A pen picture of American Catholicism

A pen picture of American Catholicism

Michael Gilchrist

It is premature, of course, to make sweeping generalisations or rash predictions about the condition of a body as immense as the Catholic Church in the United States. But having just spent one month visiting and interviewing in the United States, I now have the distinct impression that the tide is turning for the better.

This possible development has considerable significance for the Church in Australia. Not only is the Church in the US the wealthiest in the world, but it is by far the largest English-speaking component of the Universal Church. I think it is true to say that the mind-set of most of the Church's professionals and decision-makers in Australia has been more influenced by trends in the United States than by clear directions from Rome; or, at least, what emanates from the Holy See tends to be viewed through American spectacles.

Msgr George Kelly of St John's University, New York, a recent visitor to Australia, has already documented the emergence and prevalence of neo-modernist or new church tendencies in the US in his epic work, The Battle for the American Church, while Professor James Hitchcock has written extensively on this theme.

It is an established fact that two distinct churches now coexist uneasily behind the facade of the Catholic Church in the United States. One of these churches likes to call itself the American Church. This Church places emphasis on adapting Catholic teachings and disciplines to the demands of a changing secular world. It responds to the pressures of militant feminists or homosexual groups; it seeks to make liturgy and catechetics "relevant"; it downplays the supernatural and the hierarchy. This Church has been calling the shots for around twenty years, not only in the United States, but also throughout many English-speaking parts of the Universal Church.

The majority of American Catholics may be more-or-less loyal to the Holy See but their opinions and attitudes are shaped predominantly by new church elites in diocesan administrations, seminaries, universities, colleges, catechetical, liturgical and publishing bodies, and in many other areas of decision-making.

The other Church is the Roman Catholic Church of the United States and this Church remains unambiguously loyal to the Pope and the Holy See. It upholds and defends Humanae Vitae, liturgical regularity, Papal authority and the distinctiveness of the Catholic Faith in general. It does not compromise on doctrines, morals and disciplines in the name of "relevance" and modernity as the American Church tends to do.

The more aware members of the former can be found among a minority of US bishops, a significant section of very active priests and religious, a host of lay organisations such as Catholics United for the Faith and Women for Faith and Family, a number of journals and newspapers such as Crisis, Fidelity, The Wanderer and the National Catholic Register, and in such large publishers as Ignatius Press and the Daughters of St Paul.

To date, these orthodox Catholic individuals and organisations are limited in their influence over most of the silent majority of American Catholics and other English-speaking Catholics around the world. Even where there are orthodox, perceptive and courageous bishops, the new church remains well entrenched in the channels of power and influence.

The momentum of a corrupt, bankrupt new church may have to run its course; it has nowhere else to go in its worship of change save towards liberal Protestantism and secular agnosticism. It may continue for some time to carry more confused and disaffected Catholics into effective schism from Rome.

However, even as the situation appears to be worsening, there are in evidence growing networks of devoutly orthodox, loyal American Catholics. As appointments of strong, pro-Vatican bishops continue, there will be in place well-established alternatives to the new church infrastructure.

I will identify and analyse what I saw in the United States at greater length in a future article. Below are a few brief examples of why I think the tide is (or soon will be) turning in favour of orthodoxy in the United States.

While the number of American bishops uncompromisingly loyal to Rome remains a minority of the hierarchy, the balance is gradually shifting with up to twenty new appointments each year. Not all of these are successful, but an increasing number of bishops is ready to enforce official Catholic teachings and disciplines in their dioceses.

A small, but influential, group of very orthodox centres of higher education faces growing demands for places and are sending out each year young men and women of exceptional calibre, both in their religious commitment and professional competence. Outstanding examples of these include Thomas Aquinas College (California) and the Franciscan University of Steubenville (Ohio).

The work of orthodox priests and religious is too extensive to document here. I could mention the Chicago-based Institute of Religious Life with 27,000 affiliated religious and the expanding work of the Daughters of St Paul (Boston) in publishing, catechetics and audio-visual materials. The only Catholic television channel in the US, founded in 1981 by the remarkable Mother Mary Angelica (a Franciscan nun), is the fastest growing cable network in the nation with now around ten million subscribers. Eternal Word Television transmits 24 hours of sound Catholic material daily.

For these and many other reasons, I think there is room for cautious optimism about the future of the Church in the US.

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