An American Catholic Icon on the Condition of the Church

I recently had the opportunity to interview famed American Catholic icon Russell Shaw. Shaw, born in 1935, is a fellow native and lifelong resident of the Archdiocese of Washington (with him being from Washington, DC, proper and me being from Prince George’s County, Maryland, which borders the District of Columbia). Shaw, a graduate of Gonzaga College High School, graduated from Georgetown University summa cum laude with a B.A. (’56) and an M.A. (’60) in English literature. Shaw is a Catholic polymath, having held positions at what are now deemed the Catholic Standard (the Archdiocese of Washington’s newspaper), the Catholic News Service, the National Catholic Educational Association, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the Knights of Columbus. For decades, Shaw has worked closely with members of the global Catholic hierarchy, including advising bishops and managing various elements of Pope [Saint] John Paul II’s pastoral visits to the United States in 1979 and 1987. Shaw remains active as a prolific freelance author (particularly including his recent books on the Catholic Church in America published by Ignatius Press), lecturer, and expert commentator on Church matters. Shaw is likewise a frequent contributor to The Catholic Thing, and closer to home, he is a fellow writer here at Catholic Exchange. Enjoy Shaw’s words of wisdom here.

McClain: You have an extensive career as a Catholic author, having written multiple books and articles. Which book was your favorite to write, and why?

Shaw: May I name two books? I’ve written fiction and non-fiction, and comparing them is like comparing apples and oranges. On the fiction side, my favorite is Renewal, a novel published in 1986 by Ignatius Press. It’s about a dysfunctional Catholic family trying to cope with changes in the Church and society back in the 1970s. Some people who’ve read it think it captures the feel of those strange times pretty well. Renewal was the third novel I published, and by the time I wrote it I think I’d taught myself how to write fiction. Much of that work goes on at the subconscious level.

People who write fiction sometimes say things like, “The story wrote itself,” and I know what they mean — not that it’s easy, but that the work is done out of sight, as it were, at a different level of the mind. It’s an exciting experience, and that’s why writing Renewal was special for me.

Among my non-fiction books, my favorite is To Hunt, To Shoot, To Entertain: Clericalism and the Catholic Laity, which also was published by Ignatius, in 1993. In taking a serious look at clericalism and explaining the harm it does, I felt I was breaking new ground and saying something that needed to be said. The book is not an attack on the clergy. Clericalism as I understand it as an attitude, a state of mind, that’s at least as common among the laity as among priests. It’s rooted in a false notion of vocation — the idea that the only people who have genuine vocations are people called to the priesthood and religious life. But that just isn’t so.

As I argue in the book, every baptized person is called to discern, accept, and live out his or her unique part in God’s redemptive plan. Developing that fundamental intuition in To Hunt, To Shoot, To Entertain was an eye opening and enriching experience for me, and I hope the book has done some good for others. And that odd title? It’s something a very clericalist British monsignor once said when giving his version of the role of Catholic lay people. For years I wanted to use it as the title of a book, and finally I did. 

McClain: Do you have a particular memory from working for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (now known as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops)?

Shaw: I worked at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference — it had a two-conference structure back then — from 1969 to 1987. I was in charge of media relations, but the job actually involved a lot more than that suggests — ghost writing, public relations counseling, and other duties as assigned. Those were exciting times in the life of the Church, and also pretty hair-rising. NCCB/USCC was in the thick of a lot of it. It’s difficult to sum it all up, but one thing I became convinced of was that my bosses — the bishops of the United States — were a very decent group of men. Often they were confused, sometimes they made mistakes, but they had the best interests of the Church at heart and tried to do what was right, even if they weren’t always sure what that was.

McClain: What about for the Knights of Columbus?

Shaw: I worked for the Knights for ten years — 1987 to 1997 — as director of information. I’d thought well of the K. of C. even before I went to work for them — their financial generosity, their spirit of volunteerism — but in those years I came to appreciate them for something even more important. They had a clear, strong understanding of what it means to be a Catholic layperson, and they reaffirmed that and lived it out during a period in which many Catholics suffered something of an identity crisis about what being Catholic meant. As far as I can see, they’re still doing that. It was — and still is — an enormous service to the Church, and I take my hat off to the Knights for it. 

McClain: What inspired you to write your recent book for Ignatius Press, Catholics in America: Religious Identity and Cultural Assimilation from John Carroll to Flannery O’Connor?

Shaw: Catholics in America is a further elaboration of a subject I’ve been thinking and writing about for many years — the cultural assimilation of American Catholics and its impact on Catholics’ religious identity. In the book, I try to illustrate that through profiles of fifteen prominent people — from Archbishop Carroll to Flannery O’Connor, as the subtitle says — who in various ways reflected the pros and cons of the assimilation process.

Church leaders generally considered assimilation not only necessary but unconditionally good in the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century. But more recently, assimilation into a secular culture whose values conflict with the values of their religious tradition has seriously eroded the Catholic identity of many American Catholics. Now we’re having second thoughts about assimilation, but the second thoughts come awfully late.

McClain: What is the greatest single challenge facing American Catholics at this juncture in the twenty-first century?

Shaw: The greatest single challenge to Catholics is the challenge to deepen their spiritual lives. Our typically American, activist approach to religion has accomplished a great deal in creating institutions and programs during the last two centuries, but now we need to move beyond that. More than being activists, we need to be contemplatives. The survival of the Church in America may depend on it.

McClain: You have, on various occasions, made reference to the polemic of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision. What are its far-reaching societal effects?

Shaw: I think the societal effects are of two kinds. First, the Supreme Court decision implies and is based on a radical redefinition of marriage — a definition that simply doesn’t include procreation as an essential element. That is what you’re buying into if you buy into same-sex marriage. And that is what the Supreme Court’s majority opinion instructs us to do.

Second, there’s the ongoing campaign to coerce compliance with the regime of same-sex marriage. The media are very much a part of that, and so is the secular state via anti-discrimination laws. Conscientious objection to same-sex marriage isn’t permitted and is subject to being punished. This second dimension of the conflict is still being fought out, but I’m not very optimistic regarding the outcome, although the recent addition of Justice Gorsuch to the Supreme Court is a positive development.

McClain: You have spoken about a “toxic culture” in America. What do you mean by this term?

Shaw: I mean a culture that embraces false moral values and is bent on indoctrinating people in those values. Which is an accurate brief description of the dominant secular culture in the United States today.

McClain: Washington DC, especially Northeast DC (often called “Little Rome”), has a vibrant Catholic community. What do you value most about being a Catholic in the Washington metropolitan area?

Shaw: I’m a native Washingtonian, and I grew up here many years ago. I think what I most value about that experience is the education I received here in Catholic schools in the 1940s and 1950s — at Sacred Heart Parochial School in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of the city, at Gonzaga College High School down near Capitol Hill, and at Georgetown University. My formation in those institutions had its limitations, but it instilled in me a lasting commitment to the faith for which I am profoundly grateful.

McClain:  I enjoy asking this in interviews: what is your favorite scriptural passage, and why?

Shaw: In the first chapter of Luke [5-25] – the part about Zechariah, the father of Saint John the Baptist. The angel tells him that after all these years, he’s finally going to have a son, but Zechariah isn’t so sure, and asks for a sign. And for that bit of presumption he’s struck dumb until the birth of John. The psychology of that — the skepticism of age, I mean — is embarrassingly real. But although God is very patient, he also knows how to put you in your place. Strange as it may seem, I find that consoling.

McClain: What are the signs of hope for the Church, both in the United States and around the world?

Shaw: There are real signs on both the individual and institutional levels that American Catholics are finally awakening to the seriousness of the crisis of the Church in the United States. Better late than never, I guess. But at least the conversation has begun, and that’s encouraging.

Justin McClain

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Justin, his wife Bernadette, and their three children (John-Paul, Mary Christine, and Thérèse) live in Bowie, Maryland. Justin has taught theology and Spanish at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Maryland, since 2006. He has degrees from the University of Maryland - College Park, the Universidad de Salamanca (Spain), and Staffordshire University (England), and he has studied philosophy and theology at Seton Hall University, the Franciscan University of Steubenville, and the University of Notre Dame's Satellite Theological Education Program. Justin has written for Ave Maria Press, Aleteia, EpicPew, Our Sunday Visitor, Catholic365, Church Life, and various other publications. He is on Twitter (@McClainJustin).

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