Acting Like Catholics in America

Ignatius Press, 2013

Ignatius Press, 2013

Lay people, it’s up to you.

That’s the conclusion of Russell Shaw’s alarming but slightly hopeful new book, American Church.

After cataloging exactly how bad things are in the American Church (“dismal,” says Shaw, who does not  mince words), and after warning that even if things get better they’re sure to get worse first, Shaw does have a solution.

It’s not programs and organizations, he says, but “an infusion of new thinking and new spirit.” It’s a life of inner holiness that spreads outward, something he explains was “peculiar to Christ’s Church from the very beginning.”

Thorough but brief and engaging, American Church examines the history of the Catholic Church in America in terms of two competing theories: that of the towering figure of James Cardinal Gibbons, whose confident 19th-century vision that American culture was the best one ever for Catholicism and that American Catholics would transform the world, and that of apologist and author Orestes Brownson, who in the same era warned that the Catholic Church in America “has a more subtle and powerful enemy to combat than in any of the old monarchical nations of the world.”

Shaw shows that the fierce battles over Vatican II and current social issues date back to foundations laid when our country was established and were being fought even when the Church in America seemed to be strongest an most vibrant.

He traces, with admirable clarity, the roots and branches of both views of Catholicism, and shows with dismaying candor where the fight has left the Church: in a state of near collapse, with the majority of its remaining members indistinguishable from their Protestant and secular neighbors in terms of social pathology, participation in immoral acts such as pre-maritital sex and abortion, and views about social and political policy.

“What people really believe, they act on,” Archbishop Charles Chaput writes in the introduction. “And when they don’t act, they don’t really believe.”

American Catholics don’t believe, Shaw concludes, not because they have been bowled over by the immense social changes in the last 50 years — although he admits they have — but because the Church has given them no tools to combat them.

Fairness, kindness, goodness, tolerance, helping out in the parish, giving to the latest disaster relief campaign — the litany of attractive middle-class virtues and their associated behaviors has indeed been preached and practiced in Catholic America, as has the desirability of getting active in some kind of “ministry” in the parish. But the stern ascesis into the hands of a God whose love is a living flame? You must be kidding.

Converts to the Church are down in numbers, Shaw says, but are often the result of people who see the Church as the only real alternative to a society that is imploding — no longer simply seeking to normalize aberrant behavior, but actively seeking to destroy religion, redefine reality, and expand death as a solution to everything from children conceived in sex that has no dignity or meaning to the unpleasant illnesses of old age. What they find in the human part of this Church is not encouraging.

They find, Shaw says, huge numbers of people who have left the Church, “vastly reduced Mass attendance and participation in the sacraments” from those who remain, few people at all in their 20s, “widespread rejection of Church teaching… [in] matters of sexual morality but by no means limited to that; empty and shuttered schools, “Catholic” colleges and universities that reject the Church, a continuing loss of clergy and religious, “peristent dissent in… Church-related media” and theologians, “uncertain leaders who appear to be unwilling or unable to provide strong , clear direction yet resist and ridicule those who ae less hesitant than themselves,” and, perhaps most commonly:

…widespread confusion, discouragement, and apathy among Catholic laypeople who still come to church but slog on in a kind of joyless practice of their religion.

Depressed yet?

Shaw implies that you should be, if (unlike many who still accept the theories of Gibbons and the related theories of those who embrace “the spirit of Vatican II”) you look squarely at the fault line at the center of the American Church. According to Shaw, those who think Gibbons was right are doomed to go down with the sinking ship of they helped to scuttle, even as they continue to imagine that they’ve invented a whole new way to navigate.

Shaw say renewal of the American Church will come and is already coming from within, from lay people. As Catholic leaders, lay and clerical, demolished the Catholic culture of the past, people are busy building a new one through electronic media, homeschooling and other family-centered efforts, principled defiance of secularist laws and ideas (though they should do so without, Shaw cautions, allying themselves with right-wing politics that in the end are just as destructive as their left-wing opposites), and above all, personal prayer and witness.

The laity (which Shaw calls “the shrinking backbone” of the remaining Church) is often dispirited by the direction of social change since the 1960s — “to say nothing of the alarming custom of rewarding dissenters and dissent practiced by some bishops and religious superiors and heads of Church institutions” — but large numbers have responded enthusiastically to the bishops’ call to fight for religious freedom. Dispirited Catholics, he says, can and must be made spirited again by preaching and practicing personal holiness. Catholics who have fallen away because they see nothing attractive or essentially different about the Church may return to a holier, more vital Church; other Christians, as well atheists and as people of other religions, may turn to the Church if they see her as a strong and effective witness to a different view of life, humanity, and God.

A long shot? Yes, but then, Christianity always has been.

Quick notes: The book was originally called The Gibbons Legacy and for some reason the title was never changed in the text. The historical parts of the book are especially strong in explaining what “Americanism” was and is, and why it’s important; and why it is that so many Catholic universities and colleges seem downright hostile to Catholicism. Shaw’s personal reminiscences about the latter and about the Second Vatican Council add a lot to the discussion. He is less thorough, and less convincing, on the sex abuse scandal (which he attributes to “clericalism”) — perhaps because he has written at length on the subject and assumes the reader is more familiar with his arguments for this than they are with 19th-century figures or precursors to Vatican II. But as someone who hasn’t read him on the subject, I found that section cursory.

Shaw has a sharp wit and an ability to sum things up in a line or two. If your intuitions about the state of the Church agree with what you’ve read above, you’ll find out why. If they don’t, then this book will help you understand your perplexing fellow Catholics who inexplicably decline to “support the Sisters” or see the all-male hierarchy as an oppressive social construct.

And if you’re one of the many in the middle “slogging on in a kind of joyless practice of your religion,” this book will tell you why you feel that way, and how to find something better.

Russell Shaw, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, is published by Ignatius Press.

Cover Image credit for this article: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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Gail D. Finke is an author and mother living in Cincinnati, where she writes for The Catholic Beat at Sacred Heart Radio.

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