Responding to a Toxic Culture

In today’s America, as in other countries like it, people of faith are facing a question of critical importance: How should they respond to a dominant secular culture that’s not just hostile to their beliefs but bent on forcing them to conform to its values and, not incidentally, winning the allegiance of their children?

Fresh attention to this question has lately been stimulated by the publication of  of three much-discussed books: Strangers in a Strange Land by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia (Henry Holt), The Benedict Option by conservative writer Rod Dreher (Sentinel), and Out of the Ashes by Providence College professor Anthony Esolen (Regnery).

In fact, the problem has been waiting to explode for years.

As far back as 1870 ornery Orestes Brownson, the leading American Catholic public intellectual of the 19th century, grumbled prophetically: “Instead of regarding the Church as having advantages here [in America] which she has nowhere else….I think the Church has never encountered a social & political order so hostile to her.”

Time passed, and as change set in, other farsighted individuals began to share Brownson’s dark vision. Father John Courtney Murray, S.J., saw the problem taking shape in his 1960 classic We Hold These Truths. Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre dissected it at length in his seminal volume After Virtue, first published in 1981. Since then others, the present writer among them, have discussed it many times.

Now, it seems, recognition of the problem has become all but unavoidable.   Hence the note of urgency in the Chaput, Dreher, and Esolen books. Particularly alarming has been the fallout from the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell decision which came as a  belated wakeup call alerting people of faith to the precariousness of their situation.

It’s not just that in Obergefell the court redefined marriage while legalizing same-sex marriage. Even worse, a majority of Americans appeared to welcome the arrival of gay marriage, even as  the secular state demonstrated its determination to quash dissent, starting with wedding cake bakers and florists but in time likely moving on to the rest of us.

Next on the agenda are transgender rights, now being promoted by media like the New York Times and Washington Post with the same ideological fervor they brought to selling gay marriage before Obergefell.

All this is happening, furthermore, at a time when religious practice and church affiliation are in decline in America. As of last September, 23% of U.S. adults called themselves atheists, agnostics, or “nothing in particular” in religious terms, double the number in the 1980s..

Confronted with this state of affairs, religious Americans have limited options. One of these is cultural assimilation: abandoning the fight and adopting the secular world view. Large numbers of Catholics, to speak only of them, have done that and others are moving in the same direction. That unhappily includes very many young people.

The positive options are overlapping and must be pursued simultaneously. Continuing to fight the culture war is one, since this is a war that must be fought as a matter or principle. Creating a new subculture grounded in religious values and organized around faith-based institutions is another, and this already can be seen happening here and there. The third option is to make the new subculture a source and setting for a serious effort to form the faithful for the evangelization of secular culture by the witness of their lives.

Archbishop Chaput writes; “That work belongs to all of us equally: clergy, laity, and religious.” So it does. It’s the Christian vocation..

Russell Shaw


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

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  • pnyikos

    The second and third options at the end require more attention to bringing together single young adults who are committed to the Catholic faith in a variety of ways, frequently. Even in the olden days, the opportunities for this diminished precipitously after high school graduation. Nowadays they are much worse, with the Catholic colleges faithful to the Magisterium being too small to have strong departments in the sciences or mathematics.

    Catholic alumi clubs are too few and scattered; there are none in my state. Online matchmaking sites are getting to be the only option for many, but some are too restrictive for like-minded committed Catholics to find each other.

  • David

    What do you mean when you say some “matchmaking sites . . . are too restrictive for like-minded committed Catholics to find each other.” ?

  • archangel

    My children are now ages 32-19, We found that their being able to attend the Stuebenville Conferences, with our church group (and we are a very small parish – the Director of Religious Ed arranged activities for K-12) made a TREMENDOUS difference in their faith lives! We live about 8 hrs from St Paul, MN, so that is where they went, and we will always be most grateful for our DRE who first began arranging this for our youth! (When she first put the word out about these conferences, few went, now, between our parish and our sister parish, there will be two busloads of teens going this summer.) I was able to chaperone once- awesome speakers, music, messages…and guess what EACH ONE of the students say was their favorite part: “Eucharistic Adoration”! I can’t say enough about this program – and we certainly encourage many other activities our Church offers. Keep on fighting the good fight, Catholics, even amidst a toxic culture!