Up From the Ghetto

Catholics aren’t out of the ghetto yet.

The Register now has several investigative series running simultaneously. To help readers keep track, we’re providing a “series at a glance” box when an installment runs.

As our news reporters study the Church’s response to the abuse crisis, end-of-life care issues, the crisis in catechesis and the crisis of faith in higher education, one thing becomes painfully obvious.

The Church isn’t looking for ways to solve difficult new problems. The Church has a wealth of wisdom to draw on in each of these areas. The Church’s question isn’t: What can we do? It’s: Why aren’t we doing what we know we can do?

A look at the history of the Catholic Church in the United States can shed light on the question. That history is the story of Catholics at the turn of the 19th century leaving Europe in droves for the United States. They fled poverty for prosperity. They fled a place where education was unavailable for one where education was mandatory.

But they also fled Catholic countries for a deeply Protestant one.

Catholic immigrants accomplished great things. They built grand churches. They filled seminaries and convents. They rose from being the poorest Americans to the highest levels of government, academia and the media.

But as Catholics rose out of the ghetto, too many of us began behaving like being Catholic is something we need to be embarrassed about.

This has always been the problem with immigration and assimilation. The strong human desire to be like our neighbors is a powerful current, powerful enough to unite a nation — or to wipe out a religious identity.

The Old Testament is filled with God’s stern warnings about the people of God assimilating with pagan societies. In our own time we see what he was talking about.

It started with the children of the first immigrant Catholics. On the most superficial level, they dropped their accents and wore clothes that would allow them to fit in. As they grew older, they stopped participating in the traditions of their parents and began to adopt new ones.

But the Church was something too powerful to be dropped so easily. That took longer. Maybe the turning point came when the new generation was finally grown up and moving into positions of leadership. But in the 1950s and 1960s, the sons and daughters of the immigrants started leaving the Church en masse. Mass attendance plummeted. Parents stopped automatically seeking the sacraments for their children.

And those who remained in the Church were too often divided.

Take higher education, for instance. In 1970, the nation’s top Catholic university leaders signed the “Land o’ Lakes Statement” that redefined the Catholic mission in education.

No longer were our universities the places where a Catholic intellectual class would be formed to use the riches of the faith to help better the world. Now Catholic universities were to be places that were critical of the Church, said the statement. They would be places where the world’s intellectual currents would form students.

The Register has been studying Catholic universities for years. In our award-winning series on the mandatum, we found that, as the 21st century began, very few universities were in compliance with canon law in cooperating with local bishops.

The same “out-of-the-ghetto” dynamic played out in another area we’re studying — parish religious-education programs.

Starting in the 1970s, Catholic CCD teachers were very reluctant to assert Catholic truth over and against anything else. Again, they behaved as if they consciously wished to distance themselves from the Catholic faith.

If teachers didn’t dissent outright, they emphasized the aspects of the faith that were most like what their Protestant neighbors believed. For instance, they emphasized  that the Celebration of the Eucharist was a “community meal” filled with symbolism, and de-emphasized that it was the sacrifice of Calvary re-presented, and that Christ is truly present in it. As a result, in our own day, polls show that Catholics not only disbelieve in the Eucharist, but that they have no idea what there is about it that should be believed in the first place.

So, where do we go from here?

The forces of assimilation have left vast numbers of people unsure of their Catholic identity. But, ironically, this has created an opportunity. The young American Catholics who flock to World Youth Day aren’t burdened by the same baggage.

Next week, we’ll look at how this is changing the dynamic of Catholic America.

Representing the Holy Spirit that descended “like a dove” and hovered over Jesus when he was baptized.

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