The Uneasy Dialogue: Catholicism and American culture

In the decade after Vatican II inculturation became a buzzword. Although popes have used the word only with caution, they have said on journeys to Asia and Africa that the Catholic Church in those continents ought not to be a slavish copy of the European church. As a consequence American Catholics began to conclude that Catholicism in this country should develop its own distinctive traits. In the past it had been a mosaic of importations from various “Old World” nations—Ireland, Germany, France, Poland, Italy and others. Even if the efforts of Isaac Hecker and Archbishop John Ireland to Americanize the church in the 19th century proved abortive, perhaps the time had now come for a new and more sober effort. Would not such Americanization, far from undermining authentic Catholicism, serve to solidify and strengthen it? This question is being asked in many places at the present time....

Our analysis must begin with a brief discussion of the nature of the American culture into which the Catholic faith might be inserted. This culture is extremely diverse. Catholics in the United States come not only from the various Western European countries already named, but some are American Indians, some are African Americans, some are Vietnamese or Filipinos, and very many are Spanish-speaking people from the Caribbean or Latin America. Thus we cannot easily find a common denominator.

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Even the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant culture that has played a preponderant part in shaping the habits of the nation is not all of a piece. It has gone through a number of major shifts in the centuries since the first settlers came to New England and Virginia. Four major stages may here be pointed out:

1. The Puritanism of Congrega-tionalist New England, which underlies much of our history, was anything but liberal. The Pilgrims looked upon the New World as a promised land where the covenant people could build the City of God. The culture of 17th-century Massachusetts was bound by a rigorous code of belief and morality founded upon the Bible as read in the Calvinist tradition. The church dominated civil society in Boston as firmly as it had done in Calvin’s Geneva.

This Calvinist heritage has been, for the most part, cast off. And yet it remains a living memory. It fueled many 19th-century exhortations about the “Manifest Destiny” of the United States, and it continues to reappear in Thanksgiving Day proclamations, in campaign oratory and in anniversary celebrations of the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution....

2. By the time that the United States received its foundational documents (the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights), the Enlightenment was in full swing. The common faith of the founding fathers was no longer that of the Pilgrims but that of Christians profoundly influenced by the deistic religion of “nature and of nature’s God.” The religion of reason was, however, understood with clearly Christian overtones, as can be seen from the Declaration of Independence. There and in other documents God was depicted as creator and ruler of all.... The law favored certain generically Christian institutions, such as monogamous, indissoluble marriage. Commitment to these traditional religious and moral values gave a transcendent basis to the claim that the country should be free and independent.

3. Certain elements in the Lockean philosophy of the founding fathers disposed the nation for a major incursion of individualistic utilitarian philosophy in the 19th century. The common good was reconceived as the net result of a balancing of contrary interests. The pursuit of private gain by individuals and groups was seen as contributing, in the long run, to the prosperity of all. The Puritan moralism of the 17th century, and the cult of civic virtue in the 18th century, now yielded to a system in which material wealth became the dominant value. The role of the government was seen as that of an arbiter, laying down the conditions under which competition could be fairly conducted. At its worst, this new mentality spawned a kind of social Darwinism. The great capitalists amassed fortunes for themselves, but, having done so, they were driven by their residual Puritan conscience to a pursuit of philanthropy, no less arduous than their previous self-enrichment.

4. In the 20th century still another major shift has occurred. A new mass culture, largely determined by technological advances, is superimposing itself on the three layers already examined. The whole syndrome of contemporary culture is well described by the term “consumerism.” Each individual is seen primarily as a consumer, and heavy consumption is viewed as the key to social well-being. Wealth becomes a function of sales, which are increased to the extent that people can be induced to buy new goods. To provide such inducement business sponsors a gigantic advertising industry, which in turn supports and dominates journalism and mass communications. Advertising is funneled into programs that have the widest popular appeal. Nearly everything, from sports to education and religion, succeeds to the extent that it can arouse interest and provide entertainment. The desire for pleasure, comfort, humor and excitement is continually escalated. The traditional work ethic becomes tributary to, and is to some extent undermined by, the quest for affluence and sensory gratification. While the entertainment industries and business grow ever more fiercely competitive, alcoholism, drug abuse and obsessive sex proliferate in large sectors of the consumerist society.

This fourth layer of culture has not totally displaced the previous three, but it threatens to modify them profoundly. The culture that the church faces today cannot be understood as that of the previous three centuries, though some elements of the earlier American heritage still survive.

Catholic Strategies Today

In the Catholic literature on American culture published in the past 20 years or so, it is possible to detect four major strategies. For short they may be called traditionalism, neo-conservatism, liberalism and prophetic radicalism.

Traditionalism is the posture of those Catholics who are highly critical of what they find in the dominant American culture, and who wish to restore the more centralized and authoritarian Catholicism of the years before World War II.... The neo-conservative strategy rejects as unrealistic the restorationism of the paleoconservatives.... Not satisfied to concentrate on what the Catholic tradition can contribute to the American experiment, Catholic liberals are primarily intent on showing how Americanism can help to modernize the church. They propose to reform Catholicism along the lines of participatory democracy.... While calling for the total conversion of church and society, radical Catholics seek to legitimate their positions by invoking historical precedents, both religious and civil....

None of the four strategies, I submit, is simply wrong. The realities of American Catholicism and of American culture are complex and many-faceted. American life has aspects that we can praise with the neo-conservatives and the liberals, and other aspects that we must deplore with the traditionalists and the radicals.

Regarding the church, I would hold with the traditionalists and neo-conservatives that it is basically healthy and that we should let it shape our convictions and values. The first loyalty of the Catholic should be to the church as the Body of Christ. But the liberals are correct in holding that the church stands in reciprocal relations with secular culture. Roman Catholicism, as it has come down to us, has been significantly shaped by the social institutions of medieval and early modern Europe, and this very fact suggests that the church might have something to learn from the American experiment of ordered liberty. Liberal Catholics and neo-conservatives alike insist that the Vatican II “Declaration on Religious Freedom” is due in part to the influence of the American system. Further influences of this kind might be beneficial to world Catholicism.

The radicals also have some valid points to make. The church, like secular society, is continually tempted to settle for mediocrity. To the extent that it has adopted the values and attitudes of middle-class America, the church deserves to be admonished by prophetic reformers. Repentance needs to be preached to those within the household of God.

Just as all four of the strategies have their strengths, so too, taken in isolation, they have weaknesses. Catholic traditionalism is on the whole too regressive. It looks nostalgically back to a past that can hardly be recovered. In its typically American expressions, moreover, traditionalism offers little guidance to Catholics who live amid the secular realities of our day. While adhering to the strictest canons of orthodoxy in their beliefs and personal morality, many affluent Catholic traditionalists want the church to say nothing about politics, economics, business or professional life. They effectively divorce their religious convictions from their day-to-day activities.

The neo-conservatives, with their patriotic attachment to the American heritage, are inclined to minimize the extent to which the tradition of public virtue has been eroded by the quest for private pleasure and material gain. Intent upon maintaining civility in the orders of law and politics, they neglect the urgency of renewing the faith-commitment and devotional life of contemporary Americans. They could be understood as holding that some kind of generalized civil religion suffices and that personal commitment to a specific religious tradition is a purely private matter, even a matter of personal taste....

Liberal Catholicism, with its enthusiasm for participatory democratic models, runs the risk of introducing into the church the ideologies and interest groups that compete for power in civil society. Americanist Catholics easily forget the New Testament warnings against personal ambition and partisanship. In their zeal for updating, the liberals too easily assume that Catholicism can and should do away with its traditional structures, its reverence for the sacred, its docility to authority and its esteem for sacrifice, prayer and contemplation.

Finally the Catholic radicals, with their strident apocalyptic denunciations, cannot hope to play more than a marginal role in Catholicism, which is and must remain an essentially incarnational faith.... Sectarian militancy lacks the broad popular appeal needed for it to be effective in such a large and traditional institution.

The most fundamental question raised by the preceding discussion is whether the church in this country should become more countercultural, as the traditionalists and radicals would wish, or more accommodationist, as the liberals and some neo-conservatives propose. The tide since the Second Vatican Council has been running heavily toward accommodationism. Middle-aged adults constitute the last generation of Catholics raised with a strong sense of Catholic identity. Most younger Catholics look upon themselves first of all as Americans and only secondarily as Catholics. Their culture has been predominantly formed by the secular press, films, television and rock music. Catholicism is filtered to them through these screens. Catholic schools are becoming less numerous and less distinctively Catholic. Catholic colleges and universities, while in some cases expanding, have lost much of their religious character. A certain vague religiosity perdures among the young, but it is that of “communal Catholics” not strongly committed to the doctrines and structures of their church.

Under these circumstances parents and teachers, fearful of being rejected as old-fashioned, are understandably reluctant to confront the young with the challenge of official church teaching, especially in the area of sexuality. Religious educators often feel powerless in the face of the sexual revolution and the passion for affluence that possesses their students. Bishops and pastors find it increasingly difficult to shape the convictions and attitudes of the faithful. Apart from the issue of abortion, on which they are willing to risk a measure of unpopularity, the bishops increasingly shift their attention to social issues, adopting agendas that in many ways resemble those of the liberal intelligentsia, notably in their teaching on peace and on the economy. They seek to appeal to a broad public that includes non-Catholics, non-Christians, non-believers....

In Search of an Authentic Church

[T]he middle-class American values that have been accepted by most contemporary Catholics are not an authentic fulfillment of genuine Catholic aspirations. In this context the problem of accommodation takes on rather concrete implications. There can be no question of simply rejecting accommodation as a strategy. It has always been an honored principle of pastoral and missionary practice. The Christian message must be presented, insofar as possible, in forms that make it intelligible, credible, interesting and relevant to the hearers.

Vatican II, in its “Decree on Missionary Activity,” recommended that the younger churches should borrow “from the customs and traditions of their arts and sciences...all those things which can contribute to the glory of their Creator, the revelation of the Savior’s grace or the proper arrangement of human life.” Accommodation becomes a problem only when the hard sayings of the Gospel are watered down, and when immoral or dehumanizing practices are tolerated.

As I have said, there are healthy elements in American society. Liberals and neo-conservatives have good grounds for maintaining that the church in this nation will be stronger to the extent that it builds these elements into its own life and makes them available for the universal church. Our American traditions of freedom, personal initiative, open communication and active participation can undoubtedly be a resource for the renewal of Catholicism in an age when authoritarian structures, repression and conformity are in general disrepute.

On the other hand, it can be at least equally important to guard against the dangers of accommodation. To the degree that it adjusts to the dominant culture, the church has less to say. By simply echoing the prevailing opinions and values, the church undermines the credibility of its claim to present a divine message and weakens people’s motivation for seeking membership. A church that no longer issues a clear call for conversion is only dubiously Christian. Traditional Catholicism has convictions and priorities very different from those embedded in contemporary American culture. The more thoroughly Catholics become inculturated in the American scene, the more alienated they become from their religious roots and the hierarchical authorities.

Accommodation, therefore, can increase the crisis of identity felt by American Catholics. Because of all these factors there is reason to believe that the greatest danger facing the church in our country today is that of excessive and indiscreet accommodation. Catholics will be well advised to cultivate a measured, prudent counterculturalism....

Pope John Paul II, like Paul VI before him, has repeatedly called upon Catholics everywhere to evangelize their cultures. He recognizes that faith cannot survive without cultural embodiment, and that faith can have no home in a culture untouched by the Gospel. To carry out their assignment from these popes, Catholics must first of all become firmly rooted in their own religious tradition. They must, through their parishes, their families, prayer groups or basic ecclesial communities, find an environment in which they can interiorize their religious heritage. In this way they can prepare themselves to become agents in the evangelization of the secular culture. Such cultural evangelization, in turn, may help to establish an atmosphere in which Catholic Christianity can be lived out more faithfully by greater numbers.

The neo-conservative program, more outgoing than that of the traditionalists, has its proper place in the Catholic agenda. Neo-conservatism, if it allows itself to be enriched by the sacramental piety and prayerful interiority of the traditionalists, has great potential for the evangelization of American culture. But these two strategies, even in combination, do not exhaust the possibilities. As I have already indicated, the Catholic Church stands to gain from a prudent introduction of certain American democratic values and practices as urged by the liberals. The neo-conservatives do not deny this, and traditionalists would be well advised to concede the point. Catholic radicalism, finally, serves as a needed gadfly. Both church and secular society need to be challenged by the radicals’ call to higher standards of evangelical perfection.

In summary, the four strategies are not reciprocally exclusive. They can and should be pursued concurrently. Although American Catholics can disagree about the extent to which each strategy is appropriate at a given time and place, they should be on guard against mutual hostility and recrimination. Each group should respect the intentions of the others and humbly recognize its own limitations. The internecine struggles between opposed factions are a scandal and a waste of energies that could more profitably be devoted to the common mission of the church as a whole to minister to the salvation of the world. By generously recognizing the diverse gifts of the Holy Spirit, all can help to build up the body of Christ in unity and strength. Traditionalists and radicals, liberals and neo-conservatives, by their joint efforts, can enable the Catholic Church to enter into dynamic and fruitful relations with American culture in its full complexity.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Nicholas Clifford
2 years ago
It is always a pleasure to read Avery Dulles and appreciate the thoughtfulness and intelligence of such a mind. It is also very tempting to know whether today, twenty five years after this piece first appeared, he would write the same way. Take, for example, the two questions of “Catholic identity” and whether the Church should become more “countercultural.” The problem with the first, in this country at least, is that “Catholic identity” has too often been confused with ethnic and cultural identity (Irish, Italian, German, Polish. etc. etc.) and as Andrew Greeley and others have pointed out, that ethnic identity (often urban) has weakened over the generations. Second, one of the problems with the Church as “countercultural” has been that historically it has all too often taken on the trappings of the particular culture in which it existed, particularly when those trappings seemed to enhance its power and influence. Thus still today its formal governance structures seem to be modeled too often on those of the Renaissance courts that emerged as medieval governance gave way to the absolutism of early modern Europe’s New Monarchies. There is a sense then, in which a truly “countercultural” Church should be truthfully questioning not only the secular cultures in which it exists, but the formation of its own traditional historical culture as well. These are not easy questions to answer (as Pope Francis among others knows all too well), and obviously Dulles would agree that they are not the sorts of questions that can be answered simply by quoting the likes of Pius IX or Leo XIII (to say nothing of Boniface VIII and others). Nor will they be answered simply by ignoring history and pretending that the Church has never changed its teachings on, say, religious freedom (to take one of the most egregious examples today). Of course the questions don’t end there. Dulles was writing before the full force of the sex abuse scandal broke and the enormous hypocrisy made possible by the Church’s authoritarian governance structures became painfully evident even decades after Vatican II. When he talks of a “docility to authority” as part of the Catholic tradition, we must ask ourselves whether a little bit less docility might have helped prevent the Church from succumbing to that particular tragic flaw. As today we must continue to ask whether the Church’s rather peculiar view of women might not simply be an example of our sharing in an ancient and world-wide superstition that has nothing fundamentally to do with Christianity, and can be found in traditional (and modern!) societies the world over (East Asia, Islam, etc. etc.). One could go on and on in response to this enormously stimulating article, but I’ll just shut up here.

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