August 2, 2013


The Americanization of Catholics

The Catholic Church in the United States has its work cut out for itself. Somehow, it has to do a better job of teaching its members the truths that it has been teaching for nearly 2,000 years, and convincing them that they still apply to life in our modern society.

During most of the history of the United States, Catholic leaders tried to convince their fellow citizens that Catholics were true Americans. It appears that the Church has been too successful.

It was often an uphill battle, with periods of persecution. Society was proudly WASP (white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant), and the WASPs wanted to keep it that way. The Know Nothings in the 1850s and the Ku Klux Klan that was so powerful in Indiana in the 1920s are only two examples of groups that didn’t want Catholics in the United States.

Things changed for Catholics in the United States after World War II when, for the first time for most Catholic families, and because of the G.I. Bill, they were able to go to college and enter the professions. They moved from the ghettos to the suburbs, and gradually became members of the mainstream. Today, they definitely are part of mainstream America.

And that’s the problem.

Unfortunately, Catholics became Americanized just at the time that American society began to become more secular. The mainstream Protestant churches (Episcopalian, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and a few others) began to lose their influence. For example, public schools used to include prayers and the study of the Bible, but the courts decided that such practices violated the separation of Church and state.

The 1960s saw the beginning of what became known as the sexual revolution, especially after the invention of the birth control pill. Attitudes toward sexual activities outside of marriage changed. Women began to wear more revealing clothes. Television and movies included more and more sex and crude language.

All of that has spread throughout our society as it has become more secularized. Cohabitation has become common, and it’s no longer a stigma for women to have children outside of marriage. Fewer people today consider themselves religious, and polls show an increase in the number of those who say they practice no religion.

Unfortunately, too many Catholics have joined other Americans in all of this. Although the teachings of the Church haven’t changed, the practices of Catholics have.

Thus, we know that many fewer Catholics now attend Mass every weekend. Divorce rates among Catholics are about the same as for non-Catholics. Catholic couples live together before marriage at the same rate, and the number of Catholic weddings has dropped. They are getting abortions at about the same rate.

Catholics also now seem to have the same attitudes toward social justice, capital punishment, redefining marriage, and the American consumerist lifestyle as other Americans. Many Catholics are no longer countercultural. Instead of evangelizing the culture, as they started to do back in the 1950s when Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen was so popular on TV, they have become evangelized by it.

There was a time when Catholic schools prepared most Catholic children to know and live their religion, but today most Catholic children do not attend Catholic schools. They must get their instruction from weekly religious education classes—if, that is, their parents care enough to send them.

The American culture is also responsible for the dearth of vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Parents don’t encourage such vocations as they once did.

So that’s why we say that the Catholic Church in the United States has its work cut out for it. It’s going to be extremely difficult, but we’d better get started.

There are some encouraging signs. World Youth Day showed once again that there are many young people who want to practice their faith, and that has been shown in our archdiocese, too. Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad and Bishop Simon Bruté College Seminary in Indianapolis are full and building new facilities. Some of our parishes have seen increases in the number of people going to weekday Mass, the sacrament of reconciliation, and worshiping in adoration chapels.

We just have to see a lot more of that to counteract the secularism of our American culture.

—John F. Fink

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