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