Countercultural Catholic, chapter 1: The Sign of Jonah

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Nov 15, 2013

This is a book about how the Catholic faith shapes American culture. We cannot read into the secret depths of human souls, so we cannot measure how much influence the faith has on individuals. But we can observe how society has changed, especially regarding the issues that the Catholic Church considers most important. Since the family is the fundamental building block of any society, Catholic social teaching gives primary importance to the health and vigor of family life. So as we seek to discern the “signs of the times,” and assess the strength of Catholic influence in America, we should begin with an appraisal of American family life.

This is an abbreviated version of a chapter in a new book I am developing on building a Catholic counter-culture in a post-Christian world. Comments are welcome!


The outlook is bleak. In the course of my lifetime America has experienced a spectacular breakdown in family life: an unprecedented disaster that threatens the future of our society.


During the 1950s, the proportion of American marriages that ended in divorce hovered around 25%. Then in the 1960s the number began a steady climb, and by the end of the 1970s, with the acceptance of “no-fault” divorce laws, reached 50%.

The end of a marriage is not only a personal tragedy for the couple involved; the ripple effects reach out to their neighbors and their relatives. If there are children, those ripples can be very destructive waves. The breakdown of a family is not just a problem for children; it is the problem for children, dwarfing all other problems in its significance. Social scientists have proven, with one study after another, that children raised by their natural parents are more likely to be healthy, to perform well in school, to steer clear of crime and drug use, to have successful careers, and to enter into stable marriages themselves. No other single indicator—not social or economic standing, nor family income, nor race nor religion nor education—comes close to matching the predictive value of this one factor: whether a child grew up with a mother and father at home. So a sudden spike in the rate of family breakdown, of the sort that America experienced in the past generation, virtually guarantees a dramatic rise in crime, drug abuse, welfare dependency, and emotional illness—of exactly the sort we have witnessed.

The social forces arrayed with the “culture of death” are still growing in strength; their plans are becoming steadily more ambitious. Rather than undermining the permanence of marriage (as they did by promoting “no-fault” divorce), now they aspire to change the very meaning of marriage. Not content with the legalization of surgical abortion on demand, they seek taxpayer subsidies for the procedure, and over-the-counter distribution of abortifacient pills. (On that issue, too, the enemies of life aim to change the definition of terms, claiming that the deliberate destruction of an unborn human life is not an abortion if it takes place before the embryo is implanted in the mother’s uterus.) Unsatisfied with public acceptance of homosexual acts, they now hope to have young schoolchildren instructed in how those acts are performed. Having overcome the resistance posed by defenders of traditional Christian moral principles, they now hope to ban the mention of those principles from public debate, and even force believing Christians to betray their principles or face prosecution.

Imagine what sort of society we might have 50, or 20, or even 10 years from now, if the collapse of family life continues, and American culture continues to accelerate along the same unhappy path. Could our society survive? Could our grandchildren forgive us for our failure to reverse the decline?

The fundamental thesis of this book is that we can and will reverse the decline, if we successfully revive the public influence of the Catholic faith. A healthy Catholic culture will actively shape the attitudes of the surrounding society, rather than passively being shaped by them.

If my thesis is correct, and a healthy Catholicism would shape a healthy culture, it follows that Catholicism has not been healthy in these past decades. Sure enough, over the same period that has seen the breakdown of American family life, the visible signs have shown a freefall in the profession and practice of the Catholic faith.

The downward spiral has continued into the 21st century. Looking at one diocese in the Midwest during the years 2000-2010—in a journal article with the provocative title, “The Post-Christendom Sacramental Crisis,”—theologian Ralph Martin found a 43% decrease in the number of infant baptisms, a 45% decrease in the number of Catholic marriages (along with an even larger 53% decrease in interfaith marriages), and a 15% decrease in the number of households registered in Catholic parishes.

The numbers tell only part of the story. Among those Americans who do identify themselves as Catholics, most attend Mass only occasionally, and go to Confession rarely if ever. The negative trend reinforces itself. If parents go to Mass only occasionally, their children, absorbing the message that it is not a matter of importance, are likely to abandon the practice of the faith altogether.

Catholics remain the largest single religious group in the United States today. But the second-largest group is composed of lapsed Catholics. The Pew Foundation has reported that about one-third of all Americans who were raised Catholic have left the faith. The “cradle Catholics” leaving the Church vastly outnumber the converts who enter and the Catholic babies who are baptized.

Among those Americans who continue to identify themselves as Catholics, poll after poll proves that many dissent from the fundamental teachings of the Church—not only on political issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, but also on essential dogmatic questions such as the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and the necessity of Christ’s Sacrifice in the economy of salvation.

The years of moral decadence in American public life have undeniably coincided with years of decline in the practice of the Catholic faith. Some might argue that the overall erosion in our culture caused the decline in Catholicism; I contend that the reverse is more nearly true. In any case, if we hope for Catholicism to exert a positive moral force upon our society, we must restore the active practice of the Catholic faith. We must address the internal problems of the Church before we can solve the troubles of society; we must revive the “cult” to repair the culture.

And when we, as Catholics, wonder where we should find the impetus for a Catholic cultural revival, we should say a quick prayer, and then look in the mirror.

Previous: Introduction: The Cult and the Culture, Part I
Next: 2: The Worst of Both Worlds

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: John J Plick - Nov. 19, 2013 12:31 PM ET USA

    There is an unaddressed “historical defect” on the practical clerical level in the institutional Catholic Church which has been entrenched for centuries which is a “blame-shifting” maneuver that the hierarchy uses to whitewash their own errors and lay consequences on those they hate. The Catholic Clergy can and have used their collective strength to twist an indictment of “abuse of power” against themselves into a counter of “rebellion against teaching” to attempt to destroy their foes.