Leon J. Podles :: DIALOGUE

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Russell Shaw’s American Church

May 24th, 2013 · 6 Comments

Russell Shaw’s new book American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, gives his interpretation of the relationship of Catholicism’s interaction with America. He agrees with Orestes Brownson, who was pessimistic about how Catholicism would do in America, rather than Isaac Hecker (founder of the Paulists) who was optimistic, Shaw also thinks that Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore set the Church here on a firmly Americanizing and assimilationist course.

The Irish especially were determined to make it in America. They were hostile to German immigrants, and even more so to Eastern Catholics. The Irish were determined to be complete Americans, and their high point came with the election of Kennedy. After Vatican II Catholics dismantled the “ghetto,” and wholeheartedly embraced the world. Catholic politicians have completely adopted secular establishment attitudes to sexuality and life issues. Visible practice among the laity has collapsed, and Catholics are indistinguishable from other Americans in divorce and abortion, and Jesuit colleges vie among themselves to sponsor gay organizations.

Shaw thinks the ultimate source of the collapse is the American attitude that individuals have a direct line to the Holy Spirit, and that, in modern terms, “conscience” or the “sensus fidelium” trumps the faith historically transmitted by an authoritative Church.

Shaw is correct in his diagnosis; that is certainly what has happened. He thinks that Catholicism cannot survive in a foreign and increasingly hostile environment without a plausibility structure, the network of schools, institutions, and practices that formerly allowed most Catholics to live in a Catholic environment. Shaw therefore places his hope in the new web of Catholic institutions, such as Thomas Aquinas College, the Nashville Dominicans, etc. , that will form a new Catholic subculture.

But these are miniscule, touching a fraction of 1% of the Catholic population. Catholic schools continue to decline rapidly, and nothing has replaced them as a means of transmitting both Catholic doctrines and practices to the next generation. Religious orders are rapidly dying out.

Progressives want the Catholic Church to be remodeled after the model of the Episcopal Church: accepting married clergy, gay clergy, gay marriage, contraception, abortion etc. But despite the advantages of wealth and social status, the Episcopal Church has been in a precipitous decline for a generation. Only Hispanic immigration has softened the decline of Catholic numbers, but they too will eventually be affected by American culture. Some have already departed to forms of conservative Protestantism; others are being secularized.

God may have surprises for us, but it looks like the Catholic Church in America is going to go the route of Catholics in Europe, without the advantages of an historic tie to the culture. Catholics will be a small remnant. The vitality of the Church is in the Global South.

The sad thing is that the decline of the American Church is self-inflicted. I remember in the 1960s arguing with a Dominican at Providence College. He insisted all Catholic schools should be closed and that Catholics should go only to public schools. I asked him how he expected Catholics to learn their faith. He said Protestants had Sunday School and that was enough. But of course it is not enough for Protestants, and even less so for Catholics, who need to learn both doctrines and practices.

(Here is Shaw’s interview on the book; here is Elizabeth Scalia’s response; here is George Weigel’s response, here are some reflections by an historian I wonder whether Commonweal or America will notice the book.)

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6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 TheAltonRoute // May 24, 2013 at 3:38 pm

    I don’t think Catholicism and the US are incompatible but rather that Anglo-American establishment liberalism, by the 1960s, was thoroughly determined to wreck any religious tradition, Catholic or Protestant, that stood in the way of “progress.” Rational religious belief in a transcendant deity who created man in his image is necessary for a well-ordered industrial society. Look at the collapse of industry, morality and the foundations of the republic since the 1960s. There is nothing wrong with assimilation into a republican mindset that uplifts mankind. Assimilation into the decadent, hedonistic mindset of the liberal establishment is completely different.

  • 2 Mary // May 25, 2013 at 12:55 am

    I have not lost hope and neither has “Rick” who posted the first comment to Scalia’s article linked above.
    We are melding into a one world community whether we like it or not. There are efforts soon to be realized within technology to make it possible to share ideas with foreign speaking bloggers more easily.
    While it appears we are all falling into secularism it maybe because our politicians and activists are just the loudest vocal public voices.
    Sin screams while virtue is an afterthought realized in quiet reflection.

    Alton states,”Rational religious belief in a transcendant deity who created man in his image is necessary for a well-ordered industrial society.”
    True but with one caveat , image does not equate with likeness .It is up to the rational religious to aspire to the “Likeness”of the freely given gift to man of the Creator’s Image. That is what is meant in the Gospel’s concerning the misunderstood notion espoused by some liberal clerics that we can all be dieties.
    The Third Person of the Trinity is alive and more often moves in unnoticed amongst those who seek signs and wonders.
    The shining examples would be the Annunciation and Incarnation .If the Mother of God kept these secrets in Her heart to the point that Joseph had to be informed by an angel not to put Her away for adultry , how is it we can lay claim that Christian values are all lost to society?

  • 3 Sibyl S. // Jun 2, 2013 at 12:33 pm

    Dr. Podles,

    What is your opinion of the late Fr. Greeley’s allegations of clerical pedophile rings operating in Chicago Archdiocese and elsewhere?

    Matt Abbott and Phil Lawler brought up a quote p.80 of the chapter entitled Windmills, of Andrew Greeley’s book, Memories of a Parish Priest.

    Commenters are wondering why Greeley didn’t go to the police. Perhaps a book chapter was the best he could do with the rampant corruption in Chicago government and law enforcement. Perhaps that was a courageous stand, considering. Certainly what we see of Chicago political tactics gone national today is confirmation of corruption and bullying.

  • 4 Mary // Jun 9, 2013 at 3:47 am

    Greeley was said to have written a document naming the who’s who of “Bernadin’s Boys” , placed it in a safe and given the key to trusted persons in case something untoward happened to him. An insurance policy of sorts that enabled him to write and speak freely.

  • 5 Mary // Jun 9, 2013 at 3:54 am

    Read about the Boys Club in the old RCF PDF’s online mentioned in this article.


  • 6 Mary // Jun 9, 2013 at 4:05 am

    Boys Clubs in other Diocese too

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