Russell Shaw on the collapse of American Catholic identity

If you haven’t heard, Russell Shaw has recently published a book, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, describing the remarkable collapse of Catholic identity in America over the last 50 years. I haven’t read the book yet (it’s on my list), but there’s a fascinating interview with Shaw at The Catholic World Report touching on many of the themes in his book.

The collapse of the American Church, Shaw argues, probably begins with the reign of the Americanizing bishops of the 19th century, led by Joseph Cardinal Gibbons. Shaw references the delightful Orestes Brownson, whom Bonald called “arguably the greatest American conservative intellect of the nineteenth century,” vociferously opposed the Americanizers:

[Brownson] also was a friend and colleague of Father Isaac Hecker, another convert, who founded the Paulist Fathers, and for a time shared Hecker’s dream of Catholic integration into American culture in order to evangelize and ultimately convert Protestant America.

Over time, though, Brownson soured on the Hecker project and came to see it as a terrible mistake. He and Hecker set out their views in a remarkable exchange of correspondence in 1870 that I include in my book. Brownson’s position was that there was something fundamental to the American character—we’d call it individualism today—that made it not merely inhospitable but dangerous to Catholicism. Let me quote: “Catholics as well as others imbibe the spirit of the country, imbibe from infancy the spirit of independence, freedom from all restraint, unbounded license….I think the Church has never encountered a social & political order so hostile to her.”

Was Brownson right? For a long time, you’d have had to say no. But ever since the 1960s it’s begun to look as if he was onto something—something Catholics need to take very seriously now.

Shaw argues that, contrary to the modern tendency toward spiting the Church to defend the Council, if there was a real need for reform prior to Vatican II, you wouldn’t have been able to tell from looking at the American Church:

. . . [E]verything was coming up roses for American Catholicism around 1950. Priestly and religious vocations were booming, Catholic schools were overflowing, the whole Catholic enterprise was dynamic and growing. Suddenly it was downright fashionable to be Catholic. A couple of years earlier, the influential Protestant magazine Christian Century ran a series with the title, “Can Catholicism Win America?” Its answer: yes. And many Catholics agreed.

The Cardinal captures the Catholic mood of that time exceptionally well. Henry Morton Robinson’s page-turner was a hugely successful bestseller in its day. It’s a fictionalized, romanticized version of the career of Cardinal Spellman of New York whose triumphalistic message is that Catholics had come into their own just in time—in the early years of the cold war, that is—to save the nation and indeed all Christendom from the threat of atheistic communism. Catholics ate it up because it expressed their own self-image, as well as their aspirations and anxieties, with remarkable insight.

. . . Catholicism of that era was in fact rapidly shedding its ghetto status and bursting out into the larger culture. Summing up, the historian Charles Morris concludes that Catholicism in the 1950s was well on its way to becoming “the dominant cultural institution in the country.” Some ghetto!

The Americanization of Catholics, a process that was consummated in the 60s and 70s, brought individual Catholics some benefits, including “acceptance, upward socio-economic mobility, and much professional and material success.” These short-lived and now rapidly-deteriorating upsides were purchased at the expense of a lethal blow to American Catholic identity:

Buying into American secular values has time and again meant buying into a toxic value system in radical conflict with Catholic and Christian convictions on many fronts. And that has meant an ongoing loss of religious identity and commitment to the Church on the part of millions of nominal Catholics—to say nothing of the 22 million ex-Catholics in the United States.

Shaw calls 1976 the “all-time low point” for the American Church and cites the embarrassing missteps of Cardinal Bernardin as evidence of the nadirs to which the American bishops fell:

Under the leadership of Archbishop Bernardin, then president of the bishops’ conference, a delegation of bishops met with Jimmy Carter and pressed him on [supporting a pro-life Constitutional amendment]. After the meeting, the Archbishop said the bishops were “disappointed” by Carter’s refusal to support an amendment. A couple of weeks later, the same group of bishops met with President Ford, and Archbishop Bernardin told the White House press corps they were “encouraged” by Ford’s willingness to support some sort of amendment. This ignited a huge firestorm of criticism and a lot of backstage maneuvering within the Church. The administrative committee of the bishops’ conference met in mid-September and insisted that Archbishop Bernardin back down—which he did in an extremely painful press conference. It was a huge setback to the bishops’ prolife effort and open evidence of the serious divisions in their ranks.

October brought the Call To Action Conference in Detroit. The planners at the bishops’ conference intended this as the centerpiece of the American Catholic contribution to U.S. Bicentennial of 1976. It turned out to be an overpublicized forum for Catholic dissent.

Once again the bishops were embarrassed, furious, and split. That’s the kind of year it was.

Shaw acknowledges that there is no blueprint that can be rigorously employed to restore American Catholicism, arguing that the situation demands an organic and spontaneous solution. He sees some encouraging trends in that regard, citing, as an example, the “emergence of new, proudly orthodox Catholic colleges and universities.”
I, too, see encouraging signs, though not in quite the same way. The “new, proudly orthodox Catholic colleges and universities” that offer any serious hope for the renewal of the Church do so largely through their deference to and support of a more tradition-minded faith scrubbed free of Protestant aesthetics and modernist fairy-tales. This is especially true of places like Christendom College, Ave Maria University, or the University of Dallas, which are notorious hotbeds of young traditionalist activity, but even the schools of a more charismatic bent, like Franciscan University of Steubenville (where I spent this past Easter), encourage reverence for the past and a love for Catholicism as a seamless and integrated historical whole. (One of my Franny friends confided in me during my visit there that the school’s little modernist chapel is an object of widespread ridicule and even occasional protest among the student body).So perhaps there is some reason to hope that the Catholics of my generation, once they come into power in the Church, will repent of the error of Americanization and begin working to recover a more authentically Catholic identity. This, of course, they will do without any help from, and most likely the active opposition of, the current crop of clergy.

22 thoughts on “Russell Shaw on the collapse of American Catholic identity

  1. It has long seemed to me that it was a poor decision on the part of American leaders to allow mass immigration by Catholics into America. This is not solely due to what Protestants consider to be the deficits of Catholicism, but more due to the significant and insurmountable differences between the incoming Catholics and the host Protestant society. Above and beyond ethnic tensions, friction between the two groups was inevitable.

    One might have thought that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, enough people in positions of authority in America would have known about the long and bloody history of conflict between Catholics and Protestants to have realized the risks involved in accepting so many Catholic immigrants. As it turned out, (predominantly Catholic) immigrants from Ireland and Italy organized crime in the States in a way it had never been organized before, and there was much bloodshed as a result. In fact, Irish gangs had plagued America since the early 1800s; why didn’t anyone stop to think that allowing more Irish in might not be a good idea? There is also the signal Irish detestation of the English, and as the term WASP makes clear, the elites of America were, until recently, primarily of English descent. I do not blame Catholicism for the violence or for the Irish hatred of the English, but had Americans at that time said “no” to immigration from predominantly Catholic countries, much of that carnage could have been avoided. (Yes, I know that not all Irish hate the English; that not all Italians are mobsters; that not all American Catholics are descendants of 18th or 19th century immigrants; etc.—I’m speaking in general terms.)

    I wish my Catholic brethren all the best, and I hope that they will be strengthened in their faith in our lord and savior Jesus Christ. Even so, it seems to me that although a Catholic restoration would be good for Catholics, what America needs more than that is another Great Awakening, although we can do without the liberal elements, such as feminism and social gospel, found in some previous iterations.

    • Yes. From a Catholic perspective, the bad ideas which have laid waste to the Church were brandished against Her by bishops and theologians from predominantly Protestant and secular countries, e.g. Germany, the United States, the Netherlands, France.

      Diversity is always a weakness and often a disaster.

      Of course, the fact that mass immigration was bad for America does not mean it was bad for the people who pushed it. The Yankee Establishment got what it wanted, got what we have now: an atomized, functionally atheistic, consumerist, cheap labor society. A society in which being on the “right” means wanting lower taxes for the rich and not much else.

    • If anything large scale Catholic immigration probably forestalled the effects of liberalism in America. Catholics valued a rootedness, stability of the community over “getting ahead.” While the ethnic Catholics were far from perfect in every respect (no human society truly ever is) they stood for a relatively unified an integrated culture in the face of a wider hostile liberal culture. Americanism had already fallen on tough times by the late 19th century as the old rationalist sureties had passed away in the face of both the upheaval of the civil war and the onslaught of capitalism. Yes I know history challenged Calvinists like to claim that because Catholic immigrants did not vote as Rockefeller Republicans the good ole’ USA was despoiled. But it is clear there was no real unity in the United States as the bloody Civil War demonstrated. America political thinkers had tried to base a social order on pitting one faction against the other. This is a terrible error but not unforeseen coming out of a Protestant culture were factionalism is seen as a positive good.
      I thought defending such values as unity, rootedness, ancient tradition, family a transcendental moral order, indeed what liberals derogatively term “medieval” was what this blog was about?

      • There are a variety of traditionalist voices represented here: Buddhist, Catholic, Episcopalian, Reformed. (I wish we had regular Orthodox commenters; I think they could add an important perspective to the discussion.)

        However, there is a regrettable tendency amongst some here to assume that this is a Catholic blog, and they comment accordingly. While I wish my Catholic brethren the best, and pray that they will strengthen their faith in our Lord and Savior, I will not stand idly by whilst they malign my faith.

        While this is indeed a blog that promotes “such values as unity, rootedness, ancient tradition, family [and] a transcendental [sic] moral order,” I’m afraid that post-Vatican II Catholicism can hardly lay claim to most of those values.

        Given the liberalism in the Catholic Church, and the liberal positions it espouses (such as open borders, especially support for Mexican illegal aliens simply because they are likely to be “Catholic”), I’m afraid that whatever dampening effects Catholics might have had historically have been more than offset by the damage they are inflicting now.

      • Wm Lewis,

        I recognize that there is a wide range of voices here but this post was specifically about the Catholic Church and someone who likens Catholic immigration to this country as the “work of Satan” shouldn’t complain about lack of charity. From what I have read and seen this blog is meant to be a forum for “reactionaries”. The reactionary philosophy of course comes from a particular historical context a context which was entirely Catholic. Indeed the very man whose name adorns the blog’s title made very similar arguments against political Calvinism. I hardly think it is wrong to raise such arguments. The overwhelming number of conservative/traditional blogs/forums here in America are Protestant and many are knee jerk pro-Americanist. I will add that many “ecumenical” endeavors seem to go down this path- i.e. blogs like First Things. Do we really need another one?

        It is easy to beat up on immigrants and the Catholic Church but I think the Church’s dirty laundry is pretty well known now and overly harped on. No one is harder on the current state of the Church then Catholic traditionalists. But you are correct to note the problem of Vatican II. Vatican II essentially represented the Catholic Church’s capitulation to American politics and culture. Catholic assimilation into middle class culturally Calvinist values was an absolute catastrophe. This problem is being played on elsewhere. Catholics need to become salt of the earth and recognize the evil that is Americanism and frankly not worry about offending liberals or Protestants.

        As to American “unity” I will raise you Federalist 10:

        Hence, it clearly appears, that the same advantage which a republic has over a democracy, in controlling the effects of faction, is enjoyed by a large over a small republic, — is enjoyed by the Union over the States composing it. Does the advantage consist in the substitution of representatives whose enlightened views and virtuous sentiments render them superior to local prejudices and schemes of injustice? It will not be denied that the representation of the Union will be most likely to possess these requisite endowments. Does it consist in the greater security afforded by a greater variety of parties, against the event of any one party being able to outnumber and oppress the rest? In an equal degree does the increased variety of parties comprised within the Union, increase this security. Does it, in fine, consist in the greater obstacles opposed to the concert and accomplishment of the secret wishes of an unjust and interested majority? Here, again, the extent of the Union gives it the most palpable advantage.

        You can post pious quotes from the framers but the fact is America never had “unity” in the true sense.

      • Perhaps you missed it, but I was responding to Joseph A.s’ likening of Calvinism to the work of the devil.

        Here’s my point: from a Catholic perspective, Protestantism is a heresy and therefore the work of the devil. On the other hand, from a Protestant perspective, Catholicism is a heresy and therefore the work of the devil. We aren’t going to get anywhere by going back and forth like that. So, rather than engage in fruitless attacks upon each other, let us instead recognize our common enemies, primarily leftism/liberalism and Islam, and work together to defend ourselves against them, lest they use our division to hasten our demise.

        This blog is already not a Catholic blog. Kristor Lawson, the most prolific writer here, is an Episcopalian. Alan Roebuck follows the Reformed faith. So regardless of what First Things is like (I’ve never read it), you’re stuck with the Orthosphere being traditionalist but not exclusively Catholic.

        While the term reactionary has its roots in Catholic opposition to the French revolution, Catholics have no exclusive claim to the ideas or name. In parallel fashion, Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants alike honor Augustine for his contributions to theology. Origins are not destinations.

        I see your point on the lack of American unity. My point is there was once enough common ground for us to accept American unity as true, fiction though it may be. Now, due largely to the malign effects of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the liberals have made great strides in electing themselves a new people to rule over.

        Perhaps we never had “true” unity, but we did not need to willingly increase our diversity. The greatest problem with diversity is that it can never be unified organically, and must be coerced into artificial togetherness—until one day, it tears itself apart. I fear that the diversity that is fueling racial strife in America will one day explode into a bloodbath.

        Also, America was founded, in part, as a place where Protestants could practice their faith freely. They left the conflicts of the Old World so they could live in peace. It is simply inappropriate for people of other faiths, Christian or otherwise, to insist on the primacy of theirs over that of the country. (Yes, I know I am oversimplifying here, and there’s much, much more to be said on the issue, but I’m trying to focus on the big picture. See also nickbsteeves’ comment in this thread.)

        So while I have great sympathy for Catholics who lament the assaults upon their church, both internal and external, I have none for those who want to Catholicize America.

      • Yes, well perhaps you missed the fact that Joseph A is not Catholic but Eastern “Orthodox”. That of course did not stop you from launching into a rather vicious assault on the Catholic Church.

        As far as the Orthosphere is concerned that is fine, but don’t expect Catholics to water down their Faith. We can have good discussions without launching into diatribes about supposed Catholic ethnic crime rates and chest thumping Americansim. I will also note that the original Brussels Journal entry which coined the phrase “Orthosphere” noted one distinguishing feature of “Orthosphereans” was their willingness to critique the American founding. The Orthosphere may not be solidly Catholic but neither is it World Net Daily.

        In my own opinion I think the gulf between Catholicism and most Protestant sects (but especially Calvinism) is simply too wide to be bridgeable and really this kind of bizarre neo-liberal consensus that many take as common sense is ultimately deeply flawed. I am not prepared however to make such an argument here right now. Suffice it to say I have enjoyed many of the Catholic writers here and I look forward to a much more militant stance against Americanism.

      • … perhaps you missed the fact that Joseph A is not Catholic but Eastern “Orthodox”. That of course did not stop you from launching into a rather vicious assault on the Catholic Church.

        Yes, I did miss that. Thank you for pointing it out. I guess I’m just too used to people meaning “the Catholic Church” when they say “the Church.”

        As for the “assault,” I only give as good as I get. Certainly you are not surprised that a Reformed Presbyterian would take umbrage at Calvinism being called one of “the devil’s claims” in America, and that was hardly the first time such intemperate words were directed against my faith here on the Orthosphere. Even so, my response was misdirected, and I apologize.

        diatribes about supposed Catholic ethnic crime rates

        If what I said about (largely Catholic) Italian and Irish crime was inaccurate, then I would appreciate being corrected. Assuming that what I said is true, then my point stands, which was this: while America has not always been good for Catholicism, so, too, have Catholics not always been good for America. Having said that, I would rather have European-descended Catholics over Mexicans, or Moslems, or any of a host of other unassimilables.

        … one distinguishing feature of “Orthosphereans” was their willingness to critique the American founding …

        I believe the American founding to have been largely right, though the failure to be explicit on religion and ethnicity may yet prove to be fatal. In this I have been most strongly influenced by Lawrence Auster.

        I think the gulf between Catholicism and most Protestant sects (but especially Calvinism) is simply too wide to be bridgeable

        Yes. Exactly. I am in complete agreement with you.

        I have said this myself repeatedly, and it is why I keep asking the Catholics to stop their fruitless attacks on the Reformed faith here on the Orthosphere. There are plenty of other fora where you can do that; it is simply inappropriate here. We don’t need a “kum ba yah” atmosphere, but neither do we need incessant internecine strife.

    • You over-exaggerate the differences between Catholics and Protestants, and between Irish and English (apparently unaware of the existence of Scots-Irish or Ulster Protestants). The broad brush painting of Irish and Italian immigrants as criminals is just silly, and offensive.

  2. Pingback: This Week in Reaction | The Reactivity Place

  3. You’re ignoring that the forces which have at least severely damaged American Catholicism have also done great damage to America and for the same reasons: HATE. And Malice. Which they bear towards both. Any Protestant/Catholic conflicts pale into shadow compared to the conflict with the Left.

    Actually civilizing the Irish [I am] was one of the great American Catholic achievements, part of it was making them as or more patriotic then the natives. Which served both American Catholics and the Nation well.

    CIA – Catholics In Action. Inside CIA joke.
    FBI – Hoover stocked it with Catholic agents for good reasons.
    USMC – and the US Military from inception – full of Irish. Usually on both sides of American conflicts, but fighting is work the Irish have done for centuries. It’s.Work.
    Police/Firefighters – the paragon is NYPD/FDNY.

    Need I go on?

    The enemy without and within is the Left. They hate America and Catholics. You’re building in a conflict that does not now exist. That’s not the conflict on our watch, it’s the past. All very nice to know the History. But it’s our Watch.

    • Your examples of the Irish in America parallels the thought experiment proposed by Lawrence Auster in his pamphlet HUDDLED CLICHÉS: Exposing the Fraudulent Arguments That Have Opened America’s Borders to the World regarding hypothetical Chinese immigration. (To read the experiment, click on the link, then search for “Chinese.”) In short, just because American history developed as it did does not mean that it could not have developed otherwise.

      Had the Irish not come to America, then the CIA, FBI, USMC, police forces, and fire departments would have been manned by other Americans. Perhaps America was good for the Irish; have the Irish been good for America? By and large, I’d say the answer is yes, except for the significant minority of criminals (e.g., the Irish gangs mentioned above); those Irish who hate the English and, by extension, the American mainstream; and, of course, the execrable Teddy Kennedy and his clan. There is one other aspect in which the Irish have not been good for America: their Catholicism. It added division where there had once been unity. (Irish Protestants are exempt from this part, of course.)

      Yes, the left is a far greater threat to America than any other group. Yes, we should band together to fight that evil. When we emerge victorious, though, we will still have ethnic and religious division to deal with.

  4. I’m not sure who’s ignoring it VXXC. America was a Protestant nation. Her forbears came to America because, specifically because, the Church of England was not protestant enough. America has antibodies against Romishness, which acted on Catholicism from the very beginning. Yes there was one Catholic. ONE. who signed the Declaration of Independence. One sole exception just to prove the rule.

    So the Catholics were never a good fit. The story of the Americanization of Catholicism and how it, by its leaders tried to fit in and be good Americans, IS the story of the loss of Catholic identity. And that just so happens to be story of Catholicism throughout the rest of the Western world.

    Alas, remember those antibodies. Indeed, as you suggest, that power immune response, developed to counter Romishness, works just as well if not better against all relgious particularisms that have the fault of not being among the most progressive strains of that odd mix of Calvinism and Pietism that has become the unofficial State Church in America—which most of us now call The Cathedral®.

    The funny thing is (not funny haha, funny sinister), the evil “genius” of this immune response is that it doesn’t kill Catholics (and other non-progressive religious particularities), for that would be quite dangerous to the host… and besides genocide is bad for business. Instead it deracinates them, turns them into Progressive Überprotestants, who “just happen” to be Catholic (not that there’s anything wrong with that! people are just born that way)… it makes them infertile and invites them to the communion table of (small wafers of) power, but only AS progressives.

  5. This topic used to bother me as a kid. I was a traditionalist in many ways from childhood, and I knew that America was “conceived in iniquity.” My response then was to flee into exile and to remove myself from the wretched state. In undergrad, however, I started to ask how an ideology so false and in rebellion against God and nature could claim any land or people as its own. It was like saying that Marxism had a right to rule in Russia or China. The consent of the governed in their revolution against good order and truth does not matter. I love our land and our people; why must I go into exile (practical issues aside)? I then came to see the foolishness of American ideology as the French counterrevolutionary sees the new regime. Jefferson’s follies have no metaphysical entitlement to Virginia and to the descendents of loyal Englishmen.

    In a similar way, I acknowledge the historical precedence of Calvinism (et alia) in the formation of the American nation. Yet, I find such largely in error, and I do not respect the devil’s claims anywhere on earth. So, I see the Church’s presence in this land as providential and desired by God, rather than treasonous, just as patriotic Roman Christians saw the spread of the Gospel as the fulfillment of Rome’s legacy rather than its undoing.

    • My response then was to flee into exile and to remove myself from the wretched state.

      I’m curious, where did you go to?

      • Well, it was more of a plan than an execution, but I did move to Paris during that time (but only for 13 months) — though I thought that I would live abroad after undergrad. That has not yet happened, but it may in the future. Real life has a way of not respecting our idealistic imaginings.

      • Also, you asked earlier in the week somewhere about guest posting here. You mention that you do not get many readers on your own site, but then you do not supply a link to your site in your comments. How can people read your site if they cannot find it?

    • I acknowledge the historical precedence of Calvinism (et alia) in the formation of the American nation. Yet, I find such largely in error, and I do not respect the devil’s claims anywhere on earth.

      Seen from another perspective, it could be argued that the devil is making his claims on America through mass immigration of Catholics here, people who would inevitably sow division in the land merely by their presence.

      • There was little real unity in the US either political or even spiritual. The only maxim Americans agree on is that we have the right to not agree on anything.

      • Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established their general liberty and independence.

        —John Jay, Federalist No. 2

        I do not believe your assertion is correct; John Jay certainly would not have agreed with you in the 1780s. We were once a much more unified people than we are now, and although the evil of leftism/liberalism was already doing great harm from the latter part of the 19th century, our more-or-less unified character was not truly rent asunder until the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.

  6. Concerning Proph’s and Shaw’s article, this is a problem for the Orthodox, as well. Our goal is to find how to baptize American culture so as to be truly American and truly Orthodox. There is as much promise as ruin in a nation, and we need not hate our socio-ethnic heritage as Americans, just as the Bushmen in Africa do not cease to be Bushmen when they come to Christ.

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