Americanism Caused Individualism and its Ills

Americanism Caused Individualism and its Ills May 15, 2013

Resolved:  The ills of individualism that grip the Catholic Church in America today are the fruit 19th century Americanism:  the efforts of the American episcopacy to establish a new modus vivendi for Catholics, one which respected Catholic identity while also embracing the American approach to religion and religious liberty.

A few weeks ago in First Things, Elizabeth Scalia reviewed Russell Shaw’s new book, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America.  She writes:

Shaw notes that for a long while, this made sense, and politically, economically, and socially it carried Catholics far. Yet the early Americanization of the Church, writes Shaw, “included not just (as is commonly said) the idea that American-style separation of church and state supplied a model for adoption by the Church everywhere, but also a subjective, individualistic approach to Church doctrine and discipline widely present among American Catholics now.” (boldface added)

Scalia goes on to use this to explain the disappointment expressed by some people when Pope Francis reaffirmed the judgment against the LCWR and the negative reaction to the new missal.

I am not sure I buy this argument, but clearly there is some tension between being American and being Catholic.  What say you?

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  • I would say that there is tension with being American and being a Jesus follower.. just as there was tension for the early church with being a Roman citizen and being a Jesus follower… or being a Jew and being a Jesus follower. Any allegiance to an earthly realm/idea/group will inevitably come into conflict with the submission to Jesus as Lord… I don’t think it’s unique to Catholics… in fact, it is this conflict, really, that caused many to kill my Anabaptist forebearers in the 16th century because they chose to maintain their primary allegiance to Jesus rather than allegiance to the Pope, to Luther, or to any of the other state churches…

    This is not to say my Anabaptist forebearers were faultless in all things, but simply to state that, perhaps, what the Catholic church is experiencing in the USA is similar to the conflicts experienced by many other Christian groups over the centuries and, actually, should not necessarily be unexpected in an increasingly post-Christendom Western and Northern hemispheres… Francis, from the South, seems to already understand what it means to be a follower of Jesus without necessarily being aligned with the nation of residence… and for this reason, even as a non-catechised believer, I have the utmost respect and honor for the current pope.

  • Grace Seitzer

    The tension was identified by Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in a recent MEET THE PRESS: “As Catholics, we have a tendency to wait to be told rather than entering into the discussion.” Slowly, slowly we are moving to a more adult mindset. It’s not something limited to Americanism. Go back to 19th-century England and Newman’s “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine.”

  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    As with so many “history” books being written today on catholicism, they are just fantasy. Or elaborate straw men in history form. The simple fact is there is very little evidence that the American RC Church embrace “Americanism” at all. Reputable scholars, like Charles Curran, who do close readings of religious ideation of the period have come to the simple conclusion that they did not. There is no there there. The argument is a prop.

  • Jordan

    David, you’re right on as usual. Americanism has had many hands to play in the political quagmire into which the American Church has dragged itself. I don’t entirely agree with Elizabeth Scalia’s take that Americanism has led directly to individual magisterial disobedience. Sure, 95%+ of American Catholic couples use birth control (a ~5% compliance rate with Humanae Vitae is likely optimistic.) Still, I’d chalk up HV disobedience to socioeconomic realities first and not necessarily to a conscious popular uprising against the Church’s Pill prohibition. Heck, countries with different forms of national democratic governance and even larger Catholic populations (such as Italy) have even lower fertility rates than the United States overall, and likely American Catholics as a subset.

    The American hierarchy’s forty year dance with the elephant on Capitol Hill is the culmination of a rather tortured interpretation of Americanism. It’s as if the hierarchy is to at once avow that institutional American Catholicism is above politics, and simultaneously cater to conservative political groups that ostensibly support discrete Catholic teachings (mostly pro-life and anti-same-sex marriage organizations.) Certainly, neither political party supports Catholic Social Teaching. However, what is most troublesome is the hierarchy’s failed attempt to wear two masks well, one pastoral and one political. The choice of many bishops to throw all their weight behind one flawed party regardless of deleterious consequences suggests not just partisanship but enthrallment to a party platform.

    Pope Francis ministered during dictatorships in Argentina and Chile. Regardless of Pope Francis’ actions during junta rule in Argentina, he clearly must understand the toxicity of collusion between the institutional Church and political movements. I would greatly appreciate a sermon by His Holiness which outlines the perils of the American hierarchs as lobbyists.

  • I’m inclined to agree with Peter Fuchs; that the argument is a prop. I haven’t read Shaw’s latest because I’ve read his others and they don’t interest me. The notion that there is an Americanized Church that substitutes its own individualistic approach to doctrine is a too-convenient excuse for the fact that many 21st century people have listened to the bishops rail against what the bishops perceive as immorality and reject the bishops’ statements as wrong. American Catholics reject the bishops’ pronouncements in matters of prudential judgement, not in matters of basic faith.

  • Thomas Hostomsky

    As is typical of almost everything published in “False Things,” Scalia extrpolates what isn’t there. Actually, americanism and Catholicism were perfectly compatible. I recommend the writings of the American founder of the Paulists, Servant of God, Fr Isaac Hecker, to anyone who wants to see how this is so. The ultr-montanists remain amongst us to our detriment.

  • As Peter Paul Fuchs notes, dragging Americanism in here muddles the question. When people talk about Americanism in the nineteenth century, they are talking about a loosely organized French movement based on some American writings that were not broadly representative of American views. Americanism, in other words, is a myth created by Europeans tired of European approaches.

    I think the ‘Americanization’ of the Church in the U.S. is something that simply cannot be put on a clear timeline, for the obvious reason that the Church in the U.S. has always been an immigrants’ Church primarily rooted in ethnic conclaves insulated from broader, and very Protestant, American society, but nonetheless under the strain of having to adapt to it. This has historically been the real tension between being Catholic and being American.

    It would be much more plausible to attribute any individualism to people having less connection to these ethnic conclaves, or the dissolution of ethnic communities, than anything else — and it has been an ongoing process, and something that has never been completed because of the continual influx of new Catholics. It’s drift more than anything. (I should say, though, that I think, despite the stereotype even Americans have of American life, I am unconvinced that the Church in the U.S. is especially individualistic in comparison with other countries.)

    • Peter Paul Fuchs

      Brandon Watson has provided an incredibly brilliant comment here. I was almost floored by how insightful it was. it jibes with everything I know of the period. If one were to unpack his paragraphs one would have a lot of further insight on all sorts of organizations, and not just the Catholic Church!!

      I offer one caveat though, Americansim qua movement may have produced exaggerations, and those exaggerations may have had more to do with European ennui and Americans’ desire to impress the Old World and all that. It may have produced, as one institution’s own published history puts it with very admirable honesty and self-reflection, some “yahoos” of Americanism. But even if that is true, there was, and I think one could say still is, a core of simple appreciation for the basic freedoms we all enjoy that made up the bulk of the feelings that motivated it qua movement.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    I want to add that if the average reader wants to get a sense of the falsity of the proposition, and does not want to wade through tough tomes, they can get a more entertaining sense of how much Americanism was rejected by just reading about the life and posthumous treatment of Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulists. There it is in the storty of one’s man’s life and reputation in the RC church after death,

  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    I had one more thought when re-reading the review on First Things. Pope Francis has mentioned the “dark joy” of gossip as something one should stay away from. I could not agree more. yet it is truly ironic that the Catholic world is rather well-known for encouraging it. This is not just an opinion, but a fact, literally. For the blogger named Rocco Palmo who writes the Whispers in the Loggia blog, which for years he simply identified as devoted to “gossip” (his word!) with the Church, this self-announced professional gossiper was given an “honorary doctorate” from a University named after the Angelic Doctor no less. So this is not a matter of speculation, simple fact. Gossip is honored. I think it says something very sad, but something consistent with what I remember.

    Now the Catholic world, especially in America, is (in)famous for handing out “honorary doctorates” as a way of encouraging good behavior. Interestingly, criticism of this tendency goes back a long way from those interested in education in this country. As the notion that those so honored should have, duh, actually produced some scholarship. And I must say when I recently found through googling that my erstwhile seminarian friend Joe Tyson, now Bishop Joe, had been given an “honorary doctorate” I was truly amused. This seems not for having produced scholarship, but for heading the Catholic schools in Seattle for a while, where his chief achievement (at least by notoriety on Google as measure) was de-gaying the schools. Ah, what an honor!

    Anyways, my point in more strategic here. I think if they are going to honor a Catholic blogger they should honor one who won the Catholic Press Association’s blog prize, my other erstwhile seminarian comrade, who was actually there in the bar the night I met my husband, and he came over and greeted us and said to me looking at him “How cute!” Unlike the Church Whisperer Rocco, Michael is a Dog Whisperer and talks about his doggies a lot which I like. And the pictures are incredibly cute. And seriously, he only talks about issues not gossip. His views don’t seem coherent, but at least he is discussing issues. If they are going to hand the things out for gossip and de-gaying schools, they should honor dog lovers as well.

  • Ronald King

    I see the tension as more of a human struggle to be free from the intrusion of authoritarian control as it is experienced internally as a void resulting from the lack of a nurturing and nourishing relationship leaving the vulnerable human being feeling empty. This is interpreted as a sense of being nothing or not good enough unless one conforms to the system which defines how one believes and acts in order to gain value. It is the foundation of shame which we/I have inherited which at times will inhibit independent expression or will trigger an all out rebellion against the symbols of authority who had planted the seed of that shame. All souls/human beings have an innate drive to be free to explore the meaning of their existence through their relationships with other seekers.

  • I don’t think that Americanism and Catholicism are foes or incompatible with one another. I believe it has more to do with persons lack of self-control, lack of fortitude and courage to uphold Catholic dogma and certain principles. It has more to do with the prevalence of human weakness, human sinfulness. It is more a matter of moral absolutism vs. moral relativism, the Catholic Church versus societal changes/moral relativism.

    • T J Hostek

      I find (and Iam backed up by such as Thomas Merton) that absolutism pushes people toward relativism. What is needed is wisdom and discernment.

      • You and Merton are so right.

      • I am puzzled as to your reasoning for this assertion. How did you come to this conclusion? I don’t see a logical causality in your argument. When persons reject moral absolutism for moral relativism how does the conclusion get to be that “A” caused a person to reject “A”? To me it is logical to assert that outside pressures of differing values or principles is what influences or causes the rejection of “A” not “A” that causes the rejection of “A”.

  • I’m not a historian of American Catholicism and have nothing really to say about Americanism and the Catholic Church. I would caution against reading dissent from magisterial authority as being necessarily individualistic or flowing from an ethos of individualism. Dissent could be individualistic, but it could also be a result of not buying traditional rationales for theological or moral teachings. I would also add that one can approach/question/disagree with matters of doctrine as an individual subject without being simply subjectivist and individualistic.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    To play Devil’s advocate here: whatever we are to make of the reality of the heresy of “Americanism”, it seems to me that in the 19th century the Catholic Church in America embraced a view of Church/State relations and individual liberty and autonomy that was much more in tune with the prevailing American republican (small r) ethos than with the views espoused in, say, the Syllabus of Errors. This is very much exemplified by the Knights of Columbus, who, as one historian put, set out to become “the best of Americans and the best of Catholics.”

    The question then becomes: is it possible to adopt the consequences of Enlightenment individualism in one sphere, without adopting, at least implicitly, the philosophical underpinnings of these ideals and then unconsciously bringing them to bear in other areas? Kyle is quite correct in noting that one cannot equate dissent from the magisterium with rampant individualism but I think the question of their relationship to one another is worth asking. I don’t know the answer.

    • T J Hostek

      There is no such thing as a heresy called Americanism.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Well, a lot of people beg to differ. There is an extensive literature on it, though it is unclear whether there were any people who embodied all of the ideas lumped together under the label of “Americanism.”

        • T J Hostek

          Much like modernism, it is an amorphous non-entity.

    • Well, they took the Syllabus of Errors to be largely about France and Italy, which it largely was; the notion that it was some sort of general Catholic program for society was not at the time the common view of Catholics anywhere, as far as I am aware.

      However, I take it that your point is simply (1) that the hierarchy attempted to be American as well as Catholic; and (2) that the question is whether this imports Enlightenment individualism willy-nilly. I don’t see why it would. They certainly didn’t see themselves as embracing Enlightenment individualism; it’s not difficult to find well-supported Catholic attacks on individualism, for instance. So the question ends up really being, in what sense could they have been individualistic quite contrary to their explicit intent and active opposition to Enlightenment individualism, simply by being American. And to say that they were requires us to say that it is impossible to be American without actually accepting Enlightenment individualism. I’m not really sure I see the argument why this would be so.

      • Peter Paul Fuchs

        I would also interject a point which the late philosopher Richard Rorty made
        a while ago, but still holds good. I believe in the article named “Professional Philosophy and Transcendentalist Culture”….or something like that. Namely, that philosopher types — and I would add churchmen as well — often end up arguing against philosophical positions that they think should exist or must exist in the public, because they see certain kinds of behavior. It is a type of “fuzzy thinking” (to use Brett’s term) that makes people imagine problems that are different than they are. Rorty’s point, which I think still very much obtains, is that our culture makes largely Transcendentalist assumptions about a lot of things in the nature of personal religion and philosophy, or just how people “think about life.” I agree. Indeed, a really individualist position in line with the Enlightenment is not something that has existed in this country for a long time, and by the time the Syllabus was written was already long dead. It has long since been morphed into a pervasive trascendentalist ether. It is like an old used up pinata that has long had its context beaten out. This is part of the reason why these
        arguments in the Catholic realm are kinda moot. And also why essentially reactionary Catholic theorists like Christian Smith, who proposes that something called “moral therapeutic deism” (how quaint!) exists in the general public. One wonders if such people have ever read a book of cultural history of this country, instead of reading philosophy and trying to make sociology fit on their procrustean bed.

  • Kurt

    the 19th century the Catholic Church in America embraced a view of Church/State relations and individual liberty and autonomy that was much more in tune with the prevailing American republican (small r) ethos than with the views espoused in, say, the Syllabus of Errors.

    It did, and with the Second Vatican Council and the rehabilitation of John Courtney Murray, the Church Universal embraced the same.

    But that had little to do with our present situation.

    Industrialization saw the greatest migration of people in Europe since the Vandals. Peasants and small artisans left their farms and villages and moved to industrial centers in their native land or in North America. It was a huge change, leaving the environs of the churchyard their ancestors were buried in, the agricultural/festival/liturgical cycle they had known for generations and the other rhythms of life, spiritual and secular.

    And for the most part, upon arrival in their new home they were pastorally and spiritually abandoned by the established church. And for that reason we find in much of Europe a church that is absent among the workers and present only in rural areas and among the upper class.

    The exceptions were the Methodists in England and Wales, which resulted in the most churchgoing working class anywhere in Europe for a century, and the Catholic Church in the United States with the top prize for churchgoing workers. (prizes for partial success or mixed results go to Fr. Kolping in Germany and Fr. Cardijn in the Low Countries).

    The English/Welsh Methodists and the American Catholics put off for a good century what the rest of Christendom experienced. Working class Americans have in last generation gone from the most religious to the most secular part of society. College educated American Catholics, on the other hand, while polarized into conservative and progressive factions, stay in the Church.

    It is not “Americanism” but the late turning of the Church in America to what the 19th century European church did – a pastoral abandonment of the working class.

  • Jordan

    PPF [May 16, 2013 4:14 pm]: And also why essentially reactionary Catholic theorists like Christian Smith, who proposes that something called “moral therapeutic deism” (how quaint!) exists in the general public. One wonders if such people have ever read a book of cultural history of this country, instead of reading philosophy and trying to make sociology fit on their procrustean bed.

    Your thought brings us full-circle back to Elizabeth Scalia’s argument originally quoted by David. She posits that Americanism is rooted in “a subjective, individualistic approach to Church doctrine and discipline widely present among American Catholics now.” She precedes this sentiment with an indictment of church-state separation as the source of an atomized antimorality.

    As I have written earlier in the thread, I am convinced that Scalia’s intellectualized moral panic is not based in morality but socioeconomic pressures. Even so, Richard Rorty’s “fuzzy thinking” (as interpreted by Brett) drives many Catholics into a moral tunnel vision which considers abortion, birth control, homosexuality, or another panic de la semaine as discrete loci of possibly unrelated but fuzzily and logically linked “moral ills”.

    PPF, you are entirely correct that this mindset produces procrustean beds. In fact, I would advance that in order for a Christian to appear on the side of moral righteousness, he or she must wield the hatchet even if doing so counters all logic, inevitability, and human nature. Carry Nation smashed numerous saloon bar counters, only to outdone by FDR’s alleged famous quotation just after the de facto repeal of the Volstead Act: “I think this would be a good time for a beer.