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.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.