C. John McCloskey
The state of the Church in the United States in the 500th anniversary year of the evangelization of America offers an interesting and unique opportunity, especially given the pre-eminent role America currently holds in world affairs. The year 1492 and its recent anniversary are not often seen in the context of Christian evangelization. Rather, it is seen as the historical fact that opened the way for European emigration—people supposedly fleeing from an old order of rigid religion, absolutist regimes, and economically stagnant feudal economies.

French philosopher Joseph DeMaistre once said that "Dogmas make nations" and the "dogma" of the U.S. has long been the absolute right of the individual to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" (preamble to the Declaration of Independence, 1776). The saving message of Christ as mediated through his Church and its effect on our nation, culture, and society rarely enter the American mind.

This thin dogma has been kept alive for over two hundred years, however, by a moralistic, Bible-based Protestantism, joined with a relatively small minority of faithful Roman Catholics. With the virtual disappearance of main-stream Protestantism and the enormous problems of post-Vatican II American Catholicism, all that has gone. Therein lies the tale. The Chinese, I believe, use the same word for both disaster and opportunity. Now may be the moment for a true evangelization of America.

In this booklet I will somewhat summarily trace the development of the Church in America from its beginnings, give an analysis of the present situation, and finish with a positive assessment for the future, looking not only towards the second millennium of Christianity, but also towards the millennium of America's evangelization in 2492.

When we speak of the Catholic evangelization of the U.S., several points should be made clear at the outset:

1. In a certain sense America has undergone several "evangelizations": First, the Spanish evangelization of California, Texas, and Florida which flowed from the arrival of Columbus in 1492, and secondly, the northern European arrivals: a combination of flight from persecution in the case of the English colonists and missionary zeal in the case of the French. We could actually speak of a third massive evangelization through emigration from Europe during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the latter part of the twentieth century we find still more emigrations: from the Far East due to persecution and economic problems, and from Mexico and other countries of South and Central America for the same reasons.[1]

2. Although the initial discovery that took place in 1492 introduced Christianity to the New World, almost 300 years passed before the formation of the U.S. as a political unit took place. During these 300 years the territory which is now the U.S. was sparsely populated, and Catholicism played a negligible role in society. In 1776, the year of American independence, there were only twenty-four priests and about twenty to twenty-five thousand Catholics in the 13 colonies; scarcely one percent of the two and one-half million colonists. The real development of Catholicism in the U.S. has taken place largely in the last 215 years.[2]

The growth of the Church over the last two centuries has been impressive but in an environment somewhat antagonistic to its beliefs. On the one hand, the liberal democracy which forms the basis of our political system tends to be anti-hierarchical and based largely on the rationalist philosophy of the Enlightenment. It therefore tends to a subjective relativism as regards belief, which certainly militates against the unique claims of the Church. On the other hand there are those who would dispute this view, claiming that the American system has provided a near-ideal foundation for the growth of Catholicism. Those who are holders of this view believe that the foundational ideas of American democracy can be traced back to Scholastic, or even Thomistic thought, via the influence of the Anglican Richard Hooker.[3]

There has been a constant undercurrent of anti-Catholicism running through America's history, due to the dominance of the Protestant sects which have largely defined American religion until relatively recently. The two aspects of this Anti-Catholicism—liberal democratic ideology and Protestantism—have, ironically, kept the American Catholic populace from wholeheartedly embracing the American ethos (which in turn has insured a firm loyalty to Catholic belief and practice). But they have also provided a background of tension and slightly veiled persecution for the growth of the Church in America.

These themes of tension and persecution appear and reappear throughout the history of Catholicism in the U.S. In one respect, the effects were quite positive in that they produced a thoroughly inculturated American Church. Before the Second Vatican Council, simply in quantitative terms, participation in parish life, enrollment in the parochial educational system, sacramental reception, and religious vocations would almost certainly rank among the highest of any country in any historical epoch. However, it is now clear that these factors evidently did not provide the foundation necessary to insure future growth and faithfulness under more adverse ecclesial and societal conditions.

One clear indication was the weak influence of Catholicism itself on the society and culture of the United States. Many of the immigrants who came to the U.S. came in order to escape economic oppression, social-class distinctions, and religious persecution. They sought (and happily found) economic, social, and religious freedom that enabled them to raise themselves to high levels of education and personal well-being. Consequently religion, even though fervent in practice, became very largely a personal affair resulting in relatively little evangelical fervor regarding the truths which Catholicism wished to communicate to America as a whole. As a result of the immigrant nature of the Church, the emphasis was placed above all on the pastoral care and cultural integration of the successive waves of various ethnic groups. The Church in America became accustomed to a steady and relatively painless growth, due not only to the millions of immigrants but also to high birth rates, high levels of nutrition and health care, and the absence of epidemics and war. The emphasis was not placed on spirituality or intellectual life but rather on continual construction of the superstructure of churches, schools, hospitals, etc. in order to pastorally minister to the millions of immigrants and their families.

The Catholic Church in America has also been greatly influenced (up to our own day) by the massive influx of the Irish and their consequent preponderance in American ecclesiastical life; bishops, priests, religious, and leading laity. The Irish came from an ethnic heritage which included centuries of severe religious oppression, strong tribal or clan loyalty, and relatively little intellectual or cultural background vis-à-vis their Catholicism. A certain "clericalism"—which was by no means unique to Irish-Americans in the decades prior to the Second Vatican Council, but nonetheless had unique Irish characteristics—produced a Church totally loyal to the teaching authority yet somewhat unimaginative as regards its role in American society.[4]

Mention also should be made of the semi-heresy/error of "Americanism," which was condemned by Pope Leo XIII in 1899 in a letter to the pre-eminent American prelate James Cardinal Gibbons, and entitled "Testem Benevolentiae." Americanism could be defined simply as "the basic harmony of American democratic ways with Catholicism." According to Americanism, the emphasis of one's spiritual life should be placed on initiative, freedom, good works, and individuality rather than on grace, interior life, holiness, etc. Although the encyclical was somewhat controversial at the time for trying to identify the roots of the disorder and exactly who was actually involved in the heresy, the Roman Pontiff had clearly identified a tendency in American Catholic life; one that always existed in an undercurrent but came to full fruition after the Second Vatican Council. In some ways Americanism served as a sort of historical bridge between the Liberal controversies in the Europe of Lammenais et al. and the Modernist controversies of Europe in the early twentieth century.[5]

The Church in America grew with vigor until 1960, at which time the average Catholic family size was large, millions of students were enrolled in Catholic schools and universities, and average Sunday Mass attendance was 75%. Seminaries and religious houses were full and missionaries were being sent all over the world. Emigration to the U.S. had greatly diminished and the growth of the Church was largely internally generated. It appeared that the Church, with the election of John F. Kennedy as the first Catholic president in 1960 was totally integrated into the culture of a welcoming liberal Protestant America.[6] What went wrong? An analysis of the present day situation of the Church in America may suggest some answers. This analysis may appear somewhat negative, but it will be tempered by a positive outlook for the future.

The Church today

The current situation of the Church in the U.S., mutatis mutandis, is similar to its state in western Europe some twenty or thirty years ago; i.e., heading rapidly towards secularization. The term crisis, although much over-used, best describes the situation of the post-Vatican II Church.[7]

The level of theological discourse in the U.S. has traditionally been somewhat shallow, which is understandable due to the relative youth of the Church and its concern with pastoral and institutional matters. The last twenty-five years of theological discourse and seminary training has been strongly influenced by European dissident theologians under the influence of Marx, Hegel, Freud, and Kant. Their theological offspring can be found in liberation theology, process theology, consequentialism in moral theology, and transcendental Thomism, respectively. All of these great figures of modernity, have left a very definite imprint on several generations of American priests and university students with disastrous results for the faith and morals of American Catholics.[8]

The complete integration of the Church with the American system of government and culture, the juxtaposition of the Cross and the Flag, also resulted in an identification of some of the leading elements of the clergy and laity with a leftist statist political agenda which alienated a significant portion of the working class laity. This over-emphasis on social problems at the expense of spiritual ends threw large numbers of the faithful into confusion.[9]

We can also speak of a crisis in authority and belief marked by the unwillingness of some to clearly preach and lead and of others to obediently listen and follow.[10] This was combined, not coincidentally, with a serious decline in the quality of catechetics—resulting in a generation of people under forty with almost no notion of credal Catholicism and a generation over forty with only vague memories of pre-Vatican II catechetical training. At the same time, due to a tremendous initial distortion of the Council's teaching, the liturgy—the very heart of the Church's worship and precisely the point where the laity's faith meets their practice—has degenerated in many aspects.[11]

Given this panorama, it is not surprising that there has been a sharp decline of Catholic practice across the board since 1965. Church attendance is heading towards the 20-[25]% range from the 75% of only thirty years ago. Priestly and religious vocations have declined precipitously and are continuing to decline despite an upward trend world wide. Defections, although somewhat slower after the hemorrhaging of the 1960's and 1970's, continue.[12]

These various ecclesial ills have naturally had an impact not only on Catholic belief but also in the vital areas of marriage and family. One-third to one-half of Catholic marriages now end in divorce. The rate of abortion is almost as high among Catholics as it is among non-Catholics. The widespread use of artificial contraception in Catholic families has contributed to Catholics going from an average rate of five to six children per family in 1960 to 1.8 children in 1980 (it is probably even lower now). In short, secularization.[13]

For the first time in history, U.S. dioceses are being forced to close churches and schools by the hundreds due to dwindling financial resources, declining Church attendance, and lack of vocations to staff the institutions. Millions of Catholics have joined Protestant evangelical and fundamentalist sects, having found insufficient challenge or meaning in Catholic practice. Ironically and sadly, the U.S. is gradually turning into a "mission country" only thirty years after the Church appeared to be on the brink of playing a preponderant religious and cultural role.[14]

Future prospects

What are the future prospects for re-evangelization? Before attempting to answer that, I should point out some of the characteristics of American society that have provided such a promising history for the Church in the past and that bode well for future developments. Americans possess an innate sense of fairness, of respect and tolerance for other's beliefs, an absence of envy and ideology, and a lack of shame in speaking openly about and practicing one's religion.[15]

In the history of the Church there has been an ebb and flow according to the movement of the Holy Spirit on men's free wills. The faith in some regions has virtually disappeared where it once flourished (Near East, Northern Africa) and in other regions has suffered attack—in fact almost perished—yet revived (Poland, Switzerland, parts of Germany, etc.). There are still many millions of faithful Catholics in the U.S. who can form the base for re-evangelization in the centuries to come. Indeed, with the collapse of so many "modern" ideologies there now exists almost no other alternative to secular humanism in the U.S. than Catholicism.[16]

The twenty-first century may witness the flowering of a renewed and purified Catholicism in the U.S. As we pass the five-hundredth anniversary of the first evangelization of America, it is time to accentuate the positive developments that are clear to those who have eyes to see. While the crisis in the U.S. Church continues, there are clear signs that the end may be in sight as we gradually shed the old skin of dissent and confusion in doctrinal, moral, and liturgical matters that resulted from a sadly distorted interpretation of the Second Vatican Council. Some of the commentators offer solutions to our present day confusion that tend to be rather nostalgic in their character, that is to say, they point backward to a golden era of the 1950s when Catholicism appeared to be at the zenith we described earlier.

But the natural question arises: if Catholic belief was so firmly rooted among the faithful of that era, then what can account for the near collapse of the human element of the Church in less than fifteen years after the election of the first Catholic president? It seems that pre-Vatican II Catholicism was not sufficiently rooted in the interior spiritual life—that "soul of the apostolate" which alone can provide a durable base for a Catholic influence—that could permeate American society and create a church that would, to paraphrase Chesterton, move the world rather than be moved by it.

It may be now more than ever in the history of North America, even when things look so glum, that we are in a position to build a Christian society that will be truly counter-cultural. As André Malraux, of all people, put it, "In the twenty-first century, the world will be either religious or not be." Perhaps the greatest reason for a realistic optimism is the continuing pontificate of John Paul II. In 14 years, through his pastoral journeys, particularly the two visits to the United States, and magisterial writings, he has traced out in almost every conceivable area an authentic vision of how the teachings of the Council will finally be implemented. It will require years, perhaps decades, for these teachings, expressed through the prism of his own personalist philosophy, to filter down fully to the lay faithful, but the substructure has been constructed for the edifice of the Church as we head towards the millennium.

Three large seminaries: Mt. St. Mary's in Emmitsburg, Maryland, St. Charles Borromeo in Philadelphia, and Holy Apostles in Cromwell, Connecticut, are at or near capacity. All three give their students an integral priestly formation that will produce manly, pious, zealous priests for the next century. It is noteworthy that all three seminaries also have a heavy representation from the relatively small dioceses of Lincoln, Arlington, Lafayette, and Peoria. The example of such dioceses and seminaries shows—all opinion polls and sociological surveys to the contrary—that it is possible to attract large numbers of young men to the priesthood in the current environment.

The main element for the implementation of the new evangelization will be a well-formed laity who will be the leaven that give rise to the whole. Throughout Church history the Holy Spirit has inspired the institutions necessary for the health of the Church. These institutions represent, in the words of the Spanish priest-philosopher Jaime Balmes, "the offspring of Catholicity which always converts its ideas into institutions." The current period is no different. While we hope and pray for a renewal of religious congregations in the U.S., it appears evident that lay institutions fully approved by the Church will have great influence among the faithful. We can watch their steady progress, rooted in loyal love for the Church, deep piety, strong doctrinal formation, and apostolic zeal, slowly transform the Catholic ethos. Over time they will deeply influence individuals who in their turn will influence institutions, both secular and ecclesial, including perhaps most importantly our parishes. I am thinking not only of institutions such as the prelature of Opus Dei (to which I belong) but also of movements such as Communion and Liberation, Focolare, the Charismatic Renewal, and the Neo-Catechumenate, all of which are active in the U.S.

Small Catholic colleges have been founded and have grown rapidly, along with the revitalization of older ones. Among the first group are Thomas Aquinas College, Christendom College, and Thomas More College in New Hampshire; among the second are the Franciscan University of Steubenville and the University of Dallas. Allowing for the differences in academic focus and student body size that are inherent in institutions of higher learning, all of the above offer the possibility of a serious, orthodox liberal arts education that can both prepare students for professional life or graduate school and, more importantly, prepare them to transmit their Catholic ideals to their future families and colleagues in society. All of the colleges mentioned above have also proved to be seedbeds for vocations.

Over time, the Vatican's recent clarification of the definition of a Catholic University will help some Catholic universities return to their foundational charisms. Another encouraging development in the academic world is the growing presence at prestigious secular institutions of groups of students who are creating, in a multitude of ways, an atmosphere in which serious Catholic students can mature in both doctrinal knowledge and in prayer life. The results have been both vocations and conversions along with a growing, albeit grudging, acknowledgment that Catholicism has a place in "the free market of ideas" that is the declared standard for these institutions.

After the collapse of so many Catholic publishing houses, magazines, and journals in the wake of the Council, in recent years there have arisen new publishing houses, magazines, and journals which—whatever their faults—demonstrate the appeal of forward looking and intellectually able publications. Ignatius Press of San Francisco and Scepter Press of Princeton are outstanding examples of the old and the new in attractive packages. Crisis, The New Oxford Review, The New Covenant, and Catholic World Report are four American journals that have already had a notable impact. These journals also show that there is no conflict between loyalty to the Church and the intellectual life and demonstrate that there is ample room for notable yet charitable disagreement among the lay faithful.

The reprinting of classics, unavailable for many years, and the introduction of newer authors—such as Father Stanley Jaki and Fr. George Rutler—provide the opportunity for younger Catholics to become acquainted with the Catholic tradition. As the readership of formerly great journals of Catholic opinion passes on, there will be a solid group of professionals trained in the visual and print media ready to take their place. Also noteworthy is the Eternal Word Television Network of Mother Angelica: a classic American wedding of traditional Catholic teaching with high technology. It is finding an ever increasing viewership, reaching even into homes that rarely or never see a Catholic book, magazine, or newspaper.

Heresy by its very nature is sterile, and the dissenting establishment which has held sway over certain sectors of the Church in America is aging and disappearing. Where are the young dissenters? They simply don't exist. Only demanding orthodoxy is winning adherents in the United States. No doubt the whining of the dissenters in the media and in some institutions where they are entrenched will continue to be heard for some time, but their numbers are dwindling and their power evaporating.

As mentioned earlier, we are witnessing what may be the final collapse of mainline Protestantism. Attendance at church in the principal Protestant denominations has tumbled in the recent decade; combined with the lack of unified doctrinal or moral beliefs, this suggests that Protestantism's survival at this point depends largely on the artificial respirator of cash flow from old endowments. This reality will lead many Americans of good will to a simple clear choice between modern paganism and a dynamic Catholicism. The words of the Venerable Cardinal John Henry Newman seem even truer now than when he spoke them. "There are but two alternatives, the way to Rome, and the way to atheism."

While, as mentioned above, there has been a notable defection on the part of Catholics to fundamentalism, it’s a historical outlook, lack of tradition, and absence of authority do not leave it as a truly viable alternative for educated Christians. Despite the chaos in the Church, the 1970s and the 1980s witnessed a remarkable movement by well-known Protestant intellectuals into the Catholic Church: Peter Kreeft, Thomas Howard, John Haas, Paul Vitz, Deal Hudson, and Scott Hahn, among others.[17] Perhaps the most significant event has been the reception and subsequent ordination of the Lutheran pastor Richard Neuhaus, a true harbinger of "the Catholic moment."[18] The energizing role of these converts, as they take their places in American universities, colleges, and journals, will influence another whole generation. At the same time they may be precisely the instruments needed in the future to win back those Catholics, including many Hispanics, attracted by the vigorous message of fundamentalism.

Paradoxically the growing hostility towards the Church in American society is a reason for optimism. Such hostility cannot come as a surprise. As Paul Claudel, the French poet, tells us: "The faith of a Catholic is not a matter of indifference. It is a direct and personal menace to the security of him who does not share it." Catholicism has often thrived under the most hostile societal conditions—witness the Roman persecution, the onslaught of the barbarians, the Protestant revolution, and the Marxist tyranny in Eastern Europe. The most difficult times have often produced the greatest of saints and theologians.

It is no accident that America's still young Church has yet to produce a canonized saint who was not either a convert or foreign-born. At the same time, America has yet to produce great Catholic thinkers who have stood the test of time. As the societal situation may worsen in the U.S., we can remember Bishop Karol Wojtyla's words in Philadelphia on the occasion of yet another anniversary celebration, the bicentennial of the United States, "we may be witnessing the final confrontation between good and evil."

Persecution seems to clarify the choice between good and evil. As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the evangelization of America, it appears likely that the Church in the United States will produce the holy men and women, and the institutions necessary to truly transform and evangelize American society. Now is the time to leave behind complaint and despair and look forward to the challenges ahead, confident that we possess the instruments necessary for the new evangelization.


For those unfamiliar with some of these: Liberation theology has tended to so stress the need for the Church to battle unjust social and political systems that it would neglect its spiritual mission. Process theology's errors derive from the theory of evolution which is applied to theological truth itself. Consequentialism is related to the philosophical theory of utilitarianism and judges the morality of an act by its consequences, while Transcendental Thomism is a name applied to efforts to modify Thomism through using ideas of Kant or other modern philosophers.

For a further treatment of the subject of Catholicism on the campus, see the article by that title at the end of this booklet.

1. James Hennesey S.J. American Catholics, Oxford University Press, 1981

2. Ibid.

3. George Weigel, Catholicism and the Renewal of American Democracy, Paulist Press. Mahwah, NJ, 1989; Ed. David L. Schindler, Catholicism and Secularization in America, Communio Books, Notre Dame, 1990

4. Rev. Marvin O'Connell, "An Historical Perspective on Evangelization in the U.S.," in Teaching the Catholic Faith, St. John's University Edition, New York, 1991, pages 1-17

5. Hennesey, op. cit. p. 196-199

6. Ibid, pp. 307-9

7. Dietrich von Hildebrand, Trojan Horse in the City of God, Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago, 1967; Ralph Martin, A Crisis of Truth, Servant Books, Ann Arbor, 1982; Anne Roche Muggeridge, The Desolate City, Harper & Row, San Francisco, 2nd edition, 1990; Jacques Maritain, The Peasant of the Garrone, Holt, Rinehart, Winston, NY, 1968

8. Joseph Cardinal Siri, Gethsemane, Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago, 1981

9. Strangely enough this over-emphasis on social problems often coincides with an apparent ignorance of the Church's extensive social doctrine, summed up in the series of great social encyclicals starting with Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum in 1891, and extending to the recent Centessimus Annus of Pope John Paul II.

10. Monsignor George A. Kelly, The Crisis of Authority, Regnery Gateway, Chicago, 1982; Monsignor George A. Kelly, The Battle for the American Church, Doubleday and Co. Garden City, 1979

11. Thomas Day, Why Catholics Can't Sing, Crossroads, NY 1990; James Hitchcock, The New Enthusiasts, The Thomas More Press, Chicago, 1982

12. Joseph A. Varacalli, Ph.D., "Neo-Orthodoxy, the Crisis of Authority, and the Future of the Catholic Church in the United States" in Faith and Reason, Vol XV, No, 23, Front Royal, VA 1989

13. James O'Kane, Ph.D., "A Sociological View of U.S. Catholicism," in Teachings of the Catholic Faith, Eugene V. Clark, Editor, St. John's University Press, NY, 1991

14. Joseph A. Varacalli, Ph.D. "The State of the American Catholic Laity: Propositions and Proposals," in Faith and Reason, Vol. XIII, No. 2, Front Royal, VA 1987

15. Jacques Maritain, Reflections on America, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1958

16. David Walsh, After Ideology: Recovering the Spiritual Foundations of Freedom, Harper, San Francisco, 1991

17. Ed. Robert Baram, Spiritual Journeys, St. Paul Editions, 1988

18. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, The Catholic Moment, Harper and Row, San Francisco, 1987

The Reverend C. John McCloskey III S.T.D. is the chaplain of Mercer House, a center of Opus Dei in Princeton, NJ.

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