Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

The Rise and Fall of the (American?) Church

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 23, 2013 | In Reviews

Writing about the rise and fall of the Catholic Church in the United States is a very tricky thing, and Russell Shaw has done a fine job of it in his new book from Ignatius Press, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America. The task is tricky not only because of the need for precise judgments about the pressures and tendencies which led to the profound secularization of the Church in America, but also because of the danger of regarding the history as uniquely American. After all, the same thing has happened everywhere in the West.

This last point is not formally addressed by Shaw, which is acceptable, since his topic is the American predicament rather than the broader decline of the Church in the West as a whole. The latter, after all, has been going on for at least twice as long as the USA has existed. Shaw gives occasional evidence that the American situation has deep connections to broader European and generally Western failures. But where he excels is in his portrayal of the specifically American elements in this sad story, such as: 

  • The 19th century arguments over the relative value of “ghetto” Catholicism as opposed to a drive to enter the American mainstream, with different positions championed by different bishops;
  • the debate over the compatibility of the “American experiment” with Catholic tradition, particularly the deeper implications of the American notion of separation of Church and State;
  • the clash on these issues between two schools of thought represented by Paulist Father Isaac Hecker and the brilliant layman Orestes Brownson;
  • the condemnation of the Americanist Heresy by Pope Leo XIII in 1899, and the denial on the part of American church leaders that the views condemned were actually held by anyone in America;
  • the tremendous institutional growth and apparent increase of power of the Church as the American Catholic population swelled;
  • the dismantling of Catholic urban strongholds in favor of the suburban melting pot;
  • the 20th-century pressures on American Catholic universities and colleges to enter the mainstream in order to be considered academically superior by secular standards;
  • the naïve insistence of mid-twentieth century giants like John Tracy Ellis and John Courtney Murray that the American way still constituted the best hope for both the Church and all mankind;
  • the almost inevitable accommodations with Modernist influences, leading to a Catholic culture of dissidence and culminating in the deliberate effort to use the “spirit” of Vatican II against the actual text to remake the Church (clearly part of an international pattern);
  • the collapse of the American bishops as they all but presided over the Call to Action which led to the infamous Land O’Lakes document in 1967, and then all but refused to recognize the critical need for a culture of life after Humanae Vitae was promulgated in 1968;
  • the intense clericalism of the American Church from the beginning right up to its predictable devolution into complicity with sexual abuse (a pattern, as Shaw correctly notes, which also extended around the globe);
  • the institutional and demographic collapse of the Church after the sexual revolution; and the stirrings of authentic renewal beginning in the 1980s, leading to a nascent counter-cultural Catholicism in our own time.

I should mention in passing one peculiarity of the book. Apparently, its original title was “The Gibbons Legacy”, after the monumental figure of Baltimore’s James Cardinal Gibbons, who so praised the promise of America in Rome. At some point the title was broadened to American Church, but it seems the text was never edited afterwards. The Acknowledgements, the Introduction, and certain sections of the main text presuppose the old title!

This is a rather large publishing gaffe, but it really is inconsequential. Russell Shaw recounts the history deftly and concisely, with an outstanding selection of both material and themes. His judgments are balanced and astute. He grasps the complexities without losing sight of the immense problems created by the wrong choices along the way. His concluding observation that any effective renewal must arise from cultural change is right on target.

This conclusion also represents a welcome evolution of his thought since 1993, when he wrote a book on Clericalism (also a fine work), which sometimes seemed to see the solution in terms of having the USCCB hire specific laymen to be the experts and spokesmen in social matters. There is no such failure of vision here. In just over 200 pages, American Church gives the reader as good a history of the rise and fall of American Catholicism, complete with a full grasp of the intellectual and cultural trends, as you are likely to find without incurring far greater trouble and reading thousands of pages more.

What the Book Does Not Do

Nonetheless, we must still return to what the book does not do. I suspect every reader outside the United States will already have grasped this, because every reader outside the United States will by now be muttering, “But why is this an American story? The same thing happened here.

Indeed, Shaw might well have placed more emphasis on the reality that the uniquely American issues in his narrative were actually particular variations on a common theme running through the whole of Western culture as it has gradually sickened and died. For example, the American “melting pot” was a particular expression of the problem of increasing pluralism faced by all Western nations. The Catholic pressure in America to leave second-class status behind by integrating more fully into a dominant non-Catholic culture was replayed again and again in countries around the world as the confessional state disappeared and the public order became increasingly secular.

The Hecker-Brownson debate over the possibilities inherent in the American experiment (the City on the Hill of freedom) was a particular instance of a larger debate going on around the globe wherever secular views of liberty demanded political freedom from religion without overtly denying the opportunity for religion to shape the culture. The growth of the institutional Church in the wake of massive Catholic immigration and reproduction, followed by assimilation and decline, had a unique rapidity in the United States, but it was a story played out over a longer period of time throughout Europe.

The same pressure felt by American Catholic educational institutions to be accorded high academic status outside the Catholic community, which led to a deliberate secularization of both their faculties and their programs, was felt around the world as society secularized, as the State became increasingly responsible for education, and as Catholic educators infected by Modernism found it difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff of “excellence”. In an analogous manner, Catholic social service organizations became increasingly dependent on public monies and public values as taxes were raised and the mechanisms for addressing social problems took on an increasingly Statist character.

Russell Shaw notices and emphasizes the international character of Modernism. He knows it is the intellectual response of Catholic academicians who feel they are on the outside looking in with respect to the culture and opinions that “really matter”. It represents a puerile yearning for status in a world growing less and less religious with every passing year. He also freely admits that the sexual abuse problem is the same throughout the Western world, but explains his decision to cover it in American Church in terms of its particular impact on America. So some connections are made, and some are not. But as I indicated, Shaw’s purpose is to tell the American story; he foregoes the much more difficult task of explaining why Western culture as a whole has been inexorably drifting away from the Faith for the past five hundred years, including a very rapid drift during the brief period in which the United States has been significant on the world stage.

Questions with only Partial Answers

One sympathizes with this self-imposed restriction. A larger perspective raises questions which are not easy to answer. It is far simpler to trace the progress of the secularization of a culture and the corresponding secularization of the Church within that culture, especially in one particular region, than it is to explain why this complex process has been going in the same direction in so many places over such a long period of time.

Secularization in the West passes through the corruption of a Church that had too much worldly success in the medieval period; the recovery of pagan classical learning in the Renaissance; the shattering of Christian unity in the Protestant Revolt; contact with very different religions and cultures in the age of discovery; the rise of skepticism and rationalism in the wake of a long period of intense quarrels over religion; the amazing practical success of natural science and the growth of empiricism; the increasing wealth and standard of living of Western countries, which further contributed to an almost unshakable faith in the inevitability of human progress; an immense increase in pluralism as the world in effect shrank and the old Christian and aristocratic order finally disappeared; and of course all the spiritual implications of a growing focus on material success and natural well-being.

I have listed these factors in a rough chronological order; they are overlapping stages on the long and monumentally weary road which has brought us to a truly pathetic state, both supernatural and natural. Yet at each stage, Catholic theologians, apologists and spiritual guides have recognized both the challenges and the opportunities. As always, some were already somewhat infected with incipient secularism and tended to make facile and naïve judgments; but in every period there were plenty of Catholics who saw the problems and the opportunities clearly, sounded the alarm as needed, provided new insights and arguments to counter bad ideas and deleterious trends, and did their best to become holier and to foster holiness in others.

The same is true today. There are plenty of deeply committed and highly intelligent Catholics who see the problems, who reject the mistaken judgments and blameworthy attitudes of others, who undertake important work in every field to explain reality better and more completely so that the Church’s position can be understood and potentially accepted, and who try to become saints. We can see very clearly that way too many people at every level of the Church are not yet willing or able to make these deep commitments, and we are often frustrated by this, as well as—in moments of clarity—by our own weaknesses and half-hearted commitments.

But while we can see the problems, and we know we are all being called by God to live and act in a way that revives and increases the impact of the Faith, there is one thing we cannot know. We cannot know that the difference between the long period of Catholic growth and the ensuing decline leading up to our own time is that we now have far fewer saints, or even far fewer deeply committed Catholics. Each historical circumstance is different but each is governed by Providence, and there are inescapably many things about Providence we cannot possibly understand. In the last analysis, we can see some causes but we cannot completely know why Catholics between, say, 700 and 1200 AD were able to create, despite all their faults, a demonstrably strong and vibrant Catholic culture (though by no means a perfect culture), whereas between, say, 1500 and 2000 AD, Catholics have only been able, despite many heroic efforts, to preside over the loss of such a culture.


God knows. We do not. As always, we are not called to be successful in any sort of worldly sense. Rather, we are called to be faithful. I agree with Russell Shaw that the roots of a Catholic revival are already present in the gradual Catholicization of culture in small groups and small pockets, a culture conceived not as a preservation or even a reclamation of a once dominant and triumphal Catholicism, but a culture conceived as a counter-culture, a culture of the poor and the outcasts (I mean you and me) which really should become increasingly attractive as the dominant culture decays into ruin.

In such a scenario, it is not uncommon for a period of persecution to intervene, in which the dominant culture increasingly blames Christianity for daring to propose an alternative, as if the dominant culture would not collapse if no alternative were on offer. Moreover, those who hate the light—and there are many who have made that choice—recognize the very existence of the light as a threat, and try (unless and until they are converted) to bury it.

It is frequently said that Americans are more pragmatic than Europeans. It may well be that the European story of secularization has more deliberate theoretical choices in it, whereas the American story has proceeded through a series of bumbling compromises born of simplistic illusions and the need to make do. Whatever the case, for Europe and for any of her former colonies, there is great value in understanding how each particular history has unfolded so that we can learn to recognize more clearly the kinds of dangers we are prone to overlook, and to respond anew to those dangers with authentic Catholic principles firmly in mind.

Russell Shaw has provided such a narrative for Americans, and it is immensely valuable. But there is also a much larger story to tell, and a much larger story to grasp, a story which ultimately broadens into a deeper understanding of ourselves and of our relationship with God in Jesus Christ. Insofar as we focus on and cultivate that relationship, we will be right in how we think and pray, speak and act, dream and live. Whether that produces a new Catholic world order is up to God. It is enough to know that such a civilization cannot grow from anything else.

But in fact we really have to stop worrying about Catholic civilization altogether. The relevant question is whether we—you and I—are willing to live as Catholics. It was one important error of our fathers, here in America at least, that they did worry about Catholic civilization—and that, in their earthly City on a Hill, they thought they had Providence under control.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: John J Plick - May. 25, 2013 11:25 AM ET USA

    I was an Eagle Scout and a past member, and the capitulation of the BSA grieves me more than I can say..., but again, it illustrates a point..., the "Boy Scouts of America," although having more than a few Catholic sponsors, is NOT a "Catholic" organization. "We" "as catholics," then, should "have" expectations? But why? We don't even maintain our own Church...

  • Posted by: Frodo1945 - May. 25, 2013 8:23 AM ET USA

    Having grown up in the 60s, I have been waiting for a coherent explanation of what the heck happened. Can't wait to read it. It is on my Father's day list if I can wait that long.

  • Posted by: abc - May. 24, 2013 7:33 PM ET USA

    You are absolutely right. But I'll go further. I am convinced that Christianity (not only Catholicism) is doomed in the West - and this includes Latin America, where I am. Sanguis martyrum semen christianorum. Hope for the Church comes from Africa and Asia and other persecution lands. Providence is now in Old Testament mood, and is heading us to our own Captivity of Babylon. God seems to be fed up of our cowardice and lukewarmness in the Abendland. Exceptions exist, but will not hold the tide.

  • Posted by: koinonia - May. 23, 2013 8:33 PM ET USA

    Yet another blow today for Catholics who adore the Boy Scouts of America. Therein lies a problem. Yet the decision is logical. Abandon principles and embrace freedom. This freedom will bear her fruits. Do the right things for the right reasons! Honor the Spirit who brings grace, the Gift of the Word to His members. "...we are called to be faithful." Indeed we are. We are called to freedom. But first we must know what this means. When we do, our devotion will no longer be betrayed.