American Church

For a long time, the telling of the story of the Catholic Church in the United States has usually sounded something like this: 

Thanks to the fructifying grace of God, the grain of mustard seed ... has grown to be a large tree, spreading its branches over the length and breadth of our fair land. Where only one bishop was found in the beginning of this century, there now are 75 serving as many dioceses and vicariates. For their great progress under God and the fostering care of the Holy See we are indebted in no small degree to the civil liberty we enjoy in our enlightened republic ... I proclaim, with a deep sense of pride and gratitude ... that I belong to a country where the civil government holds over us the aegis of its protection without interfering in the legitimate exercise of our sublime mission as ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

American culture
Catholics have the obligation to be critical of the attitudes and behavioral aberrations of American culture. The Crosiers photo

It was March 25, 1887, when James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore spoke these words in Rome, in a homily that accompanied his taking possession of the titular church assigned to him as a cardinal, the venerable Santa Maria in Trastevere. Proclaimed in the backyard of the Vatican, the homily’s praise of American ways was considered a bold stroke on the part of the cautious Gibbons at a time when Americanist sentiments were regarded coolly by high-ranking personages in the Holy See. 

Since 1887, Gibbons’s words have been repeatedly cited with approval and received as conventional wisdom in accounts of American Catholicism. Now it’s time to ask whether conventional wisdom gets the story straight. 

Perhaps its version of events was correct back in Gibbons’s day, but today American Catholicism finds itself enmeshed in a grave crisis that includes falling numbers of priests and religious, sharply declining attendance at weekly Mass and participation in the sacramental life of the Church, and a massive, continuing exodus, especially young people, even as many other Catholics remain “Catholic” in little but name. This bad news, and much more besides, is related at least in part to the cultural assimilation of American Catholics into the secular mainstream that was so enthusiastically promoted by Gibbons and others in his day and even now continues to be promoted by many within the Church. 

Yes, America has been good to the Catholic Church in many ways. As Cardinal Gibbons pointed out on that memorable occasion in Trastevere, American-style separation of church and state preserved the Church from political entanglements like those that often proved her undoing in Europe while discouraging the rise of the virulent anticlericalism that still exists in many parts of the Old World. Citizen participation in democratic processes has helped stimulate the participatory approach to church governance widely accepted as desirable — at least in principle — by the Church in America. And American egalitarianism has been a natural basis for ecclesial communio. 

Gibbons
James Cardinal Gibbons OSV file photo

Yet each of these positive elements of the relationship has a negative mirror image. Separation of church and state, in the hands of secularist ideologues, becomes a club for driving religion out of the public square. The ideal of participatory governance encouraged the excesses of lay trusteeism in the past and now fuels demands for a radical democratization of the Church. Egalitarianism in the ecclesial context easily morphs into congregationalism. 

All these aberrations can currently be seen at work in American Catholicism. But what’s happening now also is something new: we are witnessing a rapid institutional and numerical decline of the Church herself (e.g., priestly and religious vocations, lay attendance at Sunday Mass and reception of Penance, infant baptisms, Catholic marriages, parochial schools and students) amounting to a kind of ecclesiastical implosion. 

Even in the boom times of the 19th century, some observers saw the stage being set for these developments. Among these was Orestes Brownson, the most distinguished (and very nearly only) American Catholic public intellectual of his day. In an 1870 letter to Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulists, Brownson wrote in part: 

Instead of regarding the Church as having advantages here which she has nowhere else, I think she has here a more subtle and powerful enemy to combat than in any of the old monarchical nations. . . .Catholics as well as others imbibe the spirit of the country, imbibe from infancy the spirit of independence, freedom from all restraint, unbounded license. So far are we from converting the country, we cannot hold our own. . . .I have hitherto wished to effect a harmony of the American and the Catholic idea, but I believe such harmony impracticable except by sacrificing the Catholic idea to the National.

Brownson was ignored. The views of Cardinal Gibbons and other Americanizers — like Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, Archbishop John J. Keane, first rector of the Catholic University of America, and Bishop John Lancaster Spalding of Peoria — prevailed. Generation after generation, Catholic newcomers (and their children and grandchildren) — Irish, Germans, Poles, Italians, and the rest — were more or less successfully assimilated into American Catholicism and, via the medium of the Church, into the mainstream of American secular culture. 

There were stumbles of course, with the Americanist crisis of the late 19th century the most visible of these. The judgment pronounced in 1899 by Pope Leo XIII in Testem Benevolentiae (“. . .those opinions that, taken as a whole, some designate as ‘Americanism’ cannot have Our approval”) was a blow to the Americanizers, but they quickly shook it off and denied holding the views condemned by the Pope. 

Since then, accounts of this crucial episode have frequently ignored, and sometimes misrepresented, the substance of Pope Leo’s critique of Americanism. But the views rejected by the Pope included not just (as is commonly said) the idea that American-style separation of church and state supplied a model for adoption by the Church everywhere, but also a subjective, individualistic approach to Church doctrine and discipline widely present among American Catholics today and sometimes justified by the supposedly direct, personal inspiration of each believer by the Holy Spirit. 

The furor over Americanization notwithstanding, the process of Americanizing Catholics rolled on. For a long time, that made sense. How far it carried Catholics can be seen in The Cardinal, a now generally forgotten but once wildly popular novel by Catholic author Henry Morton Robinson that was loosely based on the career of Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York. 

A bestseller from the start, The Cardinal was published in 1950 — early in the Cold War, that is, which also was the high-water mark of American Catholicism up to that time as measured by the intensity of Catholics’ identification with the Church and Catholicism’s impact on American society. At the heart of Robinson’s novel is an ancient question: Can someone be a good Catholic and also a good American? His answer, universally applauded by his fellow Catholics, was a resounding, reassuring yes. 

As is now clear, The Cardinal made its appearance on the brink of a historical precipice that shortly would interrupt the triumphant journey of American Catholicism toward the glorious fulfillment foreseen by Robinson. 

Beginning in the mid-1950s and continuing through the ’60s and ’70s, the old subculture that sustained what sociologists call the “plausibility structure” of Catholic beliefs embedded in a vast network of institutions, organizations and programs fell apart under the impact of social and demographic change (higher education for a growing number of American Catholics, rapidly rising socioeconomic status, suburbanization). Eventually the subculture and its institutional framework were either dismantled or radically altered in line with policy choices advocated by Catholic intellectuals and academics and in due course approved, or at least accepted, by Church leaders. Hastening the death of the old subculture were currents of religious change flowing tumultuously in Catholic life during and after the Second Vatican Council. In the twinkling of an eye, the Church in America, says historian Charles Morris, was “shorn of the cultural supports that had been the source of its strength.” 

As this was happening, the secular culture into which Catholics were rushing to assimilate was itself experiencing radical change. Despite an ugly and deeply rooted vein of anti-Catholicism, American secular culture for well over a century and a half had provided a receptive and largely benign environment for the Church, just as Cardinal Gibbons and his friends insisted in the face of Roman skepticism. Now, in the 1960s and 1970s, cultural-revolution-cum-sexual-revolution changed all that. In place of the old anti-Catholicism, the revolution in morality that the birth control pill helped usher in became the great new foe of the Church, undermining her mystique in the eyes of many of her own adherents. 

And now? Let Cardinal Francis George, O.M.I., of Chicago answer: “Culturally assimilated American Catholics who no longer belong to subcultures that buttressed Catholic identity. . .now have to discover and foster in American culture itself the resources they need to express their faith. If these resources are only ambiguously there, American Catholics who have remained somewhat distant from the dominant culture naturally hesitate over their relationship to it” (The Difference God Makes, Crossroad, 2009). 

Or, one might add, they opt for the culture in preference to the Church. 

But how compatible with the values of the Catholic tradition are the values of secular America that so many assimilated Catholics today more or less uncritically accept? Catholics have a serious obligation to be good citizens. But alongside good citizenship — in fact, an important part of it — is the obligation to be critical of the attitudes and behavioral aberrations of American culture. 

Catholics absorbed into its ethos feel very at home there. On the evidence, many appear neither ready nor willing to provide a Christian critique of things like legalized abortion, a nuclear deterrence policy about which the public knows (and apparently cares) little or nothing, the contraceptionist–consumerist mentality dominating the American dream of material success, the idol of American exceptionalism abroad, and much else in the world view of secular America that is in serious tension with their religious tradition. This state of affairs is a large part of what I call the Gibbons Legacy. 

James Gibbons, who died in 1921, was a conscientious churchman who exercised an enormous influence on American Catholicism during a long and fruitful career. Relatively reserved by comparison with the flamboyant Ireland, less intellectual than Keane and Spalding, Gibbons by his patient, prudent diplomacy did more than anyone else to shape the Church in America in his day — and, arguably, in ours. I do not see him as either hero or villain but as what he was — a towering figure in the story of the Americanization of American Catholicism who may also have something important to tell us about the future. If he does, that too will be part of the Gibbons Legacy. TP 

Mr. Shaw is a contributing editor of Our Sunday Visitor newsweekly and a prolific author. This article is adapted from the introduction of his new book American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of the Catholic Church in America (Ignatius Press).