On Being Catholic AmericanJOE VARACALLI
The United States of America needs the Catholic worldview more than the Catholic faith requires the American experience.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 within my age group of fifty-two, who remember more
humble times in terms of social and economic status. 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 of 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
But even those more affluent generations of Catholics removed
from the immigrant and working class ethnic experiencelike many suburbanized
Long Islandersfeel 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
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.
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
patriotism is good or bad or ambivalent 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,
is neither good nor bad; the issue is the nature of what one is patriotic towards.
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
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 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;
thats why sociologists like myself find some utility in employing the concept
of a "generation gap." My parents 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.
Five: The culture of American society today is not the same as
that of America at mid-century past. For all of Americas 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 individualismthanks
in part to an irresponsible judiciaryhas 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 havent 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.
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 ones
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 unlicensed 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.
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 countrys 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 societys descent 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 Ive 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 be
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 in its present condition,
in a position to effectively lead the restoration of American society and culture.
As Ive 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 "secularization from within" during the post-Vatican
II era. Put another way, during this period, the institution has allowed itself
to be co-opted 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 cant save America if she cant first save herself.
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.
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. In the language of sociology, 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.
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 others
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
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 mines "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.
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 Gods grace in conjunction with human effort
cooperating with Gods 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 descent 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
Joseph A. Varacalli. "On Being Catholic American." The Homiletic
& Pastoral Review (August/September 2004).
This essay is based, in part,
on Joseph Varacalli's volume, Bright
Promise, Failed Community: Catholics and the American Public.
article is reprinted with permission from The Homiletic & Pastoral Review
and Dr. Joseph Varacalli. All rights reserved. To subscribe phone: (800) 651-1531
or write: Homiletic & Pastoral Review PO Box 591120 San Francisco, CA 94159-1120.
A. Varacalli is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for Catholic
Studies at Nassau Community College-S.U.N.Y., Garden City, New York, email@example.com
He is the co-founder of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists and author,
most recently, of Bright
Promise, Failed Community: Catholics and the American Public Order (Lexington
Books, 1-800-462-6420; www.lexingtonbooks.com).
Joe Varacalli is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.
Copyright © 2005 Homiletic
& Pastoral Review