Against Shyness Print
By Joseph Bottum   
Thursday, 31 July 2008

There was always something shy about American Catholics. In the eighteenth century, they were thin on the ground. In the nineteenth century they increased enormously—only to see agitation about immigration lead to things like a mob burning down an Ursuline convent in Boston.

Those days may be long gone, but even now, Catholics seem to suffer an inferiority complex, particularly in intellectual and artistic matters. Europeans must find this mind-boggling. Why should people whose heritage stretches back to Athens, Jerusalem, and Rome, and whose intellectual and artistic icons are the likes of Dante, Descartes, Michelangelo, and Bernini, feel this way?

Part of the answer lies deep in the history of the United States as a Protestant nation, for American Catholics, however unconsciously, have always defined themselves in opposition. Until John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s, there was no Catholic president, and there has been no Catholic president in the years since. Historically, the influence of Catholicism has been negligible in America. And though, over the last thirty years, Catholicism has entered the public square, the fact remains that most Catholic writers and intellectuals in America still try to appeal to others by becoming like them.

Here’s an example: In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Catholics built an enormous system of primary and secondary education in America. These schools traditionally offered a decent and relatively inexpensive education. Yet, despite the number of still-existing Catholic schools, there is no Catholic university that ranks among the most desirable institutions of higher learning for someone who is not Catholic—and often none that rank among the most desirable for someone who is Catholic.

And why should a student prefer a Catholic school? Most Catholic universities, trying to present themselves as progressive and non-parochial, have spent the last fifty years engaged in a desperate attempt to catch up with non-Catholic universities. Cause and effect is always difficult to sort out in such things, but, one way or another, American Catholicism since the 1950s has produced two utterly Americanized generations who have long forgotten their heritage and are qualified to teach only the same courses that every other college teaches. How many Catholic schools in the United States would be able to teach a course on Catholic writers that included such diverse figures as Leon Bloy, Charles Péguy, André Gide, Orestes Brownson, Alphonse de Lamartine, or Gerard Manley Hopkins?

I suspect that few Catholic school would offer such a course, even if they had someone to teach it, for they fear above all the accusation of parochialism. Instead, Catholic universities, like every other school, offer courses in peace studies, social justice, and environmentalism—and typically claim such courses as reflecting the Catholic heritage of the school.

As it happens, little specifically Catholic appears in the usual run of such courses—despite the fact that Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum remains a classic in the genre of works on social justice. We may not be able to blame non-Catholics for ignoring Leo, but we can certainly blame Catholic schools for missing his work.

A few years ago, the University of Notre Dame offered a course in peace studies, where “the writings of Jesus, Gandhi, and Tolstoy” were assigned. I do not know what inspired the teacher to teach such a course—or prompted a professor at a Catholic school to speak of “the writings of Jesus.” Even the most superficial glance at the three “authors” can only make one wonder how to claim, with all due respect to Gandhi’s moral courage, that Jesus delivered the same message as Gandhi.

There is the possibility that the professors who teach this kind of course, even to their predominantly Catholic student body, cannot think of any way to smuggle in information about Christianity other than to back it up with a secular moral authority, preferably from another culture. But I doubt that this is the real explanation. I would guess, instead, that the teachers find the whole Catholic tradition embarrassing and parochial.

Since the late 1970s, the United States has seen a few Catholic intellectual figures of prominence who have shaken the bad habit of hiding their Catholicism; they turned their complexes into valuable social and intellectual capital that others also benefit from. But the vast majority of people at Catholic colleges remain in the mode of shyness. There is nothing shameful about pointing out the Catholic roots of ideas and cultures. Commercialism may be bad for religion, but it can be good for social life and the feeling of having something important to contribute to the life of one’s country.

Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things.


Other Articles By This Author