Catholics in America

To begin, I confess. I admit my bias. Long have I admired Russell Shaw’s perception of things Catholic, and specifically of things Catholic in America, and I am proud to admit, I have regarded him as a friend for many years. 

Still, I am convinced that I am objective when I recommend to readers of this month’s edition of The Priest his quite observant analysis of the current American Catholic culture, along with the influences that shaped its formation. 

No pastoral plan for the future, or even for the present, will be effective, anywhere in the United States, unless attention is paid to this contemporary American Catholic culture. So awareness of this social phenomenon, and of the exceedingly powerful forces bearing upon it, is imperative for any priest. 

The future of American Catholicism came very much to my mind when, in April, I attended the ordination to the diaconate of five men in my own Diocese of Nashville. Praised be the generosity of the good Lord! With two men from the diocese awaiting ordination as deacons in Rome in October, it is the best year — in terms of numbers — for the diocese in a half-century for bringing to holy orders candidates for the priesthood. God willing, all seven will be ordained priests. 

That banner class back 50 years ago was composed of men all of whom were natives of the diocese, had studied in parochial schools for 12 years before entry into seminaries, had gone directly from high school to seminary formation, and all came from very religious, Catholic families. None had had a career, unless you include bagging groceries or cutting grass on the weekends. 

The demographics of the seven candidates now expecting priestly ordination next year is quite different. Only two went all the way through the parochial school system. One is a convert. One is the son of refugees from turmoil abroad. Two others are Latin by background. Several had full-fledged occupations before deciding to study to be priests. 

The class of a half-century ago at the time of its diaconal ordination was the rule. Now, it would be unusual or at least not typical. The ordination last April in Nashville represented what is much more often these days the norm. 

Having earned a living may not be a cultural shift in itself, but certainly the emergence of new cultures from the perimeters of American Catholicism into the mainstream, as Asians and Latinos come forward, indeed reveals that the Catholic community of the United States has changed and will continue to change. 

In itself, differing nationalities among the clergy, and within the overall Catholic population in the United States, is no new experience. Given the fact that tensions have accompanied ethnic and national differences in American Catholic history, and that at times these differences have not accounted for particularly glorious recounting of the American Catholic culture, the Church has been the safe harbor of all its children, whatever their origin. And, within its structure, the vast majority of its children have found their way to religious self-assurance and indeed to constructive living within the general American society. 

Precisely this gift of the Church to all its own, this introduction into the general culture, while the cherished ambition, quite frankly, of so many Catholic leaders and Catholic rank-and-file for so long, has brought Catholics to a level, generally speaking, of status within the national community once only a dream. 

It has come with a price, as the Shaw article states. The culture has absorbed us. In the process, we Catholics have left, certainly often unwittingly, Catholic principles at the doorstep as we have moved into the broad social current. 

This has left us with what we have, and with what we are. 

So what are the pastoral implications? 

Always I have liked the scriptural readings in the Masses of the Easter season, now concluding. I have liked them because so frequently they include passages from the Acts of the Apostles, one of my favorite books of the Bible. 

Acts appeals to me because it takes readers back to a time when conversion to, and confession of, catholicity was a deep, stark personal choice. No cultural support lent strength to the profession of faith of the otherwise doubtful or half-hearted. Just the opposite pertained, as reports in Acts of whippings of the apostles by civil authorities, or of the spurning of apostolic authority, quite well show. 

Of course, to move from Acts into long-standing Christian tradition, both Peter and Paul eventually died for the faith and for the commissions given them by the Lord. 

For the early Christians, whom we admire after reading of them in Acts, the profession of Christ crucified, and unqualified submission to the Christian Gospel, were profoundly personal choices, taken without regard to counter arguments or to come-what-may. Their Christian commitment is the commitment that priests of today and of the future in America must themselves hold, and to which they must summon their people. 

It sounds quite wonderful. It is wonderful in itself. It also is difficult, because it involves, critically and absolutely, a total surrender of self to the Lord. Here at once is a very significant clash with American culture and, frankly, with the point of view of many Catholic Americans. 

As Shaw’s piece says, the old rugged individualism that so drove American history and still is such an entrenched American cultural value presents a high barrier to any absolute and total surrender of self to anything or anybody. Look, for instance, at the data regarding the high incidence of divorce in this country. The thought is that complete commitment to any person, or any principle, brings to American minds far more often reasons for exception than reasons to applaud and emulate. 

Then, furthering this elevation of individualism is the legacy of Catholic Americans. Their forebears survived in any sense of self-identity because they lived and let live. 

More than ever, arguably, Catholic Americans must be called to a faith that is second to nothing, that is absolute, that is total surrender of self. 

Here is another lesson from Acts. It is the strongly ecclesial component of Acts and of genuine Christianity. 

Once, on a plane, my seatmate identified himself as a former Catholic, born and bred in the Catholic Church, but by then a fundamentalist Protestant. Bold in his zeal, he confronted me and my faith by asking how could I endure being a Catholic, let alone a priest. 

I told him that I could never forsake Catholicism for fundamental Protestantism because fundamentalist Protestantism, in my view, is not biblical. 

Stunned, he asked me to explain myself. I asked him where in fundamentalist Protestantism is the primacy of apostolic authority? Where is the Eucharist? Where is virginity, not just in the sense of fidelity in marriage but in the gift of self in celibacy? Where is the value of evangelical poverty? Where is submission of self to the apostles? Where is the stress on community? 

Christian commitment, if looking back to the beginnings of Christianity, is essentially and exceedingly ecclesial. 

It is not about mouthing words. St. Francis of Assisi is said to have urged his disciples to preach but only to use words when utterly necessary. Example is the most compelling lesson we have to give. 

In the last several months, Catholics all across the country, priests among them, have been impressed by Pope Francis, and they have been impressed by the reaction to the Holy Father of others who are not necessarily Catholic themselves. His stress on simplicity, and his willing, even eager, outreach says far more than words could convey. 

Our priestly actions speak far more loudly than words, and our actions must reveal an interior faith. 

My earnest belief, therefore, is that we priests must call people — and our call must be convincing because of our own steadfast dedication in faith — to a strong, deep and intense religious experience that is personal, filled with trust in the Lord, uncompromising, founded upon a true bond with Christ and set in the ecclesiology that Jesus left us as a bedrock of salvation. 

Once American Catholics yearned for numbers, because in numbers they saw security. Wisdom was in this hope. It is true that as Catholics grew in numbers, Catholics obviously came to be a force to consider. They had power at the polls. As they gathered more money to spend, and as they moved into executive positions in business, they had to be considered. 

Some social analysts would suggest that, despite good news here and there, the percentage of Catholics in the general population is falling, because ultimately fewer Catholics are in the population. 

In any event, Catholics will be Catholics because they wish to be so, and because they are willing to swim against the tide. It is not a frightening possibility. It will mean that the Church will be stronger as it will be built on strong determination and determined faith. 

Now, here is another personal confession. Obesity is the subject of an article by Paul M. Midden on Page 18. I should reread this article and then read it again. So many Americans, so many priests, myself included, must watch our weight more carefully. 

Obesity is a major threat to good health in this country. The Priest always has kept articles on maintaining health as a fitting addition to the magazine. Thus this article, with its advice, appears. Heeding advice will take willpower. Give me strength! 

Polling implies that abortions occur almost as often among American women who identify themselves as Catholics as among women of other beliefs or of no religion. It is not unknown for priests to be confronted by women who have had an abortion and who look for relief from feelings of guilt and regret. Polls also indicate that for many women in these circumstances, the feelings can be strong and painful. 

It is not a matter of excusing abortion, but of enabling women to find peace after what they did and to continue with their lives. 

On Page 42, Father Pastorius offers some pastoral suggestions. TP 

Msgr. Campion is editor of The Priest and associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor. He is a former president of the Catholic Press Association and the Vatican’s ecclesiastical adviser for the International Catholic Union of the Press.