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.