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Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Catholicism And Democracy

by Joseph A. Varacalli, Ph.D.


This paper was presented at the "Faith Under Democracy" conference sponsored by the Federalist Society and held at Ave Maria Law School, Ann Arbor, Mich., on September 21, 2001. The purpose of this essay is to provide a brief orthodox Catholic sociological analysis of how the Catholic faith has fared under different historical variations of American democracy, with a specific focus on the contemporary period.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


26 - 30

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, May 2002

My task in this essay is to provide a brief orthodox Catholic sociological analysis of how the Catholic faith has fared under different historical variations of American democracy, with a specific focus on the contemporary period. While such an enterprise is primarily an empirical exercise, let me start by making a philosophical anthropological claim. It is that, all things being considered and ideally, democracy — characterized, as one of my former sociology teachers, Edward A. Shils, would put it, by a "dispersion of charisma" — is congenial to the realization of the Catholic vision, the latter with its cornerstone proposition regarding the imperative to promote and protect the fundamental dignity of each and every human being. In stating this, then, I am going beyond, at least a bit, the minimalist claim that democracy is merely an empty vessel capable of carrying just as easily either morality or immorality. Rather, I contend — and I think that I am here consistent with the thought of John Paul II — democracy is a good in and by itself. However — and here is the major rub — all things are never either equal or ideal.

There are at least two major sociological considerations that must be incorporated into any analysis of the impact and implications of American democracy on the Catholic Faith. They are, respectively, culture and social structure. Regarding the first, sociologists believe that, in the process of transforming an "instinctually deprived" baby into a social being, the individual necessarily internalizes the various components of symbolic culture (e.g., language, values, norms, gestures, etc.). Crudely put, through the internalization of symbolic culture, the human being is "completed" through what sociologists term the process of socialization. More to the point, sociologically at least, is that culture is a major shaper of human consciousness and activity. The natural law may be written into the very constitution of the human being, but the internalized conceptions of culture will mediate, i.e., make it easier or harder, for the individual to either unselfconsciously (i.e., connaturally) or more consciously follow its dictates. As such, a presently and progressively ever more secular mainstream culture that is essentially materialistic, utilitarian, morally relativistic, and radically individualistic is shaping ever more successfully the younger generations of Americans who, at least superficially, appear to be quite "democratically" choosing such a non-religious worldview. As a consequence, in our society the natural law and Catholic social doctrine are more and more viewed as obsolete and anachronistic, if indeed, they are thought about at all. Put another way, my claim is that, under present cultural conditions, empirically speaking, American democracy works more against the maintenance of an authentic Catholic faith than for it.

Let me add the observation that, historically with the possible exception of the post World War II period up to the mid-1960s, what the sociologist Emile Durkheim would term the societal "collective conscience" of America was never supportive of the Catholic faith. Simply put, and whatever intramural debates and disagreements existed between the various wings of the Reformation, during the early years of the American Republic a hegemonic Protestantism represented massive cultural opposition to the Catholic worldview. The early answer to Bishop Gerald Shaughnessy's classic question, "Has the Catholic immigrant kept . . . (or acquired) . . . the Faith?" was, in one way or another, "no" as Catholic Americans were either converting in large numbers to Protestantism or to the lapsed condition of the unchurched or were maintaining a highly irregular (i.e., excessively syncretic) practice of the Catholic faith.

A major caveat, however, must now be introduced. It is that individuals need not merely be socialized by the messages of the mainstream culture; rather they are capable of being shaped also by what the sociologist Charles Horten Cooley termed primary groups, whether the primary group formations crystallize into either what sociologists term subcultures or countercultures.

The relevant historical point here is that at the mid-point of the twentieth century, the Catholic Church had established a coherent and impressive set of institutional arrangements or a "plausibility structure" — to use the term of another one of my sociological mentors, Peter L. Berger — that afforded its members an effective break and alternative to the dominant societal message. Speaking in the year 1957 in his volume, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, the orthodox Jewish sociologist and sympathetic observer, Will Herberg, declared that "the Catholic Church in America operates a vast network of institutions of almost every type and variety . . . (that) . . . constitutes at one and the same time a self-contained Catholic world . . . and American Catholicism's resources for participation in the larger American community."

Emanating from the vision of the Baltimore plenary and provincial sessions that started in 1829 and ended in 1844, an organically developing Catholic plausibility structure was the organizational response of the Catholic Bishops to the sociological reality that the Catholic faith was embedded in a then Protestant and unsympathetic civilization. Reaching its maximum effectiveness (historically not theoretically) during post World War II America, the plausibility structure has since been severely damaged by the widespread internal dissent allowed to fester in the Catholic Church during the post Vatican II period. The end result of this organizational hari kari has been that, without an effective and authentic mode of Catholic mediation, the dominant and now secular mainstream culture has had an almost uncontested ability to shape the minds and hearts of the younger generations of American Catholics. Just how effective the present group of Catholic restorationists will be in putting the Catholic house back together is, at least empirically, highly problematic. But an important point here is that the cause of the failure of the Catholic Church to successfully evangelize among its own members and the American population at large in our democratic society is at least as much internal as it is external. That is, the presently emaciated state of the Catholic faith in America is the result, to a significant degree, of a failure in Church leadership to guarantee that the Catholic faith is articulated clearly, without compromise, and with all its inherent sophistication and grandeur as it has to do with the reality of an inhospitable surrounding environment. Given the impressive religious, moral, and intellectual message of the Catholic faith as well as its natural compatibility with democracy, the relationship between Catholicism and democracy could have been — and can be under a certain set of circumstances — mutually vivifying and reinforcing.

In fairness, it should be pointed out that the sociological analysis offered in this paper would have many detractors from the ranks of the sociological community. As a professional discipline, sociology is as fragmented and busted up as is any other social science and humanistic discipline that depends, whether acknowledged or not, on fundamental and debatable domain assumptions. The University of Chicago sociologist, Andrew M. Greeley, for one, would hotly dispute both my negative assessment of the present state of the Catholic Church as well as my stated need for an intact plausibility structure for Catholicism. His animus — and that of fellow "Catholic Americanists" — toward my analysis would be based on the following claims: 1) that the present mainstream American culture is actually a positive influence on the Catholic faith; he lauds, for instance, Madonna as a legitimate Catholic artist and Mario Cuomo as an important Catholic statesman; 2) that the individual, and not the Church's Magisterium or organically developing Catholic tradition, should be the final locus of religious authority; and 3) that any religion, including Catholicism, is, at base, a matter not of "doctrine" but of "experience" with any individual's subjective experience being a variant of some alleged universal experience.

From the perspective of Andrew Greeley — with his idolatrous love of present American civilization (including its statism) and his advocacy of what he terms "communal Catholicism" (which is actually not so much communal as it is a variation of the radical Protestant sociologist Ernest Troeltsch in his analysis of "religious mysticism") — Catholicism has nothing to fear and everything to gain from the present day American democratic regime. Greeley is correct in his philosophical anthropological claim that the human being is, by his very nature, "unsecular" only if one defines the conception of the "sacred" functionally, i.e., without a necessary referent to the "supernatural." To say that all human beings need meaning is not necessarily to say that they accept the existence of something akin to what Rudolph Otto would term the "totally other" than human. Furthermore, to say that Greeley's "communal Catholics" selectively accept elements of both the Catholic and Christian worldview is not the same thing as saying that the "ultimate concern," to use Paul Tillich's phrase, of such individuals is an authentic Catholic worldview. My analysis arguing that Catholicism has not done well under present American conditions assumes an understanding of Catholicism consistent with Magisterial thought.

In truth, there are any number of competing religiously oriented sociological understandings of the impact of American democracy on religious faith, including, among others, the Marxist analyses of Gregory Baum or Gustavo Gutierrez or the second (or third) order, respectively, Calvinist and Lutheran perspectives of Robert Bellah and Peter L. Berger or the evangelical Protestant orientations of David Lyon and Margaret Poloma. Simply and crudely put, the analysis offered here by myself could be accurately considered the sociological application of the worldview of someone like Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Regarding the issue of the underlying theological visions that undergird sociological analysis, in the final analysis, "one bets one's money and one plays one's game."

The second sociological factor that affects any analysis of the relationship between democracy and the Catholic faith is social structure. By this is meant the issue of the social location of the Catholicism vis-a -vis what Edward Shils would term the "societal center." Early in American history, Catholicism — both institutionally and in terms of the economic, political, and status coordinates of individual Catholics — was mired at the periphery of American civilization. Under such a situation, democracy, at best, did little more than put a certain lid on the extent and type of discrimination foisted on Catholicism; it was not a vehicle to gain Catholic access into what Marxist sociologists like C.W. Mills would term the "power elite" of American economic or political life or into the key idea and image generating sectors of the era.

There was a time, however, when Protestant elites like Paul Blanshard were evincing nervousness that Catholics were not only crashing through the gates but actually might soon define what the promise of America was all about. This was, not coincidentally, the same time, during the post-World War II era, when the Catholic plausibility structure was, historically, at its peak. It was also a time in which upward economic, political, and status mobility went hand in hand with a, relatively speaking, deepening acceptance of Catholic orthodox belief on the part of the Catholic citizenry. With the defilement of the Catholic plausibility structure during the immediate post-Vatican II period, the Catholic Church, qua institution, has lost whatever clout it had gained during the previous decades — witness a string of defeats from Roe v. Wade to embryonic stem cell research. Individual, albeit nominal, Catholics, however, have since moved into the top echelons of American society, enormously "successful" from the frame of reference of secular elites. Without, then, a supporting and strong institutional presence in the society, a neo-Marxist proposition positing an inverse relationship between upward mobility and freedom prevails: Catholics can become "successful" in American society only by abandoning, privatizing, compartmentalizing, or downplaying their faith. Conversely put, orthodox Catholics are free in our democratic society to practice socially and publicly propound an authentic sense of the faith at the price of social marginality.

It is important to understand that I am not accepting this neo-Marxist proposition as a timeless truth; rather, it is useful under the present situation characterized by 1) a secularist (i.e., capitalist, socialist, feminist, sexual liberationist, etc.) monopoly in the public square and 2) an advanced state of corruption existing within Catholic institutional life. The present day Catholic restorationist movement is gallantly trying to reverse both ends of this unhappy dialectic. Catholic restorationists have been both creative and busy in their assorted intellectual and organizational activities. However, as of yet, their matrix of activities has not registered any serious recognition and attention on the part of the gatekeepers of mainstream American life nor have put any discernible dent into the secular monopoly existing within the American public sphere. Humanly speaking, the efforts of the Catholic restorationists represent a long shot, at very best. With God, however, all things are possible. And, in any event, serious Catholics are commanded to make the attempt, worldly chances notwithstanding.

Joseph A. Varacalli, Ph.D., is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Nassau Community College — S.U.N.Y. The issues discussed in this essay are more fully developed in his latest book, Bright Promise, Failed Community: Catholics and the American Public Order, now in a third printing in paperback (Lexington Books, 2001,

© Ignatius Press 2002.

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