U.S. Catholics: Overly Assimilated?

PWith his new book, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America (Ignatius Press), mild-mannered Russell Shaw has become the bull in the china shop of U.S. Catholic history, knocking heroes off pedestals and overturning conventional story-lines—all in aid of trying to understand why the Church in America is in precarious position today vis-à-vis the ambient public culture and the government.

Shaw’s answer: we’re in deep trouble because of a longstanding U.S. Catholic determination to be more-American-than-thou—to disprove ancient charges of Catholicism’s incompatibility with American democracy by assimilating so dramatically that there’s no discernible difference between Catholics (and their attitudes toward public policy) and an increasingly secularized, mainstream public opinion. Shaw mounts an impressive case that Catholic Lite in these United States has indeed taken its cues from the wider culture, and as that culture has become ever more individualistic and hedonistic, the historic U.S. Catholic passion for assimilation and acceptance has backfired. Moreover, Shaw’s call to build a culture-reforming Catholic counterculture is not dissimilar to the argument I make about the Church and public life in “Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church.”

But on a second reading of Shaw’s book, I began to wonder whether he’s gotten the question of the moment quite right.

To read the history of the Catholic Church in the United States as a centuries-long struggle for assimilation and acceptance certainly sheds light on one dynamic in the development of the Church in America. Yet too close a focus on the question, “Is it possible to be a good Catholic and a good American?” is to argue the question of Catholicism-and-America on the other guy’s turf. Once, the “other guy” challenging Catholics’ patriotic credentials was militant Protestantism; now, the other guy is militant secularism. To play on the other guy’s turf, however, is to concede at the outset that the other guy sets the terms of debate: “We (militant Protestants/militant secularists) know what it means to be a good American; you (Catholics) have to prove yourselves to us.”

United States ConstitutionThat’s not the game, however. It wasn’t really the game from 1776 through the 1960 presidential campaign—when militant Protestantism was the aggressor—and it isn’t the game today. The real game involves different, deeper questions: “Who best understands the nature of the American experiment in ordered liberty, and who can best give a persuasive defense of the first liberty, which is religious freedom?”

The 19th-century U.S. bishops and intellectuals whose enthusiasm for American democracy Russ Shaw now views skeptically (and, yes, they did go over the top on occasion) did get one crucial point right: the American Founders “built better than they knew,” i.e., the Founders designed a democratic republic for which they couldn’t provide a durable moral and philosophical defense. But the long-despised (and now despised-again) Catholics could: Catholics could (and can) give a robust, compelling account of American democracy and its commitments to ordered liberty.

Mid-20th-century Catholic scholars like historian Theodore Maynard and theologian John Courtney Murray picked up this theme and made it central to their reading of U.S. Catholic history. Murray presciently warned that, if Catholicism didn’t fill the cultural vacuum being created by a dying mainline Protestantism, the “noble, many-storied mansion of democracy [may] be dismantled, leveled to the dimensions of a flat majoritarianism, which is no mansion but a barn, perhaps even a tool shed in which the weapons of tyranny may be forged.”

That is the argument the U.S. bishops have mounted in their challenge to the Obama administration’s demolition of civil society through the HHS mandate on contraceptives and abortifacients: What is the nature of American democracy and the fundamental freedoms government is created to protect? Who are the true patriots: the men and women who can give an account of freedom’s moral character, an account capable of sustaining a genuine democracy against a rising dictatorship of relativism, “in which the tools of tyranny may be forged”?

The argument today isn’t about assimilation. The argument today is about who “gets” America.


This article originally published at the Denver Catholic Register.

George Weigel


George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

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  • Doug

    As a young adult and proud Catholic in West Texas, it amazes me how the Baptists and the Assembly of God have such a hold on many young adults. Our parish had a young adult group and it died out within a year. It stuns me because I believe the Catholic church is the truth.

  • Juliems3

    But why can’t Catholicism be the best of the understandings of America? Who better understands free will? Who better understands the need for all human dignity? Who better understands the blessings of the material that are all gifts from God? I am going to say this– are you ready? Catholics know how to worship and attend mass, they do not however know how and have confidence in the ability to live and apply their faith. They need simple comparison ideas to go by like: capitalism good, greed bad, free will good, when it involves disobeying a law of God bad. The subtleties in the sanctity of the faith is completely lost. Lost because the discerning mechanism that should kick in when everyday life happens….is missing.

  • Lee

    Doug, what do you think was missing in the Catholic group gatherings? The Catholic Church was built for us by Christ himself. He has promised to be forever present in the Blessed Sacrament, which is not present in any other church, temple,etc. The Church is the Truth. Prayer would be an important part of a youth group, because it brings us together as God’s children and not just a fun get together.God gave us a purpose, and it is to take time to know and be with Him.Youth groups are good, but you have to know why it exist. Is it to entertain , is it to see God’s goodness in others. First know Jesus and success will follow.You will be a great group leader as you come to learn what truly holds us up.

  • Lee

    How can a genuine democracy exist without the backing of moral character? Our Founding Fathers had to have been led by moral character to have prepared a democratic republic for these United States to sustain a lasting future for (all) people. For the democratic republic to be constantly attacked by immoral character of those who”we the people”keep voting into office should tell us that our America is in great danger.The people of the Church need to turn direction.

  • pnyikos

    What is missing in many of these young adult groups is the very thing that makes these Evangelical Protestants so successful: the central role their faith plays in their lives. On the other hand, unless there is a really dynamic priest or layman guiding them, most of the Catholic young adults just behave like “cultural Catholics” the way so many people who were born Jews have become only “culturally Jews”. In fact it is worse, because nowadays Jews are, on the whole, more proud of their Jewish background than Catholics are of their Catholic background.

  • Sparkle Hanson

    For me, as an adult i have so many experiences about gods gift. Because it has been proven for so many times. That is why i am happy to see those gods assembly that touches the heart of some young people. I believe in god, the father of almighty and for me he is the truth!

  • pnyikos

    Another thought occurred to me. When I attended Catholic charismatic group meetings a long time ago, there were quite a few fervent young adults among them. In addition to the truth, which appeals to the intellect, we also need to engage the emotions. There is a tendency among Catholics, when praying, to fall back on rote prayers or have a leader say the prayers while the rest listen.

    Evangelical Protestants and charismatics generally put more of themselves into the prayers they say. They can be formulaic at times ,with fillers like “Father, we just pray that….” but these fillers buy time for saying the things that really mean a lot to them.