Left: Cardinal James Gibbons (1834-1921), Archbishop of Baltimore. Right: Orestes Augustus Brownson (1803–1876).
Author and journalist Russell Shaw has written over twenty books,
including To Hunt, To Shoot, To Entertain: Clericalism and the Catholic
to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church
. For 18 years, Shaw directed media relations for the
National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the United States Catholic
Conference. From 1987 to 1997 he oversaw media relations for the Knights of
Columbus. Since resigning from that position, he has worked full time as a
freelance writer. His most recent book, American
Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism
(Ignatius Press, 2013), has
been widely praised as an incisive examination of the recent history of the
Catholic Church in the United States. “If you want to understand the Church in
the United States and the challenges she now faces,” states Abp. Charles J.
Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., Archbishop of Philadelphia, “American Church
should be on the short list of books you need to
read.” Shaw recently answered some questions from CWR about his book and the
past, present, and future of Catholicism in the United States.
CWR: How and why was
James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore such a key figure in the story of the
Catholic Church in the U.S.?
Gibbons was Archbishop of Baltimore from 1877 until his death in 1921. That's
44 crucial years in American Catholic history during which he was the leader of
the American hierarchy, recognized as such by Rome and by his episcopal
colleagues. He also was leader of the Americanizing bishopsthe members of the
hierarchy who advocated rapid and total integration of immigrant Catholics into
The group included some who were more flamboyant, like
Archbishop John Ireland of Saint Paul, and others who were more intellectual,
like Bishop John Lancaster Spalding of Peoria, but the patient, prudent,
diplomatic Gibbons was the most effective of them all, trusted by the Holy See
and widely respected at home. By the time of his death, he was one of the most
admired public figures in the country, and his policy of Americanization was
the policy of the Church in the United States. I have no hesitation saying his
impact on American Catholicism was greater than that of any bishop before or
CWR: You describe
Orestes Brownson as "the most distinguished (and very nearly only)
American Catholic public intellectual of his day." How did Brownson's view
of the relationship between Catholicism and the American experiment change or
develop? How accurate was his mostly negative assessment of that relationship?
Shaw: Brownson, who
lived from 1803 to 1876, was a self-taught genius and convert to Catholicism as
well as a prominent writer and social critic. He 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
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
characterwe'd call it individualism todaythat 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
somethingsomething Catholics need to take very seriously now.
CWR: What were the
essential points of contention between Brownson and Hecker? What insights into
the situation today can be gleaned from their argument?
differences boil down to three things. First, whether Catholicism and American
secular culture were or weren't compatible. Hecker said yes, Brownson said no.
Second, whether there was a real possibility of converting American Protestants
as a group to Catholicism. Again, it was Hecker yes and Brownson no. And third,
whether the Catholic Church did or didn't have a congenial home in the United
States. Same thing againHecker yes, Brownson no.
These three questions remain central to any serious attempt
to evaluate the current situation and future prospects of Catholicism in
CWR: You point to
the year 1950 and the novel The Cardinal when gauging the high
water mark of Catholic influence and success. What are some reasons for doing
Shaw: Quite simply,
everything 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
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 timein the early years of the cold war, that isto 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.
CWR: It seems that a
substantial number of Catholics today believe that the Church in the U.S. prior
to the Council was one of two extremes: an insulated, reactionary ghetto that
was closing in on itself, or a robust, faithful communion of believers that was
largely successful in living the faith in a mainly Protestant nation. How much
truth is there to either of these presentations of the Church in 1950s?
Shaw: There's a certain amount of truth in both. But 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! If only we
could have combined the real strength of American Catholicism then with a
successful implementation of the reforms of Vatican II, who knows how bright
the future might have been? Alas, that's hardly what happened.
CWR: What is the
"Americanization of American Catholicism"? What have been its fruits
over the past few decades?
Shaw: The expression
refers to the process of cultural assimilation by which American Catholics
entered the mainstream of American secular culture, became part of it, and
bought into many of its values and attitudes. On the plus side, the result has
been acceptance, upward socio-economic mobility, and much professional and
But it has come at a high price. 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 Catholicsto say nothing of the 22 million
ex-Catholics in the United States.
CWR: How did John F.
Kennedy's 1960 speech in Houston, given to a group of Protestant ministers,
further the privatizing of religion and shape the approach taken to belief and
the public square by other Catholic politicians?
Shaw: In September
1960 Kennedy was facing an upsurge of anti-Catholicism that threatened his
chances of winning the White House. That famous speech was his answer. He
assured his audience of ministers that if he were elected president, he
wouldn't let Catholic faith and values get in the way of doing what the job
required. It was effectiveafter all, he won.
But in winning Kennedy paved the way for Catholic
politicians like Mario Cuomo and Ted Kennedy and many others who came to handle
the abortion issue by saying they were "personally opposed” but wouldn't
dream of imposing their views. Now we've reached the point where many prominent
political Catholics don't even bother with "personally opposed" on
things like abortion and gay marriagethey just support them and shrug their
shoulders at the Church's opposition. Things would be very different today if
Kennedy and his successors had stood with the Church instead of throwing in the
towel. That would have been a real profile in courage.
CWR: In what ways
was the year 1976 "the all-time low point" for the Church in America
up to now?
Shaw: You could cite
quite a few waysand I do in my book. Let me cite mention just two.
One was the bishops' involvement in the Ford-Carter
presidential campaign and the reaction this touched off. Remember, this was
soon after the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, and the bishops were actively seeking a
constitutional amendment to restore protection to the unborn.
Under the leadership of Archbishop Bernardin, then president
of the bishops' conference, a delegation of bishops met with Jimmy Carter and
pressed him on the issue. 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 downwhich 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.
CWR: What are some
of the basic things that must be done so that a healthy, vibrant cultureor
subculture, as you describe itbe created, supported, and nourished?
Shaw: You can't just
decide to create a subculture and then go ahead and do it. It's something that
has to grow spontaneously out of people's lived experience. But you can create
what social scientists call a “plausibility structure”a network of
institutions, organizations, and programs embodying the shared values of a
particular group. A successful plausibility structure is the backbone of a
healthy subculture. That's what the Church urgently needs today to build up and
sustain the religious identity of American Catholics.
In fact, it's been happening for some years. You can see it
in the emergence of new, proudly orthodox Catholic colleges and universities
and the revival of Catholic identity in some existing ones, in new media
ventures of all sorts, in new movements and groups committed to a strong,
orthodox idea of what it means to be Catholic.
It's extremely important, though, that this new plausibility
structure not adopt a defensive, insular mentalitynot be an exercise in
circling the wagons against a hostile secular culture. Yes, the secular culture
is largely hostile to the faith of Catholics. But instead of fleeing secular
America in reaction against it, well-formed, highly motivated Catholics must
undertake a serious program for its evangelization.
This new subculture should be a school of Catholic identity
and an agent for the formation of Catholics as evangelizers. That's a large
order, and time is short. But the future of the Church in the United States
depends on it.
Editor's note: Also see, "Accommodation and Americanism, Yesterday and Today"
, an essay by historian Kevin Schmiesing on Shaw’s book.