Kinds of Catholics

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I HAD TO SEND the cover design ofthe book back to the publishers. They had printed the title as “The Catholic Moment.’ The italicized definite article would be presumptuous, as though this were the definitive, make-or-break, do-or-die moment for Roman Catholicism. That community of faith has been around for a while and, come what may, will doubtless survive this moment as well. The question posed by “The Catholic Moment’ is whether the Roman Catholic Church will play the culture-transforming role for which it is now singularly positioned in America and the world.

It certainly is not going to do thatif Jay P. Dolan is right. Dolan is an historian at Notre Dame and has written a very big book titled The American Catholic Experience. There is little risk of doing the book an injustice by summarizing its argument in two propositions: 1) The American Catholic experience is, all in all, a success story. 2) The evidence of success is that Catholics have become like everybody else in America. Oddly enough, and perhaps unconsciously, Dolan accepts as his premise the thesis of rabid anti-Catholics like the late Paul Blanshard, who contended that the issue is whether one could be both a loyal Roman Catholic and a real American.


To this day many people join Blanshardin answering in the negative. The somewhat new thing is that many of those who agree with Blanshard are themselves Catholics. What is celebrated as the arrival of Catholicism in America is a resounding vindication of the Blanshard thesis that there is an irresolvable incompatibility between Roman Catholicism and Americanism. The irresolvable is purportedly resolved by muting or eliminating the Roman Catholic side of the problem.

Successfully assimilated Roman Catholicssometimes say that they are not doctrinal Catholics or liturgical Catholics or ethical Catholics but communal Catholics. That is, being Catholic has little to do with accepting truth claims, participating in sacramental grace, or adhering to moral norms. The word “Catholic’ denotes something residual, the afterglow of what was once a way that claimed to be shaped by truth, grace, and obedience. In “American Catholic,’ the qualifier is “Catholic.’ It appears as an almost accidental and very private twist on being American. It is nothing that need disturb or challenge anyone else, any more than there is cause for public notice that someone is a United Methodist or an adherent of New Age.

Little wonder that the arrivists ofAmerican Catholicism are not enthusiastic about the Pope’s coming back here again. He is a reminder of the bad old days of authoritative truth, sin and grace, and binding morality. He conjures the ghost of Paul Blanshard, reminding everyone that no matter how often you say “American Catholic’ there is something inescapably Roman about Catholic.

SOME SELF-IDENTIFIED Catholic traditionalistsare delighted, naturally. Far from being embarrassed about being different, they exult in it. They are convinced that Vatican II was a horrendous mistake. They are revanchists striking back at all that has gone wrong, and they are convinced, mistakenly I believe, that this Pope is their man to restore the status quo ante. The arrivists and the revanchists both agree with Blanshard that it is not possible to be truly Roman Catholic and truly American. They only differ on which they have decided most truly to be.

But Paul Blanshard and his ilk arewrong. At least that was the claim of John Carroll (1735-1815) and the early bishops in America. Like Father John Courtney Murray in this century, they were convinced that Roman Catholics had a very particular religious, cultural, and political contribution to make in redefining the American experience. In the process, Catholicism would be changed as well, but it would be no less distinctively Roman Catholic.


Neither revanchists nor arrivists domuch to advance that process. It is said that some traditionalists claim to be more Roman Catholic than the Pope, which is both amusing and true. But of course the claim is self-contradictory, for the Pope has a most particular say in defining what it means to be Roman Catholic. Similarly, the Americanism claimed by the arrivists is a very selective version of the American experience. In Jay Dolan’s telling of it, for example, the “everybody else’ whom Catholics are just like is not everybody else at all. “Everybody else’ is the culturally up-market part of American commonly described as the new knowledge class. In this view, the real arrival of American Catholicism is that its leadership has joined an elite that is arrayed against the great majority of Americans, including of course the great majority of American Catholics.

So revanchists have a very specializeddefinition of Roman Catholicism, and arrivists a very specialized definition of America. Their culpability in vindicating the Blanshard thesis is not equal, however. At least the revanchists set forth an identity that is interestingly different, which, ironically, is a very American and pluralistic thing to do. The arrivists, on the other hand, not only deprive the rest of us of a religious difference that makes a difference but, in their touching eagerness to be like everybody else, impoverish the culture they so uncritically embrace. One must hope that the American Catholic experience will not turn out to be as banal as Jay Dolan would have it.

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