American Church


us_vatican_flagsIn the question period after a talk I’d given on my new book, American Church, a woman raised an important point: “If the Church in the U.S. faces as many problems as you say, why is it doing so much better here than in much of Europe?”

Great question. My answer–which I also give in the book–was along these lines:

“It has a lot to do with the First Amendment principle of separation of Church and State. Yes, I know–‘separation’ sometimes is used as a club by secularists who want to drive religion out of the public square. But on the whole it’s been a great blessing for the Church and for religion in America.

“For one thing, church-state separation has generally kept government out of religious affairs, while also keeping clerics out of inappropriate involvement in politics. In combination with Cardinal Gibbons’ wise decision to embrace the emerging labor movement in the late 19th century, this spared the Church the sort of virulent anticlericalism found in countries like France, Spain, and even ‘Catholic’ Ireland as a reaction against the political clericalism of the not so distant past.”

Almost always, I might have added, clericalism breeds anticlericalism. That we’ve largely escaped the worst sort of clericalism in America means we’ve also been spared the worst sort of anticlericalism.

But granted all that, the situation of the Catholic Church in America today is increasingly perilous. American Church explains why. In brief, the explanation goes like this:

Nearly 40 years ago, reacting to the Supreme Court’s then-recent decision legalizing abortion as well as other social and political developments, I published a magazine article with the title “The Alienation of American Catholics.”

The point I was making was that American secular culture had lately shifted in directions radically opposed to central Catholic values and beliefs. Hence the rising sense of alienation from that culture being experienced by Catholics like me.

What I wasn’t so conscious of then was that millions of my fellow Catholics had for years been becoming part of this hostile culture–accepting and adopting as their own its world view, its value system, its patterns of behavior, even when these clashed with their Catholic faith.

This was painfully apparent in matters of sexual morality, but it also applied to marriage and the family, many issues of social justice, capital punishment, abortion, and the whole bourgeois consumerist lifestyle. More and more, Catholics were becoming nearly indistinguishable from other Americans on questions like these.

Looking for an explanation for what was happening, I hit upon the process that sociologists call cultural assimilation–in this case, assimilation into American secular culture–that Catholics had experienced since the 19th century and, with great rapidity and in huge numbers, especially since World War II.

It’s a complex, fascinating tale, not well understood by many Catholics themselves, yet central to the situation in which the Church now finds itself. The subtitle of my book sums it up: “The remarkable rise, meteoric fall, and uncertain future of Catholicism in America.”

There’s a solution, but it isn’t easy. It requires rebuilding a strong Catholic subculture committed to sustaining the religious identity of American Catholics and forming them for the task of evangelizing America. Can that be done? Perhaps. Will it be attempted? That has yet to be seen.

This 4th of July, say a prayer that it is. Remember to say thanks for church-state separation. Things would be a lot worse without it.


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  • 1ray1

    What you describe seems like what has occurred. The only quarrel I would have is that you omit the Church hierarchy and much of the clergy as having fallen into this same heresy. It isn’t just us folks in the pews!

    • Axilleus

      The clergy have in fact led the way, not that there was a whole lot of resistance from those of us in the pews, and they are the ones who perpetuate this heresy because there are now few places to turn (in the world at least) for those of us who would like some back up in living the Truth of the Catholic Faith in this increasingly confused and troubled age.

  • St_Donatus

    Sad to say, I seem to be finding myself escaping to my Latin Mass parish and finding an island of sanity. Most parishioners seem to feel that they must stop their they themselves and their children from becoming assimilated (reminds me of the term the ‘Borg’ of Star Trek movies used to describe their capture of humans and turning them into more ‘Borg’ creatures.) Most do not have television, go to movies, etc so the poison of this system doesn’t infect their minds. I know that the only way I could come back to the Church and feel comfortable was to do the same. Otherwise my side that loved the system would fight my side the loved the Church, and the wrong side would always win.

    • Enders_Shadow

      What? Don’t they use the internet? Don’t their kids go to school / university? The need is to engage wisely and discuss, not just hide away, because otherwise the next generation will not be prepared for the environment into which they will eventually emerge. Paul’s sermon at Athens is clear evidence that he was well aware of the culture he was in; we need to be critically aware, not unengaged.

      • WSquared

        I agree with Enders_Shadow on this one, at least partially. The Latin Mass is a great gift, because its orientation and sense of what the Liturgy is truly about– Jesus and the Eucharist– is clear. It allows for sacred silence in a noisy world obsessed with busy-ness.

        But we can’t hide behind it. Self-identified traditionalists should also not keep it to themselves.

        Rather, we should allow the Latin Mass to help form us so that we can engage more effectively. I attend both forms of the Mass, and it was the Latin Mass that helped me better pray the Novus Ordo. For one, it taught me more about how Mass is a cohesive prayer, and the public prayer of the Church, and not just some Sunday “service.”

      • St_Donatus

        Obviously we don’t want to be locking our kids up in cages, mentally or physically, but our ancestors knew when a child had the maturity to hold his or her own against the world. My Grandmother tried to protect us from many things. She didn’t let us watch most television programs, have the wrong friends, etc. But when I moved back with my father and step mother, they let us watch anything and have anyone as friends. It showed up in us as adults. Up until my return, my brother was the only one to remain Catholic out of six of us, and that only because his wife was a strong Catholic.

        I have yet to meet one of these children that didn’t know what is going on in the world. And the kids go to good Catholic colleges and succeed very well in life. They are happy, they grow up with good self confidence, they know what is going on in the world and they have to deal with kids that are not Catholic. When they grow up, they know how to defend the faith and how to defend their minds and hearts from the allurements of Satan’s world. BUT we don’t dip them in the fryer and expect them not to be cooked. Most Catholics today seem to think that they can give their kids 6 to 8 hours of public school indoctrination, another six to eight hours of sin filled television, video games and internet and wonder why their kids don’t turn out Catholic. They say, ‘I put him in CCD and we went to weekly mass’. Two hours of Catholic (boredom for a 12 year old) is not going to make up for 112 hours of exciting, sensually stimulating, sexy media indoctrination. We are being brain washed by our society.

        Christians in Paul’s time were said to live communally in most cases. Why, it was to build each other up and help them to be ‘separate from the world’ as Jesus commanded.

        Personally, I think most Catholics today find more value in their kids having a successful career than having a good Catholic family and it shows up in their lives.

        I have seen the results of families that home school and protect their kids from bad influences and I have seen the standard families that just make sure their kids are protected from ‘R’ rated material in the media. I would rather have the 95% success rate over the 20% success rate any day. All you to do is look at the statistics and you will know which is right.

  • Dan Kennedy

    Unfortunately, trying to re-evangelize Catholics let alone the culture is made more difficult, given the distance between what the bishops say about the dignity of every human being and their actions when it comes to pro-abortion, high profile Catholics. It engenders mockery and cynicism among a secularized culture, even among the “assimilated” Catholics we’re trying to evangelize.

  • Ximenes

    Is the Catholic Church in America really “doing so much better” than in Europe? I think a lot of the apparent “success” of the Church in America is more due to its embrace of America’s mainstream (i.e., Protestant and secular) drift than to separation of Church and State. In other words, the Church in America has “succeeded” by successfully transforming itself into just another church on the block — this at the expense of course of traditional Catholic doctrine.

  • Victor de Dios

    Why would there be a need to rebuild a strong Catholic subculture? We already have a well-funded, organized Catholic Church in America. The failure of the Catholic Church lies in how that organization has failed to act and lead. We have a divided Church, manipulated and divided by “liberal” causes. There are Catholic organizations with websites that do not even mention Jesus. The Catholic Church in America is not philosophically or theologically united, consistent and steadfast. Without that, it cannot lead.

    • WSquared

      Victor, you’ve just described why we need a strong Catholic subculture: we don’t have a strong Catholic identity in the Church in this country at almost all levels. Your example of Catholic organizations with websites that don’t even mention Jesus is a case in point. We also live in a culture that thinks it knows Jesus, and does a lot of “WWJD?” but doesn’t know Who Jesus truly Is. As Mr. Shaw writes above, Catholics in America seem “just like everybody else.” They don’t have those distinct cultural markers of being Catholic to the same degree that even more secular Jews who only come together for Hannukah and Passover have.

      Without knowing who we are, Catholics will go to the peripheries (as Pope Francis encourages us to) with nothing to offer. We will go there empty handed.

  • RachaelM

    There already IS a strong Catholic subculture. You’ll find the members of this strong subculture at daily and Sunday Masses, participating in various lay Ministries of the Church, active in their faith and devotions. The failure can’t be entirely laid at the doorstep of the Church. Catholics and others have contributed by where they have mis-placed their time, attention and faith.

    • WSquared

      But how many really take in the depth of the liturgy, and what the liturgy is? How many even know what the Eucharist is, and what it enables us to do (and what happens when we receive it unworthily)? I think that’s a good part of what’s missing. Fr. Barron hasn’t complained about “dumbed down Catholicism” and the bad fruit of bad catechesis for the last 40 years for nothing. You’re talking about a subculture that still exists to some degree, but must be strengthened.

      The point is not just to participate in the various lay ministries of the Church; how does one live as a Catholic– as a lawyer, doctor, historian, etc. etc.– *out in the world*? How does one live as a Catholic, period? You can be a cantor at your church, but still think that contraception, abortion, etc. are okay. We have Catholics who think they can pray a Rosary for “abortion rights,” for Heaven’s sake.

  • tom in Ohio

    It seems inappropriate to include to include capital punishment in the litany of issues on which Catholics have “gone with the flow.” Forty years ago JPII had not yet spoken against it and the famous paragraph in the Catechism had not been written–magisterial and papal statements did not oppose the death penalty before that Opposing it is a very new development. Dogmatically it is in a different category from the other issues, abortion, marriage, etc. It seems to me that you muddy the waters and weaken your point.

    • julianx187

      agree, I don’t believe in capital punishment, but that issues is still controversial in my understanding, and has not been dogmatically defined as wrong in all cases. It is much lower on the hierarchy in terms of moral issues. I think life in prison without parole can be even more cruel however.

  • julianx187

    the reason the Church is so bad off in America, is partly due to separation of church and state. Government legalizing and thus normalizing in the eyes of many people, such anti-Christian things such as pornography, profanity in media, abortion, contraception, divorce, homosexual marriage, embryonic stem cell research, euthanasia, and on and on. These things can only be legalized by a secular government. There is no limit to what is allowed as long as people want it (that is why democracy always ends badly). There are instances when church and state together have gone bad, but that does not mean that its not a good system. Any system has bad examples. No one can complain about any law enacted by the state because the secular government is not concerned with religious beliefs and values, rather what would lead to flourishing in an earthly sense for the greatest number of people.

  • Ben

    We didn’t fully escape clericalism: the hierarchical cover-ups of sexual predators in order to protect the offices of the leaders were major acts of clericalism. Look at how the Catholic faith in ireland is melting away, and fast. Look at how the Faith has collapsed in the Western World.

  • Ben

    Archbishop Martin of Dublin said it best: the narrow culture of clericalism must be eliminated.

  • poetcomic1

    The failure to educate Catholics in the most basic rudiments of their faith for over a half century might have SOMETHING to do with this problem? Naaaaaw.