Catholicism in America: In Progress or Regress?

BOOK PICK: Russell Shaw’s latest work chronicles the Church in the United States.

In American Church: the Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, published by Ignatius Press, Russell Shaw has written a timely and insightful account.

This book is the one we have been waiting for to chronicle our corner of the universal Church. It covers Church history in the U.S. from the post-Civil War period up to the present — and a little beyond.

On a side note, be sure to read Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput’s foreword first. In my opinion, he is on the short list for the best bishop writing today — clear about the crisis, yet encouraging about the future.

American Church is compact and full of strong opinions backed up by substantial fact. The author explains the American Church’s progress (or regress) from “Dawn to Decadence” (to steal a title from the recently deceased Jacque Barzun) and suggests how the Church in America can be guided by the Holy Spirit to right  to give evangelizing witness in this still very young century.

Shaw is a D.C. native, a Georgetown graduate and, in my opinion, the dean of Catholic journalists, with unparalleled experience and personal contacts going back to the early ’60s. Most important, Shaw spent a year directing media relations for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the U.S. Catholic Conference (before they were the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops). He has seen it all, and, while not descending into exposé, he does share some behind-the-scenes stories.

The antihero of Shaw’s account is clearly Cardinal James Gibbons, archbishop of Baltimore from 1887 until his death in 1922. Cardinal Gibbons was the propagator in the American hierarchy of what Pope Leo XIII identified as the “heresy” of Americanism.

What is Americanism? Well, simply put, it posits that Rome has a lot more to learn from the American Church than the American Church has to learn from Rome.

Although Cardinal Gibbons certainly never foresaw and would never have endorsed the willful excesses of today’s “Americanism,” we are in some sense enduring his legacy: millions of Catholics who have left the Church and others who remain as “cafeteria Catholics.”

Not the least of this book’s virtues is Shaw’s highlighting of the relationship between two giant figures in American Catholicism in the 19th century who are regrettably little known today: Orestes Brownson and Isaac Hecker, the founder of the Paulists. These fellow converts found their paths diverging as their thinking about the Church’s place in America and America’s place in the Church came into conflict.

Shaw writes, “Central to the vision of Americanists like Cardinal Gibbons, [St. Paul, Minn., Archbishop John] Ireland and Hecker was the conviction that Catholicism and American culture were not simply compatible but complementary — an extraordinary good fit, providentially designed to assist the Catholic Church in its role as evangelizer of the United States.” There is much more in this fascinating and controversial book than I can cover here.

If you are a movie buff or voracious reader, sample either the book or film version of Henry Morton Robinson’s bestseller The Cardinal, based on the life of Cardinal Francis Spellman. Shaw uses it as a backdrop throughout his book.

The controversy about Americanism is likely to rage on, but the future of the Church in the U.S. will depend on the lived-out Catholicism of laypersons and their families as daily witnesses to the world, fueled by Scripture, prayer and the sacraments of Christ’s Church. The fate of our country depends on it.


Opus Dei Father C. J. McCloskey is a Church historian and

research fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington.