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Russell Shaw, in his new book, American Church, argues that there are large amounts of “Catholics in name only,” due to the cultural assimilation of Catholics into the mainstream.
BY CARL BUNDERSON/CNA
DENVER — To counter decades of Catholics becoming absorbed into secular American culture, noted author and journalist Russell Shaw is proposing a new Catholic “subculture” committed to evangelization.
“We're no longer evangelizing the culture; we’ve been evangelized by it. And it’s not good for the secular culture, and it’s destroying us as a religious community,” Shaw told Catholic News Agency on April 16.
“My critique of Americanism and of cultural assimilation is very real,” he explained. “What has happened has turned out not to be in the best interest of the Catholic Church in the U.S., but no one started out with bad intentions.”
Shaw is the author of American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, which is published by Ignatius Press and was released at the end of March.
The book contains a foreword by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who discusses the dangerous temptation for Catholics to “become like everyone else ... rather than be ‘other than’ and holy,” agreeing that American Catholics have largely “abandoned who we really are.”
Shaw’s work, originally titled The Gibbons Legacy, begins by examining “Americanism,” which was a “naively optimistic” view of the compatibility between Catholicism and the American ethos of individualism, popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Americanism was championed by such figures as Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, Minn., and Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore. It was opposed by Pope Leo XIII and by Orestes Brownson, a Catholic intellectual who argued that there is a “radical incompatibility” between the American ethos and traditional Catholicism.
“Whether Brownson was or wasn’t correct in his time, it’s to a great extent turned out that way today, in the wake of four decades of profound and alarming change in the character of American secular culture,” Shaw said.
He noted the falling number of priests and religious in the U.S., as well as declining participation in the sacraments, an exodus from the Church and the large amount of “Catholics in name only,” attributing these figures to the cultural assimilation of Catholics into the mainstream.
The story told in American Church, Shaw said, is one “without villains,” but is it is about “generally decent, good people trying to do the right thing, but often in retrospect not doing the right thing, blundering, making large mistakes, which we’re only now coming to realize and understand clearly.”
“And which we need to rectify before it’s too late,” he stressed.
Among his reasons for writing the book, Shaw said, is to examine questions of Catholic identity and history in the U.S. and to “call what I think are the right answers to the attention of as many people as possible.”
That way, he explained, “instead of just muddling through and hoping for the best, we can proceed in a rational, self-conscious manner to achieve the sort of goals and objectives that we want to achieve, rather than sometime in the future ending up in a state of affairs that we didn’t anticipate and don’t particularly like, which could happen.”
As a solution to the problem of the faithful being absorbed into secular culture, Shaw proposed the creation of a new “Catholic subculture” that promotes Catholic identity, while being evangelistic rather than being focused inward like the “Catholic ghetto” of the early 20th century.
Shaw agrees with those who would denounce an inward-focused Catholic subculture whose institutions are laughable to secular culture. However, he maintains that a healthy Catholic subculture is necessary for the Catholics to thrive as Catholics: “Absent a subculture, you won’t have any group identity.”
“You’ll be what we are now, a rather amorphous group, a label for convenience’s sake: ‘the Catholic Church in the U.S.’, but a splintered group in which a very large number of the putative members are not really Catholic in any meaningful sense at all.”
“In the late ’50s through the ’70s, we gave up on the Catholic subculture in a big way, and that’s the era when we lost a lot of the older Catholic institutions and those that remained went secular,” he observed.
More than half a century ago, Shaw noted, Catholicism was “well on its way to becoming a profoundly effective culture-forming factor in the United States.”
But now, he explained, the Church has no significant influence on the broader secular culture because so many American Catholics have plunged “unconditionally” into that culture.
The solution, a new subculture, must be based in “a Catholic identity which is outward-looking and which is profoundly and radically committed to evangelization” of the larger culture, the author emphasized.
This subculture must sustain its members and maintain Catholic identity.
“You have to get your identity, values and commitments right or you’re going to be in serious trouble,” he said.
Shaw sees promising signs of the framework for this Catholic subculture, including new media ventures such as Catholic News Agency, new Catholic educational institutions such as Ave Maria University, and “the return to a more orthodox brand of Catholicism on the part of at least some older academic institutions, such as [The] Catholic University of America.”
He added that a new subculture will require both those deeply immersed in it, who “provide reinforcement and catechesis,” bolstering and sustaining Catholic identity, and those who having been bolstered and are more present “in the midst of the secular world.”
“What I’m saying is predicated on the assumption that we’ll have a large percentage of Catholics who are loyal and orthodox ... who will be out there in the secular society, working and socializing with non-Catholics, but whose commitment to the Catholic faith will be visible at all times and in all circumstances,” he explained.
“And it is those people who will be agents of the New Evangelization in that larger secular context.”