American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America

I am usually rather delighted whenever I find a book to review in my mailbox. When I received American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America I was certainly eager to read it. This new release by Russell Shaw is put out by Ignatius Press.

It seems book subtitles are becoming much like news headlines as a kind of summary meant to bring you in. Although news headlines often do not have much to do with the actual story. The subtitle in this case is actually quite indicative of the contents. Although the title “American Church” did not thrill me and when I discovered that the original title was “The Gibbons Legacy.” I prefer the original title.

There are a couple themes in this book regarding the history and the future of the Church in America. One is the contrast between the views of Orestes Augustus Brownson and his friend Isaac Thomas Hecker. Orestes Brownson a convert to the Church was rather pessimistic on future of the Catholic Church in America. Isaac Heckler was the founder of the Paulist Fathers and is now a Servant of God. Heckler had a very optimistic view of the Church in America and thought the two fit together perfectly. The other theme regards the 1950’s best selling book “The Cardinal” by Henry Morton Robinson which had a view much akin to Isaac Heckler’s. The book partly based on the career of Cardinal Spellman was also made into a movie directed by Otto Preminger.

These themes help in part to explore the history of the Catholic Church in America. Considering that while there were some prominent Catholics at the founding of this country such as Daniel Carroll, for the most part Catholics were a very small minority. It was only after later immigration that Catholics became a more sizable minority. An anti-Catholic bias was there from the beginning for a variety of reasons, but partly concerning the doubt that Catholics could be good Americans with their “allegiance” to Rome. The Know-Nothing Party was on the extreme side of this bias, but it was prevalent in a largely Protestant populace.

Cardinal James Gibbons (July 23, 1834 – March 24, 1921) who was the Archbishop of Baltimore was a pivotal figure for Catholics in America. He was also quite optimistic on the Church in America and that not only could Catholics be good Americans but that America was ideally suited for Catholicism. As an Americanizer his view, actions, and influence certainly shaped the Catholic Church here in some regards. His view was also not a minority opinion among Catholics and really exists to this day. That the Church fits hand in glove with America. Although really more common now is the false idea that the Catholic Church fits perfectly with one polical party or another.

With this basic setup Russell Shaw explores the history of the Church in America, where we are now, and what portends fo the future. There were so many things I found excellent about this book. I already knew Mr. Shaw was a fine writer and I was really liked the way he explored the history and raised questions. I think it was evident Mr. Shaw had the more skeptical view of a Orestes Brownson, but he also did not let that get in the way. I enjoyed the balance of looking at the various questions and putting forth how others have weighed in on both sides. He presented information without trying to move you into specific conclusions regarding it.

The history of the Church in America makes for a absorbing study and covers the growth of the Church and the prominent historical markers. The failed presidential candidacy of Al Smith and later the election of John F. Kennedy. The Catholic culture of the first half of the 20th century and the tumultuous years during and after the Second Vatican Council. He pulls out detailed information and my copy of the book is heavily highlighted as time and again I found much to think about and want to come back to. A good book of this type can present you with an array of information. This one goes beyond that and has filled my mind with much to reflect upon. I also really admired the way he brought the history alive and I could almost picture the reaction of Cardinal Gibbons when Pope Leo the XIII released Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae an encyclical condemning the heresy of Americanism.

The latter part of the book deals with many of the facts of American Catholic culture as it stands now. The collapse of recognizing vocations to the priesthood and religious life. The sad state of Catholic education. The fact that Catholics are pretty much identical in almost every statistic compared to other Americans regarding divorce, abortion, contraception, and the support of other grave evils. This is not presented as doom and gloom, but as a realistic assessment of the problems we face. He also does not make the mistake of presenting some kind of Catholic golden age in America and in fact shows how from the beginning there have been flaws that in part led to the current state. When I had found Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics a fascinating look at the history of religion in America and Russell Shaw’s book gives a more in-depth look at the Catholic side of it.

I could really go on and on about this book. By nature I am a pessimistic-optimist and this book feed both sides of my own divide. I really need to write a separate blog post regarding some of my thoughts this book has sparked.

About Jeff Miller

Jeff Miller is a former atheist who after spending forty years in the wilderness finds himself with both astonishment and joy a member of the Catholic Church. A retired Navy Chief who now makes his living as an application developer.

  • Theodore Seeber

    I think I need to read this book- because politically, I have been forced to admit that Fr. Heckler and Cardinal Gibbons were wrong. I no longer believe that Catholicism is compatible with the Constitution; or that one can participate in what America has become and remain Catholic.

    The usury of the poor in our financial institutions, the widespread withholding of wages for labor performed, the genocide of abortion, the prevalence of no-fault divorce, the advent of same sex marriage, and finally the current interpretation of the First Amendment restricting religion to mere private affairs, all are against Catholicism. And all exist in the Constitution.

  • Ted Seeber

    I hope we can continue the discussion here, since the other thread closed comments.

    Some replies, at least to the questions I remember:

    The New Evangelization is what is needed. I will not live to see the end of the culture wars- I believe we need a Catholic theocracy worldwide and ALL governments, not just this one, need to be subject to Canon Law, which is the best researched and most scientific study of human behavior ever created. For atheist reasons we need this.

    But we’re not going to get it without conversion- and that is where we need to start. Conversion to Objective virtue morality.


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