The Catholic Church's survival in the United States
Good news. Alongside the statistics of continuing Catholic decline in the United States, a new Catholic subculture is visibly emerging that raises hopes for the future of the Church in America. But there is a problem. Unless it is shaped by commitment to the new evangelization, this emerging subculture could be a caricature of Catholicism — a rigid throwback to the days of the immigrant Church.
All that obviously needs explaining, so let me explain.
Like Pope John Paul before him, Pope Benedict XVI has made "new evangelization" a high priority of his Pontificate. Last year he created an office in the Roman Curia to promote the effort; next year "The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith" will be the theme of a general assembly of the world Synod of Bishops. Recently, too, he proclaimed a Year of Faith, beginning during the Synod assembly and extending to November of 2013.
The new evangelization, Pope Benedict explains, is needed to deal with the situation existing where "nations once rich in faith and in vocations are losing their identity under the influence of a secularized culture" (Verbum Domini, n. 96). Plainly that applies to European countries like France, Germany, Spain, and Ireland where the light of faith has grown dim. But does anyone seriously imagine the Pope isn't thinking also of places like Canada, Australia — and the United States? You can be certain he is.
The troubled situation of Catholicism in the U.S. was spotlighted more than three years ago when a "Religious Landscape Survey" by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that one in every three Americans who were raised as Catholics had left the Church, either joining Protestant bodies or becoming religiously unaffiliated. After Catholics and Baptists, those 22 million people make up the third largest group in the United States identifiable in religious terms (i.e., as "former Catholics").
In America as in other Western countries, secularization provides the context, although hardly the full explanation, for what is happening. And despite a tendency to suppose that secularization is something new, it is not. Christianity has been a powerful force in America from the earliest days, but it does not follow that the secularist worldview is newly arrived on American shores. There is a more than passing resemblance here, for instance, to the secularist mentality of some of the Enlightenment men who had prominent roles in the American Revolution.
The features of 19th century secularization can be seen in that greatest of American autobiographies, The Education of Henry Adams. Speaking of religion as he perceived it through the unexacting creed of Unitarianism when he was growing up in the 1840s and 1850s as a youthful member of Boston's intellectual and social elite, Adams wrote: "The boy went to church twice every Sunday; he was taught to read his Bible, and he learned religious poetry by heart; he believed in a mild deism; he prayed; he went through all the forms; but neither to him nor to his brothers or sisters was religion real.... They all threw it off at the earliest possible moment, and never afterwards entered a church".
Henry Adams and his siblings were hardly alone. Many Americans before and since have followed the same path. As they did, the contributed to the undermining of what Pope Benedict, in his Motu Proprio for the Year of Faith Porta Fidei, calls a socio-cultural "presupposition" in a favor of belief. The result now is clear: "Whereas in the past it was possible to recognize a unitary cultural matrix, broadly accepted in its cultural appeal to the content of the faith and the values inspired by it, today this no longer seems to be the case in large swathes of society, because of a profound crisis of faith that has affected many people" (Porta Fidei, n. 2).
For a long time, the subculture of immigrant Catholicism more or less successfully shielded Catholics ("ghettoized" them, some would say) against this outcome. But, starting in the late 1950s and continuing through the 60s and 70s, American Catholics, instead of reforming and updating their subculture, dismantled this infrastructure of distinctively Catholics institutions and programs, organizations and movements that, with all its limitations, had for so long served them well. Historian Charles Morris speaks of this a "dangerous and potentially catastrophic project". by which the Church in America severed the link between faith and the subculture that up to then had been "the source of its dynamism, its appeal, and its power".
Partly it occurred for reasons no one anticipated — the impact on American Catholics of higher education, socioeconomic advancement, and suburbanization. But partly it was a result of deliberate policy decisions urged by Catholic academics and intellectuals and adopted by Church leadership cadres. The dismantling of the subculture in turn contributed much to the crisis of the past four decades, as Catholics assimilating into an increasingly toxic secular culture suffered the diminishment of their religious identity.
In recent years, however, a reaction has set in. Disgusted with the secular culture, growing numbers of individuals and families, both Catholic and non-Catholic, have begun taking steps to withdraw from what they judge to be a morally destructive environment.
Some home-school their children to avoid the sex education imposed in schools. Some have given up on television and take great pains to police internet use. Still others have made the radical move of quitting big cities and their suburbs in favor of smaller, more tradition-minded and culturally homogeneous communities making fewer assaults on their eyes, ears, and morals (Thomas Monaghan's Ave Maria, Florida is a high-profile prototype of this).
Meanwhile, the infrastructure of a new Catholic subculture has begun to emerge. It can be seen in a handful of proudly orthodox Catholic colleges and universities, media ventures like the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) and rapidly expanding Catholic radio stations, a growing number of websites and periodicals and a few publishing houses, and organizations and movements dedicated to promoting Catholic spirituality — especially, a spirituality of the laity. In other cases, older Catholic institutions and programs have begun taking steps to reaffirm their Catholic identity. Often, these things happen with encouragement from a new generation of bishops and priests who have gotten the message and taken it to heart.
This is all to the good — up to a point. But note that when I speak of the desirability of a new Catholic subculture, I do not mean a self-regarding, inward-looking ghetto. Unfortunately, signs of such a thing already can be glimpsed here and there. They seem likely to spread if steps are not taken to discourage that from happening.
Here is where the new evangelization comes in. It provides rationale and motivation for Catholics to set their sights on something far better than a Catholic ghetto — the creation of a new, dynamic American Catholic subculture specifically designed to be a source of creative energy for preaching the Gospel far and wide, with particular attention to former Catholics and nominal Catholics who are teetering on the brink.
This is asking a great deal — a subculture able to nurture and sustain a strong sense of Catholic identity without turning in on itself. Can it be done? No one really knows because up to now it has not been attempted. Evangelization is the key. Meanwhile, one thing does seem certain: If it cannot be done, or if no attempt is made to do it, the situation of the Catholic Church in the United States is likely to become increasingly troubled in the years ahead.
*Former Secretary for Public Affairs of the USCCB and former Director of Information of the Knights of Columbus