Beyond the Catholic Inferiority Complex

ROBERT ROYAL

Most active Catholics draw a sharp line between what they are willing to tolerate in the public realm and what they desire for their own families. But, whether we look at the Internet, television, rock music, films, public schools or universities, the day has passed when that old public-private distinction could be maintained. If you do not fight in public, you will lose what you hope to preserve in private.

Catholics have been slandered for many different reasons in America. Probably the most damaging claim however, was that Catholics here, supposedly like Catholics everywhere, are poorly educated and blindly submit to priestcraft. Real Americans boldly question, according to the standard view. Catholic Americans weakly obey. These charges, of course, have a long history beginning in the Protestant Reformation. When Protestantism was still the dominant religion of the American elites, Catholics were mostly poor immigrants. The combination of those two factors seemed to confirm the old case.

But America has changed a great deal in recent years. The old Protestant hegemony, which had quite a few good effects on this country's government and culture, has passed, and mainline Protestantism seems to be hemorrhaging adherents without wishing to turn to the one proven remedy: Christian orthodoxy.

The position of Catholics, however, has changed quite a bit as well. A recent survey conducted by Steven Wagner of QVC Analytics revealed that active Catholics (defined as those who attend Mass at least three times a month) now have higher education levels, on average, than either evangelical/pietistic Protestants or members of the old, mainline Protestant denominations as a whole. (Episcopalians or other specific denominations, usually small in numbers, may still rank ahead of Catholics.) Active Catholics also have higher income and stock-ownership levels than these other groups.

This is remarkable news, but the word seems not yet to have gotten out to academics or our political class. In the past, allegedly value-free social science was used to make it appear that, besides their religious handicaps, the ethnic groups that formed the largest part of American Catholicism were themselves culturally stunted and stunting. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once criticized the "relative failure of the Irish to rise socially." Harvard sociologist Nathan Glazer believed that Italians stemmed from a culture where "intellectual curiosity and originality [are] ridiculed or suppressed" and their children were not "raised for new adventures."

America's freewheeling economy and society have doubtless reshaped the old Catholic ethics to a certain extent, but that hardly accounts for the spectacular success and achievement of groups that only a few decades ago were spoken of in terms of cultural pathology. As we now know, strong values and close knit families can also be a great boon when a culture turns from mere individualism to outright hedonism and self-destruction.

Yet, if the old slanders were demonstrably wrong, there remains one clear figure among American Catholics: a proportionate influence on the culture. In many ways, it is understandable that, instead of journalism, education and other culture-forming professions, Catholics have chosen to go into law, medicine and business in large numbers. Given the anti-Catholicism that was, and still is, rampant among elite opinion-makers, Catholics have understandably preferred to tend their own gardens in honest callings.

Politics, too, has never been a strong suit for Catholics in America, except in the major cities where machine politics were often tied to Catholic communities. In the past, Catholics were intimidated or discriminated against by the Protestant elites.

But, whether we look at the culture or politics, why are Catholics, given their demonstrable successes and educational levels — to say nothing of sheer numbers, since Catholicism is the largest denomination in the United States, larger than the next 15 denominations' combined — not more visible in America today?

This is a much more difficult question. There are many gifted Catholic writers and thinkers in this country. America knows — if not consciously, then subconsciously — that it needs something like the authoritative moral and culture message that the Church possesses if it wishes to keep from slipping into social chaos. People all over the country have been telling pollsters in this election year that they are less worried about the economy or foreign threats than they are about what seems to be the undermining of the nation's moral foundations. No president or political party, is capable of doing very much to shore up the American ethos.

So the renewal has to come from another source than politics. Catholics score high in patriotism and belief that government is important to good national life. They do not seem likely to abandon the country to forces that will destroy it. So what holds back a stronger Catholic influence? Perhaps the best way to describe the problem is to list the virtues that have been missing until the present moment

Public courage - Most active Catholics draw a sharp line between what they are willing to tolerate in the public realm and what they desire for their own families. But, whether we look at the Internet, television, rock music, films, public schools or universities, the day has passed when that old public-private distinction could be maintained. If you do not fight in public, you will lose what you hope to preserve in private.

An urgent prudence - Today the battle line has shown itself everywhere. Catholics who are students in medical and law schools, mature physicians and lawyers, business men and women, teachers and all of us in every walk of life will inevitably encounter things every day that to some degree challenge our faith and our commitment to others. Under the circumstances, not every confrontation will be successful or even advisable. But we have to recognize how urgent a task faces us to live faithfully as Catholics in America today.

A sense of vocation - Of ourselves we can do nothing. And choosing to work at changing America's public culture is likely to be unsettling, costly and socially isolating in many ways. But, if we acknowledge that we are being called to be faithful public witnesses in this difficult moment, we may find that, like the martyrs of every age, we are given the courage and power to do things we could never have imagined. At least a sizable minority of Catholics have to begin to think of this task as exactly what it is — a vocation.

Active American Catholics have the means and the opportunity to make an enormous difference not only in this country, but in the world. American culture today reaches to every part of the globe. Certainly one of the most urgent tasks for the new evangelization that Pope John Paul II has called for in this century is to make sure that America's immense influence, still a beacon of light for many people, does not go out and lead the world into even worse darkness.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Robert Royal. "Beyond the Catholic Inferiority Complex." National Catholic Register. (April 2-8, 2000).

Reprinted by permission of the National Catholic Register.

To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.

THE AUTHOR

Robert Royal is president of the Washington-based Faith & Reason Institute and a member of the Advisory Board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright © 2000 National Catholic Register


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