Please Look Behind the Bishops’ Potemkin Village

An open letter to the planners of Pope Benedict’s pastoral visit to the US.

Dear Friends:

You have my sympathy. When I worked for the American bishops’ conference, I helped organize two of John Paul II’s US trips, and I know what you’re up against—millions of details, thousands of difficult people, hundreds of groups clamoring for the Pope’s time and attention.

Considering all that, I’m almost inclined not to add my two cents. Almost, but not quite. Too much is potentially at stake in this papal trip, set for April 15-20, for me to keep quiet and simply let it happen without my speaking up. I don’t expect what I say to make much difference, but I feel obliged to say it anyway.

The United Nations, where Pope Benedict will make a major speech, is a world unto itself; my concern is with the Holy Father’s abbreviated pastoral visit to America. Looking at things from that perspective, I admit that I have no great expectations for this trip if it goes as such things usually do.

Yes, I’m sure it will be a moving occasion. The Holy Father will be smiling and gracious, he will preside at beautiful liturgies, wave to the people, deliver intelligent and deeply spiritual, though not exactly electrifying, talks. For their part, the local churches—the Archdioceses of New York and Washington—will arrange upbeat, edifying events. The meeting at the White House between the Pope and President Bush will receive an enormous amount of coverage, even though nothing very important will happen. The crowds will be satisfyingly large. Little girls in white dresses will present countless bouquets. The mood will be celebratory.

And many things of crucial importance will go unsaid.

Of course faithful Catholics want to show their love for and loyalty to Pope Benedict, whose 81st birthday and fifth anniversary of his election both come during this visit. It’s right that they should. By God’s grace, the trip may even do some good. But without an overwhelming outpouring of grace, it will have no lasting impact on the crisis of American Catholicism.

What can you as visit planners do about that? Probably not much. But if there’s a way of giving Pope Benedict an honest picture of the real state of American Catholicism behind the ecclesiastical Potemkin Village façade that will be on display, that would be a start. More than anything else right now, we need to face facts. It would be helpful for the factfacing to begin at the top—for instance, in the address the Pope will give to the American bishops gathered in Washington.

You might, for example, tell the Holy Father something like this:

There are two radically different versions of how things are now in the Catholic Church in America. Call them “We’re doing okay” and “We’re in desperate trouble.”

Professor James D. Davidson of Purdue University is a well-informed, urbane spokesman for we’re-doingokay. Davidson, a sociologist, has studied religion in America for many years, and much of his work has focused on the Catholic Church. According to news reports, he said in a recent talk that media coverage that emphasizes Catholics ignorant of and/or at odds with the faith distorts reality. What reality, you ask? A body of adherents who are not only “the most highly educated laypeople in the history of the Church” but who “affirm [its] core beliefs and practices.”

Lots of people say things like that. This happy-talk version of American Catholicism is a central element of the liberal Catholic line.

For contrast, consider a letter an 84- year-old Catholic layman in a midwestern diocese sent his bishop a while ago, with a copy to me.

After reviewing things like the loss of the sense of sin, the huge decline in receiving the sacrament of penance, and the increase in “Catholic divorces, abortions, premarital sex, the practice of birth control, etc.,” this man wrote: “The problem, as I see it, is a possible deterioration of Catholicism of our youth two or three generations down the line if the liberalization enjoyed by their parents is absorbed.” In particular, he remarked, “a great majority of the children of those families” are certain to attend public high schools and state universities “where materialism, hedonism, and immorality prevail.”



I disagree with just two points: first, the idea that the “deterioration of Catholicism of our youth” lies somewhere in the future, when in fact it’s been happening for years; second, the assumption that the faith of Catholic young people can be assumed to be safe in Catholic schools. Otherwise, this elderly layman has it all over Professor Davidson when it comes to facing facts.

There is plentiful evidence for saying that. Passing over such familiar data as the decline in Sunday Mass attendance (from 75 percent of American Catholics to about 30 percent today), and the falling numbers of priests (nearly 59,000 in 1965, about 42,000 now) and religious women (180,000 then, 64,000 now), I call your attention to other numbers that may shed even more light on prospects for the transmission — or non-transmission — of the Catholic faith.

Start with marriages. In 1970 there were 426,000 Catholic marriages in the US in a Catholic population of 48 million, compared with 200,000 last year, when American Catholics officially numbered 67.5 million. That doesn’t mean Catholics aren’t getting married (although marriage in the United States had indeed been in decline for years) or that they aren’t having children (though they really do have many fewer children per couple than Catholics used to have). It means hundreds of thousands of American Catholics who marry each year don’t bother having their marriages blessed by the Church. It is safe to suppose that most no longer practice the faith. I hardly need tell you what that means for the religious upbringing of their kids.

Then there’s confirmation. Every year in the United States, several hundred thousand—perhaps as many as half a million—Catholic young people whose ages make them eligible to receive this sacrament skip being confirmed. They and their parents don’t think it’s important enough for them to bother. Few receive confirmation later. For very many, this non-reception of confirmation marks a turning-point in their religious lives—the point at which, practically speaking, they leave the Church.

Since American Catholics are supposedly not only the most highly educated ever but are also loyal to the essentials of the faith, let’s look at what these exemplary Catholics believe. American Catholics Today (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), a book by Professor Davidson and three other sociologists, sheds light on that.

A survey in 2005 found that 76 percent of the Catholics of the United States thought someone could be a good Catholic without going to church every Sunday. Other elements of Catholic belief and practice also fared poorly. Three out of four said good Catholics needn’t observe the teaching on contraception; two-thirds said the same of having their marriages blessed by the Church and accepting the teaching on divorce and remarriage; 58 percent took the same view of giving time or money to the parish and also of following Church teaching on abortion. These numbers have gone up dramatically since Davidson and his colleagues began collecting them in 1987. And, by 2005, nearly one in four held that a good Catholic needn’t believe that Jesus rose bodily from the dead.

In 2003, the researchers tested American Catholics’ views on the Catholic Church and other religions. Some results: 86 percent agreed with the statement “If you believe in God, it doesn’t really matter which religion you belong to”; 74 percent said yes to “The major world religions are equally good ways of finding ultimate truth”; and 52 percent accepted the proposition, “The Catholic religion has no more spiritual truth than other major religions.”

Apparently not all of those highly educated and loyal Catholic Americans measure up too well by the standards of Catholic orthodoxy. I am reminded of the 25 year-old chap, a baptized Catholic with six years of religious education who claimed he went to Mass twice a month. Upon leaving a showing of the movie The Da Vinci Code, he told The New York Times: “The Catholic Church has hidden a lot of things—proof about the actual life of Jesus, about who wrote the Bible. All these people—the famous Luke, Mark, and John—how did they know so much about Jesus’ life? If there was a Bible, who created it and how many times has it been changed?”

People who talk as the happy-talkers do about the glories of contemporary American Catholicism aren’t crazy. They know what’s going on. But they pass it over lightly because that suits the project of replacing a form of Catholicism they consider moribund with an endlessly evolving religion without norms. In their estimate, a Church like that would better suit the exigencies of post-modern times. Call it Anglicanism with a figurehead pope. (In general, I think, bishops who take the same line don’t share that objective— they simply think blarney is good for morale.)

Orestes Brownson anticipated much of this nearly a century-and-a-half ago. Brownson, a convert who was probably the most influential public intellectual American Catholicism has had, ardently favored the cultural assimilation of Catholic immigrants for much of his life as a Catholic. In this, he was of one mind with his close friend Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulists, who considered the Americanization of immigrant Catholicism to be an essential prerequisite to the achievement of his great goal of evangelizing the United States.

Late in life, however, Brownson—a man who admittedly had a history of at one time or another adopting very nearly every side on every issue— changed his mind on this one too. Having seen the bitter fruits that assimilation was producing in his coreligionists, the gruff old man turned on Hecker, and in 1870 wrote to him:

Instead of regarding the Church as having advantages here [in America] which she has nowhere else, I think she has here a more subtle and powerful enemy to combat than in any of the old monarchical nations of the world….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, & that the conversion of our republic will be a far greater victory than the conversion of the Roman Empire.

One small suggestion: If just the barest friendly mention of Orestes Brownson could be worked into one of Pope Benedict’s American talks, it would be a hint to some of us that he’d gotten the message and understood.

Despite Leo XIII’s condemnation of Americanism in 1899, the Americanists — Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop Ireland, Father Hecker, and the rest— won out in the end. Catholic assimilation continued apace. Perhaps it was inevitable. But in the 1960s something else began that worked hand-in-glove with the absorption of Catholics into secular America and was not inevitable at all. I mean the institutionalization of theoretical and practical dissent, a process memorably signaled by the 1967 Land-’O-Lakes declaration by the presidents of major Catholic universities proclaiming their schools’ independence from the magisterium. The effects of the powerful one-two punch of assimilation and dissent are reflected in the figures above.

Reviewing the evidence of decline in his book The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America (Sophia Institute Press, 2003), David Carlin concludes that the outcome of the crisis will probably be the de facto collapse of the Church in America and the retreat of Catholics into the status of a “minor and relatively insignificant sect.” Traditionalists will have won the internal Catholic power struggle, mainly because the progressives will have drifted away. But in the end, the small band of traditionalists will find themselves isolated in “a new Catholic quasi-ghetto,” with about as much influence on the culture as the Amish and Hasidic Jews have now. That may be laying it on a bit thick, but the picture Carlin and others paint can hardly be dismissed out of hand.

It’s all too likely that this or something like it really is the future of the Catholic Church in the United States. The more we pretend it can’t happen, the more likely it becomes.

One indicator of how things stand is the frequently reiterated emphasis these days on the need to shore up Catholic identity. So, for instance, Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George, president of the US bishops’ conference and probably the brightest member of the American hierarchy, unburdened himself (in an interview with reporter John Allen) on the disappearance of an American Catholic subculture and what that means for “those third, fourth, fifth, sixth generation Irish, Germans, Italians, some Poles, whose only culture is that of this country…. We’re in some trouble in terms of Catholic identity.”

But in other sectors of American Catholicism the happy-talk about educated laity and vibrant Church institutions still goes on. It’s like serving drinks in the lounge while the Titanic sinks.

Anyone who claims to have the cure-all solution for this situation is a charlatan or a lunatic—the problem is too big, too deep-rooted, too serious for that. But I have a few suggestions about reorienting things in the right direction before it’s too late—if it isn’t already too late, that is. Honesty and candor are central to them all.

To begin with, our bishops need to face the fact that very many Catholics have lost confidence in them as a group. To some extent, that may be a consequence of the sex abuse scandal, but to some extent it predates that sorry affair. For the most part, people aren’t hostile. They just aren’t paying attention any more. If Catholic university presidents and pro-abortion Catholic politicians can get away with ignoring the representatives of the magisterium, why not ordinary folks? It’s Brownson’s “spirit of independence, freedom from all restraint, unbounded license” in spades. At a minimum, this means the old-boy-network system of selecting bishops must be laid to rest. In this crisis, we can’t afford anything but the best leaders available—and it’s up to the Pope to provide them.

Soon after the sex abuse scandal broke, several bishops suggested holding a new plenary council for the Church in the United States to consider what had caused that disaster and what needed to be done. The national conference of bishops proceeded to talk that idea to death over the next several years, then hired some academic social scientists to tell them what had happened. The plenary council didn’t appeal to the bishops, one suspects, because by Church law it would have required the participation not only of bishops but lower clergy, religious, and—heaven help us!—the laity.

Plenary council or no plenary council, we need to take a fresh look at shared responsibility in the Church. Openness and the sharing of responsibility in Church affairs at all levels— parish, diocesan, national—are indispensable. But when I made that point to one good bishop, he sighed and replied, “Consultation takes so much time.” Indeed it does, and much education and re-education now are necessary as well. But the future of the Church in America depends on it. Could the Holy Father please put in a good word for the idea?

Underlying this episcopal stand-offishness about sharing responsibility is the powerful, largely unacknowledged influence of clericalism. The clericalism of American Catholicism, I once wrote, is like wallpaper—it’s been there so long you don’t see it any more. This kind of invisibility multiplies its capacity for doing harm.

Sad to say, many good bishops and pastors seem to believe they have buried the last vestiges of clericalism by promoting lay ministries, including the work of salaried “lay ecclesial ministers” who by an overwhelming margin are women. Twenty years ago, in Christifideles Laici, Pope John Paul II correctly pointed to the lay ministry craze as an expression of neo-clericalism. Few people paid attention then, and the craze persists. In commending the laity of the United States, as he will undoubtedly do, could Pope Benedict perhaps say a word about that? And also about personal vocation and its discernment as keys to finding the proper roles of all Catholics, but especially lay women and men, in the apostolate of the Church?

There is a desperate need for moral straight talk, too. Telling people who rarely or never go to Mass and take for granted their right to dissent that they’re good Catholics does a vast amount of harm. Giving Communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion is an especially egregious instance of it.

This year brings the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae. A priest who was brave enough to preach against contraception reported after the event, “The women got upset and the men got mad.” But the effort has to be made. The healthiest development in American Catholicism in a long time was the action of a courageous bishop in Worcester, Massachusetts, who told Holy Cross College it couldn’t go on claiming to be Catholic if it persisted— as it did—in providing space for a presentation by abortion groups Planned Parenthood and NARAL. Please suggest to Pope Benedict that he single out that bishop for praise. His session with Catholic university presidents, scheduled for April 17 in Washington, provides a great opportunity for that.

I’ve said too much—and there’s still more to say. In the end it comes down to honesty, and the Holy Father is an honest man as well as a highly intelligent and courteous one. Jesus tells us, “The truth will make you free” (John 8:32), but today illusion—the illusion that we aren’t doing so bad—is choking the life out of the Catholic Church in the United States. More than anything, we need to hear Pope Benedict speak the truth with the loving candor of the good pastor that he is when he comes to visit us in April. I pray for the success of your important work.


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About Russell Shaw 286 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, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).