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On Being Catholic American

by Joseph A. Varacalli, Ph.D.


Dr. Varacalli presents a series of twelve propositions and principles on how Catholics ought to analyze their relationship to American society and culture.

Larger Work

Homiletic and Pastoral Review

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, August/September, 2004


To some significant degree, the overwhelming majority of Catholics who live in the United States of America actively affirm and participate in what may be termed a “cult of gratitude” for our nation. This intense appreciation of America is, perhaps, especially acute for those Catholics whose memories do not easily allow for one to “take for granted” the opportunities that this country has afforded them. Two groups come readily to mind. The first group consists of those Catholics, at least as old as my own age of fifty-two, who remember times more humble in terms of social status and harder economically. In this regard, I can vividly recall the stories told to me by my parents, Joe “the shoemaker” and Tessie “the hatmaker.” They constantly extolled the virtues of America and recounted the stories of hardship for their own parents while living in, respectively, Calabria and the Naples region at the turn into the twentieth century. The second group of those unlikely to take for granted the blessings of this country consists of those recent Catholic immigrants to American shores from what is now commonly referred to as the “less developed” countries of the world who have no problem whatsoever in recalling vividly the sting of overt and unrelenting persecution and the various and obvious hardships associated with absolute material poverty.

But even those more affluent generations of Catholics removed from the immigrant and working class ethnic experience–like many suburbanized Long Islanders–feel comfortable with the American experience if for no other reason than that they have been so successfully and completely socialized into it; sociologists like myself refer to this as but one instance of a fundamental “ethnocentrism” that is both inevitable and structured into human existence. Put another way, America is loved by many Americans, in part, because it is simply “home” and because it is the only thing that most of them know.

The purpose of my presentation is to provide a brief reflection, from what I take to be an authentic Catholic sensibility, on how Catholics ought to analyze their relationship to American society and culture. Put another way, the following question might be posed: “what does American patriotism mean to the serious and devout Catholic”? Or, perhaps and more precisely, the question is: “how can American patriotism be apprehended in a manner consistent with the tenets of the Catholic faith”? I will attempt, in part, to address these questions by presenting a series of twelve propositions and principles for consideration and reflection.

Propositions and Principles

Proposition One: Today patriotic sentiments primarily are realized at the level of the nation; in a previous era, the relevant social construction might have been the family, clan, village, or local region. To give an example, for my southern Italian grandparents, their whole world was their village; a world that was centered by the sound of the Church bell. Some present-day utopians project (as well as advocate) that patriotism may soon be mediated through an attachment to the “global community.” Examples of such utopians would be the more ideological supporters of the United Nations and those various European elites who have given up on a once Christian based Western civilization. Our concern in this presentation, however, is restricted to the issue of a nationalistic patriotism. The question here, again, is how Catholic citizens should relate to America.

Proposition Two: It is idolatrous to place the nation, any nation, above the worship of the one, true God and the faithful practice of the Catholic religion. The Catholic Church is a gift given to us from God and is the Bride of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. For all of its virtues, America is, at best, a means to some higher end such as human liberty and, at worst, a means to attempt to satisfy the baser preoccupations of the species though an all-consuming concern for sexual gratification or the search for “ecstasy” through drug experimentation.

Proposition Three: Whether patriotism is good or bad or ambivalently held depends on the values that the nation in question embodies. Put ever so crudely, from a Catholic perspective, it is not legitimate to defend the “patriotic Nazi” or “patriotic Communist” or any collective form of human existence that does not work to enhance the fundamental dignity of the person made in the image of God. Patriotism, in and by itself, in neither good nor bad; the issue is the nature of what one is patriotic towards.

Proposition Four: The culture of a nation is capable of changing significantly over time. Such change is highly likely to occur in the modern context given such factors as the influence of advanced science and technology and increased communication, pluralism, and geographic and social mobility. These factors tend both to create new values (e.g. the perceived need for “self-expression,” a central concern for “leisure,” etc.) as well as modify and transform those values historically rooted in the American experience. Put another way, American society is constantly changing; that’s why sociologists like myself find some utility in employing the concept of a “generation gap.” My parent’s social world is not mine and, God protect them, my world is not the world that my sons and daughter, most likely, will have to navigate through.

Proposition Five: The culture of American society is today not the same as that of America at mid-century past. For all of America’s undeniable material, technological, medical, and scientific progress over the past fifty years, this nation has started to descend into what John Paul II has termed a “culture of death.” For some, the central American value of individualism–and thanks in part to an irresponsible judiciary– has been shorn of any orientation to serve the public good. Democracy has degenerated, for too many, into a procedural right substantially devoid of ethical consideration. Material acquisition and possession has been transformed, for a certain powerful sector of society, from a means to empower the individual and family to live the good and moral, and perhaps even holy, life to an end unto itself, i.e., to the absurd idea that one can construct for oneself a this-worldly paradise that serves as the be all and end all of human existence. While not defending everything associated with the 1950s in this country or denying that we haven’t seen improvements in some aspects of life, I basically believe that, all things considered, this country was a better place to live in fifty years or so ago.

Proposition Six: From a Catholic perspective, contemporary American society represents to its citizens a “mixed bag” of cultural directives. On the positive side, America presents some wonderful possibilities: in the freedom to chart one’s own destiny (at least during our temporary existence in this “vale of tears”), in the escape from absolute material and physical deprivation, and in the enhanced dignity afforded some human categories (e.g. women, blacks, and immigrant minorities). On the other hand, the latter movements have been dramatically reversed in such developments as the acceptance of an unlicenced freedom refusing to direct itself to the service of truth and morality; in the entrapment of more and more individuals in the self-destruction of the hedonistic lifestyle with all of its associated human depravities; and in the examples of the widespread acceptance of the grotesque practice of abortion and of other abominations both presently existing and lurking ahead in the realm of biotechnology.

Proposition Seven: Fairness, realism, and the Catholic worldview, then, should acknowledge the ambiguous cultural reality of the present situation in the United States. This means rejecting both a “knee-jerk,” idolatrous worship and defense of things present-day American as well as the invitation, offered from the secular and religious radical left, to join the “America hating club.” The former denies the many failures of our civilization, past and present, while the latter, conversely, studiously and quite consciously ignores this country’s many undeniable accomplishments and virtues.

Proposition Eight: Within the deposit of the social doctrine of the Catholic Church and within the tradition of natural law thinking are to be found many ideas capable of enriching American civilization for all of its citizens, both Catholic and non-Catholic. Put another way, the possibility of reversing this society’s decent into the culture of death or, conversely, building a society based on love and human solidarity depends on the implementation in American society of ideas either derived from, or consistent with, Catholic social teachings. The Catholic defense of the fundamental dignity of all human life, including the unborn; its positing of truth and the exercise of reason; its promotion of the intact, nuclear, traditional family; its insistence that the purpose of government is to serve the common good; its position that workers and employees have the right to organize for a decent spiritual and material existence; its claim that creative and dignified work is constitutive of the anthropology of mankind; and its argument that the true development of nations and individual lives involves the furthering of both body and soul, are just a few examples of what I’ve referred to as the “bright promise” contained within Catholic social thought and the natural law. Simply put, the saving and further perfection of the American experiment lies primarily with the ability of the Catholic Church to serve as a leaven for our society and culture. Put another way, and translated into the central concern of my presentation, a great way to a patriotic American is to be a serious, educated, and committed Catholic American.

Proposition Nine: The Catholic Church of the United States is not, at least not in its present condition, in a position to effectively lead the restoration of American society and culture. As I’ve argued in my book, Bright Promise, Failed Community: Catholics and the American Public Order, the Catholic Church in the United States has suffered a massive and internal “secularization from within” during the post-Vatican II era. Put another way, during this period, the institution has allowed itself to be coopted by corrupting secular influences, thus losing her ability not only to serve as a leaven for our society and culture but also her ability to evangelize her own community of slightly less than twenty-five percent of the American population. Simply put, the Church can’t save America if she can’t first save herself.

Proposition Ten: The first task for the Catholic Church, then, is to restore integrity to the Catholic house through an intensive emphasis on authentic Catholic evangelization, catechesis, socialization, and education. More sociologically put, the Catholic Church must rebuild its “plausibility structure” or series of social institutions (e.g. parishes, seminaries, schools, colleges, newspapers and book publishing outlets, hospitals, and professional and academic organizations, etc.) that “stand between” the individual and the powerful secular public institutions of government, the corporations, Hollywood, the mass media and academia that have captured the hearts, minds, and souls of the overwhelming majority of the once Catholic faithful as well as a significant sector of the remaining non-Catholic population. An intact and authentic Catholic plausibility structure not only constantly presents and reinforces the Catholic worldview in all its comprehensiveness, sophistication, and splendor to the Catholic population but also serves as an evangelizing and political force in the outer society. In this regard, it is hard to overestimate the importance of institutions like Kellenberg Memorial High School which, in both its curricular and extracurricular activities, has combined/synthesized so successfully the Catholic religious tradition with the demands of both the intellect and involvement in the world outside of the classroom.

Proposition Eleven: The keys to creating and sustaining an orthodox Catholic institution capable both of socializing effectively its members and evangelizing successfully outside its walls is the maintaining of 1) the Catholic tradition in all its majesty and sophistication, 2) high standards of professionalism and competence, and 3) constantly reinforcing communication and social interaction. Regarding the latter, it is vitally important that, in the present non-Catholic social context of American life, Catholics spend more time in each other’s company, whether in family gatherings, or formal and informal meetings of Catholic organizations that range from those parish-affiliated to the Knights of Columbus hall to the Catholic League regional chapter to professional associations of doctors, lawyers, nurses, etc. to more ad hoc groups formed to step up to the plate to help our Church and society in their specific moments of need. This constant and mutually reinforcing communication and social interaction creates the required “accent on reality” for the Catholic religious worldview to become central in consciousness and subsequently translated into concrete activity performed in support of the Catholic mission to “restore all things in Christ.” Simply put, invest less time with American mass culture and more time in an authentically Catholic milieu.

Proposition Twelve: In trying to make a distinctively Catholic contribution to American society, especially in public life, it is important to recall the Biblical injunction to be as “innocent as a dove and as wise as a serpent.” This is important advice given that American public life presently is hostile to any significant witness of the Catholic or Christian faith. One should look, then, for role models who can show us how one best can navigate the field of land minds “out there” just waiting to blow up in the face of courageous Catholic Americans who are untutored in the ways of public life. One such role model is Mel Gibson, whose film, The Passion of the Christ, represents a major victory for those who believe that Christians have a right to attempt to contribute and shape the contours of our culture and society. In creating, adjusting, and shepherding his production to completion, Mel Gibson has combined courage with prudence, creativity with hard work, and fidelity to Jesus Christ with technical competence. Mel Gibson is a Christian who has made a difference in American public life by enriching it with the Gospel message. He is a true American patriot and a true Christian American.

Concluding Note

In reflecting on what it should mean to be a “Catholic American,” it is important for Catholics in America to realize that they are heirs to a two thousand year old tradition that, warts notwithstanding, can be accurately described, along with Harry Crocker, as constituting a magnificent “triumph,” a triumph that is the product of God’s grace in conjunction with human effort cooperating with God’s plan for mankind. Too many contemporary Catholic Americans still accept a “minority group” consciousness in this two hundred year old land once dominated by Protestants and now by secularists of one sort or another. Catholics must shed themselves of this self-effacing attitude and proudly and realistically accept the responsibility that comes from representing a tradition unsurpassed in the ability to present truth, holiness, beauty, and utility to the world. While in a potentially mutually beneficial relationship, the simple and stark fact is that United States of America needs the Catholic worldview more than the Catholic faith requires the American experience. If this county of ours, which we love so much and which has done so much good for so many, is to escape further decent into the culture of death, it will be because of the presence, witness, and actions of a revitalized Catholic Church in the United States of America.

*(Communion Breakfast Presentation made at Kellenberg Memorial High School, Uniondale, New York on Palm Sunday, April 4th, 2004. Dr. Joseph A. Varacalli is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Nassau Community College, Garden City, New York and is the author, most recently, of Bright Promise, Failed Community: Catholics and the American Public Order, Lexington Books, 1-800-462-6420; Published in the Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Volume CIV, No.11, August/September, 2004.

Republication requires permission of Father Kenneth Baker, S.J. Editor of the HPR.)

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