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The new Catholicism in the New South

Many Americans still think of their Catholic fellow-citizens as white urban ethnics making a hardscrabble living, raising large families, and cutting themselves into the action through big-city political machines. That’s part of the mosaic of Catholicism in the United States. But it isn’t the whole picture — or even the dominant reality.

Like virtually everything else in American life, Catholicism in America was dramatically changed by the post-World War II G.I. Bill: which, by vastly expanding the middle class, led to the creation of suburbia — and, eventually, “exurbia.” You can still find parishes across America that look something like the cinematic Shangri-La where Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman tried to turn boys into men; but they’re the exception, not the rule. Catholic America is also, even predominantly, suburban America, exurban America, and (thanks to the latest wave of Catholic immigrants) Hispanic America. Moreover, in an amazing transformation of old patterns, Catholicism is becoming a real factor in the Old Confederacy — now better-known as the “New South.”

If there was ever a part of the United States that seemed as “non-Catholic” as non-Catholic gets, it was the Old South. Not any more. What caused this dramatic change? Catholic “snow birds” have migrated to warmer climates from the northern and midwestern United States, while new Hispanic and Vietnamese immigrants have flavored the southern Catholic mix. Catholics who attend prestigious southern schools like Duke and Wake Forest often stay to work in the New South’s booming industries and to raise families. Then there are the conversions — every year, one parish I know in South Carolina receives dozens of converts (and baptizes numerous others) at the Easter Vigil. And it’s all adding up: according to a recent Time story, the Charlotte diocese is growing at a 10 percent annual clip, while Catholics in Atlanta and Houston have tripled since the mid-1990s. While Catholics are still only about 1 percent of the South’s total population (we’re about 25 percent of total U.S. population), Catholics grew in numbers in the New South by 30 percent, while the long-dominant Baptists grew by less than 10 percent.

The Time story noted that Southern Catholicism tends to be “more orthodox” than the Catholicism on tap in other regions of the country. But I wonder if that adjective quite captures the reality of the thing. My own experience with the vibrant parishes and campus ministries in the New South is that this “growing end” of Catholicism in America (as John Courtney Murray would have put it) is growing precisely because it’s not an heir to many of the post-Vatican II battles that have sapped the strength of Catholicism in the Northeast and Midwest. In the wake of the crisis caused by clerical sexual misconduct and failed episcopal leadership, the Church in New England is now replaying all the hoary battles of the past forty years, further sapping its evangelical energies in the process. That is emphatically not the situation in the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Texas, and elsewhere in the New South, where the vitality of evangelical Protestantism is a daily reminder that the Church is not about turf wars, but rather mission, evangelization, conversion, and service.

Alas, some Catholics in the New South don’t get it. The new president of Loyola University-New Orleans, Father Kevin William Wildes, S.J., fretted in Time that Catholicism in the South might simply become “another form of evangelical Protestantism with incense.” Perhaps eager to show that that manifestly wasn’t the case at his school, Father Wildes recently defended his decision to allow The Vagina Monologues to be produced on his campus — thereby demonstrating that “evangelical Protestantism with incense” isn’t the only thing unwelcome at Loyola-New Orleans; neither, it seems, are good taste, common sense, and presidential courage.

Caving in to the more rancid aspects of contemporary culture is a good example of fighting the wars of forty years ago today. Catholics in contemporary America don’t have to prove their intellectual seriousness by aping the corruptions of others. Most of the new Catholicism in the New South understands that. That’s why it’s growing. Perhaps Loyola-New Orleans will catch up some day.

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George Weigel
George Weigel
George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His column is distributed by the Denver Catholic.

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