Like a gawky adolescent, the American Catholic subculture that existed into the middle years of the last century had many unattractive features. Few people would wish to return to that version of Catholicism now. Yet along with its many defects, the old subculture undoubtedly was a vibrant and surprisingly successful creation of immigrant Catholicism that sustained the Catholic identity of several generations of newcomers and their children while acting as a medium for their integration into the larger American reality around them.

Liturgy was an important part of it. Here was worship that often had a strong ethnic tinge recalling the old country–fusty and old-fashioned, tending heavily to devotionalism, with a notable fondness for things like novenas, processions, and Forty Hours. But like the subculture of which it was part, worship like this helped provide an environment in which Catholics could celebrate their religious identity and experience community with pride and satisfaction.

Recalling what it was like to grow up Catholic in that era, journalist Kenneth L. Woodward speaks of  initiation into “a vast parallel culture” in which young Catholics absorbed and began to live “a primal identity that absorbed and conditioned all the others.” Like many older American Catholics, I know from my own experience what Woodward is talking about.

In the immediate postwar years, the subculture that nurtured this experience began to break down. Partly this was an unintended consequence of impersonal processes like upward socioeconomic mobility and suburbanization. For many Catholics, the move out of center-city  neighborhoods where parish life shaped identity and formed community, into sprawling new suburbs with religiously and ethnically diverse populations and similarly sprawling new parishes where everyone was a stranger to everyone else, was a sharp break with all this.

But partly, too, the dismantling of the old subculture, with its vast infrastructure of Catholic institutions, organizations, and programs reflected a deliberate effort by Catholic academics and intellectuals to haul American Catholicism out of its “ghetto” past into an unmediated engagement with the secular culture. Often this project had the support and encouragement of Church leadership. Considered simply on its own terms, the breaking down of ghetto walls was a great success. The infrastructure so lovingly constructed during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s largely disappeared in the 1960s and 1970s.

Was that altogether a good thing? With the advantage of hindsight, many people now hold that it was not. No doubt the old subculture and its institutions needed to be refurbished, reformed and renewed, adapted to the circumstances of the post-Vatican II Church. Catholic Almanacs of the 1950s, a friend of mine recalls, were “perfect examples of insular Catholic culture, with Catholic baseball statistics and lists of Catholics elected to office.” We didn’t need more of that.  But was it a good idea simply to toss it all aside, with little or nothing to replace it?

“When I was growing up,” the same friend says, “I watched the Legion of Mary and other local Catholic organizations struggling for lack of interest on the part of the priests and chancery office staff, who saw them as anachronisms….I could note the sadness and the frustration in the faces of many older members, especially as nothing was being offered as a replacement or as a new form of devotion.” Historian Charles Morris calls the destruction of the old Catholic ghetto a “fearsome exercise” in cultural demolition”–no less than “the dangerous and potentially catastrophic project of severing the connection between the Catholic religion and the separatist Catholic culture that had always been the source of its dynamism, its appeal, and its power.”

This deeply problematic process and its consequences make up a large part of the story I tell in my book American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America. Rather than leave it at that, however, I sketch a program for the future, with the building of a new Catholic subculture central to it. Absent that, I fear, the future of American Catholicism,  “uncertain” now, will almost certainly turn out to be exceedingly bleak.

When I say that, people sometimes a subculture can’t be built simply by wanting it–the process by which a culture emerges and takes shape is organic, not mechanical, occurring in response to people’s lived experience and shared values and beliefs. At the same time, however, it is possible, and desirable, to act consciously and deliberately in creating what social scientists call a “plausibility structure”–a network of institutions, programs, and groups that embody, celebrate, and reinforce the beliefs and values of a particular group and provide the framework for a true (sub)culture to take shape and flourish.

And something like this can be seen happening now in American Catholicism–indeed, has been happening for some years. This, I believe is the emergence of a new Catholic subculture in the United States.

It can be seen, for instance, in the new Catholic colleges and universities launched in recent years as academic expressions of traditional Catholicism. (Some older schools also have moved, or moved back, in this direction lately.) It can be seen in a growing number of media ventures–publishing houses, periodicals, broadcast stations, web sites, and blogs–and in several new professional and academic associations that share the same general orientation. Most important, it is present in religious institutes committed to a traditional model of religious life and in lay groups that take seriously Vatican II’s call to holiness and seek to promote an authentic spirituality for laymen and laywomen living and working in the world.

Moreover, although it is early in the pontificate, there already are signs that such groups a may reasonably look for encouragement to Pope Francis. It was he, after all, who in an interview only a year and a half before becoming pope deplored the clericalist mindset of lay people who find it “more comfortable to be an altar boy than the protagonist of a lay path.” If there is to be a new Catholic subculture in America, it must be one in which clericalism and the abuse of secrecy that routinely accompanies it do not find a home.

Obviously, the primary purpose of the new subculture must be to preserve and deepen the Catholic identity – which is to say, the faith commitment – of American Catholics. Here,though, an important caveat is necessary. It would be sad indeed if the new subculture and its plausibility structure of institutions and programs turned out to be an inward-looking, defensive instrument for shielding Catholics from a hostile secular culture world. That is no idle worry, for, as John Allen says, the early years of the twenty-first century have been “a boom time for the fortress mentality in Catholicism.” New evangelization will not happen like that.

To counter that possibility–already all too visible here and there in sectors of the emerging Catholic subculture–it is essential that its institutions embody a lively evangelistic mentality, with a firm commitment to forming and motivating Catholics as agents of evangelization. Nonpracticing and seldom-practicing Catholics should be prime targets for this evangelizing thrust. Bluntly put, the realistic alternative to some such approach as this is a retreat into a new Catholic ghetto.

Liturgy will inevitably be a central element of the new subculture, as it was of the old one.  “Culture lives on religion through divine worship,” Josef Pieper says. Liturgy or some paraliturgical equivalent of it lies at the heart of the identity of any culture or subculture worthy of the name. But the new American Catholic subculture plainly can’t involve a return to the liturgical practices of the past nor should it make the attempt, no matter how much nostalgia buffs may yearn for the (perhaps imagined) glories of days gone by.

Still, certain features of that old liturgy should be updated and retained, including the devotionalism that continues to sustain quite a few Catholics in affirming and living their faith. Eucharistic adoration, a big hit in many places of late, is an obvious instance. Moreover, to the extent possible, legitimate liturgical options should be readily available in their own parishes to people who want them: forcing some Catholics to travel miles for occasional, inconveniently scheduled celebrations of the pre-Vatican II Mass is a good way of fostering the spirit of division and alienation that supporters of the Vatican II reforms say they want to avoid.

On the whole, I believe, liturgy done in any acceptable style by people who combine faith with good taste is likely to turn out well. And it will well serve the worship needs of American Catholics in the new Catholic subculture now starting to take shape.

Russell Shaw is former Secretary for Public Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference. His twenty-first book, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America has just been published by Ignatius Press.

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