Joseph Epstein, writer of
delightful essays, quotes the French novelist Stendahl: “To write a book is to
risk being shot at in public.” Quite so. Here’s a report from one of the
First, though, I admit that
writers who respond to their critics risk looking thin-skinned and defensive.
So let me say at the start that I’m grateful to people who’ve taken the trouble
to comment on my book American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain
Future of Catholicism in America, as well as those who might yet do so. That includes people who
don’t like it, people who do, and people who fall somewhere in between. My purpose
in writing, after all, was to stir up precisely this kind of discussion.
Furthermore, reaction to American Church has on the whole been
remarkably positive. This appears to be one of those books that says what a lot
of people were thinking but not so many had said up to now. Hardly anybody disagrees that the Church in
America has been doing poorly for years and the assimilation of Catholics into
a hostile secular culture has a lot to do with that. Once that’s concededand
it’s the central premise of American
Churcheverything else is of secondary importance.
But of course the book predictably
has run into disagreement here and there. It’s worth considering some of the reservations
expressednot to refute them but to move the discussion forward a bit.
Thus it’s been suggested that my
appreciation of the United States is culpably deficient. “Don’t you have
anything good to say about America?” a woman demanded after I’d made a short
presentation on the book. As a matter of fact, I dothe introduction in
particular refers to several important ways in which the American arrangement
has been highly beneficial to Catholicism; but, for what I consider entirely
defensible reasons, that isn’t my focus.
What I try to do instead is
isolate and analyze the role that Catholics’ assimilation into American secular
culture in the last 50-60 years has played in the all-too-demonstrable decline
of the Church in the US. To do that, it’s
necessary to call attention to the multiple ways in which the secular culture
during that time has become an increasingly toxic environment for Catholicism.
Yes, America has moved ahead on
some frontsracial justice and women’s rights are notable instances. But who
seriously questions that prevailing secular values in relation to things like
abortion, sex, consumerism, capital punishment, marriage, and much, much more
are profoundly at variance with the values of the Catholic Church, and that
assimilated Catholics have time and again accepted secular values in preference
to those of the Church? Polling data and casual observation combine to leave no
room for doubt on the matter.
Others are willing enough to
grant the truth of that, but fault me for not championing their preferred
understanding of the historic roots of the present situation. Apparently I’m to
be faulted for not lining up with their side (whichever it happens to be) in a
long-running quarrel between two opposed groups of Catholic intellectuals
arguing very different positions in regard to the American founding.
One group (David Schindler is an
exemplary figure) sees something radically at odds with Catholicism in the
philosophical-theological premises of the founders who, after all, were men of
the Enlightenment with more than a dash of Deism flowing in their veins. An
interviewer for a conservative blog expresses this by citing Leo XIII in
support of the proposition that the founders’ liberalism is flat-out
incompatible with natural law. But others (call them the John Courtney
Murray-Michael Novak School) hold that the founders were operating, albeit
unknowingly, within a profoundly Catholic tradition. In an
oddly equivocal column on my book, George Weigel argues that Catholics
should now busy themselves filling in the natural law foundations of the
admirable democratic system they built.
No doubt about it, this is an
interesting debate, but it’s not one I sawor seeany particular reason to
enter into in American Church. My
thesis, as I’ve said, is much simpler: Uncritical Catholic assimilation into
American secular culture as it is today is a grave threat to the faith and one
we need to address with no further delay. Time enough to argue later about the
founders and the American founding.
Another objection to the book
might be stated this way: “Catholicism in America is far healthier than
Catholicism in most of Europe. Rather than bemoan our problems as you do, we
should be counting our blessings.”
In fact, I do count them in American Church. And I attribute them to
American-style separation of church and state, which discouraged clericalist
political meddling here and thereby blocked the rise of the sort of virulent
anti-clericalism found in places like France, Spain, and even Ireland, as well
as to the wisdom of Cardinal Gibbons and other Americanists who in the 19th
century embraced the emerging labor movement, thereby keeping Catholic
workingmen close to the Church.
That said, however, I am not
persuaded that American Catholicism is in so much better shape that its
European cousins. Consider some numbers. There are said to be 75 million
Catholics in the United States. Of these, about 20 million (a generous
estimate) take the trouble to go to Mass every Sunday. That means 55 million
nominal Catholics in more or less tenuous relationship with the community of
faith. Add the 22 million Americans who were raised as Catholics but have quit
the Church entirely. Here, then, are 77 million people who either are Catholics
in name only or don’t even claim the name any more. Perhaps our numbers are
better than Europe’s, but they’re nothing to brag about.
Finally, there are those who find
my book entirely too optimistic. The game is up for American Catholicism, they
believe, and I’m kidding myself not recognizing that. In the future, says
author and blogger Leon J. Podles, Catholics in America “will be a small
remnant. The vitality of the Church is in the Global South.”
all-but-total eclipse of American Catholicism of which Podles and David Carlin
before him warn is indeed a possibility. I acknowledge that in American Church. But this has something
of the character of a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more often you say it, the
more likely it becomes. For my part, I believe there still are things that
could be done to preserve Catholicism in America. I explain what these are in
my book. Maybe my solutions won’t work or maybe they won’t be tried. But better
to try and fail than not try at all. American
Church is written, and I hope will be read, in that spirit.