As I travel around the country visiting parishes and speaking at conferences I am constantly amazed at the reality of two separate Catholic churches existing together with practically no conversation between them.
On the one hand we have what might be called the American Liberal Catholic Elite. They occupy most of the academic institutions. They have their own East Coast publishing houses, and universities with prestigious reputations. They write papers and award one another with honorary degrees and talk a lot about helping immigrants. In fact they don’t really talk about much of anything other than that and, of course, being kind to homosexual people and people who are divorced and remarried and so forth.
They do their theological writing and research and further their academic careers. They also pretty much dominate the hierarchy–most of whom are men from the same elitist background–or men who have clawed their way into it. They network together, ease the way for one another and put together an accepted, smooth public face of Catholicism in America. They are the establishment. They run things pretty much like a corporation or government bureaucracy, hiring public relations professionals, lawyers, fund raising companies, insurance firms and human resources professionals. It is fairly efficient, smooth and dull.
The liberal elite push their politically correct, essentially humanistic and rationalistic agenda using the usual mass media channels where they have friends and allies. Their religion is the acceptable moralistic, therapeutic Deism. Their audience are people much like themselves, Catholics of a certain generation who have presided over a disastrous departure from the faith. Their convents are empty. Their monasteries about to close, their seminaries shrinking and their families small. For this they usually blame shifting demographics and other cultural factors beyond their control. They see their mission now as managing the decline and continuing to adapt the faith to the surrounding culture in an attempt to keep the show on the road.
Then there is the other Catholicism in America. Its a grass roots project which affirms the essential dynamism of the Second Vatican Council–but in a way the proponents of the “Spirit of Vatican II” can’t stand. This is the church of self organized Diocesan Men’s Conferences that take place in an increasing number of locations across the USA. They attract 500 – 2000 men to hear energetic evangelists and preachers spark their faith.
This Catholic America is lean, energetic and entrepreneurial. Here you find converts starting street mission apostolates that grow at an amazing rate. Here a baker organizes and promotes an apostolate to promote fasting and a former marine starts a business doing brisk business designing and selling “warrior rosaries.” Here a new monastery or convent starts up and within a few years is bursting with new vocations and starting a second priory. Over there a little college starts up or folks start their own classical academy.
This Catholicism also has its publishing houses, papers, website and journals, but many of them are new start ups–seeking to renew the culture and engage in the public square in a positive and creative way. This is the Catholic Church of March for Life, EWTN and self organized Eucharistic conferences, Marian retreats and personal pilgrimages. These are the folks who found and fund missions to the developing world, run organizations for businessmen to network and sponsor pilgrimages to Rome and the Holy Land.
These are the folks who believe in angels and demons, the reality of the spiritual battle, subscribe to traditional views on worship and the sacraments and are likely to take Humanae Vitae seriously. They don’t connect with Pope Francis like they did John Paul and Benedict. Some criticize the pope, but most are not disrespectful. They just shrug their shoulders and say “Pope Francis is a good man but not such a good pope. That’s okay. Soon there will be another pope. Now what have I got on my ‘to do’ list today?”
This is what John Allen at CRUX calls “Catholic tribalism” and what interests me about it all is how little connection there is between the two tribes. There is virtually no conversation between them.
The liberal elite, who think they are so influential, have virtually no influence at the grass roots level. The folks who are part of grass roots Catholicism get on with their apostolates, organizing their conferences, starting their radio stations, funding their activities and are oblivious and happily ignorant of the agenda and activities of the liberal elite. They don’t read the liberal papers, journals and websites. They shrug their shoulders at the learned articles that criticize the Scriptures, knock the church and defend the secular agenda.
Likewise the liberal elite of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and LA are largely unaware of this “other Catholicism” in America. When they learn about it they are amazed and shocked that such Catholics not only exist but prosper. When they do learn about it they are likely to totally misunderstand it, take the extremists as typical and then talk in horrified terms about “extremist groups who dominate the conversation in blogs and incendiary websites. They’re likely to give airtime to European liberals who understand the American scene even less and imagine that this other American Catholic Church is full of mentally ill radicals who are aligned to prosperity gospel preachers and other rednecks clinging to their guns and religion.
As the coastal elite of the Democrat party were shocked and horrified to think that so many Americans in the flyover states voted for Trump, so the coastal elites of American Catholicism would be dismayed to actually sample Catholicism on the ground somewhere other than in the decaying mansions of their increasingly out of touch and out of date Catholic bubble.
Does a post like this cause division? I don’t think so.
It recognizes the division that exists and doesn’t paper over the cracks.
What to do about it? Not much. Get closer to Jesus and Mary. Try to understand the other side if you can. Then get on your knees and roll up your sleeves and do what you can with what you have where you are.
Check out my new book Mystery of the Magi-The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men. The evidence is new and astonishing. They really existed and we now know who they were.