Being 'Catholic' and 'American'

Catholics no longer encounter suspicion and discrimination in the public square, but whether they have been a “Catholic” influence on society or have been themselves influenced is a question worth asking.  

Take, for a moment, the example of Catholic politicians musing that one could be “personally opposed” to abortion but too compassionate and broad-minded to “impose” those views upon others. 

That sounded so reasonable on its surface that it simplified the abortion debate for people who did not care to consider how nonsensical it was. Being “personally opposed” to the death penalty, wouldn’t these same politicians have tried to “impose those views” on states, had they the chance? Being “personally opposed” to slavery 150 years ago, wouldn’t these public servants quite rightly have tried to “impose” their views on others? 

But numerous Catholic politicians and pundits gave Americans the means of paying lip service to life while enabling a culture of death under the aegis of their compassion. 

Unholy compassion 

I confess, there was a time in my life when I, for want of applying my faith to reason, and vice versa, bought into that particular notion of “compassion.” I was able to convince myself that, while I could never personally procure or endure an abortion, I simply had no right to dictate my conscience to another, in whose shoes I had not walked. 

It was not until I had endured difficulties of my own and encountered the freedom that came with humbly submitting to God’s will that I came to see how the corkscrew reasoning of misplaced compassion — and the rewiring of the Catholic conscience — had helped to create an over-proud society, one that pushed religion out of the way with an emphatic “don’t tell me what to do,” and thus lost its ability to engage sacred authority, or to humbly admit mistakes; a society that increasingly depended upon secular authority and willingly submitted to government, because it no longer knew it could depend upon God, and simply submit to love. 

Dissent-based compassion, rather than being enlarged and made free, has become shrunken because it is earthbound and not permitted to recommend heaven. Religion is now supposed to be privately understood, docile and vague. 

And the more vague our religion becomes to Americans, the more vague we become to ourselves, because we forget who we are, where we have come from, and for whom we have been claimed through our baptism 

In our parishes, we see the two extremes of Americanism being played out in a pageant of polls and pen-wielding. Many American Catholics, justly enamored of the democratic process, seem to think that if the Catholic Church is not a representative republic, it ought to be. They want to elect their own bishops, and shape doctrine and dogma by majority vote. If polls suggest that over 50 percent of all Catholics think that priests should be able to marry, or that women should be ordained, or that divorce, abortion and artificial contraception should be permissible, then darn it, why is the Church being so stubbornly retrograde? 

Inarticulate believers

It does not occur to these dissent enthusiasts that a great many Catholics — to the Church’s shame — have been so poorly catechized that they cannot articulate why the Church holds the positions it does, and would therefore cast their “democratic” votes based not on faith or reason, but on personal feelings and sentiments. 

That may work in politics, but it cannot work for the Church, whose mission — despite the imperfections of her human leadership — is and always will be to live the faith throughout the ages, not to live the ages throughout the Church. As Pope John Paul II is quoted as saying: “It is a mistake to apply American democratic procedures to the faith and the truth. You cannot take a vote on the truth.” 

If dissenting Americanists decried Pope John Paul II and his successor Pope Benedict XVI for their unwillingness to embrace decentralization, their counterparts at the other extreme have determined that both popes have fallen short of perfection in myriad ways. I recently had an email from a woman who insisted that I stop promoting the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary because Pope John Paul II (who was a “bad” pope in her eyes) “had no right to add to or subtract from the Rosary.” 

There are Catholics who have determined that the Holy Spirit has either left the Church or fallen asleep on the job; they are unhappy with bishops they deem too forgiving or insufficiently afire. They are appalled that Catholics who openly dissent are not publicly excommunicated. Like the zealots in Jesus’ day, they wonder why rods are being spared and swords are remaining sheathed when dissent, error and, sometimes, injustice exists. Like their counterparts on the other extreme, they believe their intentions to be wholly good, and have juxtaposed the notion of “American might” against the faith. In place of swords, they wield pens, tirelessly writing to their bishops, to Rome and to diocesan newspaper editors about liturgical abuses, impious priests, ugly architecture, displaced tabernacles and so on. I confess, I have some sympathy for their concerns but do not always applaud their methods or the narrowness of their perspective, which will not allow for people doing the best they can in complicated or sometimes delicate situations, and makes little allowance for human frailty. If the compassion of the dissenters is ultimately too earthbound, these zealots seem not to realize that heaven is not here, except where mercy can abide. 

It’s that tightrope again, and American Catholicism demands balance. Our own imperfections can sometimes tempt us toward a “compassionate” leniency that blurs the truth and our obligations to it. Appreciation of our own sins — especially when they have been lifted from us by the grace of God — can leave us so horrified by the knowledge of what we are capable of that we come down too hard upon our brothers and sisters, and upon our leadership. In either case, being Americans, we feel the need to “fix” things, to right what is wrong, to bring what seems out of alignment into what we believe to be conformity.

That being the case, it might be well for American Catholics to study the Rule of St. Benedict, the ancient manuscript written for monastics by the great founder of Western Monasticism, St. Benedict of Nursia. His Rule is all about maintaining spiritual equilibrium within the community of faith, and his words in Chapter 64 are well-suited to encourage balance for a tightrope-walking Church: 

“Hate faults but love the brothers. ... Use prudence and avoid extremes; otherwise, by rubbing too hard to remove the rust, [one] may break the vessel. Distrust one’s own frailty and remember not to crush the bruised reed. By this we do not mean [allow faults] to flourish, but rather, [prune faults away] with prudence and love as is best for each individual.” 

Elizabeth Scalia is an online columnist and contributing writer at First Things, where she also blogs as The Anchoress, and is editor and manager of the Catholic portal at

Forming the culture (sidebar)

The place of Catholics within secular culture is not just a historical question, but one that the Church in America grapples with today. For one U.S. prelate, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver, the answer is not in assimilation to a culture that often is hostile to Church teachings, but rather a renewed commitment to catechesis. In a speech last month to a catechetical congress in British Columbia, he made the following points:  

“First, either we form our culture, or the culture will form us. Second, right now, the culture does a better job of shaping us than we do in shaping the culture. And third, we need to admit our failures, and we need to turn ourselves onto a path of repentance and change, and unselfish witness to others.  

“The central issue in renewing Catholic catechesis has little to do with techniques, or theories, or programs, or resources. The central issue is whether we ourselves really do believe. Catechesis is not a profession. It’s a dimension of discipleship. If we’re Christians, we’re each of us called to be teachers and missionaries. 

“But we can’t share what we don’t have. If we’re embarrassed about Church teachings, or if we disagree with them, or if we’ve decided that they’re just too hard to live by, or too hard to explain, then we’ve already defeated ourselves. 

“We need to really believe what we claim to believe. We need to stop calling ourselves ‘Catholic’ if we don’t stand with the Church in her teachings — all of them. But if we really are Catholic, or at least if we want to be, then we need to act like it with obedience and zeal and a fire for Jesus Christ in our hearts. God gave us the faith in order to share it. This takes courage. It takes a deliberate dismantling of our own vanity. When we do that, the Church is strong. When we don’t, she grows weak. It’s that simple. 

“In a culture of confusion, the Church is our only reliable guide. So let’s preach and teach our Catholic beliefs with passion. And let’s ask God to make us brave enough and humble enough to follow our faith to its radical conclusions.”