The Catholic Thing
Traditional Christianity versus Christian Heresies Print E-mail
By George J. Marlin   
Wednesday, 02 May 2012

In America’s post World War II era, the institutional, theological, and intellectual influence of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular, reached all time highs. Church affiliation, which stood at 47 percent in 1930, skyrocketed to 69 percent by 1960. Almost half of all Americans judged clergy as the group “doing the most good.” Spending on religious structures – churches, schools, hospitals, etc. – was $26 million in 1945, $409 million in 1950 and $1 billion in 1960.

Christian books dominated the best sellers list (i.e., Fulton Sheen’s Communism and the Conscience of the West; Fulton Oursler’s The Greatest Story Ever Told; Henry Morton Robinson’s The Cardinal; Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking; Thomas Costain’s The Silver Chalice). Hollywood turned out religious film epics – Ben Hur, The Robe, The Ten Commandments, The Nun’s Story – that packed neighborhood cinemas.

Preachers – Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, Billy Graham and Reinhold Niebuhr –had impressive followings. Sheen’s TV show “Life Is Worth Living” was viewed weekly by 30 million households. Graham’s crusades attracted huge crowds. In New York, a record breaking 100,000 people worked their way into Yankee Stadium to hear Graham. Niebuhr, a Protestant theologian, dared to publicly reject the “modernist” view that ethics and social reform were the basis of Christianity and not Biblical eschatology. Niebuhr actually convinced leading leftists like historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., that man is flawed by original sin and no government can eliminate man’s sinful tendencies with Utopian legislation.

In his new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics [click on the title for the Kindle edition; on the image below for the book], conservative columnist Ross Douthat, describes the rise and fall of this golden age of traditional Christianity and how “bad religions” – pseudo-Christianities – have debased faith and glorified greed and self-absorption.

The obvious reason for the post-war “Great Awakening”: Ten million returning veterans, who had witnessed the horrors of a war that killed 50 million people, turned to Christianity, “a faith once delivered to the saints,” to comfort them and to explain why so many people blindly followed evil regimes and obeyed commands to commit atrocities.

One interesting return of the prodigal son, among several that Douthat describes, is British poet W.H. Auden. After the 1939 Nazi invasion of Poland, Auden began attending Episcopal services at New York City’s second-oldest church, St. Mark’s in the Bowery and reading the works of Christian apologists C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.

             Order from The Catholic Thing store

Auden, who witnessed the persecution of the Spanish Catholic Church first hand in the 1930s, concluded that radical totalitarian ideologies made it “impossible any longer to believe that the values of liberal humanism were self-evident.” There must be more to explain the universe than materialistic platitudes, Auden argued. Only by appealing to a living God could one defend the liberal concepts of equality and human rights.

In 1960, the number of American Catholic converts broke all records. By the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1966 there were 60,000 a record. On Sunday, churches had standing room only; there were lines outside confessional boxes; parochial schools had waiting lists.

And then, around 1968, something happened and the “institutional life of the Church began a long bleed.” Church attendance, which stood at 75 percent in 1968 dropped to 50 percent by 1978. Participation at novenas, Stations of the Cross and in Holy Name Societies and sodalities fell out of bed.

Seminary enrollments declined two-thirds by 1980. Two percent of priests during the 1970s were abandoning their vows annually. In 1950, there was one priest for every 600 Catholics; in 1980 one for every 1000 – and the pool of priests was aging. Vatican II was a factor, but the decline hit all Christian churches.

Many observers thought the crisis of traditional Christianity – both Catholic and Protestant – was due to America “becoming an increasingly secular country in which atheism and indifference would predominate, and spiritual beliefs of every sort would gradually disappear.” 

Douthat, however, disagrees and argues that the onset of Christianity’s locust years was more complicated. In his judgment, there were five major catalysts:

  • Political Polarization – Vietnam war, civil rights movement;
  • Revolution in Social Mores – Birth control, promiscuity, abortion;
  • Global Perspectives – People seeking spirituality without rules turned to Buddhism and Transcendental Meditation;
  • Ever-growing Wealth – America’s new Gilded Age confirmed John Wesley’s observation: “Wherever riches have increased, the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion;”
  • Decline of establishment ties to Christian religions – Elitist institutions, newspapers, networks, universities, law schools, and major foundations dismissed Christianity as déclassé. 

          Ross Douthat

Douthat points out that religious bodies that fought these trends, particularly the Catholic Church, have been accused of being out of touch, authoritarian, close-minded, and responsible for turning many of their members into neurotic, repressed bigots.

On the other hand, accommodating Christian sects (i.e., mainline churches) have only hastened moral decline. For their followers, religion “has become a license for egotism and selfishness,” the result being a society “where pride becomes ‘healthy self-esteem,’ vanity becomes ‘self-improvement,’ adultery becomes ‘following your heart,’ greed and gluttony becomes ‘living the American dream.’”

The decline of traditional Christianity, Douthat concludes, has not led to surging atheism, rather it has led to the spread of Christian heresies that hold the Kingdom of God is built in this life not the hereafter.

Despite these heresies and gloomy statistics, Douthat rightfully insists that all is not lost. Over the past 2000 years Christians have faced incredible challenges – Roman persecutions, Islamic invasions, European revolutions, Marxism, Darwinism, Freudianism – and prevailed.

In the United States, the good news is Evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics have formed an alliance to combat “a widespread secularization [that] increasingly descends into a moral, intellectual, and spiritual nihilism.”

And Douthat reminds us that cultural crisis often leads to reassessments and renewals: “Like W.H. Auden wandering amid the shuttered churches of 1930s Spain, perhaps Americans will survey the wreckage all around them and turn once again to a more rigorous and humble form of Christian faith.”

George J. Marlin is an editor of The Quotable Fulton Sheen and the author of The American Catholic VoterHis most recent book is Narcissist Nation: Reflections of a Blue-State Conservative.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (15)Add Comment
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, May 02, 2012
As a 67 year-old, I fancy that a lot of the post-war religion was of the kind beautifully satirised by Mgr Ronald Knox as “Public School” (i.e. English boarding school) religion:

“I think, then, it should be said at the outset that public schools are trying to teach the sons of gentlemen a religion in which their mothers believe, and their fathers would like to: a religion without " enthusiasm " in the old sense, reserved in its self-expression, calculated to reinforce morality, chivalry, and the sense of truth, providing comfort in times of distress and a glow of contentment in declining years; supernatural in its nominal doctrines, yet on the whole rationalistic in its mode of approaching God: tolerant of other people's tenets, yet sincere about its own, regular in church-going, generous to charities, ready to put up with the defects of the local clergyman. This religion the schoolmaster is under contract to teach; it is left to him, if he be a sincere Christian, to attempt the grafting onto this stock of supernatural graces which it does not naturally develop: self-sacrifice, lively devotion, worthy reception of the Communion, and so on . That is the proposition.”
written by Nick Palmer, May 02, 2012
Sounds like an insightful and important read.

So, is there a way to purchase the Amazon Kindle version and have TCT get "credit" for it?
written by will manley, May 02, 2012
Thanks for this review. This book goes to the top of my reading list!
written by George Farahat, May 02, 2012
This article is gloomy about the future of the Catholic Church. However you need only look beyond Europe and North America to rediscover the powerful Catholic Church in its missionary works in Africa and Asia. In spite of apparent losses, all Christian confessions seem to be gaining new followers. The problem is unity. Only in the Catholic Church do we find unity whose sign is the Pope.
written by Grump, May 02, 2012
Many earlier works sounded the same themes about the decline of Western culture and Christianity.

The much referred to but all but forgotten and little read "The Decline of the West" by Oswald Spengler comes to mind.

Much more readable and illuminating in particular: "The Crisis of Our Age" by Pitirim Sorokin (1941), and "The Sensate Culture" by Harold O.J. Brown (1996), which built on Sorokin's ideas about the "ideational," "idealist" and "sensate" stages of Man.

Western culture is now late in the senate phase, both argue, characterized by an abandonment of traditional and spiritual values and a reliance strictly on the material and the senses.

Nearly 100 years ago in 1913, George Santayana put it this way: "The shell of Christendom is broken. The unconquerable mind of the East, the pagan past, the industrial socialistic future confront it with their equal authority. Our whole life and mind is saturated with the slow upward filtration of a new spirit -- that of an emancipated atheistic, international democracy."
written by Brad Miner, May 02, 2012
@ Nick Palmer: Yes! If you follow the very first link above (now amended) you will reach the Kindle version via our Amazon Store. -ABM
written by Randall, May 02, 2012
Christianity is alive and growing in the southern hemisphere. After the dust settles from the civilisational collapse in the northern hemisphere, Africa and South America will send missionaries to spread the Good News to the shivering remnants of humanity in Europe and North America.
written by Dave, May 02, 2012
Great article, and I'll get hold of the book. I am not so sure that the religion embraced at the end of the Second World War was wholly "Public School": returning vets were looking for answers, and for forgiveness; the suburbanization of the country led to massive cultural dislocations and changes in forms of life, for which Christianity had (and has) answers. I tend to think that the whole world is Job and that in the 60s Satan threw down the dare: all hell broke loose, at least in the West. There is merit to Mr. Paterson-Seymour's observations, I think, despite what I have written above, for if the faith really had taken such deep hold, it would have withstood the challenges thrust upon it. Nonetheless this was a multi-faceted attack. The change in the Catholic liturgy, and in Catholic norms of worship, definitely impacted even the Protestant world, as I remember the Sunday in my Protestant childhood when hats disappeared, because if Catholic women didn't need them, neither did Protestant women. The elites' ties to Christianity was tenuous, and had been, since the Founders, who prized it for its moral power and for little else, failing to accept that dogmas and doctrines informed moral behavior and that the whole Christian enterprise is fueled by supernatural power: can't have any competition to our own, you know.

Still, do not give up on the West, and do not give up on America. When the crisis comes, people will return to the Faith. God, and not just the Democrats, doesn't let a good one go to waste, and he never ceases to call all people to himself. All is not yet lost. The booming growth in Africa and Asia is evidence of that.
written by Graham Combs, May 02, 2012
I've read that after every war noviates to monasteries multiply. The late Fr. Thomas Merton was part of that demographic. It is true that Christianity continues to thrive in the Global South. But as a son of the American South, I'm not surprised the new Anglican Rite Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter is essentially a southern phenomenon. Its principle church and the seminary for training Episcopal priests seeking ordination into the Catholic Church are both in Texas.

I worked for many years at a large corporation and was still there when their doors closed for the last time in the Fall of 2011. It is difficult to overstate corporate America's quiet and not so quiet hostility to Christianity and to the Church in particular. I recently went through an interview and training process at another large corporation. The one hour "diversity" video includes "religion" in its tolerance message. But I would learn just how vague and mutable that term is. The training replaces the Golden Rule with the "Platinum Rule." What's is that? Treat everyone as they want to be treated according to "their race, gender, orientation etc." That in the end requires invasive surgery into individual civic values and religious beliefs. It also confirms my long-time conclusion that no one profiles like the hyper-secular left. As for "religious tolerance..." I keep a small white card in my wallet on which is printed "40 Days For Life -- Pray to End Abortion." It is a daily reminder to me and apparently at least one person in human resources noticed it when I gave them my drivers license and SS card. The temperature in the office was considerably cooler the next day. Big Business promotes secular absolutism -- their protests to the contrary should be considered in the spirit in which they are given. In this staggering economy, Catholics will be under greater pressure to be "not-so-Catholic." For a variety of reasons American business used to prefer church-going employees. No more. Mr. Douthat is a thoughtful writer. Perhaps he might take a deeper look into this particular force against the Faith.
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., May 02, 2012
I am stunned by the attmepts to find sociological, historical, and ulitmately naturalistic explanations for the drastic degradation of Cathloic life in past four decades. Do we not all know that in 1947 one of the people whom Abp Sheen brought back to the Chruch predicted that becuase of what she had other Communists had done to infiltrate and infect the Church 25 years from that time no one would recognzie the Church. The idea that people imagine war in Vietnam or the Civil Rights movement could effect Mass attendence or belief in the Magisterium would be simplly laughable if it weren't for the fact that such notions distract us from facing the fact that the Church was infiltrated by evil people whose deeds and false teachings must be exposed and denounced. Not one of the social or political phenomena cited could have made nuns advocate abortion and priests deny the priesthood or advocate sodomy. There is one connection that some are afraid to face: Some of the very same people who were sowing heresy were also successful at convincing many nuns and priests that dictactors like Castro and Ho Chi Min were the good guys and the the attempt by the US to defeat them amounted to imperialism. If you thought that the war against Ho Chi Min's Communists was a war the US couldn't win therefore should not be fought then you might be in good company. But if you thought or still think that Ho Chi Min was a great democratic leadeer then you are a Communist dupe. Many of the Catholics who were tricked into loving the anit-Catholic Ho were/are the same ones who are preaching heresy to our young. Same well, same poison. And they keep getting away with it because so many Catholcis are afraid of being called McCarthyists--a term that I must again point out was coined in the Kremlin. You must all have heard the old ssaying that when you see a turtle ona fence post you know somebody put it there. Why will no one--almost no one--even listen to the confeesions of those like Bella Dodd and Luis Budenz? Intellectual dishonesty and cowardice to a sinful degree! The craven desire for approval from the very knaves who have been teaching people to doubt the very validity of the Sacraments?
written by Rick DeLano, May 03, 2012
Mr. Coleman:

It is a truly remarkable thing, that God has rendered the shepherds of the Church blind, and deprived Her of the leadership that could restore Her, but it is part of His inscrutable justice that we should live to see this awful thing.

May the days be shortened.
written by Frank, May 03, 2012
I'd like to take what Mr. Coleman stated about the fear of being called a McCarthyist one step further for his point is a valid one but not something that we should necessarily fear if we know from where we get our sources. I'm sure everyone here has experienced a debate, an argument or situation where you knew you were right but could not prove it. It's not a good situation to be in. The same holds for Joseph McCarthy. He was correct that many of the names on the piece of paper he "held in his hand," were either agents, sympathizers, and/or members of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) and as such were providing intelligence to the Soviet Union. The problem of course is that he did not know that he was correct. Successful in initially stirring up a firestorm of support, McCarthy then demigogued the issue. Mix that with his alcoholism and voila...a communist could be found behind every tree and on every street corner of America. In 2001, Romerstein and Breindel published "The Venona Secrets." Venona was the name of one of the most classified operations in US Intelligence. Few knew of it and not even the President of the United States was aware of its existence. That US Intelligence was able to decypher Soviet message encryption is a mix of luck and skill and for the Soviets, an act of foolish complacency. Nonetheless, the code was broken. Many of the names on McCarthy's piece of paper were confirmed by Venona. Venona also confirmed the absolute guilt of the Rosenbergs. Venona was producing outstanding actionable intelligence but any action that would give the Soviets a whiff of indication their code had been compromised, was a risk that could not be borne. It's a good read and consistent with the principle that all is not always what it seems and that before any of us engages an argument, let us make sure we know the valid sources of the information we use to defend our positions.
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., May 03, 2012
Frank, thank you providing TCT readers with information that all Americans should have. By now we should all know about the damage done by our nation by the many believers who influenced the direction of US policy and stole information. My concern here, however, is with damage inflicted on the Chruch by people who infiltrated seminaries in Europe and the US. Their goal was the creation of a parallel, counterfeit church focused on creation of a socialist paradise instead of eternal salvation. They have succeeded far beyond their wildest imaginiation. The Reds even had enough muscle to spare so that they could divert their attention to usng their fifth column to clamoring for a Communist victory in Vietnam, hence the "just think of me as an acid head with Roman collar" breed sitting in hot tubs at the Esolen Insitutute for the Study of Human Potential fellow hottubers that Aermica is an imperilaist country. Beginning in 1967 Catholic collegs became incubators of the counterculture on a par with their admittedly secular counterparts. Having achieved victory in Souteast Asia, the Reds could turn their attention to undermining belief in the very defining dogma of Christianity. By the way, while the Venona Transcripts were not declassified until 1996, the writings of Bella Dadd and Luis Budenz were NEVER classified, so teachers of history at Catholic colleges and high schools have no excuses for hiding them from young Catholics. We cannot defeat an enemy that we are afradi to name.
written by Allen Roth, May 03, 2012
The wholesale reforms of Vatican II contribute to the decline of the Catholic Church.

Excellent review.
written by mary, May 05, 2012
We can blame the Church's embracing modernity and feminism in the biblical scholarship of Raymond E. Brown and not tenuring Fr. Manuel Miguens, OFM for starters. The Land of Lakes deal of the Catholic Universities sealed it. Why doesn't the Church tell the univ. either be Catholic or you're out and condemn Brown's work--it is destroying the certitude of true Catholics.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


Other Articles By This Author