Russell Shaw is glad that there has been some serious pushback by Catholics against the forces within the Church, as well as outside it, that effectively dissolved in the postwar era so much of what was distinctive about Catholic life. But he is also concerned:
This is all to the good—up to a point. But note that when I speak of the desirability of a new Catholic subculture, I do not mean a self-regarding, inward-looking ghetto. Unfortunately, signs of such a thing already can be glimpsed here and there. They seem likely to spread if steps are not taken to discourage that from happening.
Here is where the new evangelization comes in. It provides rationale and motivation for Catholics to set their sights on something far better than a Catholic ghetto—the creation of a new, dynamic American Catholic subculture specifically designed to be a source of creative energy for preaching the gospel far and wide, with particular attention to former Catholics and nominal Catholics who are teetering on the brink.
This is asking a great deal—a subculture able to nurture and sustain a strong sense of Catholic identity without turning in on itself. Can it be done? No one really knows because up to now it hasn’t been attempted. Evangelization is the key. Meanwhile, one thing does seem certain: If it cannot be done, or if no attempt is made to do it, the situation of the Catholic Church in the United States is likely to become increasingly troubled in the years ahead.
I take his point, but boy, is this a difficult issue. The force of the mainstream cultural current is so strong that it often seems the only communities that successfully resist it are those who take a rock-hard communal stance against it. What Shaw is warning against is a bunker mentality. I think he’s right to do so. One reason that it took so long to deal with the problem of clerical sexual abuse is because generations of Catholics had been taught tribalist habits from the immigrant church experience. I imagine that this is one thing that Shaw has in mind. One of the dangers of a tight-knit community is that it becomes more difficult to point to wrongdoing within that community, because many of its members see that as threatening the cohesion of the whole. This is not just true of Catholics; it’s true of all human communities.
Anyway, how do we strike a balance between being in the world but not of it? Some conservative-minded folks I’ve known adopt the strategy of denying that there’s a problem with the mainstream culture. It has seemed to me that they do this because the challenges are too great to think about … so they choose not to think about them. That is, they understand, and will say, that we do live in a degraded culture, one that is aggressively hostile to conservative values — but they seem to have effectively surrendered their children to this culture. On the other hand, you have the bunker brigades, of which Shaw writes, people who are afraid of everything, and who may instill their children with this same rigid fear. Last year, I was accompanying friends on a visit that took us to the home of a conservative Catholic homeschooling family. It struck me that there was only one piece of art in the house that wasn’t devotional, and no books on any shelf (that I could see) that weren’t either devotional or written with a heavily Catholic focus. The impression I got was that this is an airless, rigid place. I could certainly have been wrong, but the impression was of a bunker. I’m sure that had I talked to the parents, we would have agreed on most things regarding the threat the mainstream culture poses to our religious and moral values. But we have significantly different responses to it, our families.
This is hard. Shaw says that what Catholics call (following JP2) the “new evangelization” is a countervailing force to ghettoization, to bunkerization. By this I suppose he means that as long as these conservative Catholics realize that their mission involves being open to the world and reaching out to the world with their beliefs and way of life — indeed that their mission requires making disciples of the world — then that should work against bunkerization. I think he’s right. The thing to remember, though, is that given the cultural realities in which postmodern Christians live, a certain degree of conscious, critical withdrawal from the mainstream is required, simply so that we can know who we are.