Oh, and About Those Gates . . .


by David Carlin Sophia, 2003

432 pages, $24.95

To order: (800) 888-9344 or www.sophiainstitute.com

As a child I learned in my Southern Baptist Sunday school that the King James Bible contains 365 passages that say “fear not.” When I converted to the Catholic faith and began reading the deuterocanonical books as something besides literature, I was comforted by further evidence of God's faithfulness during times that strike fear in human hearts. And, when I began worrying that Christianity in toto might be on slippery skids, I grabbed hold of Christ's promise in Matthew 16:18: “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”

David Carlin believes that about the gates of hell. What he does not believe is that the Catholic Church in America will necessarily be a part of the Church that survives the hellish onslaught. Yes, Carlin is pessimistic, and while he obviously hopes The Decline & Fall of the Catholic Church in America will be a clarion call, even a manifesto, for American Catholics, he paints a frightening picture.

Serious Catholics must understand precisely how our Church got into this precarious situation. Carlin presents a compelling analysis. He attributes the decline to the “perfect storm” spawned in the 1960s by the collision of three powerful social forces: the emergence of Catholics from cultural “ghettos” into the broader culture, changes resulting from Vatican II and the plummeting of American culture into anti-authoritarian secularism. “Any one of these factors operating all by itself would have had a significant impact,” he writes. “The convergence of all three at a single historical moment … was explosive.”

Carlin, a professor of philosophy and sociology at the Community College of Rhode Island, served as a Democratic state senator and has published more than 100 articles on social, political, cultural and religious topics. About this book he writes: “I have tried to write a piece of pure sociology. … It is not, however, a piece of empirical sociology; that is to say, I have done no original research nor uncovered any facts that are not commonly known to anyone familiar with the Church in the United States.”

Carlin's readable style makes delving into the historical and sociological foundations a pleasure, but you'll need to take notes as you read — the lack of an index is a major inconvenience. His keen insights concerning “liberal” and “conservative” Catholics are particularly intriguing, as are explanations of the vocations and leadership crises and his comments about the priest sex scandals and the trivialization of the liturgy.

There are glimmers of optimism amid the doom and gloom, such as Carlin's conviction that some Catholics will sustain the true Catholic faith in 21st-century America, “just as John Henry Newman was able to do it in the midst of very modern 19th-century England.” Carlin cautions: “It is individual human beings, individual members of the institution, who must amend the life of an institution if it is to be amended at all. And there is always the danger that individuals who are responsible for an institution … will fail to act as they should act.”

Then he adds that “amending a life, whether individual or institutional, is not always just a matter of will; it is also a matter of knowledge.” Decline & Fall is a good place to bone up on the facts needed by every Catholic who is willing to resist the advance of the gates of hell in America.

Ann Applegarth writes from Roswell, New Mexico.