American Church

shutterstock_53601517In the question period after a talk I’d given on my new book, American Church, a woman raised an important point: “If the Church in the U.S. faces as many problems as you say, why is it doing so much better here than in much of Europe?”

Great question. My answer–which I also give in the book–was along these lines.

“It has a lot to do with the First Amendment principle of separation of Church and State. Yes, I know–‘separation’ sometimes is used as a club by secularists who want to drive religion out of the public square. But on the whole it’s been a great blessing for the Church and for religion in America.

“For one thing, church-state separation has generally kept government out of religious affairs, while also keeping clerics out of inappropriate involvement in politics. In combination with Cardinal Gibbons’ wise decision to embrace the emerging labor movement in the late 19th century, this spared the Church the sort of virulent anticlericalism found in countries like France, Spain, and even ‘Catholic’ Ireland as a reaction against the political clericalism of the not so distant past.”

Almost always, I might have added, clericalism breeds anticlericalism. That we’ve largely escaped the worst sort of clericalism in America means we’ve also been spared the worst sort of anticlericalism.

But granted all that, the situation of the Catholic Church in America today is increasingly perilous. American Church explains why. In brief, the explanation goes like this.

Nearly 40 years ago, reacting to the Supreme Court’s then-recent decision legalizing abortion as well as other social and political developments, I published a magazine article with the title “The Alienation of American Catholics.”

The point I was making was that American secular culture had lately shifted  in directions radically opposed to central Catholic values and beliefs. Hence the rising sense of  alienation from that culture being experienced by Catholics like me.

What I wasn’t so conscious of then was that millions of my fellow Catholics had for years been becoming part of this hostile culture–accepting and adopting as their own its world view, its value system, its patterns of behavior, even when these clashed with their Catholic faith.

This was painfully apparent in matters of sexual morality, but it also applied to marriage and the family, many issues of social justice, capital punishment, abortion, and the whole bourgeois consumerist lifestyle. More and more, Catholics were becoming nearly indistinguishable from other Americans on questions like these.

Looking for an explanation for what was happening, I hit upon the process that sociologists call cultural assimilation–in this case, assimilation into American secular culture–that Catholics had experienced since the 19th century and, with great rapidity and in huge numbers, especially since World War II.

It’s a complex, fascinating tale, not well understood by many Catholics themselves yet central to  the situation in which the Church now finds itself. The subtitle of my book sums it up: “The remarkable rise, meteoric fall, and uncertain future of Catholicism in America.”

There’s a solution, but it isn’t easy. It requires rebuilding a strong Catholic subculture committed to sustaining the religious identity of American Catholics and forming them for the task of evangelizing America. Can that be done? Perhaps. Will it be attempted? That has yet to be seen.

This 4th of July, say a prayer that it is. And remember to say thanks for church-state separation. Things would be a lot worse without it.


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Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at

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  • James Stagg

    I will make a point to read your book, Mr. Shaw.

    At my age, however, I will reply to your last two, major questions. I am afraid the real answers are in the negative, “No” and “No”. I fear we have slid too far into assimilation into American culture that it would take a Catholic Religious Revolution to reverse the trend. We appear to be too weak, in clergy as well as laity, to attempt that revolution. You may, indeed, ask “Why?”.

    Based on CARA statistics, which are so much more factual than Pew Forum’s poor attempts, perhaps one in four “Catholics” is serious enough to go to weekly Mass…..which should be the baseline for the name “Catholic”. This means only 25% of “Catholics” hear a ten-minute homily, once a week, on living a Catholic life (in my parish, the priest goes longer). That means the faithful laity, on average, hears about 5% or less on his/her Faith per week than listening to the “nightly news” on TV……and we know what deep, devotional discussions are contained in those newscasts.

    There are two more critical aspects to the 10-minute-per-week homily: 1) it is generally “preaching to the choir”; preaching to the same people who hear (and sometimes ignore, if they bother to listen at all) that 10-minute-lesson each week. 2) The average parish is isolated from its community, as far as communications are concerned, so the other 75% of “Catholics” who do not attend Mass weekly hear NO lesson, and the wider (and wider) community in which the parish exists hears NOTHING from the Catholic Church. It is really difficult to communicate with both Catholics and non-Catholics in the surrounding community if you do not use the available facilities, local newspapers and (free) cable TV channels…..
    or preach from the street corners, and you know we would not be caught DEAD doing that!

    Education…..ah, yes, that attempt to rope in one or two adults to actually learn something about THEIR OWN CHURCH. We actually have more success attracting a few NON-CATHOLIC candidates and catechumens to RCIA sessions than we do attracting CATHOLICS to understand their FAITH more fully…..not that most are even moderately well-educated in the Faith now, thanks to the disaster of Catholic education since the early Sixties. And, whatever you do, don’t DARE to suggest changes to the CCD or “Parish School of Religion” domains…..Bishops get very upset, and some DRE’s will no longer greet you. Yet we continue to waste time, money and effort attempting to teach children the BASICS of the Faith, only to send them home to uneducated Catholic parents who “could care less”, as long as Suzie gets to wear her special white First Communion dress, or Herbie gets to “pass” Confirmation so he can stop going to Mass.

    Bitter? Not really. Been in the front lines for twenty-five years. Saw lots of people enter the Church through RCIA; saw lots of people leave the Church, even some of my own family, based partly on MY OWN lack of understanding and non-involvement in their religious education.

    The up-shot is, we have a serious problem with preaching, teaching, and communication which is not being addressed by the “New Evangelization”. It will require a massive effort to correct the deviant course we have adopted for years and years.

    Ideas? There are many out there, already proven, like the use and nurturing of “small Faith communities”. I wonder if they have been tried anywhere with neophytes in their Mystagogia period after Easter (Mystagogia is not done in my parish). The leaven of small Faith communities (like, for example, the weekly Rosary group…..we don’t have that, either) could actually infect a parish with enthusiasm, inspiration and Faith. Home-schooling of young children, LifeTeen (very expensive), Sacramental sponsor programs, with trained sponsors, all are “out there”, but are not even discussed. Clergy, led by our Bishops, seem to avoid unknown and uncomfortable ideas that may not always work… they will never be tried.

    Who will lead the way?

  • Laura Schmidt

    We are living in the times of the great apostasy…the falling away from the faith. The times when good is called evil and evil is called good. Seek first the kingdom of God in your own life. Prophets and saints responded to God’s call and often were killed by those whom they were administering. Did they fail? Do not romaniticize the past as Catholic perfect. At Fatima the Blessed Mother wept because so many were going to Hell and this was before radio, tv, Internet,etc. Pray for Mary’s Immaculate Heart to reign. God knew when and what time to place us in so we could attain Heaven.

  • disappointed Catholic

    Mr. Shaw,
    The church is “herself”, not “itself”. After such an error I’m not sure I would read your book.

  • Thomas J. Ryan

    Separation of Church and State has been repeatedly condemned by the Church. The First Amendment amounts to the formal rejection of Him who said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”

  • quisutDeusmpc

    punctilious, pusillanimous, sanctimonious Pharisee

  • petitefleur921

    I don’t believe there is a separation of church (s) and state in this country. As long as churches of any denomination are not required to pay taxes, then in real terms they are receiving a subsidy from the government. This leads to corruption…a “you wash my back, I’ll wash yours” mentality that has certainly contributed to the massive attack on our children by priests for decades, not prosecuted, never punished, and enabled by this system. I personally have suffered at the hands of a bishop and judge who were conveniently working together to protect the priests of one of the most scandal ridden diocese in the country, and effectively punish any one who came forward with a complaint. For decades, church leaders have played politics, getting votes , ensuring support of various schemes, etc. as payback for the government “kickbacks” received know as tax exemption. Not to mention turning a blind eye to nutcases like Pelosi out there proclaiming herself a Catholic and spreading disinformation all over the world, including having the nerve to go the Vatican itself. The Church can’t reign in politicians on whom it is dependent for its financial survival. This fantasy has also led to “self-regulation” and we all know the disastrous impact of this. I would prefer my parish pay taxes like any other organization, allow criminal priests to be prosecuted in criminal courts and have the business and political dealings of the bishops scrutinized like any other organization. I believe the founding fathers were trying to ensure religious freedom. That freedom has been abused to the point that countless innocent victims will suffer the rest of their lives, the Catholic Church is going bankrupt and the innocent people in the pews are paying for it. The Church has proven it cannot or will not regulate itself, so get on board with taxes and stop this fantasy that this separation ever existed in the first place…you don’t hear much about abuse coming from a huge city like Chicago. That archdiocese and government there are so tied together after decades of the Daley machine, you will be destroyed if you even think about suing the Church…..why shouldn’t bishops and priests be subjected to licensing and to malpractice law when the put themselves out there as counselors with no over site? No physician or attorney could get away with what these priests do…and not just to children. The vast number of vulnerable women and marriages ruined by predatory priests hasn’t even begun to be considered. Any other professional who did this would have his license taken and be out.
    The worst, obviously, is the impact on countless Catholics so disgusted they have turned away from the Church and often from their faith as a result. As a chaplain in hospice for twenty years, I cannot count how many times I have witnessed this tragedy. These people go to their graves feeling betrayed by the Church and by God. Some have been abused by priests as children and have never healed. Others are just so disgusted by the hypocrisy, they cannot resolve this inner conflict no matter how much spiritual direction they receive. The consequences of the behavior of these priests and the bishops that covered it up (often because the priests had dirt on them) is so far reaching, I don’t think the surface has been scratched. I have personally witnessed, and had my children suffer at the hands of a truly psychotic kindergarten teacher who, despite written complaints from literally thousands of familes over the years, would not be removed because she knew too much about the affair between the pastor and one of the other teachers….it goes on and on and on with suffering most have never even been aware of yet.
    So, let’s stop giving them a special status they don’t deserve and have abused. Let them pay taxes, have licensing required of ministers of any kind, be subject to malpractice law, prosecute criminal priests and put them in jail along with their enabling bishops. Treat them like the fallible humans they are…not the quasi-divine creatures I was taught to believe they were.

  • Thomas Storck

    It seems to me difficult to celebrate the separation of Church and state, since, aside from the strong papal disapproval of a state that ignores Catholic truth, the idea of an a-religious state proclaims that the political or public order was not redeemed by Christ. It’s true that in terms of Mass-attendance Europe is much worse than the U.S., but what does that mean? You’re no doubt familiar with Will Herberg’s book, Catholic, Protestant, Jew, in which he says that religion in America is merely a means of participating in the real American religion, which is the American Way of Life. So to the extent that Sunday church-going was an American institution Catholics could participate in that aspect of American life without noticing that in other respects they were acquiring a Protestant/Calvinist way of looking at the world, as Cardinal George pointed out some 10 or 15 years ago. Now that Sunday church-going is fast going out of style, Mass attendance has also dropped.

  • Thomas J. Ryan

    It has been said that an American Catholic is merely a protestant who goes to Mass.
    I think this is the only country in the world where Church attendance by protestants outstrips that of the Catholic citizens.

  • Terik123

    The separaton of Church and state is not really in the constitution. It states that no one religion can be favored over another– it is against a state religion (except for American paganism.) Actually it is better to have the Church separate from the state…if only the church would do what it used to do best instead of letting the state try it…e.g., charity etc.

  • smartypup

    by not speaking out against and actually supporting big government power grabs, like obamacare, amnesty, massive welfare expansion, basically socialism (including supporting the growth of communistic big labor, which ultimately destroyed manufacturing in this country), the Church has inadvertently weakened itself. And socialist EU countries church attendance of course is way down, since EU countries are extremely liberal and anti Christian in their behaviors. America, with Obama at the helm, is not far behind at all, and in fact the church is more threatened and inhibited than ever. Be afraid. The church and priests should be shouting from the mountaintops to stand up for religious and all freedoms, right now.

  • parterre

    I suspect that part of the reason that Catholics have assimilated into the great morass of American popular culture started with the great shift to the suburbs post-WWII. When many urban Catholics lived in their own cultural neighborhoods, I suspect that it was easier to feel like part of a larger Catholic community. I might be completely wrong, but that is the sense I get.

  • JimmyChonga

    Maybe the answer lies in the absolute obscurity that Jesus lived while here “amongst us”. In the 12-year St. Bridget Prayers, the first meditation concerns the circumcision (while Jesus was an infant, only days old), and the very next one concerns the Agony of Our Lord in the garden (33-years later). Can you imagine? Our GOD, amongst us for SO LONG, in relative OBSCURITY – drawing NO attention to Himself? Then, it dawned on me – the preservation of Catholicism and Western Culture might will be in the monastic enclosures who carry out the most basic, simple tasks, pray, work, believe – in relative obscurity; the meek shall inherit the Earth.

  • Ohevin1955

    Bravo! And well said ….. I can only say amen to your comment and have been echoing his very sentiment for years in my little neck of the woods…… I would add one item, which I ‘m sure you and all would agree with, and that’s the fact that this is Our Lord’s Church, and he promised to be with us always until the end of the age ….. and He does this so humbly, beautifully and intimately for us each day wherever His Holy Mass is offered here on earth. He hasn’t left us orphans and even though the weeds are side by side with the flowers in His Church, nonetheless, He is still with us and only ask that we pray and be humble and forgiving as he was (and still is!!) So., therein lies my hope in the Lord. And as a 58 year old man who has been Heaven blessed with a loving wife for 34 years, and raised 6 children and knows all too well the sickness of sinfulness within myself and in those I come in contact with daily, I still, find great comfort and succor in our Lord’s Church here on earth, moreover, I can only echo St. Peter’s great question when I feel overwhelmed at seeing and hearing of my fellow man’s faltering because of sin and Satan’s deceit, “Lord, where else can I go? You have the words of Eternal Life!”

  • petitefleur921

    I too am 58 yrs. old and part of my experience of this is the grief I struggle with. The child within me wants the innocence of the church of my childhood…even though the adult recognizes this was an illusion. You are so right to point out that this sense of trust, well-being and peace is in Christ alone. He didn’t come to establish a fallible “religion” but The Way to Himself….a long and painful road for us all, but as your message shows, filled with hope. Blessings on the journey.

  • BillinJax

    As for the separation of Church and State, up until the last couple of decades the notion that the State had to protect itself from zealous religious authorities and politicians who might attempt to dictate public policy based on their faith beliefs was most prevalent in the minds of government and the people. John Kennedy, they feared, would get his marching orders from the Vatican.

    That trend and fear has been reversed and intensified with a recent election which gave complete control of the federal government to a single political party embracing the secular progressive agenda along with ninety percent of the national media willing to provide cover for its platform that reluctantly stopped just short of removing all mention of God at its most recent convention. Within the space of four years we witnessed an unprecedented shift toward centralization of political power to Washington with corresponding control and regulation much of which was purchased or acquired via promises of lots of money (the deficit be damned), government jobs, and/or political appointments (otherwise known as bribery or collusion) plus the usual campaign funds for reelection.

    It is clear today we have an administration in power in Washington that will not rest until Jude-Christianity heels to its demand to retreat inside their temples and churches or risk the wrath of public opinion and/or the compassionate benevolent federal ureaucracy which has been enthroned and mandated by a majority of the voters. Unfortunately many of those were naive Catholics who have taken the bait of the progressive’s version of so called social justice.

    I would say the one thing all Catholics should have access to is a thorough study of and good indoctrination in the Scriptures. Our parish is blessed with a wonderful bible study instructor who is able to illuminate the word of God by taking us back in time making us feel we are on the ground witnessing the events first hand. The classes are one hour and begin after the 9:00 A.M. mass one day a week.