Cut Off Catholicism vs. Continuous Catholicism

In the midst of composing this series on what’s killing American Catholicism I am not only reading George Weigel’s Evangelical Catholicism and Sherrie Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples  but on the flight out to Indianapolis read Russell Shaw’s American Church — The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America. 

Shaw’s book is written in his usual readable and personal style–full of fascinating history and observation. It assesses the problems in the American church accurately–pinpointing the difficulties American Catholic leaders had in establishing Catholicism which was both faithful to the Catholic teaching and yet loyally American. One of the main problems was dealing with the cultural Catholicism of the immigrant communities. In an effort to help them assimilate the bishops encouraged a new kind of cultural Catholicism: American Catholicism. The problem with this is that the predominant philosophies of the American republic weren’t really Catholic. If they were Christian at all, they were Protestant.

Let’s be honest: America was founded first by Protestant Puritan settlers and constitutionally by eighteenth century Deists and Freemasons. There ain’t much Catholic about America’s founding principles and what was compatible with Catholicism–a certain set of Christian values and  moral principles–is fading fast. Russell Shaw quotes Harvard philosopher Georges Santayana on the essential incompatibility between historic Catholicism and the rationalistic, materialistic and secular philosophies which lie at the heart of the American system.

This faith [Catholicism]…is full of large disillusions about this world and minute illusions about the other. It is ancient, metaphysical, poetic, elaborate, ascetic, autocratic and intolerant. It confronts the boastful natural man, such as the American is, with a thousand denials and menaces. Everything in American life is at the antipodes to such a system. Yet the American Catholic is entirely at peace. His tone in everything, even in religion, is cheerfully American. It is wonderful how silently, amicably and happily he lives in a community whose spirit is profoundly hostile to that of his religion…Attachment to his church in such a temper brings him into no serious conflict with his Protestant neighbors. They live and meet on common ground. Their respective religions pass among them for family, matters, private and sacred with no political implications.

If I must continue the alliteration of my series with ‘C’ words, then this is what I call “Cut Off” Catholicism. It is cut off from the deep philosophical and theological roots of the historic faith. Here are some examples. The Catholic religion–like all ancient religions both pagan and Jewish–is ritualistic. It speaks in the language of liturgy, sign, symbol and sacred gesture. We only have to experience the typical AmChurch Mass to see that the Americans attending Mass don’t understand such things. The altar servers wear robes but they don’t know why. They serve the altar, but have not the slightest idea of the liturgical or symbolic significance of what they do. The chew gum and wear da-glo sneakers underneath their robes. The people sit in the pews in big auditoria dressed as if they are at the movies or a basketball game. The music is an entertainment based blend of honkey tonk, nightclub style and country Western. This is made worse by the fact that the vast majority of AmChurch Catholics don’t realize there is anything wrong. The like this form of worship, and they like it because they don’t understand ritual, sign, symbol and sacred gesture–even worse they don’t understand that they don’t understand.

The historic ritual of Catholic religion is rooted in an acceptance of the metaphysical. In other words, we believe that through the ritual we are making a transaction with the other world. The supernatural impinges on us at all times. We are at the threshold of heaven and on the doorstep of eternity. Most AmChurch Catholics don’t understand this. I am convinced that it is simply not a part of their world view. Why should it be? They have been educated in a culture and by a system that is essentially materialistic, utilitarian and secular. There is no sense of the immanent, no sense of the awesome presence in life. The Protestant founding fathers weeded out all that “nonsense” and the deists and materialists finished the job. Such poetic and otherworldly ideas are not even dismissed by the typical American. They are not even misunderstood. They simply do not exist in their vocabulary.

Worship has become for most American Catholics therefore a mixture of civic duty, a way to inculcate good values into their children, a matter of family tradition which is presented in a way that is comfortable, easy going and entertaining. The idea that we are in touch with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the pillar of fire and the burning bush, the idea that we are on the threshold of a life changing mystical experience is utterly foreign to their imagination.

The desire for the mystical, however will not die, so instead of finding this mysterium tremendum et fascinans in the ritual, music, architecture and art of ordinary Catholic worship or in the religious traditions of contemplative prayer, monasticism and devotions the American Catholic is most likely to wander off into the misty mystical mess of New Age practices, Eastern religions or the occult.

It seems to me that this divorce from not only our ancient traditions, but our ancient way of viewing the world and our religion in America is not simply the result of the mis-application of the Second  Vatican Council or the ravages of modernism or the desire to make Catholic worship ‘relevant’. These are only part of the problem, and indeed are really only symptoms. The deeper malaise–and one which is most difficult to counter–is that the American founding philosophy is fundamentally opposed to Catholicism. America is individualistic, anti authoritarian, pragmatic, materialistic and aggressive. It has historically balanced this worldly view with a Protestant Christian ethos, but that is disintegrating because it also had woven into its genetic code a kind religious form of the American philosophy: a Christian form of individualism, anti authoritarianism, materialistic pragmatism with not a little bit of aggression.

What can be done? Cut off Catholicism can only be countered by Continuous Catholicism. This is what Pope Benedict XVI was trying to establish with his concept of “the hermeneutic of continuity”–that we thrive as Catholics as we nurture and cultivate our roots. This is not simply a matter of putting on a fancy alb with lace or using a more ornate miter. It is a whole approach to our faith which sees everything we do as Catholics from our liturgy to our prayer, education, catechesis and family life as deeply rooted not in American (or any other) culture, but as deeply rooted in the traditions and understanding of historic Catholicism.

It mean nurturing in art, music, liturgy, education, prayer and formation a worldview that is counter cultural in America. It mean developing a more sacramental vision of reality–one that is rooted in the metaphysical transaction of the Mass and the daily interaction between this world and the next. It means consciously developing a new way of seeing–one that runs counter to the materialistic pragmatism of everyday America. How is this done? Through prayer, asceticism and a radically prophetic way of life.

T.S.Eliot suggested that the renewal of Christian society would come through a renewal of monasticism. Certainly at the fall of the Roman Empire it was the monasticism of Benedict that established in that materialistic, cruel and selfish age a new kind of mysticism and spiritual awareness. This is part of the answer for us as well…and set the stage for part five of the series:

Coca Cola Catholicism vs. Contemplative Catholicism.