Thursday, December 19, 2013

BkRev: Catechism of the Catholic Church

The Holy See, Catechism of the Catholic Church (with modifications from the editio typica), New York, Doubleday, 1997 (publication of English translation of 1997 Latin second edition), 826 pages.

(In the lower right hand column, see the key words "Catechism" and "Catholic" for more posts summarizing my notes on the role of the Catholic Church in the war between mysticism and reason in the USA today.)

DEVELOPMENT OF THIS CATECHISM. For some projects, the Catholic Church moves rapidly. In 1566, Pius V (pope, 1566-1572), acting under the authority of the Council of Trent, quickly developed a comprehensive catechism. (For the idea of "catechism," see the Dec. 15, 2013 post.) However, severely limiting the audience facilitated the writing of the 1566 catechism. The authors of the catechism of 1566 directed it to clergy, that is, priests and bishops, not to the mass of untrained Catholic laymen. The authors expected the clergy to use the catechism of 1566 as a guide in instructing laymen who were joining the Church. This narrowly used catechism stood without major revision for 400 years.[1]

In the years 1962 to 1966, the Second Vatican Council met to set the direction of the Church in the modern world. Among other projects, the Second Vatican Council produced "doctrinal statements and pastoral norms" as guidelines meant to be applied to the whole Church (p. 2) In 1985, John Paul II (pope, 1978-2005) convoked a synod of bishops to ensure that the Second Vatican Council's work was actually used to reform the Church. (p. 2) 

The bishops meeting in the synod said they saw a need for a revised catechism, a collection of principles and practices which all Catholics should know. The bishops expected the revised general catechism would be a reference for briefer catechisms developed in each region for each region's special needs. (pp. 3 and 11)

In the next year, 1986, John Paul II established two committees to produce the new general catechism. The larger committee had twelve bishops and cardinals as members; it was responsible for producing the catechism. The second committee was advisory; it had seven bishops who were experts in theology or in the writing of catechisms. (p. 3) Through nine drafts, the committee of seven wrote the catechesis and the committee of twelve reviewed it. The two committees sought review by the other bishops of the world. (pp. 3-4) After a series of revisions, translations, critique by the papacy, and further revisions by the committee of writers, the Church published the new catechism. The book reviewed here was published in English in 1997—thirty years after the Second Vatican Council.

THEME OF THE BOOK. At one level, this long book is simply a record of the information that the Church today thinks all Catholics should know. At a second level, the book defines Catholicism: These ideas make Catholicism what it is. Some of the ideas here are shared by other Christians, but other ideas distinguish Catholics. At a third level, I think, this book as a whole shows the serious reader that the Church—which is the successor to the apostles Jesus named and sent into the world to spread his ideas—covers everything that is most important in life: what we should believe about God and the world, how we should behave in the world, what the Church should do for its members (perform sacraments, for example, to connect this world to the supernatural world), and how we should pray to God.

The answers this book provides are sometimes particular: doing certain rituals at certain times, such as the sacrament of anointing the sick (also called the sacrament of "extreme unction" when applied to a dying person). (paragraphs 1499-1525) At other times, the answers are fundamental principles which the individual Catholic must then apply to his situation. An example is the long discussion of the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments which God mystically revealed to man.(Paragraphs 2072 and 2083-2550)

The point is that Catholicism applies to everyone, everywhere, and at all times—which is what a worldview does. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is a 756-page distillation of all of that.

RELIGIOUS PURPOSE OF THE BOOK. An "apostolic constitution" written by John Paul II (pope, 1978-2005) is a preface. This eight-page letter ("To my Venerable Brothers … all the People of God") serves several functions. First, this letter is in part a statement of papal approval, an important step in a hierarchical Church. Second, the letter connects this catechism to the assignment that Jesus gave to his church (the apostles and other followers) two millennia ago: preserve my words and take them to everyone in the world. (p. 1) The Catechism, the preface says, primarily presents the positive ("the strength and beauty of the doctrine of the faith"), rather than attempt to rebut the many errors that arise from misunderstanding or misrepresenting Christian doctrines. (p. 1) 

RELIGIOUS SOURCES FOR THE BOOK. In one long sentence, Pope John Paul II lists the four sources for the Catechism and states the two main purposes of the Catechism: 

A catechism should faithfully and systematically present the teaching of [1] Sacred Scripture, [2] the living Tradition in the Church and [3] the authentic Magisterium [the authority of the Church to teach], as well as [4] the spiritual heritage of the Fathers, Doctors, and saints of the Church, to allow for [1] a better knowledge of the Christian mystery and for [2] enlivening the faith of the People of God. (p. 4, square brackets added)

In the same statement, Pope John Paul II vaguely alludes to the Holy Spirit, a mysterious entity that, in some unspecified manner, conveys information from God to man. (p. 4) The Holy Spirit appears frequently in this catechism. The Church refers to the Holy Spirit to explain many of the Church's positions. As far as I can tell, the Holy Spirit is the deus ex machina of Christianity.

USES OF THE BOOK. Who might use this book? Pope John Paul II, in his cover letter identifies two uses of this book: 

This text is given to them [the Catholic faithful who advocate Christianity to others] that it may be a sure and authentic reference text for teaching catholic doctrine and particularly for preparing local catechisms. It is also offered to all the faithful who wish to deepen their knowledge of the unfathomable riches of salvation (cf. Ephesians 3:8). … The Catechism of the Catholic Church, lastly, is offered to every individual who asks us [Catholics] to give an account of the hope that is in us (cf. 1 Peter 3:15) and who wants to know what the Catholic Church believes. (p.6, with square brackets added)

STRUCTURE OF THE BOOK. The Table of Contents shows that the authors divided the book into parts and then successively into sections, chapters, articles, and sub-articles. The authors have numbered every paragraph so that the authors can refer readers to earlier or later paragraphs for further explanation. Unobtrusive footnotes identify the sources of quoted passages in the Bible and a variety of Church documents.

This Catechism of the Catholic Church follows the same general order developed under Pope Pius V in 1566. Part One describes beliefs, which are what Christian take on faith. Part Two describes the liturgy (Church rituals), especially the sacraments, in which Christians celebrate the beliefs they hold on faith. Part Three describes the Christian ethics that guide Christian actions, as stated in the Ten Commandments. Part Four describes praying. (p. 5)

EMPHASIS ON INTEGRATION. The Catechism of the Catholic Church frequently states or implies a need to present Christianity as an integrated body of ideas and actions. Examples are "the 'symphony' of the faith" (p. 4); the need for "unity and coherence" in the text of the Catechism (p. 4); repeatedly seeking consensus, at least among some groups (p. 4, "Bishops of the whole world" and "the harmony of so many voices" and others); "the wonderful unity of the mystery of God" displayed in the Catechism (p. 5); and the aim of this modern catechism as "presenting an organic synthesis of the essential and fundamental contents of Catholic doctrine, as regards faith and morals" (p. 11).

The book itself emphasizes integration: 

This catechism is conceived as an organic presentation of the Catholic faith in its entirety. It should be seen therefore as a unified whole. Numerous cross-references in the margin of the text (italicized numbers referring to other paragraphs that deal with the same theme), as well as the analytical index at the end of the volume, allow the reader to view each theme in its relationship with the entirety of the faith. (p.13)

FLAWS OF THE BOOK. The book needs a glossary, especially for special Catholic terms such as sensus fidei (sense of the faith), magisterium (the mysterious Church teaching authority), and mystery (a hidden knowledge). However, the index is detailed and helps readers locate definitions or at least discussions of key concepts such as "faith." A Catholic dictionary at hand will make reading this catechism easier and more productive.

CONCLUSION. Is this a book for general readers? No. Is this a book for general students of the war between reason and mysticism in our time? Probably. It locks in one place all the key points that the most powerful mystical organization in the USA today presents to its members—and which they presumably spread into the non-Catholic culture. Is this a book for observers of the Catholic Church in particular? Yes.

Burgess Laughlin
Author of The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, described at

[1] "Catechism of the Catholic Church," Wikipedia, December 5, 2013.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

What is a catechism?

THE NATURE OF CATECHISM. In the USA today, the Catholic Church is the most powerful institution working for mysticism. While the Catholic Church loses some members to other mystical groups and a few to the movement for reason, the Church also steadily gains new members. To join the Catholic Church, a new Catholic takes several steps. One early step is understanding certain ideas about God, man, and their relationship. Learning those ideas comes partly through oral instruction. Catechesis is the ancient Greek term. The instructor, the catechist, may be a priest or other agent of the Church; the student is a catechumen. Often the catechist teaches from a book, a catechism.

Throughout the 2,000-year history of the Catholic Church, writing a catechism has been a local or regional matter.  Some catechisms are long, and others are short. Some catechisms are collections of short essays, and others are dialogues with questions and answers brief enough to memorize. Some catechisms emphasize theology or ritual or prayer. Some catechisms emphasize answers to local problems, such as the best way in Africa for a formerly pagan man having several wives to move toward lifetime Catholic monogamy. Some catechisms are written for adults, and others—such as Totally Catholic!—are written for children. 

1. What is Faith? Catechism[:] A longing for God is written in our hearts … Did you know that our sun is one star in the Milky Way galaxy, which has at least 200 billion other stars? … Looking up at the stars at night, don't you wonder: Where did everything come from? Why am I here, living on planet earth? We Catholics can answer questions like these because we have faith or belief. We believe in God, the Supreme Being who loves us and communicates with us. We believe that in Jesus, God came to earth and taught us. … [Totally Catholic: A Catechism for Kids and Their Parents and Teachers, p. 1]

The Church has generally relied on local officials, especially the bishops, to examine each catechism for quality and orthodoxy.

WHY ARE CATECHISMS IMPORTANT? Catechisms are training manuals. They educate candidates who want to convert to Christianity. Catechisms prepare Christians to be activists because being Christian includes an obligation to spread Christianity in some manner, even if only by example. Catechisms are a lens. Through it, the Church focuses and transmits its main messages to all prospective members of the Church. Some members, the non-intellectual majority, may engage in no further study, though they will hear similar messages from Catholic lay-preachers, priests, bishops, and popes. A few new members will study further through formal education in Catholic schools, through special study groups, or through reading the articles and books of Catholic intellectuals (for example, George Weigel, whose recent book. Evangelical Catholicism, reviewed in the October 18, 2013 post, here).

SUMMARY. A catechism arms new Catholic Christians with ideas about God, man, and the Church—ideas which the new Catholic will use to guide him in supporting the Church and in spreading Christianity to other individuals in the world. Those ideas include concepts about mysticism, such as revelation and faith.

P. S. — In my next post, I hope to review the relatively new, official Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is an archetype of local or specialized catechisms.

Burgess Laughlin
Author of The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, described here:

1. "Catechism," "Catechist," and "Catechumen," A Catholic Dictionary, Donald Attwater general editor, Rockford (Illinois), Tan Books, 1997 (a reprint of the 1958 3rd edition by Macmillan).
2. "Catechism of the Catholic Church," Wikipedia,
3. "Roman Catechism," Catholic Encyclopedia, Catholic Online,

Friday, October 18, 2013

BkRev: Weigel's Evangelical Catholicism

George Weigel, Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st Century Church, New York, Basic Books, 2013, 291 pages

Who is George Weigel? The author, born 1951, is a lifetime Catholic. He studied in Catholic schools. He taught theology in a Catholic seminary. He has written seventeen books, beginning in the mid-1980s. All of the books are about Catholicism, the Catholic movement, or applications of Catholicism to subjects such as "just war" theory. 

George Weigel is not a recluse. After teaching, he became a scholar-in-residence at the World Without War Council of Greater Seattle, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the founding president of the James Madison Foundation, a chairman of Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and a co-signer of the "[Protestant] Evangelicals and Catholics Together" document in 1994.[1] George Weigel is thus an activist, specifically an intellectual activist, one who applies the fundamental principles of his worldview to current problems.

To whom is Weigel writing in this book? In Evangelical Catholicism, Weigel writes to Catholics interested in reforming the Church to make the whole movement focused on identifying the message of Christ and then taking that message to the world. The Catholics he writes to, however, are not thoroughly educated in Catholicism. He explains his terms, especially those terms he draws from history. He educates as he proceeds. His instruction, however, is "in-line," that is, presented in small bites as he presents his main argument.

Most of all, Weigel is talking to intellectuals. In Ch. 11, he speaks about reforming professional intellectuals in the Church; examples are theologians teaching in seminaries and universities. However, Weigel's approach throughout the book is geared to intellectually inclined Catholics in all areas of the Church. It is they who will advocate reform and carry it through into action. Weigel is a strong supporter of the principle that ideas cause human actions. See, for example, pp. 173-174, for Weigel's brief discussion of the destructive effects of "bad theology" on even the most dedicated Catholics.

What is the purpose of the book? Weigel wants to reform the Catholic Church, that is, the whole movement of Catholics. He wants the Church to be focused on what Jesus asked his followers to do: Spread the "good news" (gospel) of Jesus to the entire world. To do that effectively, the Church must be evangelical, that is, geared for propagating the gospel. Changing the Church will require "deep" reform, which means reform at every level of the Church and down to fundamental principles of the Church.

What are the subject, theme, and structure of the book? Weigel is a writer's writer. His table of contents is not merely a listing of headings. It is an outline of the book, showing part, chapter, and section headings.

The overall structure of the book is simple. The book has two parts. The first part presents Weigel's view of the reform that the Catholic Church has been supporting for 125 years and is still undergoing, though haltingly and without clarity and consensus. (p. 2) The essence of the reform is reaching back to the time of Jesus, when he charged his followers with the duty of following his commands, including evangelism. In its reform, the Church should be guided by two values, Weigel says. The first is the truths which God revealed, and the second is the mission of spreading Christianity. (p. 92)

The second part of the book suggests ways for Catholics to reform the Church. Weigel offers reforms for each segment of the organized Catholic movement—from the pope down to the great mass of lay Catholics around the world. Weigel does not, however, begin with the top or bottom but with the middle of the hierarchy, the bishops. They, Weigel says (for example, pp. 70, 79, 111-112) are the individuals in the Church who are most directly responsible for the Church in each geographic area (a bishopric, also called diocese).

Weigel next presents reforms for: priests (administered by bishops), the liturgy (the ceremonial rituals), "consecrated" Catholics (nuns, monks, friars), "lay" Catholics, intellectuals, the various individuals who advocate the Church's "public policies," and the papacy (the pope, the College of Cardinals, and the Roman Curia, who are the advisors to the pope).

How does this book relate to the war between reason and mysticism in the USA today? In the perspective of this weblog, the important point about the book is that an experienced, popular, Catholic intellectual is providing a blueprint for improving the Catholic movement's ability to spread mysticism—in the forms of faith, revelation, and holy scripture. His blueprint is educational and orderly, making it the sort of document that can influence other mystics to take action to spread their ideas. His audience includes professional intellectuals, but he appeals mainly to nonprofessional intellectualizers who are transmitters of ideas to the broadest audience, the man in the street. 

Should advocates of reason read this book? I recommend this book only to a few readers, those who are activist advocates of reason and who want to complete their portrait of the Catholic movement—its history, its present state, and its ongoing trends—by looking closely at one influential Catholic intellectual's program of reform to make the Church more evangelical.

For a start on the history of the Catholic movement in the USA, see: Aug. 5, 2013, "BkRev: O'Toole's The Faithful, and March 30, 2013, "BkRev: Carroll's The New Faithful,

For a start on the present state of the Catholic movement in the USA, see: Aug. 25, 2013, "BkRev: Shaw's American Church,"

For a start on the ongoing trends of the Catholic movement around the world, and their effect on Catholicism in the USA, see: Sept. 25, 2013, "BkRev: The Future Church,"

Burgess Laughlin
Author of The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, described here:

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

BkRev: Allen's The Future Church

John L. Allen, Jr., The Future Church: How Ten Trends are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church, New York, Crown Publishing (Random House), 2009, 469 pp.

In the USA today, I think, Catholicism is the most powerful advocate of supernaturalism and mysticism. Can a book written about the Catholic movement—by a Catholic, and for Catholics—possibly aid activists dedicated to promoting reason as one's only source of knowledge? This review answers.

What is the subject? The book is about the future of the Catholic Church, the social movement of individuals who support Catholicism as a religion. The author expects no major changes in Catholic doctrines. Instead, the book is partly a prediction about the future relations between potentially conflicting groups within the whole community of Catholics around the world. The book is also about predictions of the Church's relations with the world outside the Catholic community: seculars, Muslims, Jews, and non-Catholic Christians (especially Pentecostal Protestants). 

Who is the author? John L. Allen, Jr. is a journalist who specializes in reporting about the Catholic movement in general and the Vatican in particular. He has written several books, including a biography of Pope Benedict XVI (now retired). Allen strives for objectivity, by which he means a factually accurate, "balanced" account of his subject, an account that states both the views of critics and the views of the subject himself.[1]

Allen (b. 1965) has been immersed in Catholicism all his life: in his early school, in his university studies (philosophy and religion), and in his work as a reporter for CNN, NPR, and others. He developed his ideas and practiced presenting them in a long series of "lectures, keynote speeches, workshops, and addresses" he gave in the two years prior to producing the book. (p. viii) This method of producing a book, first testing the presentation on a small scale, is similar to Leonard Peikoff's long preparation for his book, The DIM Hypothesis: Why the Lights of the West Are Going Out, which I reviewed here.

Who is the intended audience? Allen writes in this book to Catholics who want to understand the large movements around the world that are affecting the Catholic community. (p. 1)

What is the purpose? Allen says:

The aim of this book is to survey the most important currents shaping the Catholic Church today, and to look down the line at how they might play out during the rest of the twenty-first century. (p. 3) 

Some of the trends he examines are long-term changes occurring within the Church community; an example is the growing role of laymen, not clerics (priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes) in doing the non-sacred work of the Church (Ch. 5). Most of the other ten trends Allen identifies are long-term changes occurring outside the Church but call for response from Catholics; an example of an outside trend affecting Catholics is the spread of Islam (Ch. 3).

Allen defines a "trend" as a slow, impalpable, imponderable movement in culture, a movement that works below the surface of daily news events. (p. 3, citing historian Arnold J. Toynbee) He further defines "trend" in the next to the last chapter, "Trends That Aren't." There he names six criteria for designating a cultural change as a trend.

What is the theme? The main message of the book is that the ten trends that Allen identifies are happening now and they will turn the Church upside down. Allen says:

It's important to be clear at the onset about what this book is and what it's not. I'm a journalist, not a priest, theologian, or academic. My role is to document what's happening in Catholicism and provide context for it, not tell readers what to think. This book is therefore an exercise in description, not prescription. I'm not trying to argue that these trends are the way Catholicism ought to go, or the issues it ought to face. I'm saying instead that they accurately express the way Catholicism really is going, and the issues it really is facing. (p. 5)

Most of the book is descriptive. Some passages are prescriptive. For example, on pp. 446-452 Allen warns about the need of Catholics to consider four factors when they decide what to do in their activism. One example is his warning to not rely on Church hierarchy to solve world problems, such as pressure from Islam. Laymen, not clerics ("the hierarchy"), can take immediate and direct action. This "horizontal" solution has succeeded among pentecostal Protestants. (pp. 450-452)

What is the structure? Following the Introduction to the book, ten chapters identify trends the author sees in the Church now and expects to continue through this century. The author identifies a trend and projects its consequences. For example, the first chapter is "Trend One: A World Church." This trend began early in the 1900s, when only 25% of the world's Catholics lived outside of Europe and North America. Now 65% of the world's Catholics live outside Europe and North America. This trend has thus "turned Catholicism upside down," that is, caused a "revolution" in some aspect of the Church. As consequences of this trend, the Church as a whole is becoming more evangelical (focused on spreading the message of Jesus), more charismatic (emotional in rituals), and less intellectual.

Allen organizes each chapter into three sections. (p. 4) The first section is a general introduction to the trend. For the first chapter, "A World Church," the introduction includes imagining an election of a pope from Nigeria. The second section of each chapter is "What's Happening," which describes in detail the trend as it is now; Allen presents that section because he thinks that trends that are evident now and meet certain requirements will likely continue for decades into the future. The third section of each chapter, "What It Means," makes the predictions explicit. Allen is organized; he presents predictions in levels of likelihood: "Near Certain," "Probable," "Possible," and "Long-Shot." Allen says:

The arc of time under consideration here is the rest of the century, meaning roughly ninety years. Farther out than that, all bets are off. (p. 4)

The final chapter of the book is "a stand-alone summary of what impact the trends will have [on the Catholic movement] in the century to come." (p. 4) He summarizes his "descriptive terms for what Catholicism will actually look and feel like in this century." (p. 4) The terms characterizing the future Church are: "Global, Uncompromising, Pentecostal, and Extroverted." (pp. 4-5) "Pentecostal" here means that individual Catholics will be mainly concerned with (1) direct experience of God through the Holy Spirit (accompanied by singing, arm waving, and "speaking in tongues"), and with (2) taking direct action to politically and socially achieve religious goals—rather than relying on the Church hierarchy to plan and implement activities. ("Trend Ten: Pentecostalism," pp. 375-413)

What are defects of the book? Allen presents a mass of information to illustrate and substantiate his points. In a general way, he often names sources in the main text. Unfortunately he has no notes citing exact sources. At the end of the book, in "Suggestions for Further Reading," he presents a chapter-by-chapter list of documents to consult.  Though helpful, it is not an adequate substitute for notes. Being a journalist does not relieve the writer of specifying his sources.

The two-column, seven-page index is helpful but insufficient. It often does not include special terms such as "base ecclesial communities," which apparently means small groups of laymen who come together for one or more common Catholic purposes (Bible study, mutual support, local activism). 

What is the author's style? Allen writes clearly, though loosely and informally. He is organized in presenting his information. If he identifies a number of factors, he then numbers them as he presents them. He presents lists where lists are needed.

Can advocates of reason benefit from reading the book? A slow reading of this book is one course seculars can follow to learn about the Catholic Church: its past, its present, and its likely future. A non-Catholic reader encounters many new terms. Allen often defines special terms as he uses them; for example:

Inevitably, the global character of Catholicism will push it in the direction of what theologians call "inculturation," meaning expressing the faith differently according to the argot and customs of local cultures. Celebrating the Catholic Mass, for example, is a different experience in Nigeria than in India …. (p. 41)

The author's observations about and insights into the mystical Catholic movement might stimulate thinking about the nature of activism for reason. One example is Allen's reminder to readers that various, sometimes competing Christians (such as Catholics and Baptists) can cooperate on common goals without ever uniting organizationally. (p. 53) That might apply to pro-reason activists.

A second example is the author's term creative minorities. Allen borrows the term from historian Arnold Toynbee. It means "subgroups [of a movement] which, because of their passion and vision, exercise influence beyond their numbers. For that to work, these creative minorities must have a solid sense of their own identity and a strong sense of internal cohesion …." (p. 58)

Referring to a Catholic dictionary may aid the serious, pro-reason student who is not already familiar with Catholicism. One example is A Catholic Dictionary, by Donald Attwater; conservative Catholics prefer this. Another example, which I have not yet read, is John A. Hardon's Modern Catholic Dictionary. A third, an online source, is:

Would you recommend this book for pro-reason advocates? I would recommend a careful reading of this book to certain activists promoting reason in the USA today. First, it can be useful as a contrast. How do the barriers and opportunities for advocates of reason differ from the advocates of Catholicism in particular and Christianity in general? One example is the importance, for advocates of reason, of knowing the foundations of one's principles; fideists can take anything on faith (though they do have the problem of deciding which of many competing claims to take on faith). Second, the book can be useful as a comparison, that is, looking for similarities. Do all activists, but especially those advocating fundamental principles, face some common problems? An example is the problem of priorities: What tactical steps should the activist emphasize the most or do first?

I am enthusiastic enough about this book that I would like to lead a study group online, a study group devoted to reading and discussing this book in light of Leonard Peikoff's views on predictions in The DIM Hypothesis. The Catholic movement, overall, is a movement of misintegration, the position Dr. Peikoff predicts will dominate the USA within the next generation or two.

Burgess Laughlin
Author of The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, described here


Sunday, August 25, 2013

BkRev: Shaw's American Church

Russell Shaw, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2013 (paperback), 233 pages.

For pro-reason activists, is Russell Shaw's American Church worth reading? Shaw is a Catholic writing to Catholics, but his American Church unintentionally aids pro-reason activists in several ways. First, the book provides a profile of today's Catholic Church, possibly the most powerful voice for mysticism in the USA today. That profile enables pro-reason activists to better plan their strategies and tactics for promoting reason and for opposing mysticism. (By "pro-reason activist" I mean someone who concentrates on publicly advocating reason as the only means of knowledge; other activists—for example, advocates who support the right to choose an abortion—may be pro-reason but that is not what they invest most of their time in promoting.)

As a second benefit, the book reminds pro-reason readers that mystics inevitably encounter problems. To the extent that they are mystics in their lives, they are not observing and thinking about reality. Shaw notes occasionally in the book that many Catholics refuse to acknowledge the problems. Readers see, through Shaw's account, Catholics investing money and time into fruitless activities, that is, activities that do not help them achieve their communal purpose, which is to evangelize, which means to spread the words of Jesus. (p. vii)

A third benefit, also not intended by Shaw, is historical perspective. Pro-reason activists reading the book see that here too ideas cause actions in history. The evolving idea of Catholic "Americanism," implemented by leading U.S. Catholics through several generations, has brought the Church in the USA to its present low state, Shaw says. Here Americanism means the process of leading the Church to become "part of the dominant secular culture of the United States." (p. 24)

What is the subject of American Church? Its author says American Church:

is not a history of the Catholic Church in the United States. Rather, it is an attempt to sketch the process by which American Catholics have been assimilated into American culture during the past two centuries and to assess the impact cultural assimilation has had on Catholicism in the United States. (p. xiii)

"Americanization" is the subject of the book: its origin, its nature, its evolution, and its effects. Shaw traces the process from the mid-1800s to today, shows the destructive consequences, and sketches a path to correcting the problems. (p. 24)

Shaw further defines "Americanism," as it appeared among some Catholic intellectuals in the later 1800s: a movement believing at that time that (1) "the world was undergoing radical change"; (2)"America was at the cutting edge of change"; (3) "there was a fundamental and intrinsic compatibility between Catholicism and American culture"; and (4) "the Church in America had a God-given duty to show the rest of the Church, and especially the leadership in Rome, the way to the future as that path was then [in the late 1800s] being marked out in the United States." (p. 42)

US Catholics telling the papacy that America will define the future path of the worldwide Catholic Church provoked a reaction. In 1895, Pope Leo XIII (reigned 1878-1903) condemned Americanism, which he defined as including two ideas: the idea of church/state separation, and the idea that each individual Catholic can be guided by his own individual experience of the Holy Spirit, thus bypassing the Papacy. Both ideas contradicted Catholic doctrine. (pp. 44-48 and 50)

Better than Pope Leo or anyone else could have known at the time, the principal opinions condemned in [Pope Leo XIII's encyclical] Testem benevolentiae have by now become central elements in the ongoing debate about Catholic identity and the future of the Church in the United States. (p. 50)

Shaw shows repeatedly that history matters, though he does not make that lesson explicit.

Around 1900, the term "Americanism" came to also refer to modernism. (pp. 51-55) The principles of modernism relevant to a Catholic context are: (1) "immanentism—the idea that religion expresses a human need rather than conveys divine revelation"; and (2) religious evolution, the idea that there is no fixed truth coming from revelation in the ancient past. (p. 52) Modernism leads to relativism and individual subjectivism. (p. 53) Among the Church hierarchy, the association of Americanism with modernism doomed Americanism as an officially promoted Church doctrine, even in the USA. That idea nevertheless continued to affect American Catholics by leading them to adopt more and more elements of the secular culture around them. (pp. 57-58 and 68) Meanwhile, the secular culture was moving farther and farther from its Enlightenment beginning.

Shaw does not fully unpack the historical package-deal of "secularity." In the early 1800s, the Enlightenment still heavily influenced secular culture of the USA. By the 1900s "secular" culture included large elements of "modernism," in the sense of anti-Enlightenment—that is, anti-reason—elements such as relativism and skepticism. Thus pro-reason advocates and conservative Catholics have a common enemy in modernism, but for radically opposed reasons. The three choices are reason, mysticism, and skepticism. Shaw does not discuss that trichotomy. His concern is only with the Church of mysticism against the  "secular" culture of philosophical skepticism (which rejects all knowledge, whether rational or revealed).

What are Shaw's qualifications for writing American Church? Shaw is a journalist and freelance writer. He is a competent writer. He explains peculiarly Catholic ideas clearly enough to show their long-term consequences in action. His historical narrative is the core of the book, but he stops at appropriate times to introduce required background information.

For 18 years, Shaw was director of media relations for two organizations. One was the National Conference of Catholic Bishops; the other was the United States Catholic Conference. Both formed in 1966; they combined in 2001 as the U. S. Catholic Conference (USCC).

Shaw has also written Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (2008). It examines the destructive role of secrecy practiced by leaders of the Catholic Church in the USA. Shaw holds that secrecy, especially by clerics (the priests, bishops, and others mystically "ordained" for their role), destroys the purpose of the Church, which is to establish a communion among believers in Christ. Clerical secrecy is only one element of the story of failures Shaw presents in American Church.

What is Shaw's purpose in writing his book? Shaw's long-term purpose is to change the direction of the Catholic Church in the USA. He thinks the main indicators show the Church is collapsing. He wants to convince other Catholics of that problem, and then offer them a way to restore the Church to its dual role of making its members holy and spreading the word of Jesus to non-Catholics. (pp. xiii, 2, 24, 194)

Is Shaw writing only to Catholics? Shaw writes to Catholics about Catholics of the past, present, and future. His choice of audience does not exclude others, even advocates of reason alone. Many Catholics know little about their own Church. Shaw explains the facts of what the Church is and does, and then shows the significance of those facts. An example is the story of Catholic intellectuals and evangelists, Isaac Hecker (1819-1888) and Orestes Brownston (1803-1876).

In their collaboration and also in their conflict, these two unusual men framed what remains the perennial question for Catholics in the United States: Can Catholics be both fully American and also faithfully Catholic? (p. 25)

Shaw then proceeds to substantiate that claim. (pp. 25-34) At the end of that segment, he shows the values involved, for Catholics. Further, Shaw, who worries about the future of the Church he loves, suggests that Hecker and Brownson's conflict might provide elements for a solution to the problems the Church faces today.

What is the theme of American Church? The theme has three parts: First, the Catholic Church in the USA is collapsing. Shaw says:

My own view is that the current situation of American Catholicism is alarming, with the future a matter of deep concern. The Mass attendance rate in the United States on any given Sunday … is now 30% or less nationwide; in the 1950s and 1960s it was around 75%. Similar sharp declines in participation in the rest of the Church's sacramental life have also taken place—baptisms, confirmations, and Catholic marriages are all down. Three Catholics out of four receive the sacrament of penance ("go to confession") less than once a year [instead of weekly]—or never.

Vocations ["callings"] to the priesthood and religious life [in monasteries and convents] have plummeted …. Poll results repeatedly show that the attitudes, values, and practices of many, possibly most, America Catholics—including attitudes toward the Church—mirror secular American attitudes, values, and behaviors rather than those of their Catholic tradition.
(pp. 22-23)

Second, the Church in the USA is failing because its main intellectual leaders accepted the idea of Americanism,  the idea, originating in the 1800s, holding that American secular culture is good and the Church should adapt to it. (pp. 42-45)

Third, the way to revive the Church in the USA (and around the world), Shaw says, is to reject secular culture and return to personal holiness, including Jesus's instruction to take his message to the world at large—evangelism. (pp. 201-202, 205-206, and 208-210)

Shaw sees some signs of a new, emerging Catholic subculture. He emphases that this new subculture might be good or bad, but it is in the process now of growing "organically." He wants a growth of such a subculture to be by design not by happenstance. (pp. 194-196) He says:

… the primary purpose of the subculture … should be to preserve, foster, and transmit the Catholic identity of Catholics .… (p. 199)

The new, arising subculture is a conservative Catholic subculture. (Shaw does not use the word "conservative.") Two example elements of the new subculture are: (1) older Catholic institutions, such as universities, publicly reclaiming their Catholic identity (p. 195); and (2) "Catholic social services" that are shrinking rather than submitting to secular government requirements (such as offering contraceptives) and resorting instead to more "personalized, deinstitutionalized charity." (p. 195)

What is the structure of American Church? The architect of the book is simple: an arc rising and then plummeting, as the subtitle suggests. Shaw traces the history of the Church from its scant beginnings in the early 1800s (Ch. 1), to its rise at its high point, when it was the largest denomination in the USA in the 1950s and early 1960s (Ch. 2), and then to its plunge today (Ch. 3). In the final chapter (Ch. 4), Shaw reviews the state of the Church now and recommends a program for reinvigorating the Church in the USA.

What flaws does the book have? Only one error stands out. Throughout the book, even in the Foreword by Archbishop Chaput (for example pp. xii, 10, 13, and 217), the author refers to the book by the title The Gibbons Legacy, which perhaps was the title of the original manuscript. The editors of the book should have changed the title before publication, to avoid confusing readers.

Does American Church offer special insights? American Church offers a few insights worth further thought by advocates of reason. Four examples follow. First, in a quoted passage on p. 12, Shaw rejects the error of attempting to influence events by morally compromising with them. Shaw illustrates the error by describing the disastrous results of the compromise-to-influence tactic that some Catholics employed in the early years of Adolf Hitler's rule over Germany.

Second, Shaw characterizes opponents of the Catholic Church—who sometimes are also opponents of reason, egoism, and capitalism. An example is his brief portrait of the "liberalism" of philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002). (pp. 200-201)

Third, admirers of Leonard Peikoff's The DIM Hypothesis (reviewed here on November 28, 2012) will recognize the value of this report by Shaw: "Recent converts to Catholicism not infrequently report that they were repelled by the growing depravity of the secular culture and [were] attracted to Catholicism as virtually the only serious response to it." (205)

Fourth, Shaw presents an idea that deserves further exploration. He calls it  "plausibility structure." It refers to the set of cultural, social, and political elements surrounding a religious person and reinforcing that person's values. The Catholic plausibility structure in the USA was at its strongest influence around 1950. Many Catholics at that time lived in Catholic neighborhoods; they walked to their church; their neighbors were mostly Catholic; the members of their social clubs were Catholics; their local politicians were Catholics; and their local priest watched over them. All of these elements of a Catholic's world shared and reinforced Catholic values.

This structure, however, began unraveling in the 1950s. With the growth of the national economy, young Catholics began moving out of old neighborhoods and into religiously mixed suburban areas. Catholics came to be like other Americans. More Catholics began exercising personal choice—for example, in using contraception and abortion—rather than automatically following Church doctrines.

Is there an opportunity here for pro-reason advocates? Would developing a strategy of breaking down plausibility structures advance genuinely secular culture?

In summary, Shaw's American Church is a worthwhile read for the few pro-reason activists specializing in the fight against mysticism in the USA. The book demonstrates the long chain of events involved in changing a culture.

Burgess Laughlin
Author of The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason versus Faith, here

Monday, August 5, 2013

BkRev: O'Toole's The Faithful

Four years ago I began this weblog with "Theme Questions" (Aug. 24, 2009). One of my guiding questions for this project has been: "Who are the main advocates of mysticism in our time (1960 to now)?" I have looked at a wide variety of forms of mysticism in the USA. I am able now to choose, for further study, a particular form of mysticism that I think is the most powerful combatant for mysticism in the war against reason—the most articulate intellectually, the most organized socially, and the richest fiscally. That movement is Catholicism. The book review below is the first of several posts focusing  on the Catholic movement, a movement that is the largest religious denomination in the USA, about 25% of religious adults.

James M. O'Toole, The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America, Cambridge (Mass.), Belknap Press (Harvard University Press), 2008, 376 pages.

SUBJECT AND THEME. To completely know what a thing is we should study how the thing came to be. In large part, describing the development of today's Catholic laity is the task of Catholic historian James M. O'Toole in writing The New Faithful: A History of Catholics in America. Through six periods, beginning with the colonial, he describes the ever-changing mass of laymen.

In O'Toole's terms, the laity of the Church are the 99% of the Catholic movement, the followers of the Church, the "sheep" guided by the priestly shepherds. (p. 3) The hierarchy are the 1% of the Church; they are the individuals—the priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes—who are mystically ordained to perform sacred tasks such as conducting a Mass, receiving a confession, and giving "last rites" to the dying. O'Toole discusses the hierarchy of the Church, as an institution within the Catholic movement, but only to the extent that the laity interact with them.

Because O'Toole focuses on the laity, he is writing an unconventional form of religious history. Most such books focus on a history of theology, the central institutions, or the most prominent members of the hierarchy. O'Toole profiles the masses. (pp. 2-3) He asks (pp. 4-6) three main questions about the Catholic community at each of the six phases of its history in the USA:

1. What is the size and structure of the Catholic community? This question covers points such as the number of priests relative to the number of laity; the number of Catholic schools; and the availability of Catholic charity. The first two points, I think, affect the dissemination of the Church's message on reason and mysticism. The last point involves motivation. The Church is an intensely social institution; it is a place where members can gather, share the company of like-minded individuals, and aid one another through charity.

2. What did Catholics emphasize as the core of being Catholic in dealing with this world and in preparing for the supernatural world? At each historical stage, did the laity stress individual spiritual growth, communal sacraments such as Mass, or "Catholic action," that is, organized efforts to change the social and political world around them?

3. What was the relationship between the American laity and the pope? The relationship has been a sort of "double helix." The laity in America has been changing, often independently of the popes, who were losing political power in Europe but gaining greater theological and personal influence within the Catholic world.

O'Toole is not writing an advertisement for the Catholic Church. He faces defects in the Church movement where he sees them. One example is a phase of the history of the papacy, a phase in which some popes rejected innovations.

Popes [in the early 1800s] were also steadily more enthusiastic in their denunciations of the "rejected innovators" of modern life. Gregory XVI even condemned the new technology of railroads, punning that these chemins de fer ("roads of iron") … were chemins d'enfer ("roads to hell"). … Possibly worse [than freedom of conscience in religion], he thought, was "that deadly freedom that cannot be sufficiently feared, the freedom of the press." (p. 89)

THE AUTHOR. At Boston College, a Catholic school, Professor O’Toole teaches courses in the history of American religion, particularly Catholicism. His special interests are the history of religious practice and popular devotional life.[1] O'Toole's own religious position appears to be the middle ground between the emotionalist and the intellectualist streams of Catholicism. I infer from reading his book that his own position is stated in his description of Charles Carroll of Carrollton (1737-1832), a Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence:

Here was a religion neither of extreme emotions—the screwed up faces and grimaces of enthusiastic revivals held little appeal—nor of so bloodless a rationalism that God disappeared altogether and faith became mere fiction. (p. 36)

STRUCTURE. For each of the six periods, O'Toole describes a particular individual who lived in that period and in some ways represents its Catholic culture. (p. 3) For example, Ch. 1, "The Priestless Church," begins by saying:

Roger Hanly lived with his wife and six children in Bristol, Maine, at the time of the American Revolution. … Roger and his brother Patrick had come there from Ireland about 1770, and they found community with other Irish families, the Kavanaughs and the Cottrills. They wanted to preserve their ancestral Catholic faith, but that was not easy. Much later, they were able to erect a small brick church ….  Building it was a genuine act of faith, maybe a foolhardy one, for it was rare that a priest wandered through the region to conduct any services. (p. 11)

O'Toole begins with the Hanly family, broadens to cover other Catholics in the colonies, and then shows the influence that the broader, non-Catholic society had on Catholics—for example, the secular virtue of independence that encouraged local Church supporters, rather than a distant Catholic hierarchy, to organize and fund their own local religious activities.

Readers will see not only a tapestry of Catholics in the USA changing as the generations pass, but also particular revealing threads. One thread, for example, is the author's mention, at each stage, the size of the Catholic population—from less than 1% before the Revolution to about 2% fifty years later, in 1830; a steady rise to about 25% in the mid-twentieth century; and then stagnation. Since then US born Catholics have been declining in number as some Catholics have fewer children and other Catholics leave the Church. So far, Catholic immigrants have barely compensated for those losses.

Another highlighted thread in the tapestry is the stature of the papacy. The papacy declined in its political strength after the French Revolution, but its role within the Catholic Church has grown, in part by appealing not merely through the bishops but directly to Catholic laymen in mass communications. (pp. 44-49, as one example)

In his typically understated manner, O'Toole also makes clear that one of the characteristics of Catholicism distinguishing it from most Protestants was Catholic emphasis on "churchifying," that is, regularly participating in or observing rituals. Mystics of this type are thus as concerned with orthopraxy ("correct practice") as they are about orthodoxy ("correct beliefs, teachings"). The central practice remains the Mass, particularly the Eucharist, in which an ordained priest—that is, someone specially designated through the mysticism of tradition—performs a supernatural act: Bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. (pp. 177-178, but also  the many listings under "Mass" in the index.)

Thus, though O'Toole is not writing a history of ideas, a careful reader throughout the book sees the footprints of the supernaturalism, mysticism, altruism, and statism that are the fundamental principles of Catholicism.

AUDIENCE. O'Toole is a skillful narrator. He writes to readers—Catholic or not—who want to understand both the enduring nature and the evolving nature of Catholicism in the USA. Non-Catholics can learn the basic elements of Catholicism from reading this book. O'Toole casually explains Catholic terms as he progresses. For example:

Observance of Lent, for instance, the period of forty days immediately before Easter in the spring, had for centuries emphasized penitence and self-denial, and Catholics paid particular attention to dietary practices during those weeks. Some foods were prohibited, and Catholics were urged to limit their intake of all food and drink as a reminder of the sufferings of Jesus during his last days on earth. (p. 23)

CONCLUSION. Pro-reason readers who want a clearer understanding of contemporary society in the USA, including the Catholic quarter, will benefit from a careful reading of O'Toole's The Faithful. Pro-reason activists who want to learn from the activist techniques of their Catholic opponents will see a range of successes and failures employed by the largest mystical movement in the USA. Pro-reason activists who are specializing in tracking and confronting the Catholic Church itself will find an informative start here.

Burgess Laughlin
Author of The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, described here.

[1] For an academic profile of Professor O'Toole: