because we know what we’re dealing with, whereas my friends’ red state neighbors often take too much for granted.”

Jeff Culbreath is another Californian who has had his “eye on the door for at least 15 years.” The father of four describes the secular progressivism of the prevailing culture as “militant,” “just kind of in your face,” especially in more urban areas.

“It’s just very oppressive in terms of living a Catholic life in a public way,” said the father of four, who still has two kids at home.

However, while Culbreath doesn’t judge anyone who has made the decision to leave, he has recently recommitted to remaining in California. This commitment, he says, has helped him rediscover “the good things” in Cali, which include Dominicans in the Bay Area, a vibrant Sacramento parish run by the religious order Pro Ecclesiae Sancta, and a unique racial and ethnic diversity that he’d be hard pressed to find elsewhere.

A fourth generation Californian, Culbreath cites his deep family roots, sense of belonging to his parish and community, and the desire to provide stability for his younger kids still in school as reasons why he’s staying—for now.

“For a serious Catholic, or anyone with any conservative sensibilities, those things are really important. You don’t just upend your life for politics.”

Plus, he thinks maybe the more confrontational nature of militant secularism in California may be good for strengthening one’s Catholic faith.

“Iron sharpens iron,” he said.

A Necessary Sacrifice?

Catholics who have moved or are considering moving for political and social reasons are mindful of the criticisms others might have, and can see arguments for staying and “being a light in the darkness,” as Van Patten put it.

In the end, though, their concern for the wellbeing of their children is what they continuously came back to.

“I’ve never been the biggest fan of The Benedict Option,” said Donohue, referring to the 2015 book that called for Christians to form more intentional communities in the face of rising secularism. “But I do think there’s a kernel of truth that we need to care for our own first before we can evangelize.”

Erickson, the anti-abortion activist, said that as important as her advocacy work is, her first duty as a mother is to protect her own children, and not sacrifice their wellbeing in the process of working for wider change.

“Some people are ordained to say and fight, while others are not,” she shared. “That is something every family has to discern according to their own circumstances and vocations.”

Likewise, Galvan cautions anyone considering a move to be “very deliberative.”

Galvan family attending Mass in Tennessee. courtesy
Galvan family attending Mass in Tennessee. (Photo: Courtesy photo )

“Families should make this decision by asking for God’s guidance and with a lot of discernment,” he said. “It isn’t for everyone. I can see the criticism. It’s tough to uproot oneself and I view it as a sacrifice for my family.”

A sacrifice, however, that he believes it was necessary to make.

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