A traditional Anglican priest-theologian observing the internal life of the American Catholic Church from the outside commented that American Catholicism is becoming increasingly just another form of Protestant Christianity. This suggestion gave me pause and in fact, for quite some time, this observation has remained in the forefront of my thoughts.
The Anglican clergyman in question observed that the America, as far as he could ascertain, really had no cultural identity. What does it mean to be an American? What exactly are “American values?” There probably are as many answers to this question as there are American people. “We the people…” have never been monolithic in our way of life.
The American political experiment and social ethos is by and large a Protestant experiment. There was never a point where Protestant Christianity had to establish itself against innumerable generations of Catholic intellectual, spiritual, and moral heritage as was the case in Europe. This is a characteristic that is very unique to America, both for good and for ill. Protestant Christians share with Roman Catholics a great deal, but certain Protestant tendencies, for the lack of a better term, such as an emphasis on freedom, individual conscience, self-determination (versus self-discovery), etc, which sets itself against, historically speaking, the authority of the Church with a sola scriptura mentality has imprinted a certain social individualist ethos on the American experiment. This, of course, inevitably affects Catholics living within the United States.
It is hard to argue that our socio-political environment as well as our history did not make it possible for the first Catholic president could claim that his faith is “personal and private.” It is, of course, from this line of reason combined with the sudden acceptableness of religious dissent post-Humanae Vitae that has created an incredible and seemingly insurmountable crisis of religious orthodoxy in the contemporary Church. The problem is an erosion of Catholic identity as more and more Catholics become indistinguishable from their non-Catholic American neighbors. In the 1940s, a Catholic priest working with the Catholic Worker movement observed:
It is customary for some to take a rosy view [of American Catholic life]….basing their optimism on tables of statistics concerning the growth of the Catholic population, the income and resources of the Church, the number of communions, etc. But such a method of computation is very unreliable where spiritual realities are concerned. Were it of any value, we could compute the degree of religious fervor from the quantities of grease burnt in votive stands, and our optimism would soar to the very skies…[But] even in the case of those who are wholly faithful to the external obligations of religion, there is often little evidence, aside from their devotions, that they are living Christian lives. Large areas of their lives are wholly unilluminated by their faith. Their ideas, their attitudes, their views, on current affairs, their pleasure and recreations, their tastes in reading and entertainment, their love of luxury, comfort and bodily ease, their devotion to success, their desire of money, their social snobbishness, racial consciousness, nationalistic narrowness and prejudice, their bourgeois complacency and contempt of the poor: In all these things they are indistinguishable from the huge sickly mass of paganism which surrounds them.
These words are as true in 2010 as they were in 1947. American cultural influences and a general worldliness has infiltrated the Church in America. The result is a severe crisis in terms of faith, mission, and leadership. The most recent popes have had all been explicitly conscious of this reality. Pope Paul VI was clearly conscious of this when he penned On Evangelization in the Modern World as was Pope John Paul II when he wrote On the Vocation and Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World. The same is true of several other instances in papal teaching but these two documents in particular focus specifically on how Catholics ought to be living in the modern world. The difference can be seen in the life of public service given by Governor Robert Casey of Pennsylvania and Governor Mario Cuomo of New York.
Cuomo believed the common good was best served through reluctantly tolerating legal abortion because he did not see imposing his religiously-inspired convictions on the sanctity of unborn human life on New York, though he was very comfortable doing it with capital punishment. Casey on the other hand could not be more in stark contrast in his conviction on the matter; he saw the responsibility of those charged with the extraordinary vocation of holding public office to protect and affirm the dignity of all life. In the face of great adversity, Casey held to his convictions and left us with this great message: Give your country not what it wants or will reward, but what it needs. Lend it in your lives that goodness without which it cannot be great, and the grace without which it cannot be saved.
The point is not to demonize Cuomo or cast judgment on his soul. But it is a fair assessment that one of these men gave the Democratic party what it needed and the other what it wanted and the decision they made in the public careers are still with us to this day and that one remained more consistent with the vision of Catholic life in the temporal order articulated by the Holy Fathers.
Today, surely, a number of Catholics in public office hold views that fly directly in the face of Catholic social teaching. Indeed, there is heated discussion among Catholics as to what issues of public policy are worse to dissent on or there are even attempts by Catholics to say that certain positions are not necessarily in conflict with Catholic social teaching. But this moves to another point eloquently put by Archbishop Chaput of Denver:
Too many Catholics have unconsciously come to see the church through the lens of American secular politics; to falsely divide the “institutional” church from an imaginary “real” church. Too many Catholics use the church as an arena in which interest-groups battles are fought out while organizing lobbies and pressure blocks, demonizing ideological opponents, and interpretation relationships largely in terms of power. None of this has anything to do with Catholic ecclesiology, and it’s a temptation that infects nearly all the parties in the church, no matter their point of departure–left or right. This may be the most distressing example of how assimilation to American culture has produced distortions in Catholic life, of which we’re only dimly aware and that now require a huge effort of reevangelization.
This is a mere diagnosis of a number of problems in American Catholicism with a number of social symptoms. An increasing lack of Catholic identity, a vocational crisis, a great number of Catholic schools closing or promoting heterodoxy, and the list easily becomes a litany. Again the words of Archbishop Chaput are dead on: It is not possible to be what some people call a “cultural” Catholic. Catholic culture comes from an active Catholic faith. Unless we truly believe and practice that faith, “Catholic culture” very quickly becomes a dead skin of nostalgia and comfort.