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Catholic Culture In America

Renewal starts with the idea of vocation.

By 5.23.13

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Consider a time, six decades ago, when the rate of Sunday Mass attendance for Catholics in the United States was 75 percent. Eighty percent went to confession yearly or more. Archbishop Fulton Sheen topped the television ratings in prime time.

There were also towering figures in the Catholic intelligentsia who commanded attention in the secular world. The stories of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy are woven together into a coherent tale of active Catholic engagement with the culture by Paul Elie in his fine The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage. All but O’Connor were converts to the Faith.

Russell Shaw in his new book, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, describes the history of Catholicism in America, “a brilliant pastoral achievement in making real the norm of Catholic participation in the life of their Church” despite the excesses of triumphalism, clericalism, secrecy, and legalism -- at least two of which were on awful display in the sex abuse crisis of recent years.

Shaw writes of New York Cardinal Francis Spellman’s celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of his ordination as bishop, in Yankee Stadium, on August 30, 1957. Quoting from Thomas C. Reeves’s biography of Fulton Sheen, he notes that in attendance were the apostolic delegate, four cardinals, 18 archbishops, 83 bishops, two abbots, and thousands of well-wishers. There was a large procession of uniformed police and firemen, members of the Holy Name societies, marching from the left field bullpen into the center of the stadium dominated by “an immense cross.”

Cardinal Spellman made a grand entrance from right field, escorted by twenty West Point cadets in full-dress uniform (Spellman was in charge of the military ordinariate serving Catholics in the military). He was wearing gold robes trimmed in scarlet. His miter was gold with scarlet trim. According to Reeves, “The St. Joseph Seminary choir, stationed behind home plate, sang ‘Behold the Great Priest.’”

Yet, today, despite a population of over 68 million or 22.1 percent of the United States, Catholic religious life and practice has, at least quantitatively, experienced a pronounced decline. By 2010 the number of priests has dropped from a high of 58,632 in 1965, the year of Vatican Council II, to 40,788. The number of seminarians has decreased to 5,131 from 8,325.

Religious women numbered approximately 180,000 in 1965 but that figure has cratered to 58,724 in 2010 as has the number of parochial schools and students.

But the failure of Catholic catechesis in America staggers the imagination. Shaw cites one 2011 study indicating that “among the 19% of the 1,442 self-identified Catholics whom it surveyed, who regard themselves as ‘highly committed’ to the Church, strikingly high percentages believe it is possible to be a good Catholic without attending Mass every Sunday (49%); without following Church doctrine on birth control (60%), divorce and remarriage (46%), and abortion (31%); without being married in the Church (48%); and without giving time or money to help the poor (39%).”

Most depressing is the cluelessness of Catholic teens among whom only 10% reported that religion was “extremely important” to them in living their lives. This compares, unfavorably, to 20% of mainline Protestants, 29% of conservative Protestant teens, and 31% of African-American Protestant teens.

“On some measures of religious faith and practice, Catholics scored lower than some secular Jewish teenagers and those self-identified as ‘not religious.’”

This sad story has been told before. What makes Russell Shaw’s book interesting is his explanation of this sorry state of affairs and how Catholics in America might reinvigorate their spirituality, their subculture and that of their nation.

Shaw basically sees the 19th century assimilationist or Americanist group of Irish American bishops, led by James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, as leading to the current withering of Catholic culture in the United States. Along with Bishops Ireland of St. Paul and Mudelein of Chicago, Gibbons saw little tension between Catholicism and the American ethos. Dissenting from this view were many German- and Polish-American Catholics as well as Pope Leo XIII who wrote Testem benevolentiae (“In witness to goodwill”) in 1899 to make clear that “those opinions cannot be approved by us the sum total of which some indicate by the name Americanism.”

“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,” preached Cardinal Gibbons, expressing the view of most Catholic Americans through the 1960s.

Shaw’s retelling of the Americanist crisis of the 19th century tilts clearly in favor of Leo XIII whose criticism of the American bishops is dismissed by many progressive Catholic historians as overwrought. Shaw also dismisses as irrelevant arguments that the current decline of Catholicism in America is simply part and parcel of a general disintegration in Western culture.

In fairness to the Gibbons faction, America in the 19th century was a very religious country free of the secular orthodoxy imposed by the Supreme Court and undermined by the subsequent cultural depredations of the 1960s and 1970s. The Constitution’s protection of religious freedom had not yet been corrupted so as to mandate a ban on religion in the public square.

Yet, whatever the causes, things are in a sorry state right now. Thus, Shaw sees the need for a new Catholic subculture as well as a reinvigorated sense of evangelization, echoing a similar call by George Weigel, the papal biographer. This, of course, is easier said then done. What is clear is that each individual Catholic must start by renewing his or her own faith with prayer, sacrifice, and the sacraments. In other words, says Shaw, “It has to start with the idea of vocation… Every life, as several recent popes have remarked, is a vocation.”

“Indispensable to and inseparable from what’s envisaged here is a great deepening of the interior life, the life of the spirit, among American Catholics,” argues Shaw. “It must begin with the believing, practicing Catholic who now make up the shrinking backbone of American Catholicism but who’ve grown weary, perhaps discouraged, in the face of setbacks, disappointments, and defeats since the 1960s…”

Quite often, I find myself in conversations with fellow Catholics who comment on the paradox of a shrinking Church but a growing spirituality among young people including newly ordained priests who may be fewer in number but on fire with the Holy Spirit. Some of us saw this positive development stemming from the pontificate of John Paul II. There are also numerous expressions of deep lay spirituality among Catholics worldwide.

The hard truth is that today, you have to work at being a Catholic, or a Christian of any denomination, rather than being swept along by the inertia of an enveloping subculture that was sometimes too “self-referential,” a term recently employed by our new Pope Francis. It is bracing but oddly comforting to recall that our first popes were also martyrs.

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.