The Rise, Fall and Future of Catholicism in the U.S.

An interview with Russell Shaw, author of American Church.

Left: Cardinal James Gibbons (1834-1921)

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 Laity and Nothing 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 in America (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.?

Shaw: Cardinal 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 bishops—the members of the hierarchy who advocated rapid and total integration of immigrant Catholics into American culture.

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 since..

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 America.

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 character—we’d call it individualism today—that 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 something—something 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?

Shaw: The 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 again—Hecker yes, Brownson no.

These three questions remain central to any serious attempt to evaluate the current situation and future prospects of Catholicism in America today.

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 so?

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 Catholics agreed.

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 time—in the early years of the cold war, that is—to 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 material success.

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 Catholics—to 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 effective—after 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 marriage—they 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 ways—and 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 down—which 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 culture—or subculture, as you describe it—be 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 mentality—not 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.

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