Catholics in America: A Tale of Two Flags

Yes, assimilation has been the preferred strategy of Catholic leadership since the days of John Carroll. But should it always be? There is good reason to think it shouldn’t.

In a certain parish church that I know well, as also, I suppose, in many other Catholic churches in the United States, two flags are prominently displayed. One is the Stars and Stripes. The other, unfamiliar to most Americans, including many Catholics, is the gold and white flag of  Vatican City, with the papal coat of arms—the keys of Peter and the papal tiara—imposed upon its vertical white band. In many churches the two flags flank the sanctuary as if to salute the sacred ritual celebrated there. In the one I’m thinking of, they hang from the choir loft in benevolent surveillance of the congregation.

In all my years of visiting Catholic churches I’ve never heard anyone, priest or lay person, say a word about the symbolism of the two flags. Perhaps it’s so obvious that it doesn’t need explaining. The message is plainly twofold: first, that Catholics have a dual loyalty—to the Church and to the United States; second, that there is no conflict here. On the contrary, the flags’ answer to the ancient question, “Can you be a good Catholic and a good American?” is a silent “Who says you can’t?”

For a long time that was entirely reasonable. It was the necessary starting-point  for the Americanization program pursued by Catholic leaders from John Carroll on. Some people had their doubts, of course. In the early years of the twentieth century, for example, the Harvard philosopher George Santayana, a self-described “aesthetic Catholic,” expressed surprise that American Catholics busily assimilating into American culture were so ready to embrace something so “profoundly hostile” to their faith. 

But despite the reservations of a few,  a letter dispatched to the Vatican a few years later by the princely Cardinal George Mundelein of Chicago offered a candid explanation of why  assimilation wasn’t merely desirable but necessary for the Church in America. Responding to an impassioned protest to Rome by Polish priests infuriated by his efforts to prevent Polish members of his Windy City flock from retaining their Catholic-centered old country culture, Mundelein declared it of “the utmost importance” that nationality groups in America “fuse into one homogeneous people…imbued with the one harmonious national thought, sentiment and spirit.” This was “the idea of Americanization,” he told Rome, and anything else instead of it would be “a disaster for the Catholic Church in the United States.” 

That remained the conventional wisdom until recently.  Now, though, the situation is changing as it becomes clear that the Church needs to rethink the old project of unconditional cultural assimilation. Yes, assimilation has been the preferred strategy of Catholic leadership since the days of John Carroll. But should it always be? There is good reason to think it shouldn’t. Assimilation’s cost to the Church has skyrocketed as the secular culture has become ever more hostile to Catholic beliefs and values on issues from abortion and same-sex marriage to the creeping economic strangulation of parochial schools. The wisdom of assimilation takes on particular urgency now from the presence in the U.S. of yet another large body of mainly Catholic newcomers, the Hispanics.

Three years ago I published a book called American Church examining the problem of assimilation suggested by its subtitle: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America. In laying out my thesis, I said this: 

“As a sociological, psychological, and even spiritual process, Americanization was bound to happen. But it did not have to happen just as it did, nor must all the results now be accepted just as they stand….[T]wo linked questions become more and more pressing: How American—in contemporary American secular terms—can Catholics afford to become without compromising their Catholic identity; and must the future of Catholicism in the United States be more Americanization as we’ve experienced it up to now, or do we have other, better options?”

My new book, Catholics in America: Religious Identity and Cultural Assimilation from John Carroll to Flannery O’Connor, seeks to continue the discussion.  A collection of fifteen profiles of prominent individuals, it can be read simply as a set of introductions to people who in various ways made significant contributions to American Catholicism and American society.  But a more complex rationale is also at work—the hope to stimulate an overdue dialogue on an urgent matter: Can we really be fully Catholic while also being fully American in American secular terms?

As it stands, many Catholics take for granted their assimilation into the values and behavior patterns of the surrounding society. But for a significant remnant of believing, practicing Catholics, it’s a different story. Finding themselves increasingly alienated from the secular society, they are deeply concerned to know what to do about it. They may find some help in this book.

Several themes are at work here. For example: Archbishop Carroll and Cardinal Gibbons—the assimilation option as it has been accepted and promoted by leaders of the Church in the United States; St. Elizabeth Seton, Father McGivney, and Al Smith—anti-Catholicism and the Catholic response; Archbishop Hughes and St. Frances Xavier Cabrini—the immigrant experience; Cardinal Spellman—hyper-patriotism as an assimilation mode; Dorothy Day, Archbishop Sheen,  Flannery O’Connor—the ambiguities of American culture; Orestes Brownson and Isaac Hecker—the feasibility of evangelization; John Kennedy and John Courtney Murray—resolving the tension between church and state. 

It’s important to say this is not an unpatriotic book. “My country, right or wrong”—words linked to the American naval hero Stephen Decatur and later repeated, with disastrous results, by Cardinal Spellman—expresses an unassailably correct sentiment, provided the sentiment is understood to be: “No matter how foolishly or unjustly my country may act, it’s still my country.” But acknowledgment of national filiation does not excuse patriotic citizens from criticizing their country when it acts foolishly or unjustly, and trying their best to get the country to stop doing that. Criticism in these circumstances is an expression of patriotism—indeed, one far more useful than blind acquiescence. 

More and more these days I find myself thinking about these things as I kneel under the two flags in the church I mentioned above. Often I recall the words of another Archbishop of Chicago, the late Cardinal Francis George. Writing of the upsurge of anti-Catholicism in secularist America, he spoke of the “self-righteous voice of some members of the American establishment…who regard themselves as ‘progressive’ and ‘enlightened.’” Then he said:

“The inevitable result is a crisis of belief for many Catholics. Throughout history, when Catholics and other believers in revealed religion have been forced to choose between being taught by God or instructed by politicians, professors, editors of major newspapers, and entertainers, many have opted to go along with the powers that be….It takes no moral courage to conform to government and social pressure. It takes a deep faith to ‘swim against the tide.’”

The stories of fifteen remarkable women and men brought together in Catholics in America show how it is that today’s American Catholics find themselves facing the choice of which Cardinal George spoke: conform—assimilate, that is—or resist? 

[Editor’s note: This article is adapted from the introduction to Russell Shaw’s new book Catholics in America: Religious Identity and Cultural Assimilation from John Carroll to Flannery O’Connor (Ignatius Press).]

About Russell Shaw 148 Articles

Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide and the highly acclaimed American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America.