Countercultural Catholic, chapter 6: The Enemy Within

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Dec 31, 2013

In the military world, no effective force ever tolerates traitors, deserters, or informers. Today, in the midst of our “culture wars,” the Catholic Church can ill afford to wage a two-front battle: against militant secularists on one hand and renegade Catholics on the other. The first order of business, for anyone serious about Church reform, should be to restore unity within the ranks.

This is an abbreviated version of a chapter in Countercultural Catholic, my forthcoming book on building a Catholic culture in a post-Christian world. Comments are welcome!


We live in a free country. Dissident Catholics have every legal right to express their opinions. In spite of the scare headlines that pop up every time a bishop rebukes a wayward theologian, there is no danger of a new Inquisition. The Church does not have the power to stop a scholar from teaching or publishing, or a disaffected parishioner from disputing Catholic doctrines. But the Church does have the authority to warn that some scholars are not accurately conveying the truths of the Catholic faith, and to rebuke Catholics who take public stands incompatible with the faith.

And yet, beginning in the 1960s, and into the early 21st century, dissent from Church teaching became the norm, rather than the exception, among America’s most prominent Catholic theologians. Hundreds of diocesan and parish officials were at odds with Catholic teachings, and worked to undermine them. Catholic colleges and universities had cast off their moorings to the faith. Religious orders were in open rebellion. The American Catholic community was hopelessly divided.

What could bishops do to maintain some semblance of order during these years of institutional chaos? In his book Archbishop, Father Thomas Reese cites one prelate’s candid answer: “In response to a query about his major accomplishments, Archbishop Thomas A. Donnellan of Atlanta responded: ‘keeping peace, with all of my flock and all of my neighbors.’ Simply to survive that period was a great achievement.”

Is it any wonder that in this atmosphere, with bishops and priests and nuns and diocesan officials openly questioning Church orthodoxy, many prominent lay Catholics also decided to discard the teachings they found inconvenient? Surveys show that at least 9 out of 10 Catholic couples ignore the Church’s ban on contraception; if pressed they can cite the support of theologians, Catholic university professors, and quite likely their own pastors. Most Catholics say that they do not believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist; this fundamental tenet of Catholic doctrine has never been presented to them as an article of faith. The polls show large and growing numbers of American Catholics at odds with Church teachings on divorce, the ordination of women, embryonic stem-cell research, and same-sex marriage.

During those same years of upheaval it has also become increasingly common for Catholic politicians to ignore instruction of the Church, to take public stands that contradict essential moral teachings. Politicians who favor legal abortion cite dissident theologians to justify their stands. The American bishops have repeatedly affirmed the importance of protecting unborn life, and said that those who support legal abortion have separated themselves from the life of the Church. But the bishops, who have failed to rein in wayward Catholic universities and rebellious nuns find themselves unable to draw the line when lay Catholics defy them.

To justify their defiance of the Church, Catholic politicians often say that while they are personally opposed to abortion, they must bow to the will of the majority. Thus the claims of democracy take precedence over those of faith. This argument echoes a theme of the Americanist controversy of the late 19th century, when the great Catholic writer Orestes Brownson complained that many Americans were “sacrificing the Catholic idea to the national.”

In Testem Benevolentiae, issued in 1899 on January 22 (a date that bears a special significant to anyone who follows the abortion issue), Pope Leo XIII condemned Americanism as a heresy. Leo XIII lamented that some American Catholic leaders were suggesting that “in order to more easily attract those who differ from her, the Church should shape her teachings more in accord with the spirit of the age and relax some of her ancient severity and make concessions to new opinions.”

Pope Leo went on to say:

Many think that these concessions should be made not only in regard to ways of living, but even in regard to doctrines which belong to the deposit of the faith. They contend that it would be opportune, in order to gain those who differ from us, to omit certain points of her teaching which are of lesser importance, and to tone down the meaning which the Church has always attached to them.

Anyone who has read the earlier chapters of this book will notice, I hope, that Pope Leo was condemning an attitude very similar to, if not identical with, the attitude that impedes the apostolic mission of the Church in America today. In his book American Church, Russell Shaw agrees: “Better than Pope Leo or anyone else could have known at the time, the principal opinions condemned in Testem Benevolentiae have by now become central elements in the ongoing debate about Catholic identity and the future of the Church in the United States.”

Proponents of Americanism argue that the Church in this country should be easily distinguished from the Church of Rome. In some circles the very phrase “American Catholicism” hints at such a distinction, suggesting that modern patriotism trumps the claims of old-fashioned piety. Oddly enough, when they advance this claim, the champions of American democracy match the arguments that have frequently been put forward by dictatorial regimes. Under Soviet rule, the Orthodox churches were tolerated, but Byzantine-rite churches with ties to the Vatican were ruthlessly persecuted; the regime could not abide a religious body outside its ideological control. In China today, the government allows for an “official” Catholic Church, operating with Beijing’s blessing under the guidance of the Patriotic Catholic Association; the “underground” Church, loyal to Rome, is suppressed. In the United States, the pressures on the Catholic Church are more social than legal, exerted by public opinion rather than police power. But the panjandrums of secularism are no more willing than their Communist counterparts to allow for the influence of a truly international Catholic community.

Fortunately, after years of ascendancy, the forces of Americanism—and of other theological novelties—are finally receding. As I mentioned earlier in this chapter, dissident theologians ultimately undermine their own influence. Their students, rejecting the teachings of the Church, eventually stop practicing the faith. Rebellious religious orders, unable to recruit new members, dwindle into desuetude. So the Catholics who have remained loyal to the faith and embraced the teaching magisterium have come to the fore once again. In their new book Renewal, Anne Hendershott and Christopher White paint an encouraging picture of the Church in America today:

The infighting continues as the aging generations of progressive Catholics continue to lobby the Church’s leaders to change her teachings on reproductive rights, same-sex marriage, and women’s ordination. Yet they are being replaced with a new generation of young faithful Catholics who are attracted to the Church because of the very timelessness of these teachings. These younger Catholics are attracted to orthodoxy. But it is not a reactionary or backward-looking orthodoxy. Rather, it is an orthodoxy that longs for the noblest ideals and achievements of the Church—the philosophy, the art, the literature, and the theology that make Catholicism countercultural.

Decades of chaos may finally be coming to an end. Pope Francis has encouraged a “decentralization” of the Church, and some liberal Catholics interpret that call as an endorsement of their idea that the American Church should be at arm’s length from Rome. But the Pope is endorsing a decentralization of administration, not a balkanization of beliefs. He wants the local churches to embark on their own initiatives to advance the faith, not to surrender to prevailing norms of their own cultures. Pope Francis calls for energetic local leadership, to promote the faith and spread the Gospel—not to float along the currents of popular secularism.

Previous: 5. False Diagnosis
Next: 7. Ritual Purity

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: abc - Jan. 04, 2014 9:40 AM ET USA

    Time to read again 1 and 2 Maccabees, illuminated by Daniel...

  • Posted by: R. Spanier (Catholic Canadian) - Jan. 01, 2014 9:51 PM ET USA

    "Most Catholics say that they do not believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist..." Pope John Paul taught that they are not to be given Holy Communion: "It is not possible to give communion to a person who is not baptized or to one who rejects the full truth of the faith regarding the Eucharistic mystery. Christ is the truth and he bears witness to the truth (cf. Jn 14:6; 18:37); the sacrament of his body and blood does not permit duplicity." (Ecclesia de Eucharistia)

  • Posted by: Defender - Jan. 01, 2014 12:28 PM ET USA

    Restoring unity should also incorporate taking the worst politicians and CINO schools to task for their errant ways. The observant laity sees nothing being done by the bishops and their sense of "unity" can't help but waiver. Catholic Americans vs. American Catholics has become more pronounced as the clergy has ignored the difference and the errant politicians mindlessly fill their sound bites showing their ignorance at the difference, as well.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Jan. 01, 2014 10:38 AM ET USA

    Those who study history will be less likely to repeat the problems of the past. It would seem our leadership did not study history. They made nice with friend and foe alike and in the end they lost their moral leadership. Our position must be to teach the fullness of the faith and let the Holy Spirit work on the minds and hearts of man. It is very sad that so many "catholics" do not believe in the real presence of Christ in Eucharist.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Jan. 01, 2014 9:14 AM ET USA

    It is not only young Catholics who are seeking orthodoxy; this old Catholic (knocking on 70) traces his 'awakening' precisely to what turned some other Catholics against the faith: Humanae Vitae. When Paul VI, a relatively weak and sometimes vacillating pope, published that encyclical, I said to myself, "If THIS pope, in the face of THAT kind of opposition, can teach so boldly and fearlessly, surely it has to be the work of the Holy Spirit! No mere man would willingly do this on his own! Credo!"

  • Posted by: shrink - Dec. 31, 2013 11:06 AM ET USA

    Donnellan's comment on "keeping peace" underscores an important lesson that was evidently lost on him and is largely forgotten today; to wit, when fear of confronting schism impels a Christian to deny reality and call it "peace", he is perforce in a state of retreat. Those who retreat cannot evangelize.

  • Posted by: mario.f.leblanc5598 - Dec. 31, 2013 10:06 AM ET USA

    Thanks for another fine entry.