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The Catholic Failure to Change America

Nevertheless, in spite of the Church’s amazing growth, American Catholics have had no such influence upon the thought and life of the whole nation as their numbers would lead us to expect.

– Carlton J. H. Hayes

 Important as are the contributions of individual members of the Church to the life of the United States, it is yet worthy of note how small the part is that the Roman Catholic Church has taken in the formation of the general culture.

– Thomas C. Hall

In the 19th and first part of the 20th century there was a sometimes bitter controversy over how many Catholic immigrants to the United States had lost their faith after arriving in their new homeland, as a result of the shortage of priests or simply the unsettling conditions of a country in which Catholicism was not taken for granted in the public culture.  Many commentators, often German Catholics, argued for massive losses well into the late 19th century.  Even the optimists admitted a huge number of defections, at least for the colonial era.  Their most noteworthy contribution to the debate, the 1925 book, Has the Immigrant Kept the Faith?, by Fr. (later bishop of Seattle) Gerald Shaughnessy, held that in colonial times, “the Church had suffered here a loss of 240,000 members or possible members by the year 1790”leaving an estimated Catholic population of merely 35,000 for that same year.  Whatever might be the truth about 18th or 19th century defections from the Faith in the United States, for our own time we have harder numbers in the Pew survey of a few years ago:

Overall, 2.6 percent of the U.S. adult population has switched their affiliation to Catholic after being raised in another faith or in no faith at all.  But nearly four times as many people (10.1 percent of the adult population overall) were raised in the Catholic Church but have since left for another faith or for no faith at all.

That means, according to the Pew survey, that although 31.4 percent of Americans were raised Catholic, and 2.6 percent converted to the Faith, only 23.9 now identify as Catholic.  And I am sure that all my readers have lapsed Catholics in their acquaintance, whose children and grandchildren in turn, whether baptized or not, are hardly aware that they have a Catholic heritage and may not show up in such surveys as losses to the Church.  Thus the loss of actual members translates over generations to an even greater loss in their descendants.

Although the question of Catholic influence upon American culture is separate from the question of mere Catholic numbers, they are not unrelated.  Had Catholics simply maintained strength of numbers it is probable that at some point merely the increasingly overwhelming size of the Church would have resulted in some significant “influence upon the thought and life of the whole nation.”

But that was not to be.  Catholics did not have much influence “in the formation of the general culture,” in part certainly because as a minority group that general culture was too overwhelming to influence.  But even with lesser numbers we have not had the influence that perhaps we could have had if we had understood the situation better, if we had grasped the task that was set before us.  To convert individualsyes, many laudably sought that.  But to convert American ideas, ways of thinking, institutions, all of which were thoroughly imbued with Protestant and Enlightenment principlesthis, it seems, was rarely seen as part of the Church’s apostolic mission in this country.

To the Protestant charge that Catholics could not be good Americans, our ancestors were all too apt to cry, Yes we can, better than you in fact!  Many it seems did not see that the term “good American” could mean two things:  On the one hand, simply an inhabitant and citizen of this country, but on the other, someone who wholeheartedly accepted the country’s founding principles and spirit.  Thus the ambiguity in Archbishop John Ireland’s statement that “Catholicism and Americanism are in complete agreement.”  Although one can hardly criticize Ireland for his desire to adopt apostolic methods suited to the conditions of this country, he and his like seem to have imagined that the United States was in some way a realization on the natural level of Catholic principles.

In his preface to Fr. Elliott’s Life of Father Hecker, Ireland wrote that “the Church ought to love a polity which is the offspring of her own spirit,” and “an honest ballot and social decorum among Catholics will do more for God’s glory and the salvation of souls than midnight flagellations or Compostellan pilgrimages.”  Such a quasi-mystical idealization of the United States and the institutions of democracy lay behind Ireland’s ecclesiastical and political viewse.g., his at best lukewarm support of parochial schoolsand suggests that he thought the Church had as much to gain from America as vice-versa.

But be that as it may, the controversy over Catholic losses in the United States is related to the question of Catholic influence in another way.  Generally, those holding to minimal losses maintained that there was nothing in American culture that was especially unfriendly to the Faith, while those, such as German Catholics, who believed that losses had been huge, attributed this in part at least to the Protestant and secular atmosphere of this country.  For example, Fr. Anton Walburg, a German-born Cincinnati priest, wrote in his 1889 book, The Question of Nationality in its Relation to the Catholic Church:

The ideal set before every American youth is money.  Money is not only needful, but is the one thing needful.  Money is a power everywhere, but here it is the supreme power…In Europe, a man enjoys his competence; but here, no one has enough…

The Anglo-Saxon nationality has always been in England and in this country the bulwark of Protestantism and the mainstay of the enemies of the faith.  It is so puffed up with spiritual pride, so steeped in materialism, that it is callous, and impervious to the spirit and the doctrines of the Catholic religion.

This divide among American Catholics vis-à-vis American culture continues to this day.  Some of the responses to Patrick Deneen’s recent article, “A Catholic Showdown Worth Watching,” could have been written by Archbishop Ireland himself.  Peter Lawler, for example, charges that Deneen “is repulsively lacking in gratitude.”  Gratitude to America, that is.  And for what?  For freedom, “in some respects an unprecedented freedom.”  Evidently Lawler is unaware that religious freedom under the First Amendment is merely a freedom of belief, not necessarily of conduct, even religiously-motivated conduct.  One need only read Justice Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion in the 1990 case of Employment Division v. Smith to see this:

“We have never held that an individual’s religious beliefs excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the State is free to regulate,” Scalia wrote.  And he continued,

the right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a “valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law proscribes (or prescribes) conduct that his religion prescribes (or proscribes).”

This understanding of religious freedom, rooted in John Locke, informs the whole tradition of American jurisprudence.  The 1779 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, for example, written by Thomas Jefferson, gave freedom only to belief, what it called “religious opinion.”  Moreover, even with regard to belief this freedom is not so absolute as is supposed, and one might take note of the fact that in the 1890 case of Davis v. Beason the Supreme Court unanimously upheld a law of the Territory of Idaho that denied the right to vote or hold public office not merely to polygamists, but to

any person…who teaches, advises, counsels, or encourages any person or persons to become bigamists or polygamists…or who is a member of any order, organization, or association which teaches, advises, counsels, or encourages its members…to commit the crime of bigamy or polygamy.

If at some point this more than century-old legal principle is used against Catholics, will we still be so ready to speak of the “unprecedented freedom” we are said to enjoy here?

Despite the largely hostile culture, had Catholics, even with reduced numbers, understood our apostolate in its totality, we might have been able to influence American culture, at least to some degree. Probably the root defect of that culture is its individualism, based both on a philosophical reductionism and on Protestantism.  This individualism affects in the first place our fundamental attitudes toward government and authority and economic life.  The effects of individualism on our economic life are often recognized, but less understood are the ways that the mores of a “commercial republic” corrupt nearly every aspect of life, public and privatefor example, education or even sports.  Had the Church combined her efforts at individual conversions with an intelligent critique of the fundamental cultural situation in the United States, she might have had an influence that went well beyond her visible bounds.

When efforts were made to influence the culture, as with the Legion of Decency, they were too often merely negative and ad hoc.  It is entirely legitimate to stigmatize bad movies, but our criticism seemed to be mostly of obvious offenses against the sixth and ninth commandments rather than of the deeper thematic faults of American cinema, which were connected with the philosophical reductionism, individualism, and materialism already mentioned.  This made our critique seem one-sided, directed against only a narrow range of moral failings and unconcerned with other cultural and moral errors of American society.

The only important area where Catholic thought did have positive influence outside the boundaries of the Church was Catholic social doctrine.  Here the Church presented more than a critique of specific injustices and social ills, but rather offered a vision of a more just society, a vision that found sympathy and support among politicians, union leaders, and publicists.  But the Church did not offer a comprehensive, positive program that combined an intelligent evaluation of American culture as a whole with a presentation of Catholic principles in their fullness and beauty.  Had this been done it would have been a spiritual work of mercy, and a signal act of piety toward our country.  This, rather than vain boasting of America’s achievements, real or imagined, or uncritical support of every American military adventure, would have been a truly patriotic deed:  an attempt to make one’s country better.

But instead of trying to point out that it was Catholic principles that were the best remedy for the failings in American culture that even many non-Catholics perceived, and instead of assiduously working to make Catholic life embody those principles in their fullness, we largely copied Protestant and secular American manners where these did not obviously and directly contravene Catholic morals.  This was the point of Robert M. Hutchins’ 1937 address to the National Catholic Educational Association Midwest Regional Meeting, in which he charged that Catholic education in the United States had “imitated the worst features of secular education,” namely “athleticism and collegiatism,” the latter being “the production of well-tubbed young Americans.”  Hutchins was not a Catholic, but he used our own principles against us.  “What I say,” he continued,

is that Catholic education is not Catholic enough.  The Catholic Church has the longest intellectual tradition of any institution in the contemporary world, the only uninterrupted tradition and the only explicit tradition … What I say is that this tradition must not be merely an ideal, but must be practiced.

And sadly the same might have been said about all too many other areas of Catholic life.  To make individual piety and rectitudecritical though these obviously arethe sole goal of Catholic life, and to seek to influence society if at all only in a negative manner, by prohibiting certain discrete evils instead of by holding up an attractive vision of something fundamentally different and betterthis has been in practice the way the Church in the United States conducted her apostolate.

Now, of course, the hour is late.  It is no doubt harder to convince people today to calmly consider either the claims of the Catholic Church or the beauty of Catholic thought and life than it may have been in the past.  But though many will consider such an effort quixotic if not foolish, it is more likely to yield genuine success, it seems to me, than a frantic preoccupation with largely futile political activity in pursuit of goals that are not always even consistent with Catholic doctrine.

The divide among Catholics today that Deneen portrays has its roots in the nineteenth-century Catholic debate about immigration.  For some, as for Archbishop Ireland, America was the place where the Church would flourish, and flourish by adopting American principles.  To discerning Catholics, however, the way of life offered by the Protestant colossus of the New World had to be carefully weighed and judged.  What was good or indifferent could be accepted.  What was not had to be discerned and either reformed or rejected.

Although we are remote in time from our immigrant ancestors, this necessary process of discernment in light of Catholic principles and history remains still largely unengaged.  Though it is late, our own daywhen we are again experiencing a new Catholic immigration, and when the principles latent in American thought from the beginning are more evident than everis not too late to begin.


Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • Dylan Pahman

    Perhaps this is dwelling too much on the numbers, but right now there are 6 Supreme Court justices, 1 vice president, 27 senators, and, unless I’m mistaken, 136 representatives in the House who identify as Roman Catholic. It would seem that Roman Catholics are well-poised for political influence today, perhaps more so than any other period of American history…. Or maybe I’m just a “glass-is-half-full” sort of guy.

    I suppose one could claim that too many of these have too uncritically acquiesced to the specifically American ideological faults herein described, but I am unsure how one could definitively determine that.

    • Oh boy. That is certainly true. But Public Choice theory tells us that there are a lot of intervening causes that pull against Catholics ever voting for their identity, even if, that identity were not so fractured.

    • Thomas Storck

      It appears to me that very few if any of these Catholics in Congress or the Supreme Ct. can be said to identify primarily as Catholics. How do I presume to determine that? By their own actions and statements, and by the near impossibility that anyone holding to authentic Catholic principles could get elected to anything today.

  • Ben Thorp

    Hello Mr. Storck: I have been an avid fan of your writings for years, and I first wanted to thank you for the work you’ve been doing.
    Like you, I am enthusiastic convert to the Catholic faith, having been received into the Church in 1994. Like many converts, my first inclination was to religious life: my dream was to be the ‘Thomas Merton’ of our time, living a cloistered life and contributing to the intellectual struggles of our day from the quiet, contemplative peace of a monastery. However, life led me in a different direction: I first obtained a Mater’s in Theology at Weston School of Theology (now part of BC) and began working at a Catholic boys’ school here in Rhode Island, where I taught for ten years.
    At Weston I of course encountered the full force of Liberal Catholicism in its Jesuit mold, which struck me as a project wholly at odds with the Catholic faith. Everything which had drawn me to Catholicism (its authority, its long heritage, its resistance to the foolish aspects of modernity etc.) was openly mocked, which pushed me in the direction of ‘conservative’ Catholicism: people like George Weigel, Robert Novak, Neuhaus etc.
    The school at which I taught was known as the ‘conservative’ school in the diocese- their specific ‘charism’ was angry Irish Catholicism- a weird amalgam of sports fanaticism and emphasis on ‘success’, and also a place where the extremes of post-Vatican II nonsense were still playing themselves out (crazy feminist ex-nuns, a sexually obsessed ex-priest, touchy-feely 70s people, Rush Limbaugh types, people obsessed with Barack Obamas birth records etc.)
    It was a very difficult milieu to try to make sense of, but I eventually came to see that most ‘conservative’ Catholics were just another form of Liberals.
    I eventually found a better footing in the writings of people like Joseph Ratzinger, David Schindler, and yourself.
    Unfortunately, the president of the school went on a wild firing-spree, which was objected to rather publicly by a fellow member of our theology department, who was then publicly theatened and humiliated. I felt compelled to defend my colleague and got drawn in to an ugly mess of intense dramas which made it very hard to stay ‘neutral’: the ensuing controversy made it all the way up to the diocesan level, and at each level I was stunned at the callousness and hostility shown to Catholic principles.
    I left teaching in 2010, and have been trying to run a small restaurant with some Ethiopian refugees who I met along the way. Our experience in ‘the real world’ has been extremely brutal: if life within Catholic institutions was harsh and crazy, life in our capitalistic society is even harsher, though maybe at least more consistent.
    Anyways, the point I would like to make vis-a-vis your article is this: I agree that the institutions of the American Catholic Church have ironically failed (to preach the Gospel) just as they ‘succeeded’ (in producing thoroughly secular American ‘Catholics’). And those institutions are I think, by and large, not reformable from within: there has been just too much invested in a particular ‘brand’ of failure for it to be turned around: nobody wants to hear an alternative vision.
    It seems to me what is needed is nothing other than what Peter Maurin proposed in the Catholic Worker movement (which as you have pointed out has lost its footing): an intellectual movement which ALSO has a dimension of community and action.
    I am sure you are aware of Wendell Berry, who is to my mind one of the most Catholic non-Catholics around. He has been pointing out the problems with our society’s individualism and thoughtless embrace of technology since the 70s. He became increasingly cynical about the possibility of recovery until the recent ( and mostly spontaneous) emergence of the organic/local food movement, farmer’s markets etc.
    Could there be a parallel movement within the Catholic milieu? Could lay Catholics, wearied beyond belief by our increasingly brutal and anti-human society, and frustrated by the indifference and even hostility of existing Catholic institutions, form a movement which could offer some hope? Hope beyond just intellectual arguments, but embodying true Catholic teaching in small communities, supporting families, and eventually perhaps acting as a ‘leaven’ for a Church which has lost its footing?
    Could it be time to lay the post-Vatican II confusion aside, and start focusing on responding to the REAL NEEDS of Catholic families who are desperately trying to find a place in this hostile cultural mileu?

  • Joey Breslin

    Mr. Storck,
    Great article. I came to the same conclusions in a very roundabout way—through “Catholic” Austrolibertarianism and then the discovery that it was wrong–to a rediscovery of the Church’s social teaching and of much that is truly Catholic but strangely invisible or unknown among the most orthodox here in the U.S. Your article is a good negative critique of the situation. It occurs to me–as you indicated–that the Catholic critique of American culture must also be positive: it must praise and amplify America’s real virtues and also show how those virtues actually lead to Catholic truth–if only they are properly understood and directed. For example, the American preoccupation with fairness and with hard work are good things in and of themselves, but are distorted or, perhaps, shrunken, by the narrow context of American culture.