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

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Oct 25, 2013

Very few people, I trust, would dispute my contention that Catholic influence has declined precipitously in American society over the past 50 years. No American prelate commands a prime-time television audience, the way Archbishop Fulton Sheen delighted millions with his preaching a generation ago. If priests are portrayed in movies today, they are usually either inept or sinister figures, rather than the avuncular characters played by Bing Crosby. Despite considerable efforts the Church has failed to stop the legal acceptance of divorce, contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage. For that matter, the influence of the Church has declined markedly even within the Catholic community; the rates of divorce and contraception and abortion among self-identified Catholics are only slightly different from the overall American norms.

This is the second 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!


How can we explain this loss of Catholic influence? When I have put that question to priests and prelates, the most common answer is that “the culture changed.” No doubt that is true, but the answer begs the question. Why did American culture change?


Catholics form the largest single religious group in the United States, accounting for roughly one-fourth of the country’s population. Such an enormous bloc can exert tremendous influence on cultural trends. If the life of the Church had been healthy and vigorous, if lay Catholics in general had been on guard against adverse cultural trends, those unsettling changes of the 1960s might never have occurred. But Catholics—along with their Evangelical Protestant allies on the conservative end of the spectrum—were too slow to recognize dangers.

Worse, when the dangers became evident, religious conservatives made the strategic error of assuming that most Americans agreed with them, and would continue to agree with them, in spite of the powerful secularizing influences of higher education and the mass media. The “culture wars” of the 1980s and 1990s became a rout because conservatives fought their battles in the political sphere, counting on the support of a “moral majority,” while their adversaries continued the fight in the fields of education, entertainment, and media, chipping away at that majority until it ceased to exist. Conservatives had assumed that prevailing social mores would prevent changes in the laws. When mores shifted, legislative changes became inevitable.

Still the fierce political battles over “social issues” in recent years reflect only one aspect of the battle for the American culture, and not the most important aspect at that. A society’s culture is not an autonomous, independent force, something that “just happens.” As the word itself indicates, culture derives from cult; a society’s ethos reflects its most important beliefs. So if the culture changed during the 1960s and 1970s—and it did—we should look for changes in fundamental beliefs.

A religious institution—and particularly a religious institution as large and strong as the Catholic Church was thought to be in America in the mid-20th century—cannot look upon the culture as a passive bystander. The Church either influences the culture, or is influenced by it. In a sense, the most important question regarding the health of the Church in any society is whether the Church changes the surrounding culture, or the surrounding culture changes the Church.

Our cult—our forms of worship, our beliefs on the ultimate questions of human existence—define our outlook on life and shape the way we live. Perhaps because our society’s cultural base is eroding, we sometimes tend to think of “culture” in terms of the fine arts: the museums, the opera. But the arts form only a portion of a culture. Far more important is the way families live together: what they eat, how they dress, how they interact with their neighbors, how they spend their leisure time. The past 50 years have seen spectacular changes in the everyday American way of life, most of them promoting homogenization and secularization of our culture. Ordinary people spend far less time than they once did visiting with neighbors or dropping in at church halls or neighborhood clubs. They spent far more time at home, passively absorbing the anodyne amusements of television and the internet. The battle for the American culture has been fought not in legislatures or libraries but on the sofas of family rooms. To date the Catholic Church has been losing the battle, primarily because the message of the Church has not been reaching the people sitting on the couch, fiddling with the remote control.

Still we have not answered the question of why the Church has been unable to maintain a strong influence over popular culture. Some tradition-minded Catholics will argue that the problem arose because of the Second Vatican Council. The timing of the cultural upheaval strengthens their argument, since the tumult of the late 1960s followed closely after the Council. But the problem had been evident even before the Council—indeed it was the reason that Blessed John XXIII summoned the Council, which he saw as an opportunity for the Church to proclaim the Gospel more effectively in a rapidly changing world.

In fact, the difficulties that arose within Catholicism after Vatican II show that there were incipient problems within the Church before the Council. The intramural disputes that broke out over the interpretation of Council teachings did not arise spontaneously ex nihilo; they reflected divisions that existed before the Council began. It is delusional, as well as unproductive, to think that in the halcyon days before the Council a pure and untainted form of Catholicism existed, which might have resisted the cultural turmoil of the 1960s.

In The Faithful Departed I showed how the forces undermining Catholic influence in Boston, which became unmistakably evident by the 1980s, were clearly afoot in the 1950s and earlier. The same is true, I feel certain, in other American dioceses and indeed throughout the Catholic world. The secularizing trend began long, long ago.

My fundamental argument in this book is that many Catholics have unwittingly contributed to a secularizing trend in society by promoting a false image of the Church, concentrating on service to the clerical institution rather than the mission of evangelization. By shifting the focus back to the divine mandate of the Church, and the apostolic task that three consecutive Roman Pontiffs have hailed as the “New Evangelization,” the Church can attract new believers, revive the interest of lapsed Catholics, and form an influential counterculture—what Pope Benedict XVI termed a “creative minority”—within a society desperately in need of spiritual revival.

The challenge lies in understanding what the Church is, and what the Church should do. It is noteworthy that as he began a pontificate dedicated to reform, Pope Francis devoted the first series of talks at his weekly public audiences to this very topic: an exploration of the nature of the Church. The Church is a complex subject: a group of fallen human beings acting on a divine mandate; an earthly institution serving a heavenly purpose. As a human institution the Church is perforce an organization, with a particular legal structure. But far more important, in its essence the Church is an organism: a living body. And any organism that is not growing—not nourishing itself, not producing energy—is in decline.

Many years ago, when I was working for a secular publication, a colleague told me that he too was a Catholic, and he loved the Church because “nobody asks you to do anything.” He could go to Sunday Mass, he explained, and discharge his obligations without having anything else required of him. As he saw it, the Church existed to fulfill his spiritual needs and those of his fellow parishioners; he was proud that his church did not “bother” non-Catholics, in the way that street preachers and pamphleteers bothered him. His ideal parish was a self-contained unit, going about its business quietly, rarely if ever interacting with its environment.

Could there be a more perfect illustration of what Pope Francis calls the “self-referential” Church? My colleague’s ideal parish, if it existed, would drift steadily further from any sort of cultural reference. The parish church might still command the loyalty, and even the love, of those who had grown accustomed to the familiar rites and specialized language of Catholic worship. But this church would not grow, since it made no effort to appeal to outsiders. The parishioners would become spiritual consumers rather than active participants in the work of the Church. Eventually a rising generation would lose interest—having never really been instructed in the essentials of the faith—and the parish would sink into desuetude. Haven’t scores of American parishes followed that arc of decline?

Again, the Catholic Church does not “play defense” well. When the faith is robust, and Catholics are dedicated to the apostolic mission, the social influence of the Church naturally expands. But when the faith grows stale, attempts to hold the line invariably fall short, and the influence of Catholicism wanes. (Paradoxically, that is especially true when the faith is compromised in an imprudent effort to gain social influence.) If the faith is not growing, it is probably contracting. After more than a half-century of accelerating contraction, today Catholicism faces a crisis.

While secularists have worked aggressively to remove expressions of religious faith from public life, many Catholics have yielded the critical ground readily, in two different ways. Some sought to accommodate the secularists, and argued that the Church exists to serve society’s needs; eventually they came to see the Church as little more than an instrument of social change. Others, stronger in their faith, believed that the Church could prosper without help from the surrounding society, and devoted their attention to building up strong, separate Catholic institutions. But that approach was incomplete at best, because the Church cannot thrive except as a missionary force: an institution dedicated to spreading the Gospel message through every aspect of society.

In weighing the social influence exerted by the Church, it is important for Christians to recognize a particular type of dangerous ally. Some people believe that the Church should play an important role in public life because they believe the Church exercises a beneficial influence; their primary concern is to preserve that influence rather than to spread the Gospel. In other words they are exploiting the Church, and may prove unsympathetic when the essential interests of the faith are at stake. In a provocative interview with the Italian magazine 30 Giorni in 2004, the French philosopher Remi Braque decried the influence of “Christianists,” who defend Christianity as a sort of ideology, without themselves being faithful. “Christianity is not interested in itself,” Braque said, presaging the familiar theme of Pope Francis. “It is interested in Christ.”

The Church exists to serve: to serve Jesus Christ. Sometimes, with the best of intentions, Catholics fall into the trap of thinking that the Church exists to make the world a better place. That is only an ancillary purpose. The world will indeed be a better place, if we serve Jesus Christ. But if we set out to change the world, thinking that we can do it ourselves, we are no longer acting as Christians. The Church is not our enterprise; the Church belongs to Christ.

Thinking of the Church as our communal work, our possession, can lead to serious errors of two different sorts. Some Catholics, of liberal bent, assume that since we “own” the Gospel, we can adapt it to suit our needs. Thus they might slip into the error of thinking that Catholic doctrines can be changed, rather than recognizing that when the Church proclaims a dogma, she teaches with the authority of Christ. On the other extreme, some Catholics look upon the faith as their most precious possession, which must be defended against all adversaries. They too can easily slip into error, perceiving non-Catholics as enemies to be routed rather than as neighbors to be welcomed and prospects for evangelization.

The Church exists to serve, to bring people closer to Christ. But how should we serve, in a society that does not want such service? That is the challenge of 21st-century evangelization.

Notice, at the outset, that the challenge is not new. In his sermon “On Pastors,” St. Augustine reflected:

However unwelcome, I dare to say: “You wish to stray, you wish to be lost; but I do not want this.” For the one whom I fear does not wish this. And should I wish it, consider his words of reproach: The straying sheep you have not recalled; the lost sheep you have not sought. Shall I fear you rather than him? Remember, we must all present ourselves before the judgment seat of Christ.

I shall recall the straying; I shall seek the lost. Whether they wish it or not, I shall do it.

Pope John Paul II began speaking of “the new evangelization” even before the 20th century ended. Pope Benedict XVI used the term constantly. But what does “the new evangelization” actually mean? On one level the two Pontiffs were clear enough in their explanations: the “new evangelization” refers to a drive to preach the Gospel anew in societies—mostly in Europe and North America—where Christianity had once been dominant but is now fading. Still, if that is the objective, what is the means of achieving it? How should the “new evangelization” work in practice?

Pope Benedict remarked that the Church has often acted successfully as a “creative minority”—a small but dedicated group of people, exercising disproportionate influence because of their energy and zeal. Using that model, perhaps the “new evangelization” could begin by redoubling the vigor of faithful Catholics, and expecting them to inspire a wider circle of acquaintances with the same fervor. Pope Francis takes a different attitude, insisting that the Church as a whole should look outward rather than inward, serving the needy (including especially the spiritually needy) rather than worrying about the inner workings of the Church. He proposes a different set of tactics, then, although the fundamental strategy remains the same: to bring people in the post-Christian world back to Christ.

What should we do? Should we follow the advice of Pope Benedict, and seek to strengthen the faith of active Catholics so that they can evangelize the world? Or should we follow Pope Francis and turn to those outside the Church—to the “peripheries,” as the Holy Father says—and help them to discover Christ? I think the answer is obvious: We should do both! If we strengthen the Church internally, the Church will be better able to serve those in need. If we serve those in need, we will strengthen the Church.

So, finally, how shall we go about this task, of the new evangelization? How shall we be effective in bringing the Gospel to a post-Christian world? This book is designed to answer those questions. Whether my answers are sensible or satisfactory, I leave for readers to decide.

Previous: Introduction: The Cult and the Culture, Part I
Next: 1. The Sign of Jonah

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: jg23753479 - Oct. 25, 2013 5:29 PM ET USA

    I like very much what I have seen to date. One comment, though. Somewhere above you say about Catholics, "They spent far more time at home, passively absorbing the anodyne amusements of television and the internet." Perhaps I'm off here, but I think you meant "spend" in that sentence, and if so I have to disagree with the adjective "anodyne". Television and the internet are anything but inoffensive.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Oct. 25, 2013 5:08 PM ET USA

    "Sometimes, with the best of intentions...," Right on the mark! Sometimes I dont even think the "Church" exists even to make "the Church" a "better place..." "The Church exists primarily to save INDIVIDUAL SOULS which are ultimately saved ONE BY ONE. The Instittuion exists to this one purpose. We stand before God INDIVIDUALLY to be judged before we are placed in the Eternal Community, the Church Triumphant.An Institution that degrades the "individual" for the sake of the group is dysfunctional.