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What Would A ‘Catholic America’ Be?

Tocqueville said America would end up divided between Catholics and unbelievers. Does Francis's magisterium change things?
Members of the Roman Catholic Church che

Matthew Schmitz, who is Catholic, reflects on religious liberty and American religiosity. He says something at the end of his UK Catholic Herald column that has caused some interesting discussion on Twitter this morning:

These doubts mattered a great deal, because Tocqueville believed that Catholicism would shape America’s future. He believed that men in democratic society, sick of compromise, would cling to the most consistent form of Christian faith or reject Christianity altogether: “Our descendants will tend more and more to divide into only two parts, some leaving Christianity entirely, others going into the Roman Church.” Those who did not go to Rome would adopt a vision of liberty that scoffed at Christian faith.

America has not yet groaned and found itself Catholic, but in a broad sense Tocqueville was right. The mushy middle of American Christianity is disappearing. Though the “nones” believe in God and often practice ornate forms of spirituality, they are hostile to dogma and discipline. The Protestant denominations have either liberalised entirely or begun to collaborate with Catholics. The result is a nation increasingly divided between Catholic Christianity and outright unbelief.

He clarified later:


I think the clarification is more or less true, but that’s not what the original column says. In fact, only the Mainline Protestant churches have fully liberalized (and you can still find congregations among them that are small-o orthodox). Evangelical churches are closer to orthodox Catholic beliefs on key moral questions, and on the question of the transcendent nature of ultimate authority. (That is, orthodox Catholics and orthodox Evangelicals do not agree on the source of authority on matters of faith and morals, but they both agree that it is not the individual’s conscience.)

If you follow the work of the Catholic sociologist of religion Christian Smith, you’ll know that in the US, actual, on the ground Catholicism is a lot more like Mainline Protestantism than magisterial Catholicism. I don’t know what it means to say, as Schmitz does in his original post, that the nation is “increasingly divided between Catholic Christianity and outright unbelief,” when many of the Catholic churches here do not offer a clear instantiation of doctrinal Catholic Christianity.

It has been true for quite some time — at least since the early 1990s — that theologically and morally conservative Protestants and Catholics have as much and even more in common with each other than either do with theologically and morally liberal members of their own churches. I wonder, though, how the liberalization that the Catholic Church is undergoing in the era of Pope Francis — especially on questions related to LGBT — changes that observation, a sociological truth that emerged under the papacy of John Paul II. To put a fine point on it, who is closer to Catholic truth, an Evangelical who rejects Rome’s authority but who affirms the Biblical standard prohibiting homosexuality, or the pro-gay, Francis-appointed Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, and Francis’s adviser James Martin, the pro-gay activist Jesuit?

When your average Southern Baptist pastor is more Catholic on a key moral issue like LGBT (around which political controversies having to do with religious liberty revolve) than the Cardinal Archbishop of Newark, what does it mean to say that America is “increasingly divided between Catholic Christianity and outright unbelief”? You will not see Evangelical pastors honoring pagan fertility idols in their churches — but Pope Francis oversaw exactly that this month at St. Peter’s basilica. 

Regular readers know that I am an ex-Catholic (turned Eastern Orthodox), but that I believe as a social fact that as goes the Catholic Church, so goes the civilization of the West, which it built. Even after I left the Catholic Church, in 2006, I believed that Tocqueville was probably right about the future of the United States: that it would come down to Catholicism or unbelief. I thought that despite its many weaknesses, Catholicism would stand firm doctrinally, and American Evangelicalism, though stronger in many ways than Catholicism in the present moment, would not have the internal cohesion capable of withstanding modernity in the long term.

After Francis, I don’t really believe that anymore. I don’t have any more confidence that Evangelicalism will be able to hold the line — though I’m grateful for what they’re doing now — but the changes Francis is making, both personally and through his appointments, convince me that Catholicism won’t do it either. (Nota bene, Eastern Orthodoxy, by virtue of its tiny presence in the US, is at present a non-factor.) I expected Catholicism to decline, and to decline precipitously, in a de-christianizing America, but I expected it to decline while remaining magisterially Catholic. Francis’s unfolding magisterium puts it up for grabs, because it is reconciling Catholicism with certain manifestations of modernity that have caused the Mainline Protestant churches to liberalize.

It doesn’t make sense to claim that “Catholic Christianity” is something other than what the Pope proclaims … but if the Pope and the bishops he has appointed sound and act more like Mainline Protestants than magisterial Catholics as defined by the understanding of magisterial Catholicism that prevailed until Francis’s election, then what does “Catholic Christianity” mean?

If Matthew Schmitz (who’s a friend) contends that more conservative, traditional forms of Christianity are going to be the only ones that endure this time of purification, then I agree with him. Small-o orthodox Christians who worship God — Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox — are facing some trials in common, and some trials particular to our own ecclesial bodies. Any individual Christian, any local church, and any larger communion that surrenders to the Spirit of the Age will not stand. As you know, I wrote a book about this.

Tocqueville, however, was wrong about America’s Catholic future. Catholicism didn’t conquer America. Through assimilation and the dynamic power of individualism and democratic capitalism, Protestant America, the essential nation of modernity, conquered Catholicism within its borders. Over the next decade or two, this post-Christian America will conquer most of the Evangelical holdouts (nationalist pageantry and idolatry will not be a protective totem).

I hope I’m proven wrong. I don’t think I will be, though.