With his new book, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America (Ignatius Press), mild-mannered Russell Shaw has become the bull in the china shop of U.S. Catholic history, knocking heroes off pedestals and overturning conventional story-lines—all in aid of trying to understand why the Church in America is in precarious position today vis-à-vis the ambient public culture and the government.
Shaw’s answer: we’re in deep trouble because of a longstanding U.S. Catholic determination to be more-American-than-thou—to disprove ancient charges of Catholicism’s incompatibility with American democracy by assimilating so dramatically that there’s no discernible difference between Catholics (and their attitudes toward public policy) and an increasingly secularized, mainstream public opinion. Shaw mounts an impressive case that Catholic Lite in these United States has indeed taken its cues from the wider culture, and as that culture has become ever more individualistic and hedonistic, the historic U.S. Catholic passion for assimilation and acceptance has backfired. Moreover, Shaw’s call to build a culture-reforming Catholic counterculture is not dissimilar to the argument I make about the Church and public life in “Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church.”
But on a second reading of Shaw’s book, I began to wonder whether he’s gotten the question of the moment quite right.
To read the history of the Catholic Church in the United States as a centuries-long struggle for assimilation and acceptance certainly sheds light on one dynamic in the development of the Church in America. Yet too close a focus on the question, “Is it possible to be a good Catholic and a good American?” is to argue the question of Catholicism-and-America on the other guy’s turf. Once, the “other guy” challenging Catholics’ patriotic credentials was militant Protestantism; now, the other guy is militant secularism. To play on the other guy’s turf, however, is to concede at the outset that the other guy sets the terms of debate: “We (militant Protestants/militant secularists) know what it means to be a good American; you (Catholics) have to prove yourselves to us.”
That’s not the game, however. It wasn’t really the game from 1776 through the 1960 presidential campaign—when militant Protestantism was the aggressor—and it isn’t the game today. The real game involves different, deeper questions: “Who best understands the nature of the American experiment in ordered liberty, and who can best give a persuasive defense of the first liberty, which is religious freedom?”
The 19th-century U.S. bishops and intellectuals whose enthusiasm for American democracy Russ Shaw now views skeptically (and, yes, they did go over the top on occasion) did get one crucial point right: the American Founders “built better than they knew,” i.e., the Founders designed a democratic republic for which they couldn’t provide a durable moral and philosophical defense. But the long-despised (and now despised-again) Catholics could: Catholics could (and can) give a robust, compelling account of American democracy and its commitments to ordered liberty.
Mid-20th-century Catholic scholars like historian Theodore Maynard and theologian John Courtney Murray picked up this theme and made it central to their reading of U.S. Catholic history. Murray presciently warned that, if Catholicism didn’t fill the cultural vacuum being created by a dying mainline Protestantism, the “noble, many-storied mansion of democracy [may] be dismantled, leveled to the dimensions of a flat majoritarianism, which is no mansion but a barn, perhaps even a tool shed in which the weapons of tyranny may be forged.”
That is the argument the U.S. bishops have mounted in their challenge to the Obama administration’s demolition of civil society through the HHS mandate on contraceptives and abortifacients: What is the nature of American democracy and the fundamental freedoms government is created to protect? Who are the true patriots: the men and women who can give an account of freedom’s moral character, an account capable of sustaining a genuine democracy against a rising dictatorship of relativism, “in which the tools of tyranny may be forged”?
The argument today isn’t about assimilation. The argument today is about who “gets” America.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. Mr. Weigel’s syndicated Catholic press column, “The Catholic Difference,” is the most widely circulated Catholic press column in the country, reaching a combined readership of some two million persons each week.