American Catholicism

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This page is a draft of some reflections in response to a question from Alex in e-mail: "For all of secularism in the United States, America is among the most vibrant nations for Catholicism in the world. As the faith declining in Europe and elsewhere, why do you think American Catholics are preserving their faith better than others and what effect can (or should) we Americans have on the larger global Church?"

Some strengths and weaknesses of American culture

strengths weaknesses
Tradition of human rights Establishment of counterfeit "rights"
Tradition of revolution against injustice
  • "Rebels without a cause"
  • rootlessness
  • hostility toward all authority
  • Culturally conditioned ("knee-jerk") preference for dissent rather than assent
  • Absorption of Protestant mentality (Sola Scriptura, private judgment)
Freedom of opportunity Inequality of wealth
Pragmatic approach ("Can do!")
  • Denigration of truth
  • Pelagianism
Pioneering spirit
  • rugged individualism
  • unbalanced self-reliance
Astonishing wealth narcissism
Free markets Unfair competition and unjust business practices
Science and technology Materialism (reductionism) and scientism exalted as opponents of religion
Stable government Creation of a bureaucratic class that serves itself first
Literate citizens Consumption of dreck
Rule of law Legalism and proliferation of absurd lawsuits
Freedom from corruption Self-serving politicians, judges, and police officers.
Freedom of the press and mass media
  • Pornography and other attacks on the foundations of virtue
  • Exaltation of hedonism
  • Hollywood mentality: worship of the stars, cult of the beautiful and famous
Freedom of religion

We are free to preach the gospel in our nation. What a wonderful gift we have to strengthen the Body!

  • hostility toward and isolation of religion from the public sphere
  • indifferentism
  • relativism
  • "All opinions are created equal."
  • false understanding of conscience ("Self-will run riot"--AA).
Openness to immigration Failure to assimilate immigrants to the American Way.
Connections to Europe Slavish imitation of the European socialist model
Distance from Europe Isolationism, "The Ugly American"
Power to dominate war zones (WWI, WWII, Korea, etc.)

"With great power comes great responsibility."

  • Unjust or imprudent wars
  • Arrogance

Strengths and weaknesses of American Catholicism

strengths weaknesses
Piety American Catholic forms of Puritanism and Minimalism
Generosity We give too much money and not enough of ourselves.
Community We can become dependent on our local Church experience and alienated from the Catholic tradition: "We are Church" is an anti-Catholic slogan.
Spirit of inquiry Rebellion against the teaching authority of the Church
Spirit of gratitude Complacency
Openness to experiment Dissolution of ties to the global Church. Adoption of the values of our culture instead of those of the Church. There are many "baptized pagans" in American Catholicism who are Catholic in name only; they sin, divorce, and abort at the same rate as the rest of the American population.
Freedom of evangelization Proclamation of dissent instead of assent to the teachings and rule of the Church.

Law of karma

"Karma" is a word from Hinduism. Its root meaning is "action," but it also refers to the inescapable consequences of our actions. It is essentially a spiritual law that justice is done infallibly.

Those who do good reap good.

Those who do evil reap evil.

The spiritual consequences of our actions are immediate and have long-term effects on our lives. No one can do good without becoming good; no one can do evil without becoming evil.

The sins of our nation are many; the consequences will follow. We have sown the wind of lust; we will reap the whirlwind. Our willingness not just to tolerate abortion but to promote it as public policy has certainly had and will certainly have destructive consequences for the nation. The tens of millions of victims of abortion are small and silent, but their blood cries out from the earth as did the blood of Abel. This is not something we can pretend is of no consequence. It is bad karma.

We used weapons of mass destruction in World War II when we firebombed whole cities in Germany and Japan, both with conventional and nuclear weapons.

We are equally human and equally vulnerable to sin

In 1993, I read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer. The book made me realize how the majority of Germans accepted the dismantlement of one of the world's most civilized and cultured nations, step by step. I see no reason in principle why the same sort of tragedy could not happen in the United States. We are just as human and could be just as easily misled by charismatic figures. What happened in Europe could happen--could be happening--here.

This led me to become involved in the prayers for life in front of the abortion clinic on Main Street, just a couple of miles from where I live and work. We can't take our blessings for granted; we must pray and work to see that the things that have made our nation great are not abandoned.

We have not solved the problems of Europe. We have not experienced them--yet.

We did solve one European problem: the wars of religion and the corruption that comes from established churches (both Protestant and Catholic). Our allegiance to a federal system that is based on freedom of religion trumped the establishment of religion in various states during the colonial and early post-colonial periods of our history.

The Dangers of Americanism

We have often considered and admired the noble gifts of your nation which enable the American people to be alive to every good work which promotes the good of humanity and the splendor of civilization.
The Problem: The underlying principle of these new opinions is that, in order to more easily attract those who differ from her, the Church should shape her teachings more in accord with the spirit of the age and relax some of her ancient severity and make some concessions to new opinions. Many think that these concessions should be made not only in regard to ways of living, but even in regard to doctrines which belong to the deposit of the faith. They contend that it would be opportune, in order to gain those who differ from us, to omit certain points of her teaching which are of lesser importance, and to tone down the meaning which the Church has always attached to them.
We cannot consider as altogether blameless the silence which purposely leads to the omission or neglect of some of the principles of Christian doctrine, for all the principles come from the same Author and Master, "the Only Begotten Son, Who is in the bosom of the Father."—John i, 18. They are adapted to all times and all nations, as is clearly seen from the words of our Lord to His apostles: "Going, therefore, teach all nations; teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you, and behold, I am with you all days, even to the end of the world."—Matt. xxviii, 19. Concerning this point the Vatican Council says: "All those things are to be believed with divine and catholic faith which are contained in the Word of God, written or handed down, and which the Church, either by a solemn judgment or by her ordinary and universal magisterium, proposes for belief as having been divinely revealed."—Const. de fide, Chapter iii.
The rule of life laid down for Catholics is not of such a nature that it cannot accommodate itself to the exigencies of various times and places. (VOL. XXIV-13.)
In this matter the Church must be the judge, not private men who are often deceived by the appearance of right.
Danger of private judgment: But, beloved son, in this present matter of which we are speaking, there is even a greater danger and a more manifest opposition to Catholic doctrine and discipline in that opinion of the lovers of novelty, according to which they hold such liberty should be allowed in the Church, that her supervision and watchfulness being in some sense lessened, allowance be granted the faithful, each one to follow out more freely the leading of his own mind and the trend of his own proper activity. They are of opinion that such liberty has its counterpart in the newly given civil freedom which is now the right and the foundation of almost every secular state.
In the apostolic letters concerning the constitution of states, addressed by us to the bishops of the whole Church, we discussed this point at length; and there set forth the difference existing between the Church, which is a divine society, and all other social human organizations which depend simply on free will and choice of men.
Comment: We are culturally conditioned by the success of the American system to prefer democracy (Greek, rule of the people) to monarchy. But the Church is essentially monarchical. We have a King who is the Lord of Creation and King over all the Kings of the earth. The structures of authority in the Church are derived from His authority, not from "the consent of the governed."
Danger of licentiousness: These dangers, viz., the confounding of license with liberty, the passion for discussing and pouring contempt upon any possible subject, the assumed right to hold whatever opinions one pleases upon any subject and to set them forth in print to the world, have so wrapped minds in darkness that there is now a greater need of the Church's teaching office than ever before, lest people become unmindful both of conscience and of duty.
Rejection of external guidance: First, all external guidance is set aside for those souls who are striving after Christian perfection as being superfluous or indeed, not useful in any sense—the contention being that the Holy Spirit pours richer and more abundant graces than formerly upon the souls of the faithful, so that without human intervention He teaches and guides them by some hidden instinct of His own. Yet it is the sign of no small over-confidence to desire to measure and determine the mode of the Divine communication to mankind, since it wholly depends upon His own good pleasure, and He is a most generous dispenser 'of his own gifts. "The Spirit breatheth whereso He listeth."—John iii, 8.
Nor can we leave out of consideration the truth that those who are striving after perfection, since by that fact they walk in no beaten or well-known path, are the most liable to stray, and hence have greater need than others of a teacher and guide. Such guidance has ever obtained in the Church; it has been the universal teaching of those who throughout the ages have been eminent for wisdom and sanctity—and hence to reject it would be to commit one's self to a belief at once rash and dangerous.
This over-esteem of natural virtue finds a method of expression in assuming to divide all virtues in active and passive, and it is alleged that whereas passive virtues found better place in past times, our age is to be characterized by the active. That such a division and distinction cannot be maintained is patent—for there is not, nor can there be, merely passive virtue. "Virtue," says St. Thomas Aquinas, "designates the perfection of some faculty, but end of such faculty is an act, and an act of virtue is naught else than the good use of free will," acting, that is to say, under the grace of God if the act be one of supernatural virtue.
From this disregard of the angelical virtues, erroneously styled passive, the step was a short one to a contempt of the religious life which has in some degree taken hold of minds. That such a value is generally held by the upholders of new views, we infer from certain statements concerning the vows which religious orders take. They say vows are alien to the spirit of our times, in that they limit the bounds of human liberty; that they are more suitable to weak than to strong minds; that so far from making for human perfection and the good of human organization, they are hurtful to both; but that this is as false as possible from the practice and the doctrine of the Church is clear, since she has always given the very highest approval to the religious method of life; nor without good cause, for those who under the divine call have freely embraced that state of life did not content themselves with the observance of precepts, but, going forward to the evangelical counsels, showed themselves ready and valiant soldiers of Christ.
Those who so bind themselves by the vows of religion, far from having suffered a loss of liberty, enjoy that fuller and freer kind, that liberty, namely, by which Christ hath made us free.
Finally, not to delay too long, it is stated that the way and method hitherto in use among Catholics for bringing back those who have fallen away from the Church should be left aside and another one chosen, in which matter it will suffice to note that it is not the part of prudence to neglect that which antiquity in its long experience has approved and which is also taught by apostolic authority. The scriptures teach us that it is the duty of all to be solicitous for the salvation of one's neighbor, according to the power and position of each. The faithful do this by religiously discharging the duties of their state of life, by the uprightness of their conduct, by their works of Christian charity and by earnest and continuous prayer to God.
But the true church is one, as by unity of doctrine, so by unity of government, and she is catholic also. Since God has placed the center and foundation of unity in the chair of Blessed Peter, she is rightly called the Roman Church, for "where Peter is, there is the church." Wherefore, if anybody wishes to be considered a real Catholic, he ought to be able to say from his heart the selfsame words which Jerome addressed to Pope Damasus: "I, acknowledging no other leader than Christ, am bound in fellowship with Your Holiness; that is, with the chair of Peter. I know that the church was built upon him as its rock, and that whosoever gathereth not with you, scattereth."

We have abandoned Catholic schooling

Andrew Greeley's sociological studies showed that Catholic education was the best means of passing the faith on to the next generation.

America had one of the largest Catholic school systems in the world.

We still have more nominally "Catholic" colleges and universities than any other country, by a huge margin.

"Corruptio optimi pessima:" The corruption of the best things is the worst thing.

We have gone into battle unprepared

As Fr. Corapi often said, "We are at war." Though he seems to have fallen on the field, he was not wrong about this.

It is spiritual warfare. Our weapons are faith, hope, and love. We do not have the option of living as if there were no war around us. Either we learn to "fight the good fight" (1 Tim 6:18) or we, too, will be defeated.

We have been building on sand

Transplanted from Europe into American soil, the Church has taken root and produced much good fruit. But we have been building our house on sand (Mt 7:24). Storms have come and have knocked the American Church to pieces. We need to rebuild the Church on the rock of God's revelation, not on self-will.

What can American Catholics do to renew the whole Church?

Our first and last vocation is to be good Catholics. Simply by living the life of faith, hope, and love, we exhibit God's own goodness to others. If we are faithful, the fruits of the Spirit will develop in us and attract others to join the Body of Christ. "You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden" (Mt 5:14).


We need to repent of our sins as a nation and make reparation for those sins.

The blood of many innocent victims cries out to Heaven against us.

May God have mercy on us all!

We cannot imitate the Pharisee, who thanked God that he was "not like other men" (Lk 18:9-14). Instead, we need to adopt the attitude of the repentant tax collector, who beat his breast and prayed, "O God, be merciful to me a sinner."

We can do the rest of the world no good until we take the plank out of our own eye (Mt 7:5).


  • Repent of our own sins and, through, with, in, and for Jesus, make reparation for the sins of others. Pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy "in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world."
  • Pray for the development of all of the vocations we need in our day: single-heartedness, marriage, religious life, and the priesthood.
  • Pray for a new Pentecost, another Great Awakening that will lead our nation to repent of its sins and repair the evil we have done: "Renew in our own days your miracles as of a second Pentecost; and grant that Holy Church, reunited in one prayer, more fervent than before, around Mary the Mother of Jesus, and under the leadership of Peter, may extend the kingdom of the divine Savior, a kingdom of truth, justice, love and peace" (John XXIII's prayer for the Vatican Council).
  • Pray the Infallible Prayer: "Thy will, not mine, be done."


  • Every Friday is a day of penance for Catholics. Consider offering your Friday penances in reparation for the sins of the nation.
  • Some people have revived the Eastern tradition of also offering penitential acts on Wednesdays.

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After America warns that an over-regulated, bureaucracy-laden society, dissuaded from conceiving and achieving great things because too much has come between an idea and its execution, is a society dumbing down and numbing-up, growing not just stagnant, but inert, like Chesterton’s “dead thing” that “can go with the stream,” while “only a living thing can go against it.”