The Solution to the AmChurch Problem

Three timely books are available which diagnose the problem of the American Church and the solution to the problem. Russell Shaw’s American Church – The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America brilliantly presents the history of the problem and the present day crisis. In his usual easy going and personable style, Shaw re-tells the history of the Catholic Church in the United States. The Catholic Church had grown enormously through the 1800s as waves of immigrants arrived. By turn of the century the waves of Catholic immigrants were being assimilated into the United States. One of the towering figures of the establishment of the time was James Cardinal Gibbons. Friends with Teddy Roosevelt and every high ranking figure. He epitomized the easy drive for Catholicism to emerge as the predominant Christian entity in the burgeoning United States. Shaw charts the rise of Americanism–that heresy which blamed separation of church and state in the US as leading to a dangerous individualism, indifferentism and disregard for church authority. Two ways emerged within American catholicism: the liberal trend away from Rome and towards increasing acceptance of American values and principles and the conservative trend which was critical of American values in favor of total allegiance to the faith.

Shaw points out that the divide still exists within the American church. He quotes Catholic academic Jay Dolan who believes the Catholic faith fits in well with America and complements American values, then he counters with a quote from Cardinal George who says, “While the church in  the United States enjoys a certain institutional freedom, she exists in a culture that, in often surprising ways, resists Catholicism.” Many would agree with the Catholic priest Shaw quotes who says, “There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between Catholics and their fellow Americans now in moral outlook or religious practice.”

The statistics are grim. Half of American Catholics voted for the most aggressively pro abortion presidential candidate the country has ever seen. On any given Sunday only 30% of American Catholic turn up for Mass. Three out of four Catholics go to confession only once a year if that. Numbers for church weddings, baptisms, confirmations and ordinations are all drastically down, down, down.

After re-telling the history of the church in America and the debates about the proper relationship of Catholics to their new country, Shaw tells how the immigrants moved out of the ghetto and were assimilated into the American mainstream. Through the rest of the twentieth century Catholics rushed to embrace every aspect of being American, and Shaw tells how, especially in the 1960s and 70s this led to widespread dissent. The battle was going to the side of the Americanists. The liberals weren’t going to take orders from Rome, and the American way seemed the best way. Shaw goes on to quote the statistics and make his point.

The point is that the American Catholic Church is more American than Catholic. American Catholics, having left their immigrant cultures behind have now woven their Catholic faith fully into the American experience. Visit the typical American Catholic parish and you will find not so much a universal, ancient and venerable religion–but a big auditorium with wall wall carpet, scary muzak more than sacred music, the homily is likely to be a bland mix of Oprah Winfrey self help advice and feel good sentimentality. In short, going to church in America is just another consumer experience designed to make you feel good about yourself and about America.

Shaw’s book is an excellent short, accessible and punchy history. He  knows how to tell a good story without getting bogged down in pedantic details. He also analyzes the present situation with sharp criticism and pulls no punches in his conclusions. The book is big on assessing the problem, but disappointing when it comes to solutions. He speaks of the need for reform and the need for the Catholic Church to get its act together and do something, but he doesn’t seem too sure just what.

George Weigel presents the solution. Its Evangelical Catholicism. His important book, Evangelical Catholicism–Deep Reform in the Twentieth Century Church tells us very clearly that the real problem is at the very heart of the American Church–that Catholics need to be converted. They need not just religion, but a change of heart, a total commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ and a real relationship with the living Lord.

Dedicated to our own Fr Jay Scott Newman–pastor of St Mary’s here in Greenville, George’s book is more theological than political. He traces the problems not just to Americanism, but to the dominance in Catholic self understanding of the Counter Reformation church. Weigel characterizes the counter Reformation church as being hierarchical and pyramidal in structure. The Pope was at the top and everything flowed downward from him. The church was rich in devotional practices, commitment to the sacraments, and thorough in catechesis. To put it bluntly, the church was run by the clergy. The saints were the heroes. The laity were like peasants–meant to pray, pay and obey.

Weigel rightly assesses that the time is right to move on. Evangelical Catholicism is from the ground up, not from the top down. The criteria is for individual sanctity, individual commitment to Christ and a profound encounter at the individual level with Jesus Christ the Lord and his message. Weigel then goes on and outlines what that reform looks like at the Episcopal level, the level of the priesthood, the liturgy, religious life, laity, the church’s intellectual life and the church’ involvement with public policy.

What I find so interesting about Weigel’s thesis is that many of his ideas were already the ideas and ideals of the 1960s modernists. His call for individual conversion and for the driving force in the church to be Spirit empowered individuals is the essence of the second Vatican Council. What happened after the council, however, is that the “Spirit of Vatican II” took over and the move away from the institutionalized, clericalized Counter Reformation church took us into the Protestantized, wall to wall carpeted, schmaltzy AmChurch we have today. This is because the call for individual conversion, for spirituality and the “encounter with Christ” was cut off from the traditions, doctrine and devotions of the church. The 1960s modernists took the easy way and mistook iconoclasm for reform. Instead of bringing about true conversion of heart and intentional disciples, they just found it easier to destroy the old rather than build something new.

The Radical reform Weigel calls for holds in one hand the need for individual conversion, radical discipleship, fervent work for the disadvantaged and holds in the other hand traditional liturgy, strong Biblical preaching, a strong and positive teaching on Catholic moral values, acute intellectual accomplishment and a re-vitalization of the Evangelization effort. Weigel is the author of the best biography of Bl. John Paul II and he clearly sees the JPII generation as the only vital and powerful way forward for the church. I agree.

Weigel’s explanation  of Evangelical Catholicism shows it to be the only positive way for the American Church. If Weigel’s vision were fulfilled we would have a church that was strong and firm in its Catholic identity and witness, powerful and involved in the nation’s political debate and moral questions, leading in a renewal of liturgy, art, architecture and music, and taking a strong intellectual stance in the church’s educational establishments. The only alternative is the continued drift of the American church either into a bad Catholic version of the suburban mega church or a retreat into ultra traditionalism–which is a kind of sad admission of defeat and a retreat into a liturgical and cultural ghetto.

Shaw shows the problem. Weigel expounds the solution from an intellectual perspective. Sherry Weddell takes the call for reform even further in her very important book, Forming Intentional Disciples–The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus Weddell is the founder and director of the Catherine of Siena Institute. She and her colleagues have criss crossed the country leading parish retreats and seminars seeking to enliven the faith and “convert Catholics to Catholicism”. She is passionate about helping Catholics encounter Christ and she writes clearly and concisely about what that means and how to do it.

Weddell echoes the grim data that Shaw and Weigel chronicle–falling Mass attendance, Catholics leaving the Church for Protestant  churches, and a general “disengagement” from the life of the parish. She points out what I have experienced, that many Catholics leave not because they were leaving Christ, but because they became closer to him, but their fellow Catholics–including the clergy didn’t know what they were talking about or didn’t want to know.

She asks a question I have pondered time and again, “How many of the parishioners have truly met Christ and decided to follow him with their whole being?” These Catholics she calls “intentional disciples”, and she reckons that only about 5% of Catholics can be described as such. Even worse, many of the clergy, church leaders and administrators are among the 95% who are followers of Christ in this way.

Weddell gives the grim report from here experiences:

“As we listened to the spiritual experiences of tens of thousands of Catholics, we began to grasp that many, if not a majority of, Catholics don’t know what ‘normal’ Christianity looks like. I believe that one reason for this is the selective silence about the call to discipleship that pervades many parishes. Catholics have come to regard it as normal and deeply Catholic to not talk about the first journey – their relationship with God – except in confession or spiritual direction. This attitude is so pervasive in Catholic communities that we have started to call it the culture of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’”

Sherry explains a brilliant process by which a person has this encounter with Christ and a good part of the book explains this process and how to help individuals move through it. The ‘thresholds’ on the path to discipleship are:

1. Trust – in which a person comes to trust other Christians enough to engage in conversation about their spiritual life
2. Curiosity – a beginning open mindedness towards the possibility of faith
3. Openness – a genuine open heart and open mind
4. Seeking – genuine search for the truth
5. Intentional Discipleship – commitment.

Sherry says that this open conversation about the spiritual life and Christian commitment needs to be an expected part of our church life together.

“Until discipleship and conversion become a normative part of parish life, many [people] will walk in and out of our parishes untouched, and many Catholics who are disciples will continue to feel that they need to hide or minimize their newly awakened personal faith in front of other Catholics…The Catholic norm of silence about a relationship with God, about Jesus Christ and his story, about our own stories of following Christ, and about the need for everyone to decide whether or not he or she will follow as a disciple is stifling the emergence of a culture of discipleship and all that flows from it.

It is this “culture of discipleship” that Weigel would also endorse as the keystone to Evangelical Catholicism and one which Shaw would recognize as the key answer to the desperate problems of the American Church.

I cannot recommend this serendipitous trilogy of books enough. The three books have come on the scene at precisely the right time for the church. Along with the election of Pope Francis, the Spirit has led these three authors to produce books very much needed in the life of the Church.

Buy copies. Study them. Share them with your friends. I have read all three. The first two provide the necessary theory. The third I will read and re-read and share with my staff in order to set our priorities and get to work.

  • guest

    Very good triple review.

  • Andrew Jordan

    “The only alternative is the continued drift of the American church either into a bad Catholic version of the suburban mega church or a retreat into ultra traditionalism–which is a kind of sad admission of defeat and a retreat into a liturgical and cultural ghetto.”

    Liturgically, what followed VII was a defeat, and a mistake. The wise course of action is to admit it, say your are sorry, and try to make it better. It does not mean restoring every jot and tiddle. One man’s retreat is another’s advance: even if the TLM is not your cup of tea, consider a thought experiment where every “wall to wall carpeting, quasi-Protestant” American Catholic service were replaced with a TLM. Would this not be a drastic improvement? I am not saying this is realistic or practical, merely arguing this would be an advance.

    • Augustine

      St Hillary wouldn’t be impressed; he thought that replacing the language of the apostles, Greek, for the vernacular, Latin, was preposterous!

      Honestly, this almost superstitious regard toward the extraordinary form of the mass is tiring. If someone like me, who can understand Latin, fails to be uplifted for an oftentimes stilted liturgy, I doubt that many would fall for it. We must remember that what primed generations of Catholics to regard mass and the Eucharist as mere formalities or symbols was their role as mere liturgical spectators, who were expected to say a rosary or other personal devotions instead of paying attention to the wonder taking place on the altar, to which they were welcomed only every few weeks.

      The council fathers were quite right to reform the liturgy to return to its roots of effective participation of the faithful. And the Holy Spirit confirmed them in this regard. The execution has left to be desired, but those who failed us had grown up with the Tridentine mass and this should give anyone pause for reflection.

      • Andrew Jordan


        To give a brief reply, I think your comment that is about a fetish concerning the traditional Latin mass is quite off the mark. The problem is not the singular nature of the Traditional Latin mass, it is the singular nature of the new mass, or at least how it is practiced in the vast majority of Catholic parishes in the U.S. and Europe.

        To illustrate my point, I will shamelessly quote a trademarked phrase of the Young Fogey: it’s not about the Latin. The Anglican Use is a noble and worthy rite, full of dignity and beauty. It shares the same Godward orientation and ethos as the TLM, yet is celebrated entirely in elevated English, although the addition of Latin in parts of the mass is common.

        Another important example are the Eastern rites of the Catholic Church, the Byzantine for instance; or the ancient liturgies of the Orthodox Church. These are vastly superior to the new Roman mass. To quote an Orthodox priest, the new mass has a “foreign liturgical spirit”. They have welcomed Summorum Pontificum as an ecumenical gesture!

        If you actually read what I wrote about, you would see my claim is not the TLM is the only possible mass, or even the preferred form of the mass, but merely if every U.S. Catholic parish were to replace what they are currently doing with the TLM, that would be a mighty leap forward into a better Church.

        In reality, I think the brick by brick approach of Fr. Z is the only realistic way of making progress and undoing the damage, with the traditional liturgical groups mentioned above serving as leaven in the lump.

        • Augustine

          I’ve been to several Eastern Catholic masses and I am familiar with the most important rites, Byzantine, Melkite and Maronite. I actually go to a Maronite parish once a month to attend the Divine Liturgy. I find them as well as the Extraordinary Form in no way superior to the Novus Ordo. As a matter of fact, the Novus Ordo has more to do with the Maronite liturgy (the oldest of all, beckoning to the Apostolic Age) and the Extraordinary Form, with the Byzantine liturgy.

          As I said before, the agents of corruption after VII spent their lives with what we now know as the Extraordinary Form of the mass. So, it does not follow that exposing the faithful to this form would make of them a better Church, for it didn’t almost 50 years ago.

          The Extraordinary Form in no way can do any good in and of itself. Its devout following confuse their devotion to it and their sincere discipleship with the liturgy, confusing subject and object. I argue that their attitude is what makes the celebration of the mass in this form inspiring, not the other way around. So, if changing the attitude of the faithful is what’s needed for an inspiring mass, any mass would fit the bill, especially one that they’re familiar with: the Novus Ordo. Which, by the way, is quite beautiful when presided by a reverent priest and with devout faithful, who mean what they say in their prayers and responses.

          At the end of the day, the clergy and the faithful need to become true disciples, as Fr. L said. They need to mold their lives to Christ, not the other way around. They need to live as if the Holy Spirit that they received moved them. Then, the Novus Ordo mass, as laid out in Sacrosanctum Concilium, fits the bill as no other form in the West can.

        • wineinthewater

          I think the problem with this proposition is that you would not only have to replace the Pauline liturgy with Pian, you would have to replace the standard American Catholic parish with “TLM” attendees. When I was studying in Rome, I came out of a mass in Italian and heard a woman remark: “Now *that* is why I like going to the Latin mass.” But it wasn’t in Latin, and it wasn’t “the Latin Mass.” It was the Ordinary Form in Italian, but very reverently done and to the rubrics.

          And that is the problem. The liturgy at so many parishes is a poor excuse for the Ordinary Form. You’re comparing an Extraordinary Form done with care and fidelity to an Ordinary Form done carelessly and without fidelity. If they were to do the Extraordinary Form, they’d do it just as badly, just as irreverently. Making them switch missals wouldn’t solve the fundamental problem.

      • SteveD

        I am nearly 67 years old. I remember the Latin Mass. What you say is untrue, we were taught to understand the structure of the Mass and to follow it with or without a missal. I do not recall anyone ever saying a Rosary during the Mass. It was reverent and we knew what was happening much more than people appear to do today. There was certainly no chatter in Church before, during or after Mass because we knew that Jesus was there.

  • James

    “What happened after the council, however, is that the “Spirit of Vatican
    II” took over and the move away from the institutionalized, clericalized Counter Reformation church took us into the Protestantized, wall to wall carpeted, schmaltzy AmChurch we have today. This is because the call for individual conversion, for spirituality and the “encounter with Christ” was cut off from the traditions, doctrine and devotions of the church.”

    American culture is Protestant. Our founding fathers were a collection of nominally Anglican freemasons and Puritans. Neither liked the Catholic Church, to put it mildly.

    In the idealism of the JFK era, Vatican II, and all the OTHER social changes of the 1960s many American Catholics thought they could reconcile the two. Some tried to be mainline Protestants, stressing social justice, innovating for the sake of innovation, and deemphasizing catechesis. Others, in reaction, tried to be Evangelical Protestants, stressing individual piety over community; taking an dry intellectual approach to the faith; and putting a heavy emphasis on issues of sexual morality as “litmus tests” of faith. Like Protestants, American Catholics became polarized into factions: A “Blue” Catholic Church and a “Red” Catholic Church. Both are wrong.

    Much of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” has a lot to do with this factionalism.

    It will be interesting to see how the increased Hispanic presence in the US Catholic Church will change things. Not that this community doesn’t have its own problems, but they tend to have a sense of a Catholic culture that most Anglos do not. To make Catholics feel safe to share their story, you really have to build a Catholic culture that will support that. I am cautiously hopeful that such a culture will develop.

    • OneTimothyThreeFifteen

      Hi James.

      I find a lot of what you’re saying resonating, although I am in England…

      My concern is that, since I left Evangelicalism several years ago, it seems to have drunk deeply of the well of Modernity/Postmodernity, and I’m finding it really hard to use the phrase, ‘we have a lot in common’ in conversations with them any more.

      The term ‘Evangelical’ seems to be almost vacuous as it no longer seems to convey anything substantial about the person who calls themselves one. Each ‘Evangelical’ is now a totally unknown quantity.

      It’s as if each individual Evangelical now has their own set of highly personalised ‘doctrines’ (opinions) so that a congregation seems no longer a community of like minds even, but a convenience for the sake of ‘fellowship’.

      They still talk about having ‘ a personal relationship with Christ’, but it may, or may not, have implications or obligations depending upon one’s interlocutor, as it’s hip to be ‘non-denominational’ (emergent).

      That said, I think there is great hope for Catholic Culture, for the re-establishment of Christendom, in this vacuum, but probably not without bloodshed, if history is anything to go by. The Crucifix, rather than an empty cross, always seems to be the sign of the true Church…

  • OneTimothyThreeFifteen

    Excellent reviews! Thank you.

    Firstly, being in England, I know some American books can go over my head because I am completely outside the US political framework, and so do not understand many of the ‘parochial’ examples/comparisons/analogies authors make. I have read Weigel’s and Weddell’s, and both are excellent, but I’m worried Shaw’s book is going to be too US specific? What’s your judgement – being an ‘English’ ex-pat! :) – Fr L?

    Also, with all this talk of ‘Evangelical Catholicism’ and ‘Intentional Discipleship’, (how much) is Protestant Evangelicalism an expression of them?

    That is, are they going in the same direction as us, or are they going ‘inwards’, being subject to personal judgement (Personal Flotsam or the Barque of Peter?/’Primitivism’, etc.) whilst Catholics should be going ‘outwards’, being subject to authority, whilst both look rather similar (‘pious’/’committed’) to the casual observer?

    How much can we refer to Evangelicals as ‘intentional disciples’ – considering their intentions do not actually have ‘intentionality’ owing to the lack of any consistent doctrine or authority outside subjective judgement? (“Who is Jesus, to you?”/”What does that verse mean to you?”/”I left that fellowship because it didn’t meet my need any more”, &c.)

    I think it’s important, as I’ve recently heard a Catholic refer to Evangelicals at the recent 2013 HTB Leadership Conference (a thriving Protestant Church in London, which founded the Alpha Course) as Intentional Disciples, and I’m not so sure if, or how much, it could apply considering their ecclesiological and doctrinal presuppositions, or lack of them…

    What do you think?

  • windjammer

    Love your blog Father L. Excellent reviews and information.

    Seems to me the root problem is a failure of personal holiness at all levels of the Church. Why? It’s a lack of faith and belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist at Mass. That’s the key IMHO. If we actually believed in the real presence as a people and a Church, we would have to live it and act accordingly. Certainly, there are many factors, changes and paradigm shifts that figure into the self destructive behavior of the Church over the last 50 years. But the central sacrament, belief, focal point of the Church is the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It is the core reason for our existence. So, what did we do to it? We made it about us/congregation rather than about worshiping God. We went from a liturgy that was vertical, reverent, beautiful and sacramental to one that is horizontal, mundane, distracting and social in it’s approach. Add the Church Nice (sin? what sin?) mixed with poor teaching and weak leadership and what you get is the inevitable. It’s no mystery. Again, it starts with the basics. What is the Mass? May I suggest a great book called…”The Incredible Catholic Mass” by Father Martin Van Cochem. It’s a classic published by TAN books and available on Amazon. It is absolutely superb. Add Bishops Sheen’s…”Life of Christ” and one has a good beginning to becoming a part of the solution.which is really “Indifference” in the Church and laity. Thank God for Pope Francis! He is starting to upset people. That’s a very good sign. Someone characterized the last 3 Popes accordingly: PJP2 as Hope, PB16 as Faith and PF as Charity. They got it right. All of them are calling us to the same thing…. conversion and personal holiness. Prayer is a must and a liturgy that is conducive to it is a must as well.