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.)

Leave a Comment