What’s Killing American Catholicism – 4

Cut Off Catholicism vs. Continuous Catholicism

In the midst of composing this series on what’s killing American Catholicism I am not only reading George Weigel’s Evangelical Catholicism and Sherrie Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples  but on the flight out to Indianapolis read Russell Shaw’s American Church — The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America. 

Shaw’s book is written in his usual readable and personal style–full of fascinating history and observation. It assesses the problems in the American church accurately–pinpointing the difficulties American Catholic leaders had in establishing Catholicism which was both faithful to the Catholic teaching and yet loyally American. One of the main problems was dealing with the cultural Catholicism of the immigrant communities. In an effort to help them assimilate the bishops encouraged a new kind of cultural Catholicism: American Catholicism. The problem with this is that the predominant philosophies of the American republic weren’t really Catholic. If they were Christian at all, they were Protestant.

Let’s be honest: America was founded first by Protestant Puritan settlers and constitutionally by eighteenth century Deists and Freemasons. There ain’t much Catholic about America’s founding principles and what was compatible with Catholicism–a certain set of Christian values and  moral principles–is fading fast. Russell Shaw quotes Harvard philosopher Georges Santayana on the essential incompatibility between historic Catholicism and the rationalistic, materialistic and secular philosophies which lie at the heart of the American system.

This faith [Catholicism]…is full of large disillusions about this world and minute illusions about the other. It is ancient, metaphysical, poetic, elaborate, ascetic, autocratic and intolerant. It confronts the boastful natural man, such as the American is, with a thousand denials and menaces. Everything in American life is at the antipodes to such a system. Yet the American Catholic is entirely at peace. His tone in everything, even in religion, is cheerfully American. It is wonderful how silently, amicably and happily he lives in a community whose spirit is profoundly hostile to that of his religion…Attachment to his church in such a temper brings him into no serious conflict with his Protestant neighbors. They live and meet on common ground. Their respective religions pass among them for family, matters, private and sacred with no political implications.

If I must continue the alliteration of my series with ‘C’ words, then this is what I call “Cut Off” Catholicism. It is cut off from the deep philosophical and theological roots of the historic faith. Here are some examples. The Catholic religion–like all ancient religions both pagan and Jewish–is ritualistic. It speaks in the language of liturgy, sign, symbol and sacred gesture. We only have to experience the typical AmChurch Mass to see that the Americans attending Mass don’t understand such things. The altar servers wear robes but they don’t know why. They serve the altar, but have not the slightest idea of the liturgical or symbolic significance of what they do. The chew gum and wear da-glo sneakers underneath their robes. The people sit in the pews in big auditoria dressed as if they are at the movies or a basketball game. The music is an entertainment based blend of honkey tonk, nightclub style and country Western. This is made worse by the fact that the vast majority of AmChurch Catholics don’t realize there is anything wrong. The like this form of worship, and they like it because they don’t understand ritual, sign, symbol and sacred gesture–even worse they don’t understand that they don’t understand.

The historic ritual of Catholic religion is rooted in an acceptance of the metaphysical. In other words, we believe that through the ritual we are making a transaction with the other world. The supernatural impinges on us at all times. We are at the threshold of heaven and on the doorstep of eternity. Most AmChurch Catholics don’t understand this. I am convinced that it is simply not a part of their world view. Why should it be? They have been educated in a culture and by a system that is essentially materialistic, utilitarian and secular. There is no sense of the immanent, no sense of the awesome presence in life. The Protestant founding fathers weeded out all that “nonsense” and the deists and materialists finished the job. Such poetic and otherworldly ideas are not even dismissed by the typical American. They are not even misunderstood. They simply do not exist in their vocabulary.

Worship has become for most American Catholics therefore a mixture of civic duty, a way to inculcate good values into their children, a matter of family tradition which is presented in a way that is comfortable, easy going and entertaining. The idea that we are in touch with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the pillar of fire and the burning bush, the idea that we are on the threshold of a life changing mystical experience is utterly foreign to their imagination.

The desire for the mystical, however will not die, so instead of finding this mysterium tremendum et fascinans in the ritual, music, architecture and art of ordinary Catholic worship or in the religious traditions of contemplative prayer, monasticism and devotions the American Catholic is most likely to wander off into the misty mystical mess of New Age practices, Eastern religions or the occult.

It seems to me that this divorce from not only our ancient traditions, but our ancient way of viewing the world and our religion in America is not simply the result of the mis-application of the Second  Vatican Council or the ravages of modernism or the desire to make Catholic worship ‘relevant’. These are only part of the problem, and indeed are really only symptoms. The deeper malaise–and one which is most difficult to counter–is that the American founding philosophy is fundamentally opposed to Catholicism. America is individualistic, anti authoritarian, pragmatic, materialistic and aggressive. It has historically balanced this worldly view with a Protestant Christian ethos, but that is disintegrating because it also had woven into its genetic code a kind religious form of the American philosophy: a Christian form of individualism, anti authoritarianism, materialistic pragmatism with not a little bit of aggression.

What can be done? Cut off Catholicism can only be countered by Continuous Catholicism. This is what Pope Benedict XVI was trying to establish with his concept of “the hermeneutic of continuity”–that we thrive as Catholics as we nurture and cultivate our roots. This is not simply a matter of putting on a fancy alb with lace or using a more ornate miter. It is a whole approach to our faith which sees everything we do as Catholics from our liturgy to our prayer, education, catechesis and family life as deeply rooted not in American (or any other) culture, but as deeply rooted in the traditions and understanding of historic Catholicism.

It mean nurturing in art, music, liturgy, education, prayer and formation a worldview that is counter cultural in America. It mean developing a more sacramental vision of reality–one that is rooted in the metaphysical transaction of the Mass and the daily interaction between this world and the next. It means consciously developing a new way of seeing–one that runs counter to the materialistic pragmatism of everyday America. How is this done? Through prayer, asceticism and a radically prophetic way of life.

T.S.Eliot suggested that the renewal of Christian society would come through a renewal of monasticism. Certainly at the fall of the Roman Empire it was the monasticism of Benedict that established in that materialistic, cruel and selfish age a new kind of mysticism and spiritual awareness. This is part of the answer for us as well…and set the stage for part five of the series:

Coca Cola Catholicism vs. Contemplative Catholicism.


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  • Mike

    How would you compare the condition of American Catholicism to that of Italy’s or Spain’s or even Ireland’s? Is it possible that America’s Christian roots have prolonged the influence of the Church on Catholics living in America? Churches are like ghost towns throughout Europe. Birthrates are dangerously low too. I think your title should be modified to: Diet Coke Zero Catholicism vs. Contemplative, Concrete, and Courageous Catholicism.

  • Christian LeBlanc

    My childhood was lived in South Louisiana, whose Catholic culture and imagination predated the the United States, and at least back then stood aloof from mainstream America. You’re adding some extra dimension as to why moving to South Carolina in 1965 was a bigger culture shock for me than going to school in Italy 15 years later.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=523711706 Joe McHugh

    Fantastic article and right on point. How then to explain the European church? Are they not also similarly influenced? In other words, is this only an American phenomenon?

  • http://revertedxer.blogspot.com/ Gen X Revert

    You absolutely are on target at the typical American’s lack of understanding of ritualism. This is why the Extraordinary Form is so foreign to so many, I hope that Summorum Pontificum will influence Americans enough that the Ordinary form will become more ‘traditional’ in parishes. At least enough that we stop seeing those sneakers on the altar servers.

  • SuesterMeister


  • Charles E. Mac Kay

    I had an ancestor who worked in Missouri for the Spanish. He wrote a letter to Madrid and the key phrase about the 13 colonies was “…..there is scarce one in a thousand Catholic.”
    If we get rid of materialism and follow the true teachings then everything will be okay. I am sorry for them walking away from sound teaching and missing the big show. They are missing the big picture which is glorious

  • TheodoreSeeber

    THIS is what is keeping me away from becoming a 4th Degree Knight of Columbus. I can’t- I really can’t- reconcile the Constitution with Catholicism.

  • oldnuke

    There’s a reason for that. Please read and comment on Sherry Weddell’s book.

  • Brad

    Thank you for stating the awful truth: “America was founded first by Protestant Puritan settlers and constitutionally by eighteenth century Deists and Freemasons.”

    I would only add that the Puritans were so protestant that they were protesting the protestants.

    The Puritanism, Deism, Freemasonry are still here en force and it shows systemically. Those groups loathe the seven Sacraments instituted by Christ. And we wonder why we are as we are, now?

  • James

    If the God of Abraham and the United States are incompatible, I think the former has a great advantage in guiding humanity’s innate desire for the eternal (the mystical, as you say), but a great disadvantage as a political system in that it diminishes the virtues of courage, moderation, justice, and prudence. You seem to admit this by decrying the US for being “individualistic, anti-authoritarian, pragmatic, materialistic and aggressive.” This leads me to think that you’d tend to prefer a communalistic, authoritarian, impractical, immaterial, passive system of government. There have been times in history that such things have been attempted, but I’m not sure such governments have left humans happy.

    So your critique makes sense if you set the beatific vision after death against happiness before death, but I don’t think the two are as incompatible as you’re making it sound. I think the US does a good job of allowing individuals to pursue heaven on their own (or with others) without the greatest disadvantage of a Catholic political system. The disadvantage is this: I don’t know a single bishop who would make a good senator, nor senators that would make good bishops. (no offence to bishops or senators) If our political system was governed by the Church, I can’t see how that would be good for our system of laws or for the Church. If the Church officials became political officials and were guided purely by faith, hope, and love, foreign relations (war) would not go so well. What’s more likely is that the Church would be corrupted by political power (since even clerics are merely human) and citizens would be deprived of their inalienable rights.

    I think America’s founding fathers did an excellent job of reconciling the demands of this world and the next. It’s not perfect, but it has given me everything I have and protected everything I love.

    God bless America.

  • sonny

    this is uncanny, Fr Dwight. yesterday i commented to my wife that this must be how St Benedict felt when he decided to chuck his Roman patrician life in favor of the isolation of Subiaco. Sancte Benedicte ora pro nobis.

  • Dan Hart

    “Let’s be honest: America was founded first by Protestant Puritan settlers and constitutionally by eighteenth century Deists and Freemasons. There ain’t much Catholic about America’s founding principles …”
    As usual, a great article, Father, but I’m not willing to cede America’s founding principals to anti-Catholic Calvinists and Deists. For all their theological blinders, white-washing iconoclasm, and anti-Catholic rhetoric, the Puritans had more in common with Catholics than they realized. The Puritans who fought for Parliament in the English Civil War and the Americana patriots who fought for liberty in the American Revolution were consciously fighting for a tradition of limited government that had its orgins in the medieval Catholic world. Magna Carta was first and foremost a document intended to protect the rights of the Church from growing royal depositism, and until Henry VIII, no English monarch dared to challenge the rights of the Church. In fact, one could argue that English royal power did not become absolutist until the English monarch usurped the title of Head of the Church. The “Two Kingdoms” theology about which many Calvinists are so keen is really a restatement of St. Augustine’s theology of the City of God and the City of Man. And the Natural Law the Eighteen Century thinkers so frequently discussed is really a restatement of St. Thomas Aquinas. The greatest of America’s founding principals are actually consistent with Catholic teaching.

  • Cor ad Cor Loquitor

    Let us not forget… Catholic thinking articulates Truth that is material and divine. It is Whole/Entire/Complete. The American proposition I believe allows for a path of true liberty that must not stand apposed to the Catholic…they hold similar ground. For in putting forth “self evident truths” as in the Declaration our founding fathers acknowledge Truth. Read “We Hold These Truths”, Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition by John Courtney Murray, S.J.

    And also see that the constitution is built upon practical concepts I believe are congruent with the Catholic views on (Solidarity and Subsidiarity) i.e. A Republic with States rights and Individual rights. Let us keep asserting the Good and True and Beautiful….
    Agree with post Dan Hart ..”Natural Law the Eighteen Century thinkers so frequently discussed is really a restatement of St. Thomas Aquinas. The greatest of America’s founding principals are actually consistent with Catholic teaching”

  • Jay E.

    I don’t think anybody’s suggesting bishops become senators. That’s just casually dismissing the reality that the system has some pretty big problems nobody should be happy with by saying “well, it’s more practical than having bishops run things.” That’s rather obtusely sidestepping the critique.

    The problem being addressed is not the question of what would make for a better system, but the fact that too many American Catholics believe and are formed by the philosophies of this system. When it comes to the Christian faith, having a conception of life as being individualistic, anti-authoritarian, pragmatic, materialistic and aggressive is thoroughly incompatible.

    I think the problem is the religious-like nature that Americanism holds over people. American beliefs are cherished religiously, and American culture, government, and economics are upheld almost worshipfully. Just look at the language of any patriotic “hymn”. Or even your own admission “it has given me everything I have and protected everything I love”. I should hope not.

  • Brennan

    Excellent article, thank you, Father. Another article I came across today which also shows the inherent incompatibility of American culture and Catholicism is here:


  • Gerard

    As a famous bishop stated, “Henry VIII is the probably the most influential force in the American Continent’s history.” Also, had the Declaration of Independence simply stated that all men are endowed with the inalienable rights of life and liberty for the pursuit of the good, the U.S. and the world would be a better place. At the very least, the “good” would be a far more objective standard up for debate than the amorphous and subjective “pursuit of happiness.”

    But regarding the problems of “American Catholicism” I think it’s short-sighted to blame American culture when it’s Rome and the hierarchy that created the vacuum through malfeasance and in some cases modernist malice that the banal mentality of American Catholicism was enabled to fester. Prior to the Council, Bishop Sheen backed by the Church was a leading light poised on converting vast numbers of Americans. After the Council, it was Bishop Sheen ended up preaching in High Schools trying desperately to stem the tide of secular corruption without any hierarchical backing.