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”