Subculture called vital for a Catholic resurgence


The story of Catholicism in America may be an open book, but the book reads very differently depending on who's doing the writing.

One school of thought sees the narrative as a steady, onward and upward tale of success, but other scholars consider it worrisome and likely to get worse.

Unlike many academic arguments, the future of the Catholic Church in the United States may depend on who's right.

The first version of American Catholic history is called "assimilationist" or "Americanist." Until recently it has been dominant among interpreters of the Catholic experience.

The story puts the movement on the progress of Catholics from immigrant status and discrimination in the 19th and early 20th centuries, to being part of the socioeconomic and political mainstream today.

But a newer interpretation, emphasizing the "Roman" in Roman Catholic, sees thinning-out of Catholic identity accompanying assimilation as a calamity for the faith. Sociologist Joseph Varacalli, a leading figure in this group, calls people who take this view "restorationists." He sets out the restorationist position at length in a new book called "The Catholic Experience in America (Greenwood Press, $55).

Building a culture

As far as basic facts are concerned, the Romanist-restorationist version and the Americanist-assimilationist version are very much alike.

Catholics in America, both agree, were few in numbers and frequent targets of discrimination through the colonial era and the Revolutionary War. But early in the 19th century that started to change as immigration, especially from Ireland and Germany, started to swell their ranks.

The newcomers faced many challenges — anti-Catholic nativism, poverty and discrimination, ethnic conflicts within their own ranks. But the Church in America continued to grow — and grow and grow.

As it grew, the immigrants and their children and grandchildren built a powerful Catholic subculture for the transmission of Catholic faith, together with a thriving network of parishes, schools, hospitals and groups of all kinds to sustain it.

Of course there were setbacks, among them Pope Leo XIII's condemnation in 1899 of a sort-of heresy called "Americanism." But U.S. Catholics and their subculture continued to thrive.

By the middle years of the last century, serious observers considered the Catholic Church well on the way to becoming not only the largest religious body in the United States but the culturally dominant one.

Then, abruptly, change set in, propelled by post-World War II social forces including a huge expansion of college education and a vast movement of population from cities to suburbs. Egged on by Catholic intellectuals, Catholics abandoned the Catholic subculture — now scorned as a "ghetto" — and sealed their entry into the mainstream by electing a Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, in 1960.

Differing views

Assimilationists and restorationists part company at two key points.

In The Catholic Experience in America, he unabashedly argues the restorationist side. Calling American Catholics' repudiation of their subculture several decades ago "organizational hari-kari," he writes that the secular culture has enjoyed "an almost uncontested ability to shape the minds and hearts of the younger generations of American Catholics."

One is the assessment of the Catholic subculture. American-izers see it as an obstacle to the Americanization of Catholics and consider its dismantling a positive move. But the restorationists judge a healthy subculture necessary for the transmission of faith and view its abandonment as a disastrous mistake.

The second point in dispute concerns assimilation. The Americanizers see it as a good thing. The restorationists fear that in becoming part of an increasingly secularized American culture, Catholics may have signed a death warrant for their religious tradition.

Varacalli has been pondering these matters for years. He teaches at Nassau Community College on Long Island and directs its Center for Catholic Studies, and is a co-founder of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.

In The Catholic Experience in America, he unabashedly argues the restorationist side. Calling American Catholics' repudiation of their subculture several decades ago "organizational hari-kari," he writes that the secular culture has enjoyed "an almost uncontested ability to shape the minds and hearts of the younger generations of American Catholics."

Not surprisingly, he believes the key question for the Church in America is whether it has the "resources, skill and commitment" to rebuild a Catholic subculture. If not, he believes, the future is bleak.

Forecasting trends

Varacalli points to six possible scenarios for American Catholicism in the years ahead, with the three most extreme being "dissolution," "formal schism" and "retreat to a 1950s style pre-Vatican II Church." The others — which appear to have better chances of becoming reality — are these:

Pluralism. Varacalli holds this to be the situation that now exists in American Catholicism. It is summed up in expressions like "do your own thing" and "live and let live." If pluralism prevails — something that he believes could happen if there is weak leadership at the top — it will mean "the ultimate 'Protestantization'" of the Church in this country.

An American Church. In this scenario, Varacalli says, Catholics would shed the remaining, traditional Catholic beliefs and practices that "the modern upper-middle-class American" considers obsolete.

That would be a huge victory for the Americanist wing in U.S. Catholicism, similar to what already has happened in mainstream Protestantism and liberal Judaism in this country.

Neo-Orthodoxy. To make this scenario a reality, the Church in America must set its house in order "through the application of discipline" and through steps that will reintroduce Catholics confused about what it means to be Catholic to the key elements of their own religious tradition.

Varacalli says achieving this result is a "long-term project" that was backed by Pope John Paul II and has the support of a small but highly educated and committed body of Catholics in America.

Which will it be? As a social scientist, Varacalli doesn't say. But, like others, he points to trends suggesting that in years to come Catholicism in the West as a whole could "shrink in numbers and importance" compared with Catholicism in the Southern Hemisphere.

The Catholic Experience in America

"[T]he Catholic Experience in America warrants a close look by high school and college teachers, and by others curious about the past, present, and future of Catholicism in this country." - First Things

The Catholic Experience in America
by Joseph A. Varacalli
Greenwood Press, 364 pp., $55.00


Russell Shaw. "Subculture called vital for a Catholic resurgence." Our Sunday Visitor (May 13, 2005).

This article reprinted with permission of Russell Shaw.


Russell Shaw is a writer and journalist in Washington and a contributing editor of Crisis magazine and Our Sunday Visitor national newspaper. His books include Personal Vocation: God Calls Everyone By Name, Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church, Good News, Bad News: Evangelization, Conversion, and the Crisis of Faith. He is editor of Our Sunday Visitor's Encyclopedia of Catholic Doctrine.

Copyright © 2005 Our Sunday Visitor

Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter



Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.