The Future of American Catholicism

Two new books by thoughtful Catholic authors take deeply different views of the future of American Catholicism. Both deserve serious pondering.

One of them is called Why Catholicism Matters. The subtitle tells it all: “How Catholic Virtues Can Reshape Society in the 21st Century” (Image Books). It’s the work of Bill Donohue,  feisty president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

The other volume is Bad Religion, and its subtitle is similarly telling: “How We Became a Nation of Heretics” (Free Press). The author is Ross Douthat, a Catholic who writes an Op-Ed column for The New York Times.

Start with Donohue.

In Why Catholicism Matters, the Catholic League boss, a social scientist with a doctorate who was a college professor before becoming the scourge of anti-Catholics, argues a cheerfully, unapologetically triumphalistic line. He writes:

“If there is one institution that embodies the right recipe for the makings of the good society it is the Roman Catholic Church. Its teachings, especially those that have a public impact, are as well suited to answering today’s social problems as they were two thousand years ago.”

“If only they were followed,” he adds ruefully. Ah, there’s the rub. In two millennia it’s doubtful whether any society anywhere has ever pulled that off consistently and for a sustained period of time.

Bill Donohue isn’t the man to let that discourage him. In fairness, though, it must be said that he isn’t predicting it will happen now but only making the case that it should. From that  perspective, Why Catholicism Matters has an important message.

But so does Douthat’s Bad Religion. American Catholicism isn’t his only subject here, but the Church is central to the story he tells. And the story is disturbing.

In brief, it’s this. Orthodox (i.e., traditional) Christianity has faded drastically in America during the last several decades as measured by vanishing cultural impact and “steady institutional decline.” That includes mainline Protestantism, evangelical Protestantism, and Roman Catholicism.

In its place, millions of Americans have embraced various “heresies,” four of which Douthat examines: the “real Jesus” movement represented in the fictionalized fantasies of Dan Brown, the “prosperity gospel,” the “God within” religiosity of pantheistic feel-goodism, and a religious form of hyper-nationalism. The result, Douthat believes, will be a future—possible to the point of being probable—in which “orthodoxy slowly withers and only heresies endure.”

No more than with Donohue’s triumphalism need anyone agree entirely with Douthat’s gloom. But it would be a mistake simply to dismiss either. In the case of American Catholicism, one thing is certain: neither scenario, Douthat’s or Donohue’s, is inevitable. To a great extent, the future is up to us.

Considering how widespread de facto defection from the Church has become, that’s not a comforting thought.  What can be done to turn things around? In many cases—probably not much. But in the case of Catholics who practice their faith, part of the answer lies in a much stronger appreciation of what Pope Benedict XVI calls co-responsibility than many laity and clergy now possess.

“Co-responsibility demands a change in mindset,” he says. The laity “should not be regarded as ‘collaborators’ of the clergy but, rather, as people who are really ‘co-responsible’ for the Church’s being and acting.” Then the Church will truly be as it’s depicted in the Acts of the Apostles: “The company of those who believed were of one heart and soul” (4:32).

That’s asking a lot. As Bill Donohue and Ross Douthat make clear, much now depends on it.

Russell Shaw


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

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  • Sanctus

    What can be done? Persevere and trust in God’s providence. Become Saints. It is the saints, who against all human odds, transform the world in Christ. Francis. Blessed Teresa of Kalkota. Blessed JP2 “the great”. If one such as this were to emerge in America, we shall be recreated. Our challenge rests within each one of us to aspire to holy sanctity, to make Him seen and known.

  • chaco

    “Come Hell or High Water”, “The glass is always 1/2 full not 1/2 empty” (see Jn 16: 33). Whether the victory lies in small incremental advances or in what some have alluded to as a world-wide awakening (illumination of conscience), God will have His way. [ I had what seemed to be an “hors d’oeuvre” (foretaste) of what the Illumination might be; I dreamed that I had begun an affair with another lady . I was trying to rationalize it by telling myself that the kids could now have 2 Christmases, 2 B’days etc. As I rationalized, I was overwhelmed with regret from what a mess I had made of things. I was never so relieved to wake up & realize I was only dreaming.] This Illumination is said to be a last chance “Heart to Heart” with our Maker to amend our alienation from Him. One thing is certain; things seem to be happening at a faster pace than ever before and as we watch it all unfold, never forget; FAITH IS TO BE A REWARD IN ITSELF – not a payment for being good (we’re not ready for life to it’s fullest until we’re ready for death). Like the thief next to Jesus on the cross who just made it by “the skin on his teeth”, we all get the same pay in the end (see Mt. 20: 1-16).

  • Poppiexno

    Between Donohue and Douthat, it would seem that Douthat’s analysis is more correct. Roughly half of those who call themselves Catholic do not regularly attend mass; some attend only at Christmas and Easter. A disappointing number of Catholics voted for Obama.
    The United States has a unique egalitarian (secular) tradition of representative democracy. True, the UK has had a parliament for centuries but during most of that time it has also been a country with a rigid caste society. Our secular culture has “invaded” our Catholic culture and has shaped the mindset of many “Catholics.” However, “It is better to light one candle than curse the darkness.” Each of us must evangelize – in our prayers and in our works – to whatever extent we are capable. That doesn’t mean we have to go to the local park and stand on a platform, bible in hand, exhorting a crowd to conversion. It simply means to do what Jesus told us to do – be a light to the world – by our actions and by our prayers.

  • Nick

    Our church is turning a corner and starting to actually implement Vatican II (50 years later). With a stronger, but smaller, clergy made up of JPII priests, I predict we will see more reversions and conversions of faith from our separated brethren. These priests will also deliver a more unified message to the faithful, inspiring the faithful to evangelization and calling the lost home. We are Catholics because it’s the Truth. Let’s live it and others will see and come to believe.

    John Paul II, pray for us!

  • Nancy from IL

    Read “Forming Intentional Disciples” by Sherry Weddell. This is how the Church must renew herself.

  • jidun

    Although the heresies described by Douthat do exist, and have permeated and polluted the Church, the True Church that Jesus founded will not cease. “Upon this Rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). “Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you. And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20).

  • Bob

    I agree Nick. In my own Parish and Diocese in Australia, the last few years have seen a steady revival, and in Australia as a whole.

    I converted to the Catholic Church in 2007, at 17 years of age. At Easter 2010 I was baptised.

    After we hosted World Youth Day in 2008, many Australian young people have began practicing the faith, including a number in my local parish.

    In 2007 we started a youth group, and though we’ve seen many people come and go, there has been some who are embracing the faith much more.

    In my diocese, there is a similar trend. In 1992, the then Bishop was unhappy with how his priests were being trained (in a modernist “Catholic” way from other bishops, so he started his own seminary. 20 years later, we have many wonderful priests filling our churches, and the heretics are slowly disappearing.

    Since 2007, I’ve seen an increase of at least 50 young people regularly attending Diocesean events and many more who wish they could, but are unable to due to various reasons.

    In Australia at least, the faith is starting to return, slowly, but surely.

    I ask my brothers and sisters out of Australia to keep us in your prayers, as I will, you.

  • The answer to the question of “why has heresy crept in?” One is that there is a loss of the sense of sin. Confession lines are way down, but communion lines are full. Receiving the Body and Blood of the Lord without examining oneself for possible serious sin-and seeking forgiveness for that serious sin-is in itself a serious sin, (ie..sacreligious communion). Enough people doing that and you have ‘contamination of the body of Christ, the Church. Get to Confession with good preparation beforehand and receive the Body of Christ with a clear conscience and clean soul! IN other words FREQUENT the Sacraments of Reconcilation and Holy Communion. Don’t let the sediment of sin settle in your soul, or you could open yourself up widely to the evils pervading society. One of the major causes of people leaving the church is the loss of faith due to repeatedly receiving Our Lord in Holy Communion without confession. The Gift of Faith is not going to be there for such folks. You have to make yourself presentable, better yet, PRISTINE if you will be coming to the table of the Lord to partake of HIs Precious Body and Blood, and that means being free of mortal sin! Get out a good examination of Conscience and prepare yourself. Repent and believe in the Gospel, (notice that “repent” comes before belief, so if you don’t repent, you will NOT believe).
    The second reason heresy seems to have made its way in is that Catholics in America DON”T KNOW THEIR FAITH! Pope Benedict knows this and fittingly challenges us to participate in the “Year of Faith.” If you don’t study the authentic Teachings of the Church, those unmuddled by “opinion,” you will not know it when someone tries to put forth counterfeit teachings and you will fall prey to any wind of doctrine that comes along, which St. Paul warns us about! Familiarize yourself with the Catechism of the Catholic Church and reading scriptures prayerfully and you will soon see how much you really don’t know. There is SO MUCH, that it would take more than a lifetime to take it all in, but take it in we MUST so as to live out the faith powerfully in our lives and in the life of the Church. Trouble yourselves to become knowledgeable and be able to DEFEND the Church’s Teachings! We NEED defenders of the Faith! If I may point you to some resources I found out about while I was battling with Jehovah’s Witnesses about the reason why I would remain a Catholic for the rest of my life. This is so important because these people are going door to door trying to get people OUT of the church and into their false doctrine created by a man! Getting Catholics AWAY from the sacraments is the devil’s work, for without the forgiveness of sins and partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ Our Savior, he tells us we will have no life in us. Where are we without life? DEAD!
    Three CD’s that I listened to in my kitchen while I was cooking and cleaning were from the Catholic Society of Evangelists:
    The first one was “Before You Leave,” though, as I go to the website, I do not see this CD, but you can get it here
    This CD talks about reasons why people leave the church, then goes into the REAL reasons why you should stay. Why people need to be taught from a young age why we are Catholic (because Jesus Christ founded our Church, as opposed to some man or some woman). I found this to be very compelling in just the one hour that it took to hear the entire CD. I still listen to it to sharpen my apologetics skills.
    The second was “Whose Bible Is It? by Clayton Bower. This CD goes into the origins of the bible and why the Catholic Church is not a “BIBLE-BASED” church and why Catholics should not use the King James version of the Bible. I was fascinated by the information in this CD and it needs to be known by EVERY Catholic. No church would even have a Bible if it weren’t for the Catholic Church preserving it throughout the centuries.
    The third one is “How the Catholic Church is the Same and How It Is Different from Other Christian Churches” by Franklin Dailey, M. D. This great Catholic who happens to be a physican breaks it down in understandable terms for the layman about how Jesus left us his church for our salvation after He ascended into Heaven.
    There are other CD’s you can get from Lighthouse Catholic Media and one is called “Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist”, by Brant Pitre. Which goes into just what it says and it is fascinating to delve into.
    Folks, fortify yoursleves with the truth of the Eucharist and all of the beautiful teachings of your church. Practice the Sacraments and you will then be able to
    live the Faith vibrantly and authentically and others will be drawn to the Faith through that. Unfortunately non-Catholics they see how politicians and other prominent so-called Catholics live their own way, apart from the Teachings of the Church and yet still call themselves Catholic. People are not attracted to THAT.
    Be empowered and consecrated in the TRUTH! There is hope for the future if people will just get this message! The message of repentance and conversion-the message of the Gospel that repentance comes BEFORE belief. The message of salvation that the Catholic Church has been made steward of by Our Lord Jesus Christ!

  • haroldcrews

    That is certainly true. The Church will not cease. But the Church is larger than the United States and there are no promises that it will not cease in the United States or any other country.

  • Richard

    The day of the lord will not come unless the apostasy comes first. The ultimate apostasy will be in the person of antichrist. Bible prophecy/the book of revelation are not carved in stone but its fulfillment/non-fulfillment depends on mankind’s willful repentance of unbelief in the Divinity of Jesus Christ and sin. Contemporaneously, mankind(including many Catholics/Christians who should know better) are choosing of their own free will not to repent.God does not give something for nothing Their is a quid pro quo. Leviticus chapter 26.

  • Annie

    Your statement that there could be ‘contamination of the body of Christ’ disturbed me. Once blessed by God the body of Christ is pure and holy and could never be contaminated even if taken by someone who has not repented. Using this statement in a damning tone to be dramatic is why people get turned of by the church. Many of the converts to Catholicism have brought their damning attitude which is not what I grew up with going to Catholic church and school. We focused on the “Good News” of Christ, on the loving, forgiving God. We knew we were sinners and should focus everyday on bettering ourselves for God. Do you go to confession before each time you receive communion because with your critical, damning tone I believe you would need it. We were also taught to look for the good and people not be there to point out their sins.

  • Lyell

    Where did you get your closing quotation from Pope B16? Its great. I want to read the context.