It’s a truism that we need to understand the past in order to understand the present and the future. “Those who fail to study history,” we’re told, “are condemned to repeat it.”
But it also works the other way: The present and the future shed important light on the past. Fifty years after Vatican Council II, the possibilities for the future of American Catholicism appear to boil down to three. I call them the Assimilated Church, the Fortress Church, and the Missionary Church.
1. The Assimilated Church
In this model, Catholics will have adopted the politically correct values — liberal or conservative in secular sociopolitical terms, according to individual taste — of the surrounding American culture and become passive, unprotesting pieces of it. To a great extent, that’s what “mainstream” Protestant churches of America already have done — and it is what most American Catholics are now well on their way to doing. It is the culmination and triumph of the Americanization program that has guided the destinies of the Church in the U.S. for most of last two centuries.
2. The Fortress Church
According to this model, Catholics will have more or less withdrawn — psychologically, spiritually and even in some cases physically — from contact with the surrounding culture. Ramparts will be raised — again, psychologically, spiritually and even physically — against the secular culture’s corrupting influence. If you want to see what that might look like, consider the Amish and the ultra-Orthodox Jews — and also some elements of a new Catholic subculture that have begun to emerge here and there.
(I think, for example, of certain websites and blogs that assert their Catholic identity but express allegiance to a far right version of Catholicism that many quite traditional Catholics would have trouble recognizing.)
3. The Missionary Church
A version of American Catholicism along these lines will surely be committed to resisting politically correct secular values incompatible with the faith but also will be committed to evangelizing the secular culture in order to preach the Gospel, attract converts and even convert the culture itself if it can. We have non-Catholic models of this kind of church, too. I think of the Mormon Church and in some places and certain social contexts the Pentecostal churches. These are religious bodies that as matter of principle and conviction reach out beyond themselves and try to attract new adherents to their brand of religion.
So those, I think, are three possibilities for the future of American Catholicism. Numerically, at least, the Assimilated Church is the dominant reality in American Catholicism today. It is populated by people who, if asked, will say they are Catholics but whose religious practice and acceptance of Catholic doctrine are spotty at best.
Whether they consider themselves conservatives or liberals, these people are generally at home with the broad secular consensus on most matters, including issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and immigration reform. They look to secular sources for their values and opinions, and they are either unaware of what the Church says about most things or don’t really care much.
The ultraconservative Catholic body that I call the Fortress Church is still numerically rather small but also appears to have grown in recent years. There are many things to admire about Catholics like this. The impulse to separate from secular culture perceived as being a threat to your faith — and especially to the faith of your children — is not hard to understand.
But the readiness sometimes found in this segment of American Catholics to attack other Catholics and especially the leadership of the Church is very questionable. At worst, the end goal at some point in the future could be some form of de facto schism, which makes the Fortress Church a rather desperate survival strategy.
Finally, the Missionary Church is probably the most discussed and actively promoted version of Catholicism now. But admirable as it is in many ways, not a lot along these lines is actually happening. The Church has yet to find a really workable formula for turning the idea of the New Evangelization into practical reality of a Missionary Church, and it is far from certain whether that will happen.
All three of these models of the Church exist now in American Catholicism and will continue to exist. But a half-century from now, one of these three almost certainly will have largely crowded out other two. Which it will be depends on choices and decisions Catholics make now and in the years immediately ahead.
This is an excerpt of a talk given by Russell Shaw at a conference in 2013.