The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America, by David Carlin

The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America, by David Carlin

Fr James Schall SJ

by David Carlin

(Sophia Institute Press, 2003, 300pp, hardback, $49.95. Available from AD Books)

The humorist Will Cuppy once wrote an amusing parody entitled, The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody. "Decline and Fall" books all have some relation to the Roman Empire, to Augustine, to Gibbon's thesis that it was Christianity that caused this decline and fall.

David Carlin, a professor of sociology at the College of Rhode Island, has written a new and incisive version of "decline and fall," this time analysing the present condition of the Catholic Church in the United States. He argues that it is definitely in decline and in danger of falling.

Though this book is blunt and honest, and sees few bright spots in the contemporary scene, it represents a frank analysis of the present extremely weak leadership and condition of the Catholic Church in the United States. I have not seen a book that is quite this thorough, quite this accurate, quite this penetrating.

But the book is more than an analysis of the Catholic Church in America. Carlin understands that to see the problems of the Church in the United States, it is necessary to go back to take a look at the condition of the Protestant churches, at the effects of Vatican II, at the rising and practically dominant secularism that pervades the country.

This book is scholarly, yet not overly documented. It is unrelenting, yet readable. His purpose is to state the condition, the problems, the prospect. If we are not willing to see that the Church is in very serious trouble, often of its own making, this is not a book for us.

His central thesis begins with the observation that the numbers of Catholics in the United States are vastly over-estimated.

Carlin means by believing Catholics those who practise the faith, who believe what Catholicism always has believed. He means the ones who do not compromise with the dominant ideology to justify any belief or practice. Thus, there is perhaps ten percent of the American populace, not the twenty-five usually given, who are Catholics.

The next step to be taken is that the Church leadership be honest about that condition. Carlin does not spare recent Church leadership. He could not be more blunt on its ineffectiveness, particularly in assessing where the real problems lie and its failure to confront the central issues, even to understand what they are.

There is a parallel thesis to this book, both the decline of America and the decline of the Church, and for the same reason. Basically, this decline is due to a combination of freedom and tolerance that, in the public order has become the dominant "religion" or position.

It holds that there are no truths, only opinions. Any insistence on doctrine or absolute standards is fascist or absolutist. Everyone is free to do whatever he wants in private, whatever private means, whatever harm means. All religions must accept these premises.

Thus, religion becomes what Carlin calls "denominational," that is, we simply take no stands on any position or way of life. They are all equally fine. We approve everything on the grounds that there is no truth or absolute standard.

Left-over oddity

Those Catholics who conceive their religion after the manner of a denomination have begun to dominate in the American Church. The Church has become just another "denomination" like the others, with nothing unique about it. Everything, even Catholicism and its positions, is another opinion, another private view.

The trouble is that Catholicism is a definite religion, with a definite creed and moral structure to be handed down. It cannot be what it is if it does not hold what it has traditionally held. Since this is so, Carlin thinks that in fact Catholicism is on the road towards disappearing in America or to itself become a small, rather insignificant group of no particular significance, a kind of left-over oddity.

This is a very persuasive book. It is calmly argued. It speaks frankly and honestly. It is backed by statistics and thought and good sense. It acknowledges that much of our problem is brought on by ourselves. We have literally not recognised who our enemy was so that we are unprepared to fight the real war. This book is essential reading.

Fr James V. Schall SJ teaches at Georgetown University, Washington, DC. His review first appeared in 'Homiletic & Pastoral Review'.

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