The State of American Catholicism

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.

20 Responses to The State of American Catholicism

  1. Joe Hargrave says:

    I recently wrote about some of these topics here:

    I have a somewhat different take on matters, though I do see the same problem.

    My first big issue, however, with this analysis is that we are not looking at an exclusively American problem. There’s nothing here that has been said about Catholic life in America that could not also apply to Europe, where supposedly the people have more culture, more of a social consciousness, more everything compared to us nasty American brutes.

    This isn’t to say that there are no differences between America and Europe, but that the same philosophical malaise, in different ways, affects both continents. This is what the Holy Father had to say about America, however:

    “But the [American] State itself had to be secular precisely out of love for religion in its authenticity, which can only be lived freely. And thus, we find this situation of a State deliberately and decidedly secular but precisely through a religious will in order to give authenticity to religion. And we know that in studying America, Alexis de Toqueville noticed that secular institutions live with a de facto moral consensus that exists among the citizens. This seems to me to be a fundamental and positive model.”

    What some of these observers bemoan as source of political division within the Church, Pope Benedict sees as a “fundamental and positive” model. He even goes on to say he would like to see it in Europe, where secularization is even deeper and more widespread. What European country, after all, can boast the religious homogeneity – not in mere identification, but in daily life and practice – of a place like Mormon Utah?

    In my article, I blame political polarization on theological subversives who applied methods meant for political philosophy to theological and liturgical matters. This had nothing to do with the supposed defects in American culture, with the difficulties that our Protestant heritage supposedly throw up for a flourishing Catholicism. It had everything to do with a subversive conspiracy that the Vatican was powerless to stop.

    The 1940s priest you cite probably could have made a similar complaint in 1240. The great majority of common people are never going to completely look and act the part. They’re going to continue to hold vulgar opinions. Nothing can be done about this.

    But when they actually do their devotions, when they actually do attend Mass, they continue to support and legitimize the Church as a social institution. When they don’t do the devotions and when they don’t go to Mass, the Church loses legitimacy, at least in the eyes of the rest of society. And that’s the difference between 1940 and today – the difference between a society in which the Church was strong, in which her influence was felt, in which her opinion was a thing to be reckoned with.

    No matter what problems existed – since when, and in what era, do problems not exist!? – the Church thrived in America, and this is a fact that had been acknowledged by more than one pope, including Leo XIII, Pius XII, John Paul II, and our current one.

    Those little things, the little devotions, that the more enlightened turn up their noses at (like the pompous fellow who suggested doing away with Eucharistic adoration a while back) are the thousands of little building blocks upon which the Church rests as a socially relevant institution. If termites eat one plank of wood holding up your house, it might not collapse and you might not notice it. But when they eat up a dozen or fifty or a hundred…

    Let me put it differently; I’ve never known a devoted Catholic who didn’t at least TRY to align their thinking with the moral teaching of the Church. Which way the casual relationship goes, I can’t say, but there is a correlation. To gnaw away and pick away at devotions is to pull at the threads binding the Church together in the world. It’s so stupid it has to be intentional.

    So let me wrap this up. America is not the problem; America is the solution. Maybe Reagan said that, I don’t know, but I think it is true. I think Americans ought to be faithful to the Constitution, which means abandoning the ideological era opened up by the French Revolution and Marxism, the struggle between “reaction” and “progress”, between “conservative” and “liberal”, between “right” and “left.”

    The Constitution if followed reigns in the worst tendencies of left and right and places moral and social responsibility at the local level, where it belongs. It is a subsidiarist document, which gives Catholics all the more reason to support it. We have no right to radically alter or abandon it for the sake of some theocratic flim-flam that isn’t mandated or even encouraged by the Papacy. American Catholics are under no obligation to encourage the federal government to use “any means necessary” to either regulate morality or implement the recommendations of the USCCB’s leftist research staff.

  2. Tito Edwards says:

    Mario Cuomo is a pro-abortionist plain and simple.

    Anything less is playing devil with the details.

  3. Eric Brown says:

    Of course, Tito..

  4. Anthony says:

    American Catholicism…

    Eric Brown writes a good piece on the state of Catholicism in America. His observation that you cannot assess the state of the Church’s spiritual life on empirical data is very important. At the same time, there is an important witness to Catholic……

  5. Pinky says:

    One additional feature plays into the personalization of faith among American Catholics. We came here from different cultures. It’s natural that a French-based Louisianan practice of faith would be different from the Irish-accented Catholicism of Boston. In an average town in Pennsylvania, there’s a German parish across the street from a Polish parish, and Italians a block away (all Catholic). We didn’t have a national style, so we came to express our Catholic faith in an “essentials only” way.

    That’s different from evangelical fundamentalism, which agrees on maybe 5 essentials. Our list is different and much longer. But we developed an instinct to concede the little things like particular sacramentals. It’s related to the American tendency to be pleasantly non-confrontational (which might strike people as a funny description of America, but I hope you know what I mean). It may have made it easier for us to start conceding doctrines.

  6. Interesting post, Eric, and good response, Joe.

    I guess I’m a little torn on this kind of analysis. On the one hand, it makes intuitive sense to me that the US, being a nation which is distinctly Protestant in its formation, would have a cultural effect on the Catholics living in it. On the other, the Catholic Worker priest’s comments from ’47 seem like they could just as well (or perhaps even better) have been made about Western European Catholics in the late 40s. If anything, Catholic belief and practice seems to have fallen apart even more in the old Catholic countries of Europe than in the US. Perhaps at the same time that America lacks the old Catholic culture, it also lacks many of the old resentments and poisons that added to the anti-Church sentiments that were so common in the Old World.

    And, I suppose, the reactionary in me looks at a statement from a Catholic Worker priest in the late 40s and can’t help thinking, “Well, your wing of Catholic opinion got to run things in the US church for 20-30 years, and how exactly did that go in the 70s and 80s?” But to be honest, that’s probably unfair. For all that many theologically and liturgically “progressive” Catholics claim to be fond of social justice movements like the Catholic Worker, I’m not sure it’s at all fair to blame the early members of the movement for what’s happened to progressive Catholicism in the post Vatican II era.

  7. Joe Hargrave says:


    I don’t think it’s fair at all. I think Dorothy Day was much more a subsidiarist, and would have much more in common with Ron Paul than with Ted Kennedy.

    People like Day were true advocates of the people – involved in their daily lives and struggles. The forces that hijacked theology and liturgy, on the other hand, were intellectuals and bureaucrats far removed from those lives and struggles.

  8. Joe,

    I certainly wouldn’t blame Day — one can’t blame people for their followers, especially followers who came long after the fact.

    Indeed, maybe part of the tragedy in all this is that things like the Catholic Worker movement were turned into totems by politically progressive Catholics who didn’t actually have any interest in living in a rooted and local way the way that Day did — thus in effect hijacking her legacy.

    That said, maybe I’m just being unfair and cranky, but the quote from the Catholic Worker priest rubs me the wrong way, in that it makes it sound as if he thinks that if only he can kick over the traces of American Catholic culture, things could be so much better. Instead, when the status quo was attacked, it just created a vacuum and things got worse.

  9. Joe Hargrave says:

    Oh, I agree with you on the quote, Darwin.

    And we see that mentality today as well. I was once admonished by certain people for, and I quote, “not being able to stop thinking like an American.”

    Of all the dirty tricks! Well, I AM an American, and its taken me some time to come to terms with the full implications of it. Because America’s culture IS different than Europe’s, it isn’t a culture in the fully traditional sense of the word (like I said, I think our culture is regional, not national).

    But that used to be a good thing and not a bad thing for Catholicism. Were Catholics harassed by Protestants? Sure. But they overcame and persevered. They built schools and hospitals and civic organizations and played an immense role in America. To a certain extent we still do, but we’re weakened and divided in a way we haven’t been before. And this has nothing to do with American “individualism” as some kind of historical legacy.

    It surely has to do with consumerism, which is a modern development, a mid-20th century development. But it has even more to do with the misappropriation and misuse of philosophy.

  10. Eric Brown says:

    Just for clarity, I was not making a point about European Catholics nor even conscious of them. I didn’t think that they were exempt or that the problem is uniquely American. I am just arguing that the historical unfolding and many facets of the American situation are, in fact, unique. There are obviously indeed differences between American Catholics and European Catholics as well as history and as well as what has influenced us, how pronounced these things are, are subject to debate.

    My point had nothing to do with this. It was solely to highlight and shed light on what I found to be an analysis that had a bit of truth to it and seek to identify root causes in the religious crisis in the Church in America today as the most immediate culture affecting us in our own.

  11. Fair enough, I apologize for the digression. I guess the immediate comparison that sprang to mind for me was: If the state of American Catholics is due, in part, to the Protestant background of the US, what is the situation like in other countries.

    But I get that this wasn’t the comparison intended by the post.

  12. Joe Hargrave says:


    With all due respect, your point had everything to do with this. You did make the case that the problems of the American Church are caused by uniquely American problems (I broke up the paragraph to highlight it):

    “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.”

    So let me be clear that I just want to address this point. It may or may not have a direct bearing on the rest of your post, but I want to address it as an individual argument.

    Europe, Canada, and other Western countries have the same problem – hence, my rebuttal that these “uniquely American” issues are not primarily (or in my view even partially) responsible for the erosion of Catholicism in this country.

    Catholicism was carried here mostly, not exclusively, but mostly by immigrants. My great-grandfather, a Lebanese Maronite Catholic, came to this country in the 1910s. In Brooklyn he was one of many Catholics hailing from Polish, Irish, Italian, and other backgrounds. My great-grandparents came from a small mountain village in Lebanon; they had no Protestant tendencies; their ancestors were Catholic when Europeans were still making blood sacrifices to Odin.

    All of these people came from Catholic countries with Catholic cultures. And my great-grandparents, and my grandparents, and my parents, were all ardent patriots, convinced that there was no conflict between their Old World heritage and culture and the promise of freedom and opportunity in America. My grandmother proudly displayed the Lebanese and American flags in her home. She wouldn’t tolerate anti-American talk for a second, regardless of whatever nativist persecution or bigotry Catholics, and especially Middle Eastern Catholics, might have had to suffer. All of these “uniquely American” problems would have been meaningless to that entire generation.

    Meanwhile, my Protestant grandmother on the other side of my family is still quite active in her church activities. I don’t see this “individualist ethos” there either. That entire generation, Catholic or Protestant, barely had an individualist among them, at least at the socio-economic level of the families I descend from.

    I don’t say all of this to attack or discredit you – but I do disagree with your idea. I’ll also throw in that I used to share your views on this. But I’ve had time to think about it, and I think it’s wrong.

    It is not American history, or American culture, or American ideas, that are at the root of the Catholic crisis in this country. It is philosophical materialism, progressivism, consumerism, spiritual diseases that we actually can observe working in similar ways in both Europe and the United States and the other Western countries (Canada, Australia, etc.)They might manifest in different ways, sure, but the essence is the same.

    I’ll go one further and repeat, again, that American culture and ideas are at least a part of the solution to the problem. My great-grandparents and grandparents knew it, along with tens of millions of their contemporaries. So we ought to figure it out too.

  13. Donna V. says:

    And my great-grandparents, and my grandparents, and my parents, were all ardent patriots, convinced that there was no conflict between their Old World heritage and culture and the promise of freedom and opportunity in America.

    An excellent post, Joe. My father, the son of Czech immigrants, certainly knew that some Protestant Americans were anti-Catholic. He once mentioned that he had experienced a bit of discrimination at work from “fellows with Mason rings on their fingers” But never for a moment did he accept the idea that being a good American and a good Catholic was a contradiction in terms. To do so would have been to validate the bigots’ definition of America and Americans.

    Ironically, it has always seemed to me that the biggest Protestantizers of the American Catholic Church were the trendy Vatican II folks. They seemed eager to exchange that embarrassing (to them)Old World mystery – the “bells and smells,” devotions, holy cards, the Rosary, saints, and statues for bland architecture, awkward euphemisms like “reconciliation” instead of “confession,” (the English historian Paul Johnson has pointed out that we Yanks have a dangerous talent for coining awkward euphemisms) and folksy, jokey homilies – as if the “old” Catholicism had too much of an old-fashioned, unprogressive,grandpa-just-off-the-boat-at-Ellis Island aura about it. One can’t enter a Catholic church built in, say, 1970, without wondering if the people who approved such buildings harbored a secret desire to be suburban Methodists.

  14. Joe Hargrave says:


    You’re absolutely right. I’ve spoken quite a bit of their bastardization of theology and liturgy, but you’ve hit the nail on the head with regard to the practical effect, which is essentially to make the Church more Protestant. And that madness began in Europe, with Bugnini, though American subversives were quite eager to hop on board.

    You know what else began in Europe? The Austrian school. And I actually agree with the Austrians on some things, they make a lot of sense – but their ethics are pure individualism and Mises’s view of culture was nothing but relativism. My point though is that one of the foremost individualist intellectual trends began in Austria.

  15. FWIW, I could see an argument that some of the particular problems suffered by the American church are related to the emphasis on individualism and “personal belief” in the US — while there are other problems which have caused more or greater problems elsewhere.

    At the same time, I’d say there are probably some significant benefits to the American culture are regards Catholic practice as well. For instance, while we do not have a single cultural variant of Catholicism which reinforced religious practice, Americans tend to emphasize a personal devotion to religious practice which is often not emphasized in many of the more traditionally Catholic countries these days. While there’s a certain danger to feeling that one can choose one’s religion, there’s also a seriousness that comes from the fact that people _choose_ it rather than just finding themselves in it.

    And while Americans may lean towards more Protestantized liturgy in some cases, we also avoid the anti-clericalism which has often infected even practicing Catholics in the “old country”.

    I’m not sure that’s what Eric was going for, but I could see it as a valid point about Catholicism in America.

  16. Mike Petrik says:

    While the Austrian School certainly emphasizes individualism over collectivism, I think it is easy to over-generalize: For instance:

    “Nor is there any reason why the state should not assist the individuals in providing for those common hazards of life against which, because of their uncertainty, few individuals can make adequate provision.

    Where, as in the case of sickness and accident, neither the desire to avoid such calamities nor the efforts to overcome their consequences are as a rule weakened by the provision of assistance – where, in short, we deal with genuinely insurable risks – the case for the state’s helping to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance is very strong… Wherever communal action can mitigate disasters against which the individual can neither attempt to guard himself nor make the provision for the consequences, such communal action should undoubtedly be taken,” – Hayek: The Road To Serfdom (Chapter 9).

  17. Nate Wildermuth says:

    Thank you this reflection, Eric. I’ve come to believe that the crisis of faith is due to what Pope Benedict calls “the supremacy of technology”. Prayer has been supplanted by cell phones and 911. Catechism has been supplanted by television. One could go on and on. Modern technology has destroyed work, families, culture, and is in the process of destroying religion itself – transforming all into the humanistic atheist society. Read any Science Fiction novel, and you will have seen technology’s program for humanity. It ain’t pretty, and it sure isn’t faithful.

    Some thoughts about Dorothy Day – she never really found herself doing what she set out to do, which was to promote a radically Catholic political program. Instead, she found herself feeding and housing people. She set out to fix the fundamental problems of society, but became entrenched in the battle to ‘band-aid’ the victims of our society. I wonder who will take up the mantle to put into action a Catholic political movement?

  18. Joe Hargrave says:


    Hayek was sometimes the odd man out among the Austrians. Heck, the ideas of Wilhelm Ropke are considered to be Austrian, though they are far from individualist.

    So I do understand your point. I think Mises and Rothbard were the staunch individualists, the ethical egoists – neither were Christian.

    Ron Paul is an Austrian too, and I support him. I don’t agree with everything that comes out of his mouth about the primacy of individual liberty in a philosophical sense.

  19. […] The first is from the American Catholic blog. The basic “o tempora, o mores” stuff. One quote cited in the essay was from a Catholic Worker priest from 1947: […]

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