The following comes from an April 12 posting on the Catholic World Report.
In general, I am wary of mixing history and contemporary analysis, but in American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America (Ignatius, 2013), Russell Shaw does it superbly well.
Shaw exhibits his brilliance as an investigator of Church history and an observer of Church affairs in countless ways. There is, to begin, his selection of Cardinal James Gibbons to serve as the apotheosis of American Catholicism. In the Americanist debates of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Gibbons was seen as a moderate figure, of Americanist leaning. His theology was orthodox, to be sure, but neither theology nor doctrine was his central concern. When he exerted himself, it was for the most practical—which is not to say unimportant—of causes: intervening in Rome to head off condemnation of the Knights of Labor, a move that would have cost the American Church dearly among the majority of its adherents, who were decidedly working class….
Gibbons chose to emphasize acculturation to American society rather than Catholic distinctiveness. He strove to prove to Protestant America that Catholics could be good Americans and he pushed the predominantly immigrant Church of his day toward the respectability that would support this claim. This is not a “good” choice or a “bad” choice. It is simply one among the various choices, each with its own advantages and liabilities.
This contingency can be a difficult thing for traditional Catholics to appreciate, because our minds are trained in moral theology to distinguish between what is good and what is bad. Killing an innocent person is bad, we avoid it; performing a work of mercy is good, we pursue it. Yet, some of our actions, though morally freighted as all human decisions are, do not reduce to a clear right or wrong. Should a bishop in Chicago in 1900 permit the construction of a Polish-speaking parish? Or should he insist that German and Polish ethnic Catholics worship together in a single parish? There is not a right or a wrong answer, just different responses that set the Church moving down different paths.
Shaw understands that Gibbons’ decision, in some ways, led to the difficulties the Catholic Church now faces. Deference to American culture certainly facilitated the assimilation of immigrants and their ascent up the socioeconomic ladder. This is no small consideration for Irish Catholics fleeing starvation and arriving penniless in a strange land. But the same thirst for accommodation also brought about Catholic politicians and voters, schools and universities, charitable organizations and charitable practices that are all but indistinguishable from their secular counterparts….
As an example of refusal to accommodate in the face of an incompatible national state and culture, Shaw cites Dietrich von Hildebrand’s fleeing Nazi Germany in 1933. It’s a good example. But what if Hitler had for some reason, voluntary or involuntary, moderated his views and the persecution of the Church had been mild, and the Holocaust never happened? Von Hildebrand would appear to be an extremist who overreacted.
A telling comparison of the different possible ecclesial approaches to a hostile national culture/state is that between Poland and Hungary under Communism during the Cold War era. Poland’s church, led by Cardinal Wyszynski, pursued a policy of accommodation. It made certain compromises—though, arguably, on nothing of essential importance—and it survived. Hungary’s church, led by Cardinal Mindszenty, assumed a stance of absolute opposition to the nation’s Communist government. The church was decimated.
To read the full review of Shaw’s book, click here.