Countercultural Catholic, Introduction: The Cult and the Culture: Part I

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Oct 21, 2013

Have we been looking for help in all the wrong places?

For decades now faithful Catholics, hoping for signs of a genuine revival in the American Church, have looked anxiously to the traditional indices of Catholic vitality: the rate of attendance at Sunday Mass, the number of young people entering the priesthood or religious life, the openings of new parishes and parochial schools. By all those standard measurements the decline of American Catholicism—which began in the 1960s and accelerated through the 1970s—is still continuing.

This is the first part of the introduction for a new book I am developing on building a Catholic counter-culture in a post-Christian world. Comments are welcome!


But what if the standard measurements are wrong? Is it possible that a new Catholic renaissance has already begun, passing undetected because it arises in unexpected places, by unexpected means?


In more than 30 years as a journalist covering Catholicism, I have found that the most exciting signs of vigorous life in the Church often—I am tempted to say always—come from unexpected directions. Official renewal programs, launched by diocesan committees under the guidance of expensive consultants, begin with great fanfare but end with meager results. Meanwhile far from the limelight, prayerful Catholic individuals, without formal credentials and without financial support, working alone or in small groups, quietly work wonders.

My favorite example of this phenomenon—and arguably the greatest success story of 20th-century American Catholicism—is the growth of the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN). Who could have predicted that a cloistered nun with no background whatsoever in broadcasting, and with serious physical ailments, could found a Catholic radio-television empire that spans the globe? Mother Angelica began with nothing but a vision and a commitment supported by faith. She had no experience or expertise in broadcasting, no connections with the industry, no powerful corporate sponsors. For years she faced opposition from the US bishops’ conference, which poured millions of dollars into a competitive effort. Yet against all odds it was EWTN that prospered, while the lavishly funded effort by the bishops’ conference disappeared from the scene without leaving a trace.

The moral of the story is that the movements of the Holy Spirit cannot be confined within the guidelines set by diocesan committees and episcopal conferences. “The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” [Jn 3:8]

The Second Vatican Council boldly proclaimed that we are living in “the age of the laity.” (Immediately after the Council, thousands of priests and religious rushed out to take posts in the secular world, doing the work of the laity, and leaving lay men and women to run the parishes and schools they were neglecting, in a thorough inversion of the Council’s message.) If the Holy Spirit was speaking through the Council fathers, then it should come as no surprise that the most conspicuous signs of growth in Catholicism since that time have come through the movements founded by and/or dedicated to the laity: the charismatic renewal, Opus Dei, the pro-life movement, Cursillo, Focolare, L’Arche, the NeoCatechumal Way, and many more. The growth of these movements has been uneven, marked by occasional missteps and some serious wrong turns. But the vigor of the movements is undeniable. John Paul II referred to the movements as “the finger of the Holy Spirit on the Church.”

So let me ask the question again. Could there be something stirring within the Church: a subterranean rumbling, a movement for renewal that could burst forth to change the religious landscape? Since his election in March 2013, Pope Francis has prodded us all—not only Catholics, but the whole world—to look upon the work of the Church in a new way. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Pope Francis wants the Church to look at the world in a new way: with eyes fixed resolutely outward, concentrating first on the needs of our neighbors rather than on the internal housekeeping of Catholic institutions. His unconventional approach has caused some confusion—even a sense of disorientation—among faithful Catholics. But his popularity is undeniable. Thanks to “the Francis effect,” many more people are interested in the Catholic Church. People are asking questions about the Church, wondering if there is something about Catholicism that they have not quite understood. Yes, it is a time of great uncertainty; but it is also a time ripe for evangelization.

A great religious revival does not necessarily begin with a formal announcement, and the people who take part in it do not necessarily realize that they are part of a historical movement. Decades from now, historians may look back and declare that a resurgence of the Catholic faith had already begun in the early years of the 21st century. They may even say that you and I helped to start it! And if a religious revival is gathering force in America today, it is arriving just in time to save our society from disaster.

In this book I am examining the influence of the Catholic Church on society, rather than on individual souls. Theoretically, I suppose, it is conceivable that a spiritual revival could occur without producing dramatic effects on society. But in practice, a vigorous movement of faith always produces social effects. A spirit of worship—of “cult” in the classical sense—cult gives birth to a culture.

The working of faith on individual souls is impossible to quantify. But the public influence of faith can be observed and measured in terms of social trends. Today, in the developed world generally and America in particular, those trends are adverse to Catholicism. The power of the Catholic faith to steer public discussions has been in retreat for several decades, and now that retreat is becoming a rout. The Church has been unable to stem the rise of a consumer culture, driven by a lust for comfort, forsaking the quest for the higher things: the true, the good, and the beautiful. Despite the pleas of the Church, society has moved toward acceptance of divorce, abortion, homosexual activity, and euthanasia. The fine arts, traditionally the servants of religious faith, are now used to shock and to mock believers. Now the Church herself is under open attack, with critics of religion feeling no compunction about public statements—and sometimes public displays—of contempt for faith.

“Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue,” said Francois de la Rochefoucauld. No doubt there have been many cynical public figures who wrapped themselves in the mantle of faith to gain some political advantage. But today opportunistic politicians do not even make a pretense of piety. The popular culture not only ignores the voice of the Church, but resents hearing that voice. Secularists inveigh against the public display of faith, arguing that religious beliefs should be private and Christians should confine their enthusiasms to Sunday worship services. Respect for religion is rapidly eroding, and with it, respect for religious freedom.

The danger to the Church from all these trends is obvious enough. But there is an equally grave danger to society at large. A stable society must have some sort of moral code: some basis for judging and controlling behavior. Our society was built upon the Judeo-Christian ethic, and if that moral system is abandoned, there is no other firm base on which we can build another.

Imagine a society in which there is no agreement on what is morally acceptable, what is right and wrong. Sad to say, we are becoming just such a society. For all its affluence, our society is not so “civilized” that it is exempt from the threat of a plunge into chaos. Indeed, the breakdown of family life is an early sign of a society in an advanced stage of dissolution.

In this book I will demonstrate that if current trends continue—if the influence of Christianity continues to decline, and hostility to the faith continues to rise—life may quickly become intolerable, not just for Christians but for everyone. How should we respond to this danger?

Some Christians, believing as I do that our society’s future is in jeopardy, have chosen, in effect, to secede: to drop out of the mainstream, live in community with like-minded friends, and preserve their families from the dangers of a corrupt society. I completely understand the desire to live among friends, and later in this book I will argue that every committed Christian needs the help of a supportive community. But the radical option of separation from the secular world is, I fear, impractical for several reasons. First, few people are willing to sacrifice all the comforts of modern living, and even the doughty few cannot be sure that their children will make the same decision. Second, isolated communities tend to rouse the resentment of their neighbors. Sooner or later the people who “just want to be left alone” will not be left alone, and their safe havens will no longer be safe. If society grows increasingly hostile to Christians, then Christians who live in isolated communities will become easy targets. Third, and most important, seceding from society is not an option for a lay Christian who plans to live his vocation: the vocation proclaimed by Vatican II, to transform the social order through the power of the faith.

Short of actual withdrawal from society, there is another timid option: to lie low, to muddle through, to avoid conflicts, to practice the faith quietly without offending one’s secular neighbors. That approach, too, is doomed to failure. The famous words of Martin Niemöller expose the problem: “First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the socialists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”

But again, the tactical futility of this approach is not its greatest defect. Far worse, the failure to preach the Gospel—to advance the cause of Christianity—is a refusal to answer Christ’s command.

The call to transform society is all the more powerful if that society is troubled. Christians who voluntarily confine themselves to ghettoes, at a time when society is disintegrating, are imitating the priest and the levite, rather than the good Samaritan. Our neighbors are hurting. We can and should help them; actually we are the only people who can help them, given present circumstances. Our withdrawal deprives them of that help. Jesus did not instruct his disciples to retreat, to circle the wagons. He told us to “preach the Gospel to the whole creation.” [Mk 16:15] As Pope Francis constantly reminds us, the Church exists to evangelize. Withdrawal is not an option.

In military affairs a strategic retreat is sometimes the best option; in religious affairs that is rarely the case. The logic of compromise does not fit with the idealism of apostles; the instinct for self-preservation conflicts with the willingness to sacrifice. The Catholic Church has never been very good at “playing defense.” Nor should it be, since a Christian community that hunkers down and hopes merely to survive is acting against its own nature—against its divine mandate. If faith does not spread, it shrivels.

In my 2008 book The Faithful Departed I tried to show that the desire to defend the prestige of Catholic institutions ultimately saps the strength of the Catholic culture. Using the Catholic community in Boston as my illustration, I showed how often Church leaders had compromised the vigor of the faith in vain efforts to preserve their public influence. Ironically, their anxiety about the public image of the institutional Church led to an institutional disaster. Public respect for the Catholic Church flows from a recognition that the Church commands loyalty and assent—that the Church is a disciplined institution with a clear mission. When the mission is no longer clear, when the loyalty and assent disappear, the respect and prestige of the institution suffers as well.

In The Faithful Departed I paid special attention to the sex-abuse scandal, arguing that the scandal was a consequence rather than a cause of the decline in Catholic influence—that it was a symptom of a deeper disease that had afflicted the Church for years before the scandal broke. My book painted a bleak picture, and many readers told me that they found it depressing. I did not intend that result. I thought that the dreary facts were already well known, and my book might help to explain how it all happened. Still facts are facts, and I realize that the book was not light reading.

With this book I intend to take a more positive approach, and suggest how faithful Catholics might respond to the problems facing our Church. Yes, to be sure we are in difficult straits. What should we do? The public influence of the Church is on the wane. How can we reverse the trend? [To be continued]

Next: Introduction: The Cult and the Culture, Part II

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: PeterKnCA01 - Oct. 29, 2013 8:56 AM ET USA

    Faith seeking understanding. Yes a rumbling is occurring in a subterranean way within the Catholic Church. This subterranean rumbling has its source in the Holy Spirit and seems to me provides a continuity running across the world. My recent trip to Rome in June 2013 provided a clear example of this. A young man from Texas attended liturgical conference held in Rome. The key message of the conference was a need to revitalize the liturgy for a transcendent presence of God.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Oct. 22, 2013 7:29 AM ET USA

    In an interesting article authored by a popular young speaker discussing the shortcomings of contemporary Christianity she emphasized the turn-off of liturgical gimmicks over recent decades across the spectrum of Christianity. She also lauded the attractiveness of "high-church" liturgies like those traditional liturgies of the Latin rite, Anglican and Orthodox. The transcendent message of the Gospel and the beauty of that which reflects the goodness of God attracts souls. We must not forget.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Oct. 21, 2013 10:38 PM ET USA

    Does God love America? I have no doubt. Do Catholics love America? And as a sovereign Nation which was NOT created for the mere fulfillment of any agenda of the Catholic heirarchy? I think so. Our Catholc bishops have not served us well in this country. Why that cannot be plainly said is beyond me. Let the laity first humbly confess their own sins, and then let them humbly ask God along with any bishops who are willing to disentangle themselves from Washington DC for the Holy Spirit.