In Praise of Cultural Catholicism


As American culture and the West turn ever more anti-Christian, various strategies have arisen to deal with the threat.

Virtually all of them reject the old "cultural Catholicism" as inadequate — and perhaps even one cause for our current crisis.  People were taught, we're told, but not evangelized.  When the culture changed, so did they.

Whatever the shortcomings of that older culture, it seems clear that a new cultural Catholicism now must emerge as a living, concrete social reality — within existing parishes where possible, perhaps in new forms elsewhere — or the new strategies, for all their virtues, will likely fail.

Take the much-heralded New Evangelization.  It's much like the old evangelization, only adapted towards people for whom the old approach didn't work.  It relies heavily on arguments — "Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope." (1 Peter 3:15)

Rational argument is essential in a Church that values both faith and reason.  But as Aquinas noted, God revealed several truths that we could know by reason.  Why?  Given our fallen nature, most people can't do serious thinking.  They live within the practical demands of the world.

Besides, the questions are hard — as anyone who tries to "give a reason" quickly learns.  Most people arrive at a confidence in their Faith through other ways.

Evangelical Catholicism, therefore, is attractive.  As my sometime colleague George Weigel has argued, a holy and confident Church — popes, bishops, priests, religious, and lay people together — will inspire those of good will.

Reforming structures is part of this, as Vatican II — properly understood — intended.  A legalistic and bureaucratic Church is just too much like the modern governments we labor under: ill suited to the saving truths of the Gospel.

And this is where an authentic cultural Catholicism might come in.  Russell Shaw, a friend of several of us at TCT, has just published The American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America.  Do yourself a favor.  Rush out and buy this little gem, then read slowly and carefully.

Shaw brilliantly analyzes the conflict between the "Americanizers" (led by Isaac Hecker, Cardinal Gibbons, and others) on the one hand, and the opponents of assimilation (Orestes Brownson, Bishop Bernard J. McQuaid, etc.) on the other.  Assimilation had to come as millions of Catholics began to live and work on these shores — and, up to a point, perhaps had to take the form it did.

But the culture those Catholics accepted was very different than today's.  The Americanists argued that it permitted the Church to flourish for a time and even had commonalities with Catholic principles.  All that has radically changed in ways even the anti-assimilationists would never have dreamed.

At his inaugural Mass, Pope Francis invoked St. Joseph as: "a 'protector' because he is able to hear God's voice and be guided by his will. . . . He can look at things realistically, he is in touch with his surroundings, he can make truly wise decisions."

Americans might take this to heart.  After Vatican II, we heard a lot about the Church being "defensive" and needing a mature openness.  But this was mostly misleading.  Sure, defensiveness is not a Christian virtue.  But a proper fear of what threatens is not neurotic.  It's realism.

The Church has to rethink how the old territorial parishes can provide greater "protection" for us, and in some instances, no doubt, how to create new forms of "protector" communities.

T. S. Eliot wrote:

Remembering the words of Nehemiah the Prophet: "The trowel in hand, and the gun rather loose in the holster."

. . . we are encompassed with snakes and dogs: therefore some must labor, and others must hold the spears.  (Choruses from the Rock)

Any Christian oblivious to the threats, approaching persecution, now upon us simply doesn't have eyes to see.  Governments and international bodies are determined to make certain Christian moral positions into "hate crimes" and infringements of "basic rights," and to make churches follow state directives as coercive as those in places like China.  And they believe — rightly — most Christians will just go along.

That's why we need what I would call a cultural Catholicism, not the ghetto of the past — which, even if it were desirable, wouldn't deal well with the present.  We need to create new ways to "protect" Christian living:

  • Russell Shaw speaks of the "plausibility structures" of the past.  This has always been part of the Church, which needs to preach its reasonableness boldly.  Most believers have a faith of the heart as well as a warranted confidence that there are people who can make the rational arguments to defend it, even if they can't themselves.

  • In our time, such a faith needs to understand the urgency of counter-cultural choices about how to live.  Alasdair MacIntyre famously invoked the need for "a new and no doubt quite different Saint Benedict."  Monasticism is always one answer.  But many Catholics — 15-20 million in American alone by my reckoning — believe and try to live by what the Church teaches in a hostile world.  We are a minority now even among "Catholics."  The Church has to rethink how the old territorial parishes can provide greater "protection" for us, and in some instances, no doubt, how to create new forms of "protector" communities.

  • We can't be naïve about the seriousness of the threat.  Our culture is now largely animated by anti-Christian "humanism," which regards Catholicism as "the greatest evil in the world."  (Richard Dawkins) It controls education, Hollywood, the media, government, business — what Lenin called the "commanding heights" of society.  Still, even the old Soviet Union eventually failed — and it had nukes.  So we can't be pessimistic about our future.  But it's likely to be a long slog, not winnable by short-term plans and programs.

The pope has reminded us that the Church reinvigorates itself by turning outwards to evangelize the world.  But it also has to nurture the life within.  For that, we need a smart cultural community that knows its own business — and isn't afraid to protect and practice it.




Robert Royal. "In Praise of Cultural Catholicism." The Catholic Thing (May 13, 2013).

Reprinted with permission from The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to:

The Catholic thing — the concrete historical reality of Catholicism — is the richest cultural tradition in the world. That is the deep background to The Catholic Thing which bring you an original column every day that provides fresh and penetrating insight into the current situation along with other commentary, news, analysis, and — yes — even humor. Our writers include some of the most seasoned and insightful Catholic minds in America: Michael Novak, Ralph McInerny, Hadley Arkes, Michael Uhlmann, Mary Eberstadt, Austin Ruse, George Marlin, William Saunders, and many others.


Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. Among his books are The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive Global History, Dante Alighieri: Divine Comedy, Divine Spirituality, The Pope's Army: 500 Years of the Papal Swiss Guard, 1492 and All That: Political Manipulations of History, The Virgin and the Dynamo: The Use and Abuse of Religion in Environmental Debates, and most recently, The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West. Robert Royal is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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