Why American Catholics Are Not Okay?

When Being an American is more Important Than Being Catholic:
Cultural Catholicism

by Fr. Dwight Longenecker: Reading Sherry Weddell’s excellent Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus is making me think about the American church and what ails her. Can anybody deny that there is a sickness in the body ecclesia? When 50% of Catholics vote for a man who stoutly defends same sex marriage and partial birth abortion can we say that Catholics in America are okay?

Catholics Voting for Staunch Defenders of Partial Birth Abortion and Homosexuality

I don’t think so.

Thus a series of posts on what’s killing Catholicism. All the words begin with the letter ‘C’. I can’t help it. I was brought up as a Biblical Evangelical and our pastors always used alliteration to make their points memorable.

The first problem is cultural catholicism. The Poles, Italians, Irish, French, Czech, German and more Catholics came here from the old country and the bishops reckoned the best thing to do with them all was to allow cultural parishes. So in the same town the Irish Catholics went to St Patrick’s and the Poles to St Stanislaus and the Italians to St Anthony of Padua. Geesh, a man in my parish who grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania said that when he was a boy a girl from his Czech parish fell in love with an Irish boy and the Irish priest wouldn’t marry them because it was a mixed marriage.

I’m all for cultural customs and so forth, but the problem is that the immigrant Catholics–in a foreign land–clung to their culture for security and happiness and part of that culture was their Catholicism. The didn’t distinguish their culture from their Catholicism. Then, after a few generations, when they were all really American and stopped being Italian or Irish or German they also stopped being Catholic. The Catholic faith wasn’t much deeper than Mama’s special spaghetti sauce or stories of the Blarney stone.

Of course they didn’t all stop being Catholic. Something else happened which was even more subtle and insidious. They became Americans and because their mindset was that their Catholic faith was something which blended with their culture, instead of being Italian-Catholics or Polish Catholics they became American Catholics. Just as nationalism and love of culture blended with their Catholic faith when they were ethnic minorities, now it blended seamlessly with their new American culture. Just as Catholicism gave their former culture God’s approval, not their Catholicism gave American values and culture God’s approval.

Thus we have what I call AmChurch: the American Catholic church which is happily and blissfully blended with everything wonderful about America. Except that the “wonderful” values of most Americans are unapologetically materialistic, hedonistic and self centered. Thus at least 50% of American Catholics live like their American neighbors–going to the mall, getting as much stuff as possible, giving as little as possible, having a neat and tidy two children and a double income, and basically smiling their way to success like everyone else.

Now this grates with me because I was brought up as an Evangelical fundamentalist and I realize the roots are deep. More than that, I come from seven generations of sturdy Pennsylvania Dutch anabaptists–Mennonnites, Amish, Brethren and such. These people had exactly the other point of view. They were first and foremost Christians. They considered it the default setting that each person had to hear the call of Christ and leave their nets and follow him. The church was a pilgrim people–a people set apart. They were suspicious of the surrounding culture and very suspicious of officialdom of every kind. If the Catholics absorbed culture the Mennonite were deliberately counter cultural.

The Mennonite approach, however, has it’s problems. The gospel says we’re to be “in the world but not of the world”. We’re not actually supposed to be totally counter cultural. We’re supposed to be yeast in the dough, a light set on the hill. You get too counter cultural and you become a weird sect like the Branch Davidians

Being a happy Benedictine oblate I see the solution as being something more than both of these ways. The problem with cultural Catholics in America is that they have never come to realize that the Catholic faith transcends every culture. That’s what Catholic means for goodness sake! It’s universal. The Catholic faith is therefore embedded in every culture and takes from every culture what is useful and good, but because it transcends culture it is also automatically counter cultural in the right way.

The Catholic should always be in a constant tug of war with the culture around him. Here affirming what is good–there condemning what is bad. Here supporting all that is full of life, love, truth beauty and goodness and there condemning and avoiding all that is full of death, hate, lies, ugliness and evil.

The answer to Cultural Catholicism, therefore, is what I call Comprehensive Catholicism–a Catholicism that embraces all things for their essential worth. If their value is precious and eternal the more highly we love them. If their value is trash–well we love trash for what its worth too: to be thrown on the rubbish pile and burnt. This sort of constantly discerning Catholicism is what is needed at the individual and local level, but the reason people opt for cultural Catholicism is because it is easy.

This is the core problem with Cultural Catholicism: by its very nature it goes with the flow. In its love and acceptance of the ethnic culture it is uncritical, and because individual cultural Catholics are uncritical of their culture they are also uncritical of the level of their Catholic faith. They chortle along quite happily living the unexamined life.

When the test comes this kind of Catholicism will simply wither and die in the heat. “When the test comes?” We are in the middle of the test already. What I see in the American Catholic Church is a huge “F” on that test. The opportunity to stand up and be counted and to stand against the culture of death in this country has already been lost by the majority of so called Catholics because so blinded by the love of their culture, they didn’t even realize there was a test to start with.


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12 comments to Why American Catholics Are Not Okay?

  • Joanne S.

    Fr. Longenecker cites only one problem which contributes to our current crises in the church, but it’s still worth noting. A perfect example was an editorial published in the Houston Chronicle some years back written by a deacon on behalf of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. I specifically remember how upset I was when the Chronicle later published a letter rebutting the deacon’s editorial by a writer who boasted she was “an American first and a Catholic second.”

    Seeing those words in print was stunning. She may as well have said she chose her country over Jesus Christ.

  • Kevin Cooj

    Pope Benedict coined “Dictatorship of Relativism” which has infected America and the whole world. It has nothing to do with “material” success but instead on the political correctness attitude that there are no truths. Therefore, when Catholics or Christians proclaim the truth the dictatorship of relativism shouts them down as hateful bigots. And the American Bishops and priests constantly ask us to pray that “our government leaders” help the poor. Charity and subsidiarity are discouraged for socialism and government dependency the hallmark of the Democrat Party. Stop crucifying “material” success but instead pray that we have more successful men and women that have the resources and clout to defeat the dictatorship of relativism.

  • Richard reilly

    Why is it always easy to blame someone else. There are a lot of good people out there working to share the true faith but are not supported by the Bishops and priest. I do not mean talking about it once in a while but believing what they are saying.we can not get all the bishops on the same page most of the time nor can they even agree with the teachings of the church. If I was defying the church in publix about abortion or same sex marriage and so on I am sure you would make sure I did not dare come to communion. You would even do a sermon on my sins just to get the message across but yet others who you wish to treat different can do as they please and our clergy say nothing to them. Why is it the common folk sin and the powerful and rich just
    Have trouble seeing the light and understanding the word. Jesus never spoke His words to different levels of people. He not say this group keep my commansments and the other group kind of look them over and see what you think. I will say as a great speaker once said if you are not under any pressure from Satan and the secular world you are not working for Christ. So stop blaming and starting proclaiming the word as He gave us to live and live in the light of Christ.; God bless you and His peace be yours.

  • I strongly feel that our Catholic Church began its downward spiral soon after the Vatican 2 Council. I lived it and saw first hand the destruction of Holy Mother the Church. Statues and altars were torn out of the churches to make them look like protestant churches. Evil entered the Vatican and altered all that was good. Fear of the Lord and hell were no longer mentioned and people began to care less about sin, confession, salvation and most of all the true presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist. I blame the teachers in the seminaries, the bishops and yes, even the Pope who let it all happen. So many souls are destined for hell and as a traditional Catholic taught by holy nuns and from the Baltimore Cathecism, I feel helpless and can only pray for them. Our Catholic Faith seems to be divided between American Catholic and Roman Catholic. This division is not good.

  • Cutsy

    I too agree with all of your observations. The hierarchy has been way too lax in teaching and admonishing the faithful in the ways of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Yes the situation is dire and difficult. Today the average Catholic and other American is content with the the couch, the TV, a hamburger and a beer, and don’t bother him (is this politically correct?) about any thing else. Please don’t ask him to make a difficult decision. BUT ALL ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE IN THE LORD. So if all of you who are reading this will say an extra prayer, a Rosary would be great, offer a small fast and trust in the HOLY SPIRIT, and expect an answer to your prayer, we will see a real change not the kind that the government offers. God bless.

  • Susan

    Very well put. Note to those that thought the Mass is the problem…all of our worship is a result of complacency at every level. We are lazy people in America…we pray as we live. And we desire others to fix the problem, when it begins in us, as Father stated.

  • Clem

    The problem, unfortunately, is that the Church no longer reflects the values of its members or put another way the members of the Church reflect the values of the Church. This will be very difficult to turn around. On another point, the Catholic Church was pretty slow in dealing with segregation. I recall going to Mass in Tennessee in the 50’s and seeing Black congregants sitting in the back of the church and a large city in southern Ohio at one time had a high school for black students and at least one parish set up of Black folks.

  • Jerry L

    I am an American Catholic and it is so disheartening to have to agree with everything stated. I always think back to the words of a devout Priest who during his homily while speaking to this very subject stopped mid sentence and said the most profound statement. With all the conviction he had, he looked at the congregation and said ” I pray that they will Love Her enough to leave Her”.

  • TerryC

    Your mentioning of the Irish priest is very telling because such a shift to Americanism and rejection of the faith could not happen in the absence of inaction on the part of the clergy, especially the bishops.
    If his bishop would have acted against public and private catholic citizens who supported contraception, divorce and abortion as they did against those who supported segregation we would not be in this situation.

  • Enolan

    Tim, you are perfectly correct. I might add that once woman started removing the veil, the whole church quickly began to unravel. Let’s look what followed after the changes in the liturgy:
    -empty convents
    -empty seminaries
    -empty pews
    -few children
    -over 90% now using contraception as a habit without guilt
    -homosexual pedophile priests
    -gutting of classical architecture and art in most churches
    -removal of altars
    -no respectful dress code when entering God’s house
    -parishioners casually coming and going at any time during Mass
    -and so on and so on…..

  • TG

    Agree with you Father. I give the American Catholic church an F, too. I blame our leadership for being lax. Pope Pius X, pray for us.

  • TG

    Agree with you Father. Pictures like those above say everything that is wrong with the Church. My question is “Why doesn’t the Pope or a higher bishop do anything about it?”

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