What’s Become of Catholic Identity?

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standardcatholicimageA reader of Ignitum Today requested an article that in some way addresses the question of what it means to be Catholic today, especially in terms of what that means about the beliefs we hold.  To get right to the point: if many people who identify as Catholics also hold beliefs that the Church does not support, then what does it even mean to be Catholic?  Even more critical: how did we get here?

When I first thought how to answer these questions, I immediately recalled an article I read while preparing for an exam at school.  The article was entitled What’s Catholic About Catholic Scripture Scholarship, and was written by Luke Timothy Johnson, a curious Catholic if there ever was one (he admits this in the article).  The particular question he was dealing with was how Catholics approach the historical critical method of interpreting Scripture, but the way he approached it was to use an example from sociologists which is perfectly fitting for the question at hand.

Johnson noted that when immigrants come to the United States, the adults who move here on their own from other countries, they arrive in America, but live very much like they did back home.

So, for instance, a Mexican family who immigrates would likely continue eating their native diet as much as possible, they will likely speak only Spanish at home, honor important holidays from Mexico (Dec. 12th, for example), etc.  While they have changed their residence to a new country, they retain every bit of their native culture that they possibly can.  And for that first generation, they stay in that mode.  The only change is address and economic opportunity, but their cultural identity, and their day-to-day living is still modeled on their country of origin.

The next generation, those who are the first to be born in America, according to Johnson, will be much more likely to adopt customs and practices of America.  

So, the family mentioned above may become NFL or NBA fans rather than soccer or baseball fans, they will likely speak English as a primary language and only speak  Spanish around family, etc.  Their development will be about as authentic of a mix as possible between a Mexican and American heritage.  They’ll uphold and honor their family’s origin, but they will also make a big step into the American culture and will try to take on the best of both worlds.

The generation after this, however, will be a different story.

Typically, sociologists point out, a third generation immigrant is likely to only learn English, and will for the most part identify entirely with their American background.  They may even be embarrassed of the heritage of their family, and will try to strike out a new cultural heritage as a typical American.

Now, what does any of this have to do with Catholic identity?  Plenty!

In fact, the American Catholic identity that we currently experience in which beliefs may not line up with the teachings of the Church, and where sacramental practice is often seen as a bonus, rather than a requirement, maps well with the sociological analysis mentioned above.  This is the thesis Mark Massa explains in his Catholics and American Culture.  It’s well-known that in the years leading up to WWII, the Catholic identity was that of a ghetto.  Both from within and outside of the Church, the vision was that Catholics built up walls of their cathedrals to keep the culture out, and to keep themselves insulated from all the problems of the world.

But then something dramatic and unthinkable happened.  Catholics gained acceptance in America, and moved from being an outsider group to an insider.  Whereas anti-Catholic hatred once kept the average Catholic content to live his faith privately, eventually the Church made serious headway into the culture.  This can bee seen by the media presence and celebrity prestige of the likes of Thomas Merton, Fulton Sheen, and even the first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy.

Think of it this way: the arrival of Catholics onto the national scene constitutes our “immigration” into the American culture and way of life.  So, the first generation (Sheen and those of his day) rode into town with their Catholic piety right on their sleeve, ready to share it, and so formed in the dogmas and lifestyle of the Church as to be unshakably firm.  They would live their same Catholicism, but in a new place, with more freedom and acceptance.  But no change on their part.

The next generation, Catholics in the 1960s sought to have their cake and eat it, too.  They wanted to be accepted and welcomed the invitation to the major party scene of the secular world with open arms.  Yet they still practiced their faith, especially the older generation.

By the time the baby boomer’s children were coming of age, things begin to change.  There’s less a stance of one foot in the Church, one foot in the culture.  The new pose becomes both feet firmly planted in the secular culture, with perhaps a few traces of Catholicism as a hold-over.

This model, from sociology, I think is a great way to understand how the Catholic identity has changed so much in such a short time-span. For instance, in the 50s, a staggering majority of Catholics not only attended Mass every week, but also went to confession regularly.  I would submit, too, that the idea of being Catholic while at the same time dissenting from the Magisterium would have been almost unthinkable, and in a certain sense, impossible to that generation.

But looking at the average American Catholic today, few would believe that the stats from the 50s could have ever happened.  When well less than 30% are going to Mass weekly and fewer than 20% are even going to confession once a year, it sure seems like we’re in a different world.

The way forward will undoubtedly be a challenging one, and the wisdom of the Church to call for a New Evangelization could not have come at a more critical juncture.  How can we restore the strong Catholic identity of the golden era of American Catholicism?  One thing’s for sure, it starts with personal witness and prayer.  As Paul VI noted, the world listens not so much to teachers as to witnesses.  Go, then, and live the Catholic life first as a model then, when the opportunity arises, you can be a teacher to others.



Luke Arredondo

Luke Arredondo

Luke is a married father of three. He works as the Director of Religious Education at Divine Mercy Parish in Kenner, LA and has a Master of Arts in Theology from Notre Dame Seminary. He blogs at Quiet, Dignity, and Grace

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6 thoughts on “What’s Become of Catholic Identity?”

  1. Avatar

    A very well analyzed timeline of events and changes. Somewhere around 1960 the church, in its Wisdom, knew that the world was changing for good, hence,
    Vat II became the lever to push the church away from its comfortable shore and transfer power to its restless flock. Let the air in,John the 23d ordered. It had to trust what it had became in 2000 years, flex its theological underpinnings to meet with and accept a world that has been in a transition for 500 years without it. To steer a course you must overcompensate with wheel and a rudder. To travel in any direction you must respect current, wind and waves. They are not so much adversaries but realities that must be addressed. Rome is a ship and the secular world is an ocean. Rome is traveling in the right direction but the wake and wash leave no trail. Catholicism is here to stay, it is the solute in the solution. It will become a battered barnacle bulging bark by the time it reaches its destination
    but will have carried its precious cargo of Wisdom through every age. Don’t be surprised if a few other ships are waiting, or on the way, when it arrives.

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  3. Avatar

    The Catholic Church in the U.S. as gone the way of the
    Democratic Party. It is more important for a majority of Catholics to be
    Democrats than it is to be Catholic, no matter how far off course the
    Democratic Party has gone. I used to be a Democrat from the Southside of
    Chicago, born and bred Catholic with an uncle who was a priest in Holy Cross
    Order from Notre Dame and later Procurator General of the Oder, and ultimately an Archbishop. My brother introduced JFK running for president to a town square campaign rally in Joliet which was where I performed my first campaign job; my brother told me to get the Nixon signs down. I got a couple buddies and proceeded to get the signs down – right out of the hands of the people holding them. As Democrats we have a moral responsibility for doing what is right no matter how it may look. Fifteen years later I registered out of the Democratic Party when it became the party of pro-abortion. I chose being a Catholic over being a Democrat. Unfortunately, tens of millions of other Catholics didn’t; that’s why the country and the Church is in the mess it is in now.

    1. Avatar

      Hey Adam,

      Thanks for reading. Of course, in any sociological analysis, especially a summary done by a third-party (me!), there are going to be general trends that don’t hold in every circumstance. What is important, though, is the shape of the trends, and that they explain, to a large degree, the people of a given time and place.

      I also pretty much don’t watch football, if it makes you feel any better. Go Giants!

      Thanks again for reading!


  4. Avatar

    I think you are partially correct yet at the same time we see some Protestant denominations thriving. What is the difference between those that thrive and those that fail. Those that thrive have a 1) very strong idea of identity with 2) strict rules of conduct and 3) serious attitudes about truth. Prior to the 1960s Catholics likewise had all three and on top of it, had the truth. In the US, in my experience the only religious orders that are growing likewise have all three.

    The problem I see is that firstly most Priests today don’t want to offend anyone so there sermons and bland and non-commital (and thus boring). They tell us how important love and sharing and smiles are which even an Atheist would agree with. While priests in more conservative orders like the FSSP preach sermons that force you to either grow closer to God or find a different parish where you can watch your children drift out of the Church.

    Secondly, I see most bishops and Catholic colleges do not stand up for the truths of the Church. The Colleges hire only the most liberal Catholic theologians and teachers. (Otherwise don’t believe or teach Catholicism. My now protestant niece works at one and was shocked.) The bishops hob knob with politicians that support abortion, Gay marriage, and a whole slew of sinful lifestyles.

    Yes, I know that the politicians are not doing the sinning themselves, so there is nothing wrong. That same can be said for Satan as well. He isn’t doing the sins himself, he is just supporting them. How far did that go with God.

    Anyway, I see fast growth among the Traditionalist parishes and orders. I have not yet seen any growth or even sustaining of the number of parishioners in the liberal or even middle of the road parishes. Yes some see growth because of new parishioners who move into the area, but rarely is there real intrinsic growth from children staying with the faith or converts as we see with Traditionalist parishes.

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