What Is the American Church?

Russell Shaw’s New Book Was 40 Years in the Making

Russell Shaw, who once served as the spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is an influential author, commentator and educator.

His professional work, following his graduation from Georgetown University in 1956, has spanned an era when the previously marginalized Church in the United States secured mainstream status through the election of a Catholic U.S. president and the cultural assimilation of Catholics was celebrated as a success story.

But a half century later, Shaw also witnessed the clergy-abuse crisis, which galvanized the U.S. hierarchy to change its handling of abuse allegations and also to take stock of other challenges, including the rapid secularization of Catholic Americans.

Shaw spoke recently with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond about this recent history and these contemporary challenges, which are the focus of his new book, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America (Ignatius).


Why did you decide to write American Church?

I started the book 40 years ago. Around then, I wrote an article about the alienation of American Catholics, published not long after Roe v. Wade. I focused on the Supreme Court decision and looked at how the dominant secular culture was moving in a direction that was not only in tension with but hostile to Catholic values.

I also cited the government’s continual denial of assistance to parochial schools, a policy dating back to the anti-Catholic bigotry of the 19th century.

What I didn’t realize was that, while Catholics like myself were becoming alienated from the secular culture, other Catholics were becoming part of the secular culture. They didn’t have a problem with Roe or government denial of assistance to parochial students.

So I began to look into the historical context of this trend, asking the question: "Why are so many Catholics comfortable with a secular culture that opposes their own Church’s deeply held values?"

The book looks at what happened since the 19th century and addresses the increasing conflict between Catholic and secular culture. I also offer thoughts on where the Church needs to go from here if it wants to survive.


Your book describes the emergence of "Americanism" in the U.S. in the 19th century and how Pope Leo XIII challenged that development. What is Americanism?

The patron saint of Americanism was Father Isaac Hecker, the founder of the Paulist Fathers. He believed sincerely that America was ripe for conversion to Catholicism and was committed to the idea that, in order to convert Protestants in America, Catholics would have to become part of the culture. That was his idea in founding the Paulists.

His call for evangelization and integration in secular culture was championed by members of the American hierarchy because they saw assimilation into American culture as an imperative for immigrant Catholics who had been the targets of bigotry.

Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul [Minn.] and Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore had a strong commitment to the idea that when all is said and done America provides a congenial environment for Catholics. They picked up on the notion that once they became fully part of the larger culture they could go to work on evangelization.

While the program wasn’t universally accepted by all Catholics or all members of the hierarchy, it became the dominant philosophy.


Why did Pope Leo XIII oppose Americanism?

In 1899, Pope Leo sent a letter,Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae (Witness to Our Good Will), in which he condemned what he called "Americanism."

He saw a radical individualism based on the notion that every individual received direct inspiration from the Holy Spirit and that should guide an individual’s belief and life, not the teachings of the magisterium. In this, he captured the essence of today’s pick-and-choose cafeteria Catholicism, which is so debilitating to the faith of many American Catholics.

He was remarkably farsighted. He anticipated the tendency to gut religious life of its spiritual and contemplative dimension and to substitute a kind of specious activism for a more traditional form of religious life. Here is the heart of the crisis that has dogged many religious orders in America during the last half century. 


What practical changes arose from the support for Americanism?

Back in the 1920s, there was a notable period of conflict between the cardinal-archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal George Mundelein, and the Polish community in his archdiocese.

Mundelein was a strong Americanist. He instituted policies to break down the ethnic identity of the Polish community in Chicago and integrate them with the larger Church, with the long view of integrating them in the larger culture.

Up to that time, Polish priests served in Polish parishes — but no more. He said, "You will go where you are assigned." The policy was intended to destroy ethnicity. People fought back, but Mundelein’s policy won in the end.

You would find conspicuous examples of Americanism in two areas: Catholic higher education and participation in politics.

I draw on my own experience back in the ’50s as a student at Georgetown. At that time, young faculty members had an inferiority complex. It was brought to the fore by John Tracy Ellis, who wrote an essay, "American Catholics and the Intellectual Life," arguing that Catholic higher education was vastly inferior to non-Catholic higher education generally.

In the late ’50s, the program got under way to change Catholic higher education and bring it into line with secular standards. Down the road, it led to the famous Land O’ Lakes statement in which leaders of Catholic higher education proclaimed their independence from Church authorities.

The other area is the political arena, beginning with John Kennedy’s 1960 address to Baptist ministers in Houston. To be fair, he was facing a serious resurgence of anti-Catholicism, and he assured the ministers that if he were elected president he would not allow his religion to affect his policies. We have been following that road ever since.


But there are many Catholic politicians who continue to speak out against abortion.

It may be an oversimplification to reduce it all to abortion and "gay marriage." What we are talking about is libertarianism. You have Catholics arguing a libertarian line on moral and economic issues. I don’t think it’s an acceptable philosophical framework for working out policy issues, but we are doing it.


What are the cultural manifestations of the impact of Americanism among U.S. Catholics?

Consider the life of the Church itself and the participation of nominal Catholics. The numbers are stark and frightening — 22 million Americans raised as Catholics have formally left the Church. Half are affiliated with other religious bodies, and the other half are unaffiliated.

That leaves 75 million people in the U.S. who self-identify as Catholic, but only one out of five of these self-professed Catholics bothers to go to weekly Mass. Mass attendance may not be everything, but it says a lot.


But didn’t broader trends transform American culture, including the lives of Catholics?

World War II, suburbanization and the GI Bill, which led to the upward mobility of Catholics, all contributed to the breakdown of the old American-Catholic subculture, which had been a strong factor in reinforcing Catholic identity.

But, overall, the shift happened because certain people wanted it to happen.


At what point did the U.S bishops reassess the push to assimilate?

That awareness emerged a lot later than many of us would have liked. I wrote about this back in 1974, but I don’t think that 10 years later the American bishops, as a body, were aware of what was happening. If they were, they weren’t saying much about it.

In the 1990s, the awareness began to grow that the whole process of assimilation was undermining Catholic identity.


What prompted that reassessment?

They started worrying about the state of American Catholicism as the clerical sex abuse became a much bigger problem.

I am not making the connection between sexual abuse and secularization. But the awareness of the sex-abuse problem was a wake-up call that something was seriously wrong. We were in the midst of a crisis we didn’t see coming, and now it was upon us.


You point out that the decline of Catholic ethnic subcultures fueled assimilation. We can’t return to that world, so what do we do, and are Church leaders trying a different approach with Hispanic immigrants?

From what I’ve seen, there is a real and active awareness that we can’t just sit by and hope that things will work out well for Hispanics and their relationship with the Church. Dioceses are providing trained personnel, and they are generating personnel from within the Hispanic community. It hasn’t been 100% successful, but it has been under way for some time.

One problem for Hispanics that did not exist for previous immigrants is that they are assimilating into an American culture that is toxic — religiously, spiritually and morally. But it’s not only a problem for them; the same problem exists for all Catholics in the U.S.

I don’t want to reconstitute the old ethnic communities of the 1930s, but Catholic identity in the U.S. is at risk without a viable Catholic subculture. We need something new and better that is intensely and authentically Catholic that will build up our identity and form evangelizers.

At the institutional level, as we go about creating schools and organizations, the emphasis must be on creating an orthodox Catholic culture committed to the evangelization of culture.

That is a large order, and it can’t happen overnight. But some institutions, like The Catholic University of America, are already engaged in this effort.

We also need to take seriously what the Second Vatican Council said about the universal call to holiness. The ultimate solution is not good media or better colleges. The solution is on the spiritual level: We have to build up our own spirituality in order to be credible witnesses to the Gospel in American life today.