The Problem with American Catholicism

My friend the Ecclesial Vigilante had a post a while back showing the difference between a French traditionalist Latin Mass and an American Traditionalist Latin Mass. Read it here. While you’re at it, watch the videos.

I read the post and watched the two videos. The French mass seemed to be authentic and the American mass, well, to be charitable, seemed fake. I don’t doubt the people’s dedication, but it comes off as fake and slightly off-putting, which is not a feeling you want when worshipping at Mass. After mulling on why it should be fake and off putting, I did some research to see if one of the thoughts I was having was credible. Then I came up with a theory.

American Catholicism has problem.  Most of it is phony.

This is not the phoniness of the fact that most of the congregations don’t believe in the faith, the fact that many of the American bishops don’t like their faith or their congregations, or the fact that the vast majority of Catholic churches have the absolute worst of modern era architecture which makes my eyeballs want to cut their optic nerve and jump out of my head in protest of the existence of such atrocious church architecture.   These are all issues, but American Catholicism has much bigger existential problem.  It’s big, because no one realizes it even exists.

American Catholicism has, for all intents and purposes, not really existed until very recently.

This is a provocative statement, but in order to understand its full implications, some history and thought is required.

First, it must be understood that Catholicism reflects the character of the people who adopt it. Irish Catholicism is not the same as German Catholicism, because the Irish and Germans are not the same.  This is true of wherever people decide to follow Catholicism:  it adopts the habits, customs, and worldview to whichever people it happens to be attached to.

So then, the obvious question is as follows: If Catholicism reflects the character of the people who adopt it, what should American Catholicism look like?

It must be noted that despite the propaganda that America is a melting pot of all the various races of the world, this isn’t actually true.  A basic examination of the way the government was set up, the language, the laws, etc. say that American is fundamentally an English nation.  Sure, there were other groups like the Germans, the Irish, and the Scots; however, the vast majority of Americans were English, so they made a nation like England across the sea from where they came, but with a few adjustments and some interesting experiments in the way the government was set up.

Coming back to the question of what should American Catholicism look like, it should look something like this:

American Catholicism should be English derived with a smattering of influence from the other groups who were present here in the America.

For example, a church with a group of Germans would be English with a slight German flavor.

In theory, this is what should have happened. Indeed, it did happen that way, at least, for a while.  America declared its independence in 1776 and won the Revolutionary War in 1781, so the now formerly English Catholics in America started to split off and develop their own unique brand of Catholicism: American Catholicism.  They started to develop their own traditions separate from the English, and things probably went well for a while.  Admittedly, there was persecution, but that’s pretty much normal for any Christian who operates anywhere, so there was nothing out of the ordinary there. Even under the worst of the persecution they could get, America was much kinder to them than the English government ever was. Thus, life went on for Catholics in the United States.

However, something large and terrible happened.  In fact, it was so terrible and so significant that it would alter the destiny of America forever, and kill any real chance of American Catholicism sprouting up for a very long time.

The first of many mass waves of immigration came to America.

This can’t be underestimated in its importance to American history.  While this wave of immigration and subsequent waves of immigration had many effects, two of them are important for the purposes of discussing why American Catholicism is phony:

  • By sheer numbers, other types of Catholicism, mainly Irish, became the predominant form in the United States
  • Catholicism became associated with immigration, and thus became inherently alien to Americans even though it had always been a part of it.

As everyone knows, demography is destiny. The English derived American Catholics became replaced by Irish, Italians, Poles, Germans, and Hungarians. Thus, the standard Catholicism in the United States did not become the English derived Catholicism, which was already in a somewhat shaky position already due to it’s small size, but a bunch of different types of Catholicism, all of them reflecting whatever the original ethnic heritage of the immigrants was; as a result, none of them really fit in with the English derived culture that America had. Ironically, for the longest time the closest that many Americans would get to an American Catholicism would be the Episcopalian Church.

There were two significant outcomes of all this:

  • The immigrant groups had a church that was reflective of their culture, so the Catholicism was not American.
  • When the immigrants “assimilated”, they created a Catholicism that was a mixture of all these different groups of Catholicism, but with no real connection to any of these groups. However, the mixture isn’t  American.

Consequently, American Catholicism feels sterile, artificial, and completely out of place of any of these groups as well as the broader American culture that it’s supposed to be reflecting.

English derived Catholicism in the United States died because it was accidentally replaced by non-English men and women starting in the 1830s. It probably wasn’t noticed at the time, but it did happen, and consequences are very far reaching.

That is the fundamental reason why traditionalism cannot work in the United States and why it can come off as strange to both Americans and non-Americans: there hasn’t been a real tradition that reflects English derived America since the 1830s. It’s not because Americans are inherently anti-tradition, the presence of Enlightenment ideals, Catholic persecution, or even the length of time the United States being inadequate for the establishment of strong Catholicism.  These all ultimately fail the scrutiny of history, and are not adequate explanations.

So if you are an American traditionalist who wants to really be traditional, there are two routes that can be taken:

  • Get back to the very beginning and discover the English roots and get a genuinely English derived Catholicism, make that the norm, and allow it to evolve from there.
  • Go off and separate all Catholic Churches into the different variations for all the different ethnic groups

The first one will be very difficult to, but with introduction of runaway Episcopalians and Anglicans through The Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter (or as I like to call it, the Anglican Ordinariate), this option is actually not as farfetched as one might think.  This may be the very first time since the 1830s that a viable English derived Catholicism has actually existed in the United States, which I don’t think anyone really realizes. To take option one, convincing all the clergy and well as laypeople to adopt this as the norm would be very difficult. If successful, there would be a truly English derived Catholicism that could evolve to whatever changing needs the American people have over time.

The second option would be rather unpleasant for traditionalists. There would be Italian Catholics, Irish Catholics, Polish Catholics, Mexican Catholics, etc.  However, there would be no American Catholics, which I think is what the traditionalists want. Considering the mixture of the different groups via interbreeding, this option will probably only really apply to recent immigrants and not people who have been here for a long time.

There is a third thing that can happen. It’s entirely possible that American Catholicism is entirely beyond saving, and nothing short of total divine intervention can save American Catholicism. I personally don’t believe this to be true; but in being honest with ourselves, we must at least consider that this possibility is true.

American Catholicism will continue to be phony and fake unless it recognizes its English roots and takes it seriously. Until then, it will be always a stranger in a strange land, always  odd, out of place, and unnecessarily out of sync with the broader American culture it allegedly comes from.

I pray that American Catholicism blooms in the future, but if I’m honest, it’s not looking good right now. May God have mercy on us and protect us.


One thought on “The Problem with American Catholicism

  1. Pingback: The American Catholic Church | The Ecclesial Vigilante

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