U.S. Catholics: overly assimilated?

With his new book, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America (Ignatius Press), mild-mannered Russell Shaw has become the bull in the china shop of U.S. Catholic history, knocking heroes off pedestals and overturning conventional story-lines—all in aid of trying to understand why the Church in America is in precarious position today vis-à-vis the ambient public culture and the government.

Shaw’s answer: we’re in deep trouble because of a longstanding U.S. Catholic determination to be more-American-than-thou—to disprove ancient charges of Catholicism’s incompatibility with American democracy by assimilating so dramatically that there’s no discernible difference between Catholics (and their attitudes toward public policy) and an increasingly secularized, mainstream public opinion. Shaw mounts an impressive case that Catholic Lite in these United States has indeed taken its cues from the wider culture, and as that culture has become ever more individualistic and hedonistic, the historic U.S. Catholic passion for assimilation and acceptance has backfired. Moreover, Shaw’s call to build a culture-reforming Catholic counterculture is not dissimilar to the argument I make about the Church and public life in Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church.

But on a second reading of Shaw’s book, I began to wonder whether he’s gotten the question of the moment quite right.

To read the history of the Catholic Church in the United States as a centuries-long struggle for assimilation and acceptance certainly sheds light on one dynamic in the development of the Church in America. Yet too close a focus on the question, “Is it possible to be a good Catholic and a good American?” is to argue the question of Catholicism-and-America on the other guy’s turf. Once, the “other guy” challenging Catholics’ patriotic credentials was militant Protestantism; now, the other guy is militant secularism. To play on the other guy’s turf, however, is to concede at the outset that the other guy sets the terms of debate: “We (militant Protestants/militant secularists) know what it means to be a good American; you (Catholics) have to prove yourselves to us.”

That’s not the game, however. It wasn’t really the game from 1776 through the 1960 presidential campaign—when militant Protestantism was the aggressor—and it isn’t the game today. The real game involves different, deeper questions: “Who best understands the nature of the American experiment in ordered liberty, and who can best give a persuasive defense of the first liberty, which is religious freedom?”

The 19th-century U.S. bishops and intellectuals whose enthusiasm for American democracy Russ Shaw now views skeptically (and, yes, they did go over the top on occasion) did get one crucial point right: the American Founders “built better than they knew,” i.e., the Founders designed a democratic republic for which they couldn’t provide a durable moral and philosophical defense. But the long-despised (and now despised-again) Catholics could: Catholics could (and can) give a robust, compelling account of American democracy and its commitments to ordered liberty.

Mid-20th-century Catholic scholars like historian Theodore Maynard and theologian John Courtney Murray picked up this theme and made it central to their reading of U.S. Catholic history. Murray presciently warned that, if Catholicism didn’t fill the cultural vacuum being created by a dying mainline Protestantism, the “noble, many-storied mansion mansion of democracy [may] be dismantled, leveled to the dimensions of a flat majoritarianism, which is no mansion but a barn, perhaps even a tool shed in which the weapons of tyranny may be forged.”

That is the argument the U.S. bishops have mounted in their challenge to the Obama administration’s demolition of civil society through the HHS mandate on contraceptives and abortifacients: What is the nature of American democracy and the fundamental freedoms government is created to protect? Who are the true patriots: the men and women who can give an account of freedom’s moral character, an account capable of sustaining a genuine democracy against a rising dictatorship of relativism, “in which the tools of tyranny may be forged”?

COMING UP: Collegiality and eucharistic integrity

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The concept of the “collegiality” of bishops has been sharply contested since the Second Vatican Council debated it in 1962, 1963, and 1964. That discussion was sufficiently contentious that a personal intervention from Pope Paul VI was required to incorporate the concept of episcopal collegiality within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in such a way that the pope’s primacy and universal jurisdiction were safeguarded. The debate about collegiality has continued ever since. Now, however, it’s focused more on what kind of collegiality exists within national conferences of bishops. Is it an “affective collegiality” of mutual support and encouragement? Or is episcopal collegiality within bishops’ conferences “effective,” such that a conference has real teaching and legislative authority?  

Whether collegiality is “affective,” “effective,” or some combination of the two, it ought to be clear what truly “collegial” behavior isn’t.   

It isn’t individual bishops attempting end-runs around their national conference, appealing for Roman interventions that would forestall debates that their brother bishops wish to engage. It isn’t bishops trying to browbeat the conference chairman into changing an agenda to suit the tastes of a distinct minority — and misleading their brother bishops as to what they’re about when soliciting support for such a gambit. And it isn’t trying to filibuster a conference meeting so that no action is possible on an agenda item that the great majority of bishops wish to consider and act upon. 

If any of those three maneuvers qualifies as collegial, then “collegiality” has no more meaning than the claim that my poor Baltimore Orioles have a great starting rotation. 

For years now — and by “years,” I mean long before the idea of a “President Biden” entered the stream of national consciousness — the bishops of the United States have been concerned that ours is becoming less of a eucharistic Church than Vatican II called us to be when it taught that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life. Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed that conciliar summons when, in his final encyclical, he taught that “the Church draws her life from the Eucharist,” which “recapitulates the heart and mystery of the Church.” Yet all around us we see declining Sunday Mass attendance: a sadness that preceded the pandemic but has been further exacerbated by it.  Moreover, surveys suggest that too many Catholics think of Sunday Mass as essentially a social occasion, rather than an encounter with the living God in which Christ is offered to the Father and is given back to his people in holy communion — a communion in and through the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, received under the forms of bread and wine.

If the Church lives from the Eucharist and yet the people of the Church don’t participate in the Eucharist as often as they should, or don’t understand what they’re celebrating and receiving when they do, then the Church suffers from a serious eucharistic deficit. Those ordained to leadership in the Church are obliged to do something about that. 

That is why the U.S. bishops have been determined for some time to undertake a comprehensive program of eucharistic education throughout the Church. For the great majority of bishops, that determination has been intensified by the fact that our eucharistic deficit is being compounded by the eucharistic incoherence of public officials who, rejecting authoritative Catholic teaching based on both revelation and reason, nonetheless present themselves for holy communion as if they were in full communion with the Church. The longstanding episcopal failure to address this incoherence exacerbates the eucharistic deficit in American Catholicism by implying that the Church really doesn’t mean what it teaches about the sacred nature of the Eucharist. 

Those suggesting that this is all about “politics” are either ill-informed or deliberately misleading the Church and the gullible parts of the media. Concern for the eucharistic integrity of the Church includes, but goes much deeper than, concerns about the eucharistic incoherence of Catholic public officials who act as if the Church’s settled convictions on the life issues and on worthiness to receive holy communion don’t exist. That is why the U.S. bishops are forging ahead with developing a teaching document that will clarify for the whole Church why we are a Eucharistic community, what the Eucharist truly is, what reception of the Eucharist means, and why everyone in the Church should examine conscience before receiving Christ in the sacrament. 

The wheels of collegiality may grind slowly. In this case, however, they are grinding truly, and for the sake of the Gospel.

George Weigel is an independent columnist whose weekly column is syndicated by the Archdiocese of Denver. The opinions and viewpoints expressed by Mr. Weigel therein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Archdiocese of Denver or the bishops of Denver.