Students of International Affairs sometimes debate American Exceptionalism: the idea that, by the unique nature of its founding, America is a special product of history. You can reach different conclusions about what that means – both positive and negative. People do, and the debate goes on.
Personally, I doubt we’re much above – as people – the general human level. But we’ve been called to play a special role in modern times. We’re an “almost chosen people” as Lincoln put it, tentatively but accurately. And we see in China’s rise and Russia’s machinations – among other actors – what it means for the world if America recedes.
It’s not only Americans who have been fascinated with American Exceptionalism. The great Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain lamented in his Reflections on America : “You are advancing in the night, bearing torches toward which mankind would be glad to turn; but you leave them enveloped in the fog of a merely experiential approach and mere practical conceptualization, with no universal ideas to communicate. For lack of adequate ideology, your lights cannot be seen. I think it is too much modesty.”
That was another age (1956) and decades later we need to re-teach Americans themselves what once made this country great. But not that long ago Maritain could speak like that at the University of Chicago, when even our secular academies were willing to give a hearing to authentic Catholic thought – and a positive view of America. Today, there are over 200 Catholic colleges and universities in America, a large proportion of the Catholic institutions of higher learning in the whole world. Few of them would entertain the kind of arguments Maritain put forward.
Readers of this site are keenly aware of the problems and weaknesses of the Church and America. Yet despite all the turmoil, division, confusion, sometimes heresy and infidelity in the Church in America today, I’m rather convinced of the exceptionalism of American Catholicism in our age.
Let me explain.
I don’t say this to boast, but in fear and trembling over the role that Providence may be calling us to, and our failure to respond adequately.
For example, in America, and only in America, do you find such a wealth of Catholic publishers of world-class books. Ignatius Press alone contains a virtual library of Catholicism, ancient and modern. But we also have Sophia Institute Press, Tan Books, Angelico Press, Scepter, and others, including secular outlets like Regnery, Free Press, and Basic Books that are open to Catholic titles. And this is far from an exhaustive list.
In America, and again only America, do you have a massive media group like EWTN-Catholic News Agency- National Catholic Register. EWTN is the largest, you might say the only, successful Catholic effort in television. Its programming is uneven, but at its best, there’s nothing comparable. During main Vatican events, e.g., a papal conclave – as I learned myself appearing on the network during Francis’ election – the numbers of viewers can reach into the millions, rivaling the commercial cable networks.
And EWTN extends into other nations and languages. I’ll never forget arriving exhausted at a hotel in Santiago, Chile, some years ago, turning on the television just to distract myself from my weariness, and seeing Mother Angelica appear, as if by magic, speaking perfect (dubbed) Spanish.
And then there are the websites. I won’t start listing them because they’re too many and I would inevitably leave important ones out. I read a fair amount of foreign journalism and follow foreign websites too. They can be good. But it’s simply true that in terms of both quality and quantity our American Catholic outlets are just in another class. And people all over the world read us.
I mention all this because, depressed as we all may be about the state of things (and they’re about to get worse under our “Catholic” president), we clearly do not lack for materials by which to inform people in the Faith and inspire them in its practice. What we lack are laborers in the vineyard determined to get the job done in spite of all obstacles. Conversion is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit, but as St. Paul says, “how shall they believe him, of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear, without a preacher?” (Rom. 10:14)
People often write me to say that our bishops are weak. Or worse. They blew it big time on sexual abuse. But in what other country, for example, have bishops stood up to Catholic political leaders? L.A. Archbishop José Gómez just took on President Biden and S.F. Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone confronted Nancy Pelosi.
We may not think our episcopate is all that it could be. But outside observers like the prominent liberal theologian Massimo Faggioli, an Italian who has been teaching at Villanova University the last few years, see things we may not. In his recent book Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States, he deplores “the intransigent, neo-nineteenth-century Catholicism embraced by a good portion of the American bishops.”
That’s beyond absurd, of course, but stems from the fact that “Catholic” politicians around the world – even the president of the pope’s homeland – meet with Francis or other Church leaders without serious confrontation. I’m convinced that many more of our bishops would man up if people in their dioceses showed support.
So this Lent I’ve decided to take up a new discipline. Pray, fast, give alms – more than ever. The times require it. But if the Church and the nation are to survive and flourish – and without Catholicism, the only real counterweight, identity politics will destroy us – they need something else: witness. Give someone a book, direct them to a website, commend a bishop’s good stance. Take risks and say things – and know how to back them up – not recklessly and angrily, but when the right moments open up. They happen often enough, if we look for them.
There’s no other way out of the mess we’re in. So this Lent, let’s just do it.
*Image: Image: The Four Evangelists (Les quatre évangélistes) by Jacob Jordaens, 1625 [Musée du Louvre, Paris]