A 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.