My response to criticisms and questions regarding “American Church”

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 walking wounded.

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 conceded—and it’s the central premise of American Church—everything 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 expressed—not 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 do—the 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 fronts—racial 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 saw—or see—any 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.”

The 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.


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Russell Shaw 271 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).