View From a Veteran US Church Watcher

Russell Shaw explains the lessons learned from past Church leaders who struggled to establish a beachhead in an often hostile land, while critiquing the blind spots of the assimilationists that still haunt us today.

(photo: Carmel Communications)

Russell Shaw is the author, most recently, of Catholics in America: Religious Identity and Cultural Assimilation From John Carroll to Flannery O’Connor.

During an election year that has revived questions about whether self-identified Catholic candidates can endorse abortion rights, or if Catholic nonprofits should be exempted from laws that violate the Church’s moral teaching, Shaw takes us back to the early days of the Church in America. At that time, many asked whether committed Catholics could be loyal Americans. As Catholic leaders sought to build bridges with the Protestant majority, they slowly formulated a vision of assimilation that would form U.S. Catholic identity even as it altered the country’s social and cultural landscape.

European religious orders and native-born saints established schools, hospitals and charities for immigrants, but writers and activists like Flannery O’Connor and Dorothy Day resisted the assimilationist impulse.

During an email exchange with Register Senior Editor Joan Frawley Desmond, Shaw explains the lessons learned from past Church leaders who struggled to establish a beachhead in an often hostile land, while critiquing the blind spots of the assimilationists that still haunt us today. 


Catholics in America begins with a portrait of Archbishop John Carroll of Baltimore, the founding Church leader who had a gift for “building bridges with the non-Catholic world.” Why was this skill so important, and for how long did it remain a priority for his successors?

As wealthy, well-regarded members of the establishment, the Carrolls of Maryland were an exception among the American Catholics of those days, when Catholics were few in number — only about 25,000 by the end of the Revolutionary War — and usually not well-off. Not only that, they were usually regarded with suspicion, if not active dislike. The fallout from European religious wars accompanied Catholics across the Atlantic, and Catholics suffered greatly for that.

With his background, social contacts and diplomatic skill, John Carroll was able to bridge the gap and win a significant measure of acceptance for Catholics in the new United States. A number of his successors have followed this tradition — I mean men like Cardinal [James] Gibbons of Baltimore and, in our own times, Cardinal [Joseph] Bernardin of Chicago.


In your view, Cardinal Francis Spellman, one of the most influential leaders of his time, represents “the fusion of Americanism and Catholicism.” What were the strengths and weaknesses of his style of political engagement?

A best-selling novel of 1950 — Henry Morton Robinson’s The Cardinal — provides a pretty striking answer to that. The book is a fictionalized account of the career of Cardinal Spellman. At the conclusion, we are offered a remarkable vision of the Catholic Church and American democracy as allies in a great global crusade against the evil totalitarianism of Nazism and Soviet communism. Cardinal Spellman was much in the spirit of that.

But, historically, it’s always dangerous for the Church to get too close to secular power, and the cardinal got badly burned during the Vietnam War, when he answered a question about American policy there by saying, “My country, right or wrong.” I’m not laying down any hard-and-fast rules, but the Church does well to keep some daylight between itself and the powers that be.


Archbishop Fulton Sheen, a leading figure in the Church during the mid-20th century, grasped the importance of television as a medium for evangelization. As Catholic evangelists adapt to the digital age, what can they learn from his ministry?

Bishop Sheen was an enormously gifted person who could have made a name for himself in academic philosophy but chose to be a charismatic popular communicator instead. There may never be another Fulton Sheen, but we can learn from him. And the lesson is that, although he wrote and spoke clearly and simply, what he said had real intellectual content and reflected the insights of a great tradition of Catholic thought. The point is not to talk down to people, even in the age of Twitter, when speaking of religion. Challenge them to rise to the level of message.


You write about Al Smith, the Democratic presidential nominee who lost his bid for the White House in 1928, and also about John F. Kennedy, who made it to the Oval Office in 1960. What did Catholics hope to achieve by putting one of their own in the White House, and was it about something more than identity politics?

Self-respect — tangible proof that Catholics were just as good, just as American, as anybody else, and not only could aspire to but actually win the highest elective office in the land. After more than a century of Catholic-baiting by bigots, that yearning wasn’t hard to understand.


Many Americans were shocked when Kennedy campaigned with a pledge to let his individual conscience be his guide and make policy “without regard to outside religious pressures.” Did Kennedy redefine the mission of Catholic political leaders?

Frankly, I doubt that many Americans were shocked. Many seem to have taken it as just the right thing to say. Unfortunately, that included many Catholics, who were so eager to have a Catholic in the White House that they would have applauded almost anything Kennedy said. And, yes, whether he intended it or not, Kennedy really did point to a path that many American Catholic politicians have followed since then. I mean the ones who say they’re good Catholics while supporting abortion, same-sex “marriage” and heaven knows what else. Kennedy got the ball rolling, and it has been downhill ever since.


Kennedy sought to downplay Catholicism’s distinctive teachings. In contrast, Dorothy Day, a progressive activist who became a devout convert and founded the Catholic Worker movement, “lived a form of countercultural Catholicism.” What was Day’s distinctive contribution?

In her day, she had a profound influence on many young priests and Catholic intellectuals. Not that they all wanted to adopt the Catholic Worker lifestyle — although some tried it for a while — but she provided a model of faithful, orthodox, but culturally radical Catholicism, unwilling to sacrifice its principles and unafraid of the consequences. It’s a model more needed than ever today, as the assimilation process threatens to sink more and more nominal American Catholics in the swamp of corrupt secular values.


Catholic literary figures like Flannery O’Connor also provided a skeptical treatment of American culture and its shifting contradictory values. O’Connor noted that Christians once viewed suffering with “the blind, prophetical, unsentimental eye of acceptance, which is to say of faith.” But now “we govern by tenderness” — tenderness divorced from its source in Christ — which “ends in forced labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.” What was she getting at?

It probably would have been clearer if she’d used something like euthanasia as an example. But what she was saying is that acting on the basis of sentiment — feelings rather than reason — very often ends in disaster. You set out trying to eliminate some problem, and you end up eliminating human beings. Thus we have legalized abortion; thus we have pressure to legalize euthanasia; thus we have the things O’Connor talked about.


What are the key lessons from the past — from the Catholic experience in the colonies and the 19th century especially — that we can apply today? For example, if we are looking at new forms of anti-Catholicism, how should we respond?

Anti-Catholicism persists. But it’s largely been secularized and become hostile to religion in general. Toleration means “you can pray any way you want, but don’t expect to get a hearing for your religious values in public policy.” As for mounting a counterattack to restore religious influence, the Church has its hands full just resisting coercion to fall in line with aggressive secularism. There is no present sign of religious restoration taking place.


Can you be a good Catholic and a good American?

The realistic answer today is No and Yes. No, if by being a good American you mean uncritically accepting the sort of values and behaviors you describe, which are now in the ascendancy in American secular culture. But yes, if you mean being part of the surrounding culture in order to do what lies in your power to change it for the better — which, practically speaking, means a recovery of the values of the natural-law tradition. Our job is to evangelize the culture, and whether or not we make the choice to do that is absolutely central to the future of American Catholicism.

A longer version of this interview appears at

Carmel Communications image of Russell Shaw