In the question period after a talk
I'd given on my new book, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain
Future of Catholicism in America
, 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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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. And remember to say thanks for church-state separation. Things
would be a lot worse without it.
Related on the CWR site:
"My response to criticisms and questions regarding "American Church" | by Russell Shaw (May 29, 2013)
"The Rise, Fall and Future of Catholicism in the U.S." | An interview with Russell Shaw (May 10, 2013)