Wednesday, May 1, 2013

What’s Killing American Catholicism: Part 1

What’s Killing American Catholicism: Part 1
Fr. Dwight Longenecker

Reading Sherry Weddell’s excellent Forming Intentional Disciples is making me think about the American church and what ails her. Can anybody deny that there is a sickness in the body ecclesia? When 50% of Catholics vote for a man who stoutly defends same sex marriage and partial birth abortion can we say that Catholics in America are okay?

I don’t think so.

Thus a series of posts on what’s killing Catholicism. All the words begin with the letter ‘C’. I can’t help it. I was brought up as a Biblical Evangelical and our pastors always used alliteration to make their points memorable.

The first problem is cultural catholicism. The Poles, Italians, Irish, French, Czech, German and more Catholics came here from the old country and the bishops reckoned the best thing to do with them all was to allow cultural parishes. So in the same town the Irish Catholics went to St Patrick’s and the Poles to St Stanislaus and the Italians to St Anthony of Padua. Geesh, a man in my parish who grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania said that when he was a boy a girl from his Czech parish fell in love with an Irish boy and the Irish priest wouldn’t marry them because it was a mixed marriage.

I’m all for cultural customs and so forth, but the problem is that the immigrant Catholics–in a foreign land–clung to their culture for security and happiness and part of that culture was their Catholicism. The didn’t distinguish their culture from their Catholicism. Then, after a few generations, when they were all really American and stopped being Italian or Irish or German they also stopped being Catholic. The Catholic faith wasn’t much deeper than Mama’s special spaghetti sauce or stories of the Blarney stone.

Of course they didn’t all stop being Catholic. Something else happened which was even more subtle and insidious. They became Americans and because their mindset was that their Catholic faith was something which blended with their culture, instead of being Italian-Catholics or Polish Catholics they became American Catholics. Just as nationalism and love of culture blended with their Catholic faith when they were ethnic minorities, now it blended seamlessly with their new American culture. Just as Catholicism gave their former culture God’s approval, not their Catholicism gave American values and culture God’s approval.

Thus we have what I call AmChurch: the American Catholic church which is happily and blissfully blended with everything wonderful about America. Except that the “wonderful” values of most Americans are unapologetically materialistic, hedonistic and self centered. Thus at least 50% of American Catholics live like their American neighbors–going to the mall, getting as much stuff as possible, giving as little as possible, having a neat and tidy two children and a double income, and basically smiling their way to success like everyone else.

Now this grates with me because I was brought up as an Evangelical fundamentalist and I realize the roots are deep. More than that, I come from seven generations of sturdy Pennsylvania Dutch anabaptists–Mennonnites, Amish, Brethren and such. These people had exactly the other point of view. They were first and foremost Christians. They considered it the default setting that each person had to hear the call of Christ and leave their nets and follow him. The church was a pilgrim people–a people set apart. They were suspicious of the surrounding culture and very suspicious of officialdom of every kind. If the Catholics absorbed culture the Mennonite were deliberately counter cultural.
The Mennonite approach, however, has it’s problems. The gospel says we’re to be “in the world but not of the world”. We’re not actually supposed to be totally counter cultural. We’re supposed to be yeast in the dough, a light set on the hill. You get too counter cultural and you become a weird sect like the Branch Davidians
Being a happy Benedictine oblate I see the solution as being something more than both of these ways. The problem with cultural Catholics in America is that they have never come to realize that the Catholic faith transcends every culture. That’s what Catholic means for goodness sake! It’s universal.

The Catholic faith is therefore embedded in every culture and takes from every culture what is useful and good, but because it transcends culture it is also automatically counter cultural in the right way.

The Catholic should always be in a constant tug of war with the culture around him. Here affirming what is good–there condemning what is bad. Here supporting all that is full of life, love, truth beauty and goodness and there condemning and avoiding all that is full of death, hate, lies, ugliness and evil.
The answer to Cultural Catholicism, therefore, is what I call Comprehensive Catholicism–a Catholicism that embraces all things for their essential worth. If their value is precious and eternal the more highly we love them. If their value is trash–well we love trash for what its worth too: to be thrown on the rubbish pile and burnt. This sort of constantly discerning Catholicism is what is needed at the individual and local level, but the reason people opt for cultural Catholicism is because it is easy.

This is the core problem with Cultural Catholicism: by its very nature it goes with the flow. In its love and acceptance of the ethnic culture it is uncritical, and because individual cultural Catholics are uncritical of their culture they are also uncritical of the level of their Catholic faith. They chortle along quite happily living the unexamined life.

When the test comes this kind of Catholicism will simply wither and die in the heat. “When the test comes?” We are in the middle of the test already. What I see in the American Catholic Church is a huge “F” on that test. The opportunity to stand up and be counted and to stand against the culture of death in this country has already been lost by the majority of so called Catholics because so blinded by the love of their culture, they didn’t even realize there was a test to start with.

Next installment: “Complacent Catholicism”


  1. Dead fish go with the stream, live ones go against it. -- (Thomas Whittemore, "Reply to Dr. Ely," Trumpet and Universalist Magazine, May 22, 1830, p. 186)

  2. Archbishop Fulton Sheen said this, "The truth is the truth, even if nobody believes it, and a lie is a lie, even if everybody believes it". Something to think about.

    1. America is a blend of religious beliefs and Enlightenment ideas of self-ownership and rights. But the elements of the blend are in a contest with one another and religious beliefs are losing.

    2. Conservative Catholicism is quite a small thing. Have you ever been on a Jesuit university campus? A Jesuit campus is almost entirely liberal--especially the few remaining Jesuits themselves! The elites of Catholicism, apart from the Bishops, are all very liberal. That's not going to change.

  3. Can one be a good American and a good Catholic? Can a good Catholic be against universal health care? Be a capitalist? Support the so-called War on Terror?

    1. There is universal healthcare in America and there has been for a long time. There is no universal payer or socialized medicine. I am Catholic turn no patients away and oppose socialism wherever it rears its ugly head. Yes we can also support the War on Terror. If we do not start to fight against Islam we will all be worshiping Allah in no time. We are in a war whether we like it or not and we owe it to the weakest ones to fight for them.The most oppressed are the women specifically Muslim women who have no freedoms. We need to masculinize Catholicism and begin to show courage rather than acceptance.

    2. If you are right, why does the Pope oppose you? The Pope Emeritus has said the threat to freedom is not from Islam but from the denial of God. Your view of Islam is simply not Catholic.

    3. We fought back in two wars after 9/11 and look at the world now. Worse than ever!

    4. Beagle Howl,

      You say: "If we do not start to fight against Islam we will all be worshiping Allah in no time."

      1. Tell us how to fight against Islam.

      2. I don't know about you, but I'm not going to worship Allah or any other god.

      [BTW, why does God feel the need to be worshipped? After all, He did not create Himself. He is perfect (says who?), but He did nothing to attain it. He didn't earn His perfection -- it's just the way He is, and has ever been. At least that's what the Glory Be says.

      Come on, KITA-heads. Think for yourselves. You have brains. Don't let Al Kresta do your thinking for you.]

    5. With their screams of "Equality for all," the Modern Liberal believes that Sexual Freedom is the most important of all freedoms. By that definition, a Catholic can never be an American.