Shaw assesses the dangers of assimilation for American Catholics

One of the great ongoing questions in the history of American Catholicism has been that of cultural assimilation. Has the embrace of American culture and values been a good thing or a bad thing for Catholics in the country, and, indeed, is it even possible for an American Catholic to be both American and Catholic?

It is a challenging question, and it is one worth discussing at a time when American cultural influences of materialism, secularism and relativism seem so diametrically opposed to everything we are called to be as members of the Catholic Church.

Author, journalist and noted Catholic intellectual Russell Shaw, who is a contributing editor for OSV Newsweekly, has written a book on this very topic: American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America (Ignatius, $16.95).

He spoke with Our Sunday Visitor about his new book and why he felt compelled to write it. 

Our Sunday Visitor: The title of your book is a rather provocative one that sets the tone for your narrative. What convinced you of the need to write the book? 

Russell Shaw: You’re right — calling the book “American Church” really is provocative, and deliberately so, especially when you add the subtitle, “The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America.”

Of course, people can use the expression “American Church” and mean no harm. In that case, it’s just shorthand for the Catholic community in the United States.

In other cases, though, it’s an ideological slogan for a religious body with few, if any, ties to Rome. So, the title indicates the ecclesiological stance of Catholics who’ve identified so uncritically with American secular culture that they’ve become much more American than Catholic.

I began to be aware of this growing tension between Catholicism and the secular culture in the early 1970s. I recall publishing a magazine article called “The Alienation of American Catholics,” in which I tried to express the problem as I saw it then. I was moved to write it by things like the Supreme Court’s decision on legalizing abortion and its church-state decisions, including the refusal of significant public assistance to parochial schools — a policy that historically was deeply rooted in anti-Catholicism.

What I didn’t grasp then was that an increasing number of American Catholics were being assimilated into the secular culture and adopting its mindset. But as time passed and the problem got worse, I began to understand what was happening. Thinking more deeply about the situation, I wrote more frequently about it. The result is this book. 

OSV: The idea has always seemed to be around in some sectors of American society that it was difficult if not impossible for a person to be a patriotic American and a faithful Catholic. Would you agree? 

Shaw: Yes, it goes back to colonial times. “Can you be a good American and a good Catholic?” Anti-Catholic bigots said “no.” The first American bishop, John Carroll, worked hard to overcome this prejudice and to win acceptance for Catholics.

Starting early in the 19th century and continuing, though, things were complicated by the arrival of wave after wave of immigrants, many of them Catholics — the Irish, the Germans, later the Italians and the Poles and other Eastern Europeans. Immigration created waves of anti-Catholicism throughout much of the 19th century and on into the 20th century.

And now? Old-fashioned anti-Catholicism still exists, but its place as a threat to Catholicism has been taken over by the absorption of Catholics into the value system of today’s secular America. 

OSV: Was cultural assimilation in some way a Catholic response to anti-Catholicism? And if so, wasn’t it desirable — and in fact inevitable? 

Shaw: It was both inevitable and desirable at the time. Seeing that, Catholic leaders pushed it strongly, and the institutions of the Church themselves became agents of assimilation. There were differences of opinion — the German-American bishops, for example, wanted a slower approach that permitted retaining elements of German Catholic culture within the Church, while the Irish-Americans favored full speed ahead. On the whole, the Irish won. 

OSV: What was the role of Cardinal James Gibbons in this process? 

Shaw: Cardinal Gibbons was archbishop of Baltimore and leader of the American hierarchy from 1877 to 1921 — that’s 44 years! He was a committed Americanizer who placed his formidable skills at the service of defending and promoting assimilation. As I say of him in “American Church,” he was “a towering figure in the story of the Americanization of American Catholicism.” And now he may have something important to tell us about where we go next. 

OSV: In light of the cultural struggles of the last 60 years, would you consider the effort at assimilation a mistake? 

Shaw: I repeat that it was inevitable and desirable at the time — the “time” being the early 19th to mid-20th centuries for immigrant groups like the Irish, the Germans, the Italians, and the Poles and right here and now for more recent arrivals including Hispanics and East Asians. Assimilation is a socioeconomic necessity for newcomers.

But in the last 50 or 60 years, it has become increasingly problematical as the secular culture itself became increasingly hostile to traditional religious and moral values. Many Catholics, instead of evangelizing the culture, have been evangelized by it — have accepted its values and attitudes and practices while sloughing off those of their religious tradition. 

OSV: What happened to cause the cultural crisis that we see today? 

Shaw: A lot of things. The collapse of traditional religious faith and moral values among elite groups in the academic and intellectual worlds dating back to the 19th century. The sexual revolution that began after World War II and really took off in the 1960s with the introduction of the birth control pill. The anti-authority mindset of the student revolt and the strong reaction against the Vietnam War.

And then within the Church we had the rampant dissent and confusion associated with Vatican Council II. I don’t mean the council caused the problem, but unquestionably the so-called “spirit of Vatican II” — along with the breakdown of the old American Catholic subculture — helped exacerbate the situation. 

OSV: What do you see as the solutions to the problem? Can it be remedied? 

Shaw: There’s no turning back the clock to recreate the Church as it was around 1950. But as “American Church” shows, there are things that can and should be done.

One is to rebuild a healthy Catholic subculture. Here and there you can see signs of that happening. But it’s crucial that this new subculture not be a ghetto. It has to be outward-looking, with a strong evangelistic dynamic. Another thing that needs to happen is spiritual renewal and conversion, with emphasis on building up the spirituality of Catholic laypeople.

The Church in the United States is in a profound crisis today. Mediocrity won’t do.

Vatican II said we are all called to be saints. American Catholics need to give that a try. 

Matthew E. Bunson is OSV senior correspondent.