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A Different View of Catholic Renewal

My recent essay on the Dynamic Catholic movement ended by suggesting that, though its contribution to Catholic renewal is worthwhile, it will very likely be insufficient to overcome the decline in the number of practicing Catholics. This essay explains that idea further.

A month or so ago I encountered a reference to David Carlin’s 2003 book, The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America. Being unfamiliar with the book but intrigued by its title, I bought and read it. According to Carlin, the key question is whether the Church can “survive in a society in which most ‘Catholics’ are really not Catholic, but, rather, “generic Christians,” and in which Catholic bishops and priests, either through timidity or policy or conviction, are reluctant to press upon their congregants a specifically Catholic form of Christianity.”

The problem arose, he explains, when three events occurred almost simultaneously in the second half of the 20th century: the dissolution of the Catholic “ghetto,” the Second Vatican Council, and the dramatic cultural change of the 1960s.

The “Catholic Ghetto” began when the first Catholics to the colonies met the Protestants who had brought from Europe disrespect for the Catholic Church and suspicion, in some cases even hatred, of its members. These attitudes resulted in discriminatory practices that alienated Catholics from the general culture and motivated them to regard their Catholicism as a sanctuary. By the mid-twentieth century, however, after Americans of all religions had fought side by side in World War II, anti-Catholic feeling waned and Catholics overcame their defensiveness and became more open to influences outside the Church.

Vatican II was initiated by Pope John XXIII to “throw open the windows of the church and let the fresh air of the spirit blow through.” Some of what came in those “windows,” however, turned out to cause controversy and division. Many Catholics considered the ideas expressed in the Council as radical; others regarded them as reactionary. But one fact no one could deny: opening the windows gave a hearing to ideas that challenged Catholic teaching. The impression this conveyed, however subtly, was that some Catholic teachings might—just might—be mistaken and therefore subject to change. More than a few Catholic intellectuals at the Council, Carlin notes, reinforced that impression by seeing their mission as, “not to Christianize modernity, but to modernize the Church.”

In Carlin’s view, the impression that Catholics were henceforth free to challenge Catholic teachings led many Catholics to embrace the Protestant idea of private judgment of religious truth. And when they did so, they became even less accepting of clerical authority and more vulnerable to dominant cultural ideas.

Dramatic Cultural Change. Carlin mentions three intellectual movements as having significant impact on Christians in general and Catholics in particular: the cultural relativism of anthropology, the philosophical theory of ethical emotivism, and the psychological views in Theodor Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality. Relativism is the belief that truth is not objective but varies with time and place and culture; ethical emotivism is the belief that feelings are more trustworthy than reason; and Adorno’s book depicted conservatives as ethnocentric, neurotic, and repressed, and natural explanations as more acceptable than supernatural ones. These views made all religions seem primitive and those rich in doctrine and dogma (like Catholicism) especially so.

At the time he wrote the book (2003), Carlin noted that the three events—the dissolution of the Catholic ghetto, Vatican II, and the dramatic cultural changes of the 1960s and 1970s—had already had a profoundly negative impact on America in general and Catholicism in particular. This impact made secularism a dominant, if often unconscious belief system even among people who considered themselves Catholic.

The chief tenets of secularism are personal liberty of thought and action and unbounded tolerance for others. Carlin argues that these constitute a slippery slope. Believing that all religions are good leads to believing that no religion is better than the others; that in turn leads to believing that any belief about religion—including the non-belief of agnosticism and atheism—is as acceptable as other beliefs. When Catholics reach that position, they become so broadminded that the Catholic faith loses all relevance for them. As more and more Catholics do so, Carlin concludes, Catholicism will gradually “become a minor and relatively insignificant American religion.”

The consequences of the Church’s slide toward irrelevance had long been manifest, in Carlin’s view. Many priests and nuns asked to be laicized. (Some left without asking.) Intermarriage became common, increasing the likelihood that many children would not be raised Catholic. The Church’s teachings on premarital and extramarital sex, divorce and remarriage, contraception, abortion, and homosexuality were increasingly ignored.

One reason for these consequences (in addition to the three events discussed above was, in Carlin’s view, “the appallingly poor level of episcopal leadership,” not only in requiring priests to explain Catholic teachings in their sermons, but also in rooting out pedophiles and ending the “open-door policy of welcoming homosexuals into the priesthood.”

Carlin offers a number of ways to halt Catholicism’s slide into irrelevance.

Return to the traditional teaching that “far from all religions being essentially equal in worth, Catholicism is a uniquely privileged religion, the one true Church of God.” This can be accomplished, he notes, without denying that other religions and even secular groups have “a partially true perception of metaphysical and moral truth.”

“Re-Catholicize” Catholic colleges” by requiring the study of philosophy and theology rather than just “religious studies,” and by making all subjects, including the natural sciences and the human sciences, more clearly Catholic by focusing research and instruction on issues relevant to Church teaching.

“Get the Catholic census right” by having bishops and priests acknowledge four categories of Catholics—“Authentic, Generic, Recoverable, and Merely Nominal”—and end excessive attention to Generic ones in their preaching and witness. This can be done by substituting sermons explaining Catholic teaching on controversial matters, including those concerning voting decisions, for pabulum topics about being “nice” to others.

Restore the habit of calling attention to the Catholic beliefs that distinguish the church from other Christian churches and, equally important, from the new dominant religion of secularism.

Even the best and most insightful book can have its weaknesses, and Carlin’s is no exception. The weakness I find most unfortunate is the omission of any reference to the role Humanistic Psychology (HP) played in the dramatic cultural change of the 1960s and 1970s that contributed to Catholicism’s problems. HP was as important as any of the three movements he mentions, in some ways more important.

As I detailed in Corrupted Culture (2013), HP reinforced relativism and emotivism and elevated self-absorption to a level bordering on narcissism. It also promoted the authority of self above that of any other agency, including the Church. Moreover, it was a direct cause of the exodus of many priests and nuns. As Dr. William Coulson, an HP leader, explains: “We corrupted a whole raft of religious orders on the west coast in the ’60s by getting the nuns and priests to talk about their distress . . . The IHMs had some 60 schools when we started; at the end, they had one. There were some 560 nuns when we began. Within a year after our first interventions, 300 of them were petitioning Rome to get out of their vows. They did not want to be under anyone’s authority, except the authority of their imperial inner selves.”

I would emphasize that Carlin’s omission of this important factor in the Church’s decline in no way diminishes the accuracy or meaningfulness of his message. If anything, it adds to the importance of that message.

Fifteen years have passed since The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America was published and the problems it described remain unsolved. If anything, they have worsened. Secularism is stronger today than it was before, and the very sensible solutions Carlin recommended have not been implemented by the hierarchy, at least not in any visible way. A program like Dynamic Catholic is a commendable lay initiative, but not a genuine solution. Meaningful Catholic renewal will depend mainly on the creativity and dynamism of bishops and priests.

Copyright © 2018 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved