The Catholic Thing
In Praise of Cultural Catholicism Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 13 May 2013

As American culture and the West turn ever more anti-Christian, various strategies have arisen to deal with the threat. Virtually all of them reject the old “cultural Catholicism” as inadequate – and perhaps even one cause for our current crisis. People were taught, we’re told, but not evangelized. When the culture changed, so did they.

Whatever the shortcomings of that older culture, it seems clear that a new cultural Catholicism now must emerge as a living, concrete social reality – within existing parishes where possible, perhaps in new forms elsewhere – or the new strategies, for all their virtues, will likely fail.   

Take the much-heralded New Evangelization. It’s much like the old evangelization, only adapted towards people for whom the old approach didn’t work. It relies heavily on arguments – “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” (1 Peter 3:15)

Rational argument is essential in a Church that values both faith and reason. But as Aquinas noted, God revealed several truths that we could know by reason. Why? Given our fallen nature, most people can’t do serious thinking. They live within the practical demands of the world.

Besides, the questions are hard – as anyone who tries to “give a reason” quickly learns. Most people arrive at a confidence in their Faith through other ways.

Evangelical Catholicism, therefore, is attractive. As my sometime colleague George Weigel has argued, a holy and confident Church – popes, bishops, priests, religious, and lay people together – will inspire those of good will.

Reforming structures is part of this, as Vatican II – properly understood – intended. A legalistic and bureaucratic Church is just too much like the modern governments we labor under: ill suited to the saving truths of the Gospel.

And this is where an authentic cultural Catholicism might come in. Russell Shaw, a friend of several of us at TCT, has just published The American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America. Do yourself a favor. Rush out and buy this little gem, then read slowly and carefully.

Shaw brilliantly analyzes the conflict between the “Americanizers” (led by Isaac Hecker, Cardinal Gibbons, and others) on the one hand, and the opponents of assimilation (Orestes Brownson, Bishop Bernard J. McQuaid, etc.) on the other. Assimilation had to come as millions of Catholics began to live and work on these shores – and, up to a point, perhaps had to take the form it did.

But the culture those Catholics accepted was very different than today’s. The Americanists argued that it permitted the Church to flourish for a time and even had commonalities with Catholic principles. All that has radically changed in ways even the anti-assimilationists would never have dreamed.

At his inaugural Mass, Pope Francis invoked St. Joseph as: “ a ‘protector’ because he is able to hear God's voice and be guided by his will. . . .He can look at things realistically, he is in touch with his surroundings, he can make truly wise decisions.”

Americans might take this to heart. After Vatican II, we heard a lot about the Church being “defensive” and needing a mature openness. But this was mostly misleading. Sure, defensiveness is not a Christian virtue. But a proper fear of what threatens is not neurotic. It’s realism.

T. S. Eliot wrote:

Remembering the words of Nehemiah the Prophet: “The trowel in hand, and the gun rather loose in the holster.”

. . .we are encompassed with snakes and dogs: therefore some must labor, and others must hold the spears. (Choruses from the Rock)

Any Christian oblivious to the threats, approaching persecution, now upon us simply doesn’t have eyes to see. Governments and international bodies are determined to make certain Christian moral positions into “hate crimes” and infringements of “basic rights,” and to make churches follow state directives as coercive as those in places like China. And they believe – rightly – most Christians will just go along.

That’s why we need what I would call a cultural Catholicism, not the ghetto of the past – which, even if it were desirable, wouldn’t deal well with the present. We need to create new ways to “protect” Christian living:

  • Russell Shaw speaks of the “plausibility structures” of the past. This has always been part of the Church, which needs to preach its reasonableness boldly. Most believers have a faith of the heart as well as a warranted confidence that there are people who can make the rational arguments to defend it, even if they can’t themselves.
  • In our time, such a faith needs to understand the urgency of counter-cultural choices about how to live. Alasdair MacIntyre famously invoked the need for “a new and no doubt quite different Saint Benedict.” Monasticism is always one answer. But many Catholics – 15-20 million in American alone by my reckoning – believe and try to live by what the Church teaches in a hostile world. We are a minority now even among “Catholics.” The Church has to rethink how the old territorial parishes can provide greater “protection” for us, and in some instances, no doubt, how to create new forms of “protector” communities.
  • We can’t be naïve about the seriousness of the threat. Our culture is now largely animated by anti-Christian “humanism,” which regards Catholicism as “the greatest evil in the world.” (Richard Dawkins) It controls education, Hollywood, the media, government, business – what Lenin called the “commanding heights” of society. Still, even the old Soviet Union eventually failed – and it had nukes. So we can’t be pessimistic about our future. But it’s likely to be a long slog, not winnable by short-term plans and programs.

The pope has reminded us that the Church reinvigorates itself by turning outwards to evangelize the world. But it also has to nurture the life within. For that, we need a smart cultural community that knows its own business – and isn’t afraid to protect and practice it.

Robert Royal
is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is
The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (14)Add Comment
written by Brennan, May 13, 2013
It is right to mention the parish; however, parish life in most parishes today doesn't even provide any type of "cultural Catholicism" within our own churches much less any reaching out to the larger world.

The jettisoning of the real "meat" of Catholic cultural life--art, architecture, and devotions, along with the complete alteration of the liturgy after Vatican II has rendered parish life, and the liturgy in particular, at best completely irrelevant when it comes to the spiritual formation of Catholics, evangelization of the lost, or as an attracter of vocations. I seriously doubt we can do much to reverse the decline unless we frankly recognize where we went wrong and seek to remedy it in specific ways rather than vague allusions to the "new evangelization" which hardly bear the weight of a definition.

But this is unlikely, I think. Most Catholics, even conservative ones, believe we by definition took a turn for the better after Vatican II by getting rid of the "ghetto fortress" mentality and as long as we tweak and correct some of the unfortunate "misinterpretations" of Vatican II and put some good programs in place we can eventually start reaping some of the wonderful fruit promised by Vatican II. Well, good luck with that.

I say we start with a hearty "mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa" and return to the old ways in liturgy, art, architecture, and devotions which did mold, evangelize, and attract Catholics and non-Catholics to a world beyond American consumerism and vapidity.

To this certainly can be added some new methods and approaches, but these need to be laid on a foundation which is solid and genuinely worthy.
written by Manfred, May 13, 2013
@Robert, @Brennan: Thank you both for a great piece and a great comment. The Church has admitted that It abandoned Its teaching of moral theology and apologetics in the wake of Vat. II. It diminished (removed?) the teachings on Purgatory and Hell as it did not want to hear or propound "the prophecy of doom" which described the Third Secret of Fatima, which to this day we have never heard in its entirety. So the Church removed Its brain and Its defenses and now faces extinction. Traditional priests today are telling their parishioners from the pulpit that they could very well be facing marginalization, financial ruin and actual martyrdom in the next few years. On the other hand, the Baptists, through the American Family Association, unite their members, and ME by calling for massive boycotts of business firms and politicians who promote abortion and aberrosexual marriage and they do achieve success! The Church refuses to draw a line in the sand, refuses to excommunicate "catholic" politicians,and, in short, signals through weakness that all these horrific social changes are inevitable. The clock is running. What concrete actions can we accomplish?
written by Bill Beckman, May 13, 2013
You rightly cite the need for new forms of "protector" communities, and the Holy Spirit has been bringing them into existence on every continent for decades. They are the new communities, charisms and ecclesial realities which Blessed John Paul II and Benedict urged priests and pastors to receive and encourage. Francis has repeated the refrain in his daily homilies. He is a longtime friend of the "movements," and his warnings about a "sick," "self-referential Church" and the need to "go out" and to take risks should be understood as a call to the new forms and our great need for them. Most US parishes haven't a clue about these new realities because people in the diocesan structures are also clueless. Unfortunately, they follow the lead of the USCCB structure which has been very slow to understand and positively engage these new realities. The day and age of programs being the answer is long past. The new forms of life do not come from publishers or ecclesial bureaucracies, they come from the divine Spirit. Veni Sancte Spiritus; veni Creator Spiritus.
written by JP, May 13, 2013
Not to strike a note of pessimism here, but it has become extremely difficult for serious Catholics to get married. We are a minority within a minority, and the prevailing culture is overwhelmingly opposed to Christian marriage. The parish-based social networks that once helped foster marriage in Catholic lay society were already breaking down and are completely gone today. Most long-time singles will tell you the odds of finding a spouse within the parish they attend are zero or nearly so. But there is no obvious other place. Pace those who claim on that online dating is the answer, because it's not. It's also not a healthy natural community. But that is off the topic of this column. The point is that If we need healthy parishes to support a counter-cultural lifestyle, let's remember that marriage these days is the ultimate counter-cultural statement. The Church needs to create communities in which Catholics can get married again.
written by Robert Royal, May 13, 2013
You've all raised exactly the kinds of issues I think a full-blooded "cultural Catholicism" would need to address. So we know the problem. Aren't there any inspired, entrepreneurial types out there who can take steps to fill the need? I've mentioned movements, communities, initiatives in past columns, both here and abroad. Is there any reason, especially in America, we can't take practical steps to do better? Without waiting for bishops, conferences, the usual suspects?
written by Jacob, May 13, 2013
The way to win: Be like the martyrs and don't care if your life is ruined or taken from you for defending Christ.

The only debilitating problem we're experiencing right now is that a majority of the Church is not Roman Catholic--they're devout followers of the religion of Americanism.

No sane Catholic would spend his time denouncing fellow Christians, while making endless excuses for the abortionists and sex traffickers (I mean the ones who traffic in ideas, not bodies).

Men like Weigel need to stop pretending they can invisibly lead from above, dropping the proper arguments onto the unschooled laity when the time is just right.
Men like Weigel need to be warrior chiefs leading younger, less distinguished Catholics into intellectual battle.. But, like so many Catholics, he may have given up on the job God wants for him and taken the job he wants instead.
written by Henry, May 13, 2013
It seems that the main purpose of this piece is to pooh pooh George Weigel's book. If that is so, we who in a later in life marraige with eight grown adult kids between us recently bought a stack of"Evangelical Catholicism" to give them as birthday gifts, would (perhaps, only maybe) wonder what to do now.
written by Robert Royal, May 13, 2013
Henry, some of the commentators have that view, but that is not at all my intention. This is a both/and, and anything-else-we-can-think-of-and-do-to-respond-to-our-moment approach. I'm just trying to specify some of the elements that I think need to become background assumptions - cultural Catholicism - so that we do not restrict our outreach to the relatively smaller numbers of people in any age who are intellectual Catholics. I spend a fair amount of my time trying to instruct people in the Faith, but there's much more needed in the Church than that. And we particularly need to create spaces for people who cannot make the arguments that respond to our public culture (the vast majority) -- in which they can still feel confident that there ARE people who can make and are making those arguments. And therefore can live secure in their faith lives. That's what a well ordered cultural Catholicism would do. Protect the flock from the cultural erosion it has suffered. GW has identified some of it, so has Russell Shaw. I've put in a few further sentences here. The last things we need is another iteration of I am of Paul, I am of Apollo, I am of Cephas.There are many challenges out there and many ways of responding to them.
written by Paul Rodden, May 13, 2013
It seems to me that a more dangerous threat is 'Christian Humanism'. The sort promoted by Evangelical Christians who are, to all intents and purposes, children of the Enlightenment. They have the same mindset as Dickie Dawkins, et al., just with bible verses added.

It is dangerous because this so-called Christian Humanism is ersatz. It's merely the utilitarian/relativistic soup of secularism with bible verses thrown in for flavour.

But, because they call it 'Christian' the assumption is Catholics believe in the same drivel, when we don't.
We believe in an ontological personalism which has little in common with the Protestant/Enlightenment mess of pottage.
written by Manfred, May 13, 2013
@Robert: The natural answer to your queries in your first comment above would be the Knights of Columbus. They exist, they are huge in numbers, but because of the residual clericalism which persists in the American Church, the K of C has been largely muzzled and chained in the basement. Pope Francis in the Rome March for Life is just one example of a gesture which could have great results if the laity could become intimidating to the present administration in Washington by Boycotting, Diversifying and Sanctioning government initiatives, rather than have to wait to become Los Cristeros when it is too late and the secular state has begun imprisoning and killing its opponents, i.e., US.
During the 1840s in response to the Know Nothings, Catholic miners marched from Scranton and other towns with one purpose-for every Catholic Church you desecrate we will desecrate one of yours. By 1870, Irish Catholics, for better or worse, controlled the government of New York City and a peace of sorts was restored.
written by Athanasius, May 13, 2013
I once read an article by Peter Kreeft where he said that we should teach our children that the Church is good, beautiful, and true. I think this is excellent advice, and could be a blueprint for a new evangelization.

Those who respond to rational arguments will respond to the truth of our faith. We need to be prepared to give it to them. Adult catechesis is necessary. If pastors don't have time because they are stretched thin, we the faithful need to do get the proper training and help our pastors.(I know some well-meaning CCD teachers have told my children some whoppers about the faith that fortunately I knew to correct.)

Some people will respond more to the beauty of the faith than they will to reasoned arguments. We need to have good music and beautiful churches to help provide this. Also, the beauty of Christian sexuality as opposed to the profanity of the world needs to be taught. Our devotional practices are part of the truth and the beauty of the Church. Let's have communal rosaries, communal praying of the chaplet of divine mercy, etc. to make our parishes alive.

Finally, the Church is good, as shown by our works of charity. We must perform works of charity in our towns and cities. People will be attracted to us if they see us as good and loving people.

Above all, we won't evangelize unless we are joyful about our faith. I bet many people have left the faith because it was presented to them as a set of rules and a guilt trip. Present the faith as falling in love with Jesus, who is Love and Beauty itself, and you can't help but be joyful.

P.S. I read Weigel's book, and it is excellent. I will put Shaw's on my list.
written by Dan, May 14, 2013
It is time to stop talking about the old cultural Catholicism as though most people were shaped by the pre-Vatican II church. We have had half a century of post-V II now and most of our priests don't even know Latin any more. No one under the age of 60 has any adult memory of what the old liturgy or parish life was like. Most Catholics were formed in the post-conciliar church. I sincerely wish that the church of my youth could be restored but realize that there are precious few people around who even remember it clearly. In any case, let's not pretend that pre-conciliar culture has much to do with the current state of American Catholicism.
written by Sgt. Angel Mike, May 14, 2013
Royal's article, and the comments, point to a church that is corrupted to the point of irrelevancy. A congregation that has no clue on what Catholicism is, means, or any will to follow it. Presented with compliance or hard prison time, 99.99999% of the "faithful" will deny Jesus (in a heart beat). A pagan government that has the whip hand and will use it.
This "church" is dead. It will take several generations to bring it back. It will take millions of martyrs. It will return, but not in my life time, my children's lifetime, my grand-children's lifetime.
Still, this is good, in that the church will be purified and reborn.
1 Corinthians 10:1-33
written by Sherry McMahon, June 16, 2013
Dr. Royal, in "Work, Pray, Study" you said there was "… a tremendous hunger for substantive Catholic thought that's also accessible to a wide swarth of ordinary people". You also indicated that "we do not restrict our outreach to the relatively small numbers of people in any age who are intellectual Catholics". Based on the people in our town, I appreciate both these comments.

One thing I think we might consider to help bring about a renewal of Catholic culture is small groups of friends and neighbors meeting in someone's home to discuss various topics. Recently, "Catholic Courses" from Saint Benedict Press has come out with some terrific DVD sets. There are also some great DVDs. And then there are books. I find that people like DVDs, CDs, or "skinny" books, so I have limited my selection to those.Many these days are not willing to read books "of size" (sound bite arena).

I would recommend starting off with two books that portray a bleak future if we are not able to stem the tide of secular humanism and other negative influences. The books are:

Lord of the World (Robert Hugh Benson)
Brave New World (Aldous Huxley)

These should jump-start any Catholic cultural renewal.

The following would be my recommendations:


You Can Understand the Bible (Kreeft)
Four Last Things (Meconi)
Three Paths to Holiness (Barron)
Speaking of Saints (Conroy)


Teachings of Pope John Paul II - Summaries of Papal Documents (Fagan)
Charity in Truth (Pope Benedict XVI)
Pope Francis (Bergoglio)
Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia


Living the Catholic Faith (Chaput)
Rebuilding Catholic Culture (Topping)
Reclaiming Feminism (Tomeo)
Catholics in the Public Square (Birzer)


Seven Threats Against the Culture of Life (Wiker)
Seven Myths About the Catholic Church and Science (Kazor)
Catholic Answers to Protestant Questions (Pasquini)
Atheist to Catholic (Vitz-Cherico)


Sacred Arts (Sullivan)
Dante's Divine Comedy (Esolen)
True Friendship (Cuddeback)
Cosmic Origins (Spitzer)

Additionally, I would have a "Distinguished Catholic Speaker" Program which would include the authors above - plus:

Helen Alvare, Hadley Arkes, Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, Sr. Wendy Beckett, Sr. Sara Butler, Don DeMarco, Mary and Nicholas Eberstadt, Robert George, Mary Ann Glendon, Mary Rice Hasson, James and Helen Hull Hitchcock, John Lenczowski, Ashley McGuire, Jennifer Roeback Morse, Robert Royal, Austin and Cathy Ruse, Fr. James Schall, Roger Scruton, Mary Shinanvandan, Paul and Evelyn Vitz.

And, I would recommend the "Theater of the Word - Evangelizing Through Drama" (Kevin O'Brien) to present the play "Socrates Meets Jesus", based on the outstanding book by Peter Kreeft. We had the group here this year and they had a terrific reception.

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