Restoring the Subculture

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.


  1. Editorial question: when are posts listed as “by Other Voices” and when are they listed as “by Editor”? Why is this particular post listed as “by Anthony Ruff, OSB”?

    1. @Jeffrey Pinyan – comment #1:
      Whoops. Should have been “Other Voices.” I just corrected that. Thanks.
      In general, “editor” is for a link to another article or news story, “other voices” is for something that is primarily one person’s view. Sometimes the categories are a bit fuzzy. But not that fuzzy – I’m not Russell Shaw.

      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #2:
        Thanks, Fr. Anthony. I was confused because on the front page, I saw “By Russell Shaw” (the top line of the excerpt) and then clicked the article and saw “By Anthony Ruff, OSB”, and so I thought I was reading your commentary on something that would have excerpts from Shaw’s latest book.

        Long story short (too late)…

  2. The author doesn’t seem to have given enough thought to the truly organic nature of a subculture such as the one created by immigrant Catholicism of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Such a culture exists in response to stresses in the environment, and can’t be conjured up at will. What I think the author ends up supporting – instead – is communities of choice based on ecclesiastical tastes, which is another way of describing what Aidan Kavanagh once called, dismissively, “boutique Catholicism.” It matters not if the boutique goods are robed in old vestments or drenched in incense or whatever. If it’s a self-selected phenomenon, it’s not what made ghetto Catholicism what it was. Welcome — instead — to what Bryan Spinx called, so trenchantly, “the worship mall.” Yes, you can patronize the same bookshops, but it’s still a Starbucks model.

    1. @Rita Ferrone – comment #4:

      Rita, I agree that the fracturing of the Roman rite into OF, EF, and Anglican Ordinariate strains has created what you call a “boutique Catholicism”. Still, perhaps a minority of Catholics have been estranged from the reforms because celebrations of solemnities in many OF parishes often omit the series of blessings, litanies, and processions inherent to some liturgical days. I did not know that Palm Sunday and Corpus Christi had sung processions until I was a young man and experienced these rituals in a Tridentine context. Full celebrations of solemnities should not be the preserve of EF parishes only. And yet so many priests who celebrate the OF simply bless the palms, sprinkle with holy water, and leave in the palms in the vestibule. Perhaps many priests are unaware that a series of psalms are to be sung in procession after the blessing of the psalms.

      As Russell Shaw writes, ” Moreover, to the extent possible, legitimate liturgical options should be readily available in their own parishes to people who want them.” I interpret not only a as a provision for EF celebrations but also as a call to celebrate the full ceremonies of Mass as provided in the reformed Missal. The inability or refusal of many parishes to provide full rituals repels those who are looking for a more intellectual liturgy with a greater depth of layers than the four-hymn sandwich every Sunday. OF parishes should not write off these Catholics and simply point them the EF or the Anglican Ordinariate.

      Liturgical minimalism has always been with us. “Boutique Catholicism” is, in my opinion, the unfortunate result of the unwillingness of not a few pastors and priests to celebrate the reformed missal to its fullest. The reversion to OF minimalism begets alienation for some Catholics.

      Wouldn’t it be beautiful and deeply contemplative if most Catholics experienced the fullness of their rites, rather than a steady diet of the “short form”?

      1. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #32:

        As you rightly point out, the impoverishment of these celebrations is not inherent in the OF but in the practice of it that too often does it an injustice. This can be a matter of the routine into which Sunday Masses are often forced. I know an urban parish of perhaps 400 regular parishioners that has six Masses every Sunday in a church that seats about 400. The full rites (not to mention full ceremonial) are unlikely to occur under such circumstances. But intentional celebrations of a far less common kind (as is the case with many examples of the EF) will naturally draw people who will expect, if not demand, the full treatment. This is simple human nature and group dynamics on parade.

        The mentality, so inharmonious with the ideals of Sacrosanctum Concilium, that you have as many Masses as you have priests to cover them is impoverishing our rites and our communities. (And I realize how painful accounts like this must sound for communities that have no priest. The distribution of laborers amidst the harvest is another issue.)

      2. @Roger Evans – comment #33:

        Thank you Roger for pointing out the reality of priestless parishes. I come from an American region where there are multiple parishes even in some smaller villages. These parishes are (for the most part) adequately staffed. I am very blessed for this.

        I also agree, however, that the reform of the Mass and liturgy in general sought to move away from, and not encourage, the liturgical minimalism common before the Council.

  3. My recollection of this subculture is southern and not so much immigrant but truly southern. Catholics have a long history in the south, and certainly Ireland plays a role in that in Georgia, but immigration from the 1840’s potato famine and Georgia as a penal colony prior to that, but priests didn’t come with the criminals so the Irish in south Georgia are now Methodists and Southern Baptist and might be shocked to know their Catholic heritage. But what the Jesuits did in Augusta and Macon was to provide beautiful places of worship, good celebrations of the Mass, with choirs etc, so High Mass was not an anomaly and was celebrated every Sunday even in my small parish growing up. 40 Hours devotion was quite popular and well attended. Traditional Catholic piety and reverence were strictly upheld. There were plenty of religious sisters (mostly Mercy Sisters and St. Joseph of Corondelet, and Benedictine preists/brothers, Franciscan, Christian Brothers and Marists). The parish revolved around the schools staffed by religious women who instilled this popular piety and subculture more so than the priests ever did. Both in Macon and Augusta, Sunday night meant Evening Prayer and Benediction and the Jesuit churches were filled to capacity. Daily Mass was well attended and rosaries and novenas were prayed publicly and privately. Confessions were numerous. I don’t know how this all can be regained because it did revolve around religious and mostly women religious who are no more in our diocese except in a parish or two, and so they are “Gone with the Wind” and what has replaced them and the subculture they fueled doesn’t make such a great impression on the current generation.
    This subculture crumbled quickly in the late 60’s as popular devotions were ridiculed and derided as so pre-Vatican II as were nuns in habits, schools they staffed and the structures of piety and subculture they helped to create and maintain were now seen as archaic and useless by the very ones who promoted it. Renewal would bring a better day they assured us and we are still waiting.

  4. In principle, I applaud the attempt to recover Catholic culture. (I’m not willing to consign us to being “sub.”)

    On the other hand, our so-called “fall” may be more attributed to institutional blunders and a refusal to engage in the Great Commission: spreading the faith with verve and joy. The spectacular non-engagement of Evangelii Nuntiandi is about tops on that list. Meanwhile, many traditionalists are content with the small-church-getting-smaller meme.

  5. I think the dismantling of the Catholic subculture in the 1960″s was more complicated than Russell makes it out to be. That era saw lots of dismantling in many if not most institutions. This was the decade or two of change. We can look back now and see that it caused some problems, not only in the church but also in government, higher education, sexual “revolution”, feminism, radicalism even neighborhoods were torn in two when major highways were built through them.. ever drive through Orange NJ on the Jersey Turnpike? A prime example.
    But like most things in life there is lots of “grey” and some good things did come from it. Regardless of the institution when its members move up and out there is an innate need to reject cultural things of the past. Take food, my grandparents ate “Boudin” blood sausage. You think I touch the stuff? They disassociated themselves from Protestants, public schools and were quite narrow in their political views. My generation has moved up and out and are not influenced by these things.
    Rather, the more things change the more they remain the same. Catholics are now mainstream and even though many are not active they certainly become offended if they are accused of no longer being catholic.
    Returning to a subculture is exactly that, returning to something out of the cultural norm and will be perceived as moving backwards.

    Boudin anyone?

    1. @Dale Rodrigue – comment #7:

      Hello Dale,

      Rather, the more things change the more they remain the same. Catholics are now mainstream and even though many are not active they certainly become offended if they are accused of no longer being catholic.

      No offense, but – too often, that’s just about the only way in which some Catholics now manifest their Catholicism.

      I readily concede that more than a few Catholics back in the old ghetto subcultures were “cultural Catholics” – plus ça change. Or is it? We can’t know the true spiritual state of anyone, but exterior actions can’t be dismissed, either. Mass attendance (70-75% versus less than 25% today) and confession rates were far higher in those days. Nearly all Catholics at least made sure to marry in the Church, and baptize their children. We’ve gone from 8.6 marriages per 1,000 U.S. Catholics in 1972 to 2.6 in 2010. Baptisms have plummeted almost as rapidly. There is no putting lipstick on that pig. Something *has* changed in American Catholicism. Yes, we’re all grateful for the greater opportunities for women and minorities, the reduction in inter-ethnic tensions, but some very bad things have happened, too.

      In saying all that I am not trying to read people out of the Church – quite the contrary! But unpleasant facts must be faced, or we have no chance of rectifying them. Some people here may be uncomfortable with the term “subculture.” Well, call it what you like, but Shaw is on to something when he says that there must be a distinctively Catholic way of living, and that way of living will manifest itself in community on some level. That need not be an Amish model or a fortress mentality, but it *is* going to have be countercultural to some degree in a steadily secularizing society.

      Yes, there were some unpleasant aspects to life in the old ghettos – boudin blood sausage included. We need not repeat them. But we also need to recognize the good things that were lost.

  6. This book is an “inside the belt way” view of American Catholicism. As I have articulated before there are really two American Churches. The first one consisting of the employees of the Church (who live inside the belt way), and the second one consisting of all those of us who are not employees of the Church who live in America and marvel at the unreality of the beltway.

    The old Catholic subculture was maintained by the Catholic ethnic and Catholic family heritages of people in the second Church. One of my grandparents was German Catholic, one Polish Catholic. Their subculture was maintained by their ethnicity as much or more than their Catholicism. My German grandmother objected to her daughter’s marriage to a “hunky” because they “beat their wives.” My mother simply told her mother they she would get married outside the Church; of course then my grandmother gave her consent. My mom was not a German Catholic, nor my dad a Polish Catholic. We were just Catholic both nuclear and most of the extended families. However more and more of the grandchildren and great grandchildren are marrying non-Catholics, so while some families are maintaining Catholicism others are not. The extended family of Catholic culture like the ethnic culture is disappearing. Unfortunately the ethnicity and the families maintained the parishes more than the parishes maintained the ethnicities and the families.

    If we look at the model of the average Catholic parish which I posted from CARA data, one can see how difficult, close to impossible it is for parishes to maintain a Catholic subculture separate from America.

    In the “average” CARA parish of 5,452 people, already 1,264 have left, another 911 identify as Catholic but are not registered in the parish, and another 1,225 attend Mass less than once a month. The parish has little chance of maintaining a meaningful subculture among these people who are mostly historic Catholics, Easter bunnies and Santa Clauses at best and weddings and funerals at worst.

    The only possibility of creating a subculture exists among the 165 Catholics very involved outside of Mass, but as I pointed out in my post they would really have to be well organized to begin to create a subculture (networks of families, close friends, and small groups) among the 837 attending Mass every week and the 1,047 attending at least once of month but not weekly. I don’t see much evidence that the inside the beltway Church is organizing those 165 Catholics to create a real subculture. I am not saying that it cannot be done, certainly the Protestant mega-churches do something very much like what I am suggesting. Some have tithing of ten percent in both time and money (like the Mormons) to maintain such as subculture. But it is an uphill struggle. Even the Mormons and the Evangelicals are in membership difficulties.

    Our culture wars do not help; they perpetuate the error that subcultures are mostly about shared culture when real live social networks of family, close friends and small groups are essential not just hearing the same values at Sunday Mass.

  7. Jack, Dale, KLS + Rita – my initial reaction was similar. The post description is very narrow and frames it as if there was one, monolithic catholic sub-culture. In fact, the tension between ethnic sub-cultures, the larger church, and society continues today – it really depends upon your ethnic/cultural heritage – in fact, as I read the post my first thought was that this writer has obviously never experienced a Hispanic parish or bilingual/mixed parish in the Southwest or certain major cities – Chicago, Miami, LA, Denver, NYC, etc. He appears to not include current evolution/assimilation for Vietnamese, Filipino, Cuban, Korean sub-sets.
    Also, highlighting devotionals or comparing pre and post is not historically accurate and again is a narrow narrative. (for example, has the writer ever experienced the current Midwest/West devotionals around the feast of La Virgen de Guadalupe? What about quinceneras, mananitas, etc.;
    Most parishes and dioceses continued to increase, build, and expand post VII (one could make an argument for a *new* catholic church that was assimilated and achieving/making its mark in society) and catholics now had adult education, bible study, various retreats formats, Marriage Encounter, RCIA, better sacramental preparation (engaged retreats), Teens Encounter Christ, Little Rock Scripture Study….to name a few. Why make it so black and white.
    Would agree with Jack – data and studies tell a very different narrative from what has been posted.

    1. @Bill deHaas – comment #10:

      Bill, I also think his conclusions are somewhat unfounded too when he states:
      “…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.”
      Reminds me of the quote:
      “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” – Mark Twain

  8. Some subcultures evolve naturally (e.g. the immigrant Catholicism of an earlier America) and some are self-consciously chosen (e.g. the Amish or some pre-Jerry Falwell forms of evangelicalism). This piece doesn’t seem to be fully cognizant of the distinction.

    I recently gave a paper at a conference hosted by an institution with a large number of very dedicated young graduate students who are quite enthusiastic about JPII’s theology of the body and the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar (let those who have ears to hear…). I was impressed by their counter-cultural spirit (they are clearly not very keen on either political party nor American consumer culture), if not always by their theological enthusiasms. In reporting on the conference to colleagues, I found myself referring to them as “the Catholic Amish,” since I was struck by the conscientious care with which they sought to let their faith permeate every aspect of their lives and the desire they have to live out that faith in a community of like-minded individuals.

    It was impressive, but I was left wondering whether the idea of “Catholic Amish” an oxymoron? On the one hand, Catholicism has traditionally had a culture-forming impulse that chafes against restriction to a subculture. On the other hand, Catholicism has sometimes had its most significant culture-forming power precisely when it has taken the form of a subculture (e.g. monasticism).

    1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #13:

      I just wanted to say: Perceptive observations, Dcn. Bauerschmidt.

      “Catholic Amish” is an exaggeration, even for the most isolated traddy communities. But the subcultures are out there. And much of the impetus comes as much from without, in the form of steadily secularizing society at large (with concomitant hostility to organized religion), as it does from within.

      1. @Richard Malcolm – comment #14:

        Well, in the US at least, the current hostility to Catholicism is far lower than what obtained for most of our nation’s history. While it’s important not to be in denial about trends that make a Catholic culture harder to cultivate, pun intended, I think melodramatic excess about these trends is an exercise in egoism, which is not a positive spiritual value. There are places in this world where Catholics are at credible risk for red martyrdom, and more places where they are at credible risk for white martyrdom, but most of what is being bandied about in the US does not rise to that level, pace Cdl George, unless that’s going for much cheaper these days than it used to.

      2. @Karl Liam Saur – comment #16:

        Hello Karl,

        Well, in the US at least, the current hostility to Catholicism is far lower than what obtained for most of our nation’s history.

        Well, to be sure, I don’t to exaggerate. And not just because of what is happening to Catholics in Iraq, Syria, Burma, etc.. It was brought home to me how rough it could be for early 19th century Catholics when it was explained to me not long ago, by a seminarian, that a major East Coast cathedral was built with its windows so high off the ground in no small part because it would be harder for nativist mobs to smash them. We are not at that point again yet.

        And yet it’s also true that hostility – not only to Catholics, but Christians in general – is higher and more pervasive than at any time in the last century or so. There’s a danger in overstating the threats we face; but we can also be too blithe about them, too. I’ve seen how the mood has shifted in secular workplaces I have been exposed to.

      3. @Richard Malcolm – comment #17:
        In the US, I think Christians who exhibit hostility to non-Christians outnumber the non-Christians who exhibit hostility to Christians. Neither is right, but Christians have a lot of power in our culture that non-Christians do not.

    2. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #13:
      I have seen these young theologians, and they strike me more as “Catholic Mormons” with their neatly slicked hair and their mostly white shirts and ties. And, for that matter, these guys are pretty universally white, too. So, why must Catholic counter culture and Catholic identity be constructed along the lines of devotions and these other “Amish” (or Mormon) elements? I see no recognition of the peace and social justice forms of counter cultural Catholicism in these conversations, nor of the vibrant black Catholic community, with its own cultural affinities for black Gospel music.
      There are, and always has been, MANY forms of American Catholicism, with various degrees of affinity for the dominant culture against which it defined itself. Even the “immigrant Catholicism” of Dorothy Day’s time had its business class already too much in bed with the American ideal of financial success. The bishops themselves often modeled their own physical plants and personal lifestyles on this ideal.
      Close knit communities have their dark side; there is often little tolerance for non-conformity. It’s no doubt generational, but my generation has some painful memories of that white American Catholic culture, especially the women. I’ll take our. Current version, with its loser ties, thank you very much. Those ties can still bind.

  9. As Pope Francis said recently “there is no going back”. Nostalgia is a trait of older people for whom memories of the past are taking on a greater significance. A problem with recalling the past is that our brains don’t supply all the details that were once there and so we have to supply the missing elements and usually do so either very positively or very negatively. When we speak of “cultural” Catholics it is seldom in a complimentary way. These are the C & E folks or those whose Catholicism is shaped by snippets from funerals and weddings. Think, for a minute, of some of the cultural elements associated with weddings. It has been more than a century since women were thought of as possessions of first the father and then the husband, yet we still see the father of the bride escorting his daughter down the aisle and giving her away to the husband. It has been centuries since the groom’s father paid “best men” to see to it that the groom is delivered to the altar just before the wedding begins, but we still see the groom and the groomsman standing near the altar as the wedding begins. I’ve been attempting to replace those elements with ones that are more in harmony with a more developed understanding of wedding ritual and don’t want to recapture the “culture” of old.
    The Catholic subculture of old was transmitted by the elders among the immigrants who came to America from all over so there was an Italian, Irish, Polish, Czech, German piety that was passed down until the second and third generations started thinking of themselves more as Americans than as Catholics or as members of ethnic groups. In my view the last thing we need is a new Catholic subculture since it will only create a new bread of cultural Catholics who barely live the faith.

  10. Hello Richard,
    Oh yes agreed but there may be other ways that Catholics may have an “affect” on society in general other than a “clickish” (no offense intended, only word that comes to mind this afternoon) subculture. Like many institutions members change, drop certain cultural habits but still consider themselves a member of that institution. Catholics have worked hard in moving out of the “ghetto”, dropping those things that divided Catholics from others, and doing so moved up. By doing this we have gone from Al Smith and prejudices against Catholicism by Protestants, KKK etc to the first RC president, JFK. Like most things in life it cost something however we are still the largest Christian denomination in the US and around the world.
    Reminds me of the question, once we have made it to the mountain top what lies on the other side?
    I am not so pessimistic as Russell, I think American Catholicism will survive. Many are in the “wings” waiting for what they perceive change from the Vatican and I think many are paying attention to Pope Francis. From 2000 to 2012 around 35% of American Catholics stopped practicing on a regular basis (not a firm stat quote) but I think they are beginning to reconsider based on what they see. What Pope Francis does about the sex abuse crisis and what is already brewing in New Jersey and how he reacts to that will determine if it’s “safe” to come back!

    1. @Dale Rodrigue – comment #19:
      I left out after “I think American Catholicism will survive…”
      that the Vice president, Speaker of the house, majority of Senators, majority of House members and 6 out of 9 Supreme Court Justices are Roman Catholic. Not bad at all. Many are nominal Catholics but still Catholic. This wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t moved beyond subculture identity.

      This is an exciting time for Catholics however, a new pope and possibly changes in how the Church reacts to scandals etc may bring prominence to Catholicsm again…

      Maybe just being Catholic is a subculture by itself and hopefully one that many non Catholics would strive to join!

  11. Shaw complains about 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.

    In the heyday of the ‘ghetto subculture’, most Catholic scholarship (theology, church history, biblical studies, liturgical studies, etc.) earned little respect from mainstream academics. It was heavily self-referential, rather like blogs that support their assertions by quoting other blogs. It shunned any engagement with the wider academic world .

    But the period in which “the infrastructure so lovingly constructed during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s” was taken down saw the rise of a remarkable group of Catholic scholars and scholars engaged with Catholic issues: Rahner, McGinn, Brown, Ricoeur, Cobb, Schillebeeckx, Lonergan, Tracy, Congar, de Chardin, de Lubac, Maritain, Kavanagh and Pelikan immediately come to mind. There were more. Catholic academics took their places not just in seminaries but in the top academic departments of religious studies.

    That period now seems to be over. A generation has gone, largely unreplaced.

    An interventionist CDF hasn’t helped, nor has the rise of a theological religious police that uses social media to protest academic appointments and speaking engagements. The issue of the day is no longer the range, breadth or depth of a thinker’s insight but whether he or she is or is ‘orthodox’. Pope Benedict once competed in the academic arena but, for many years, has produced popular material and avoided criticism. Shaw’s “new Catholic colleges”, publishing houses, periodicals and professional associations are heavily populated with lightweights. Where are the great Catholic theologians today? The top scripture scholars? There are a few historians. But the renaissance in Catholic scholarship was short-lived. Bloggers speak at academic conferences and get cited in footnotes. Faculty taking the antimodernist oath is given as a sign of quality.

    The “academic expressions of traditional Catholicism” that Shaw praises are hardly a step forward.

    1. @Jonathan Day – comment #22:
      “Shaw’s “new Catholic colleges”, publishing houses, periodicals and professional associations are heavily populated with lightweights. Where are the great Catholic theologians today? The top scripture scholars? There are a few historians. But the renaissance in Catholic scholarship was short-lived. Bloggers speak at academic conferences and get cited in footnotes. Faculty taking the antimodernist oath is given as a sign of quality.”

      Well said. This is a very important problem. Charles Taylor, Eamon Duffy, Robert Taft – brilliant Catholics, towering intellects – but they are not in these niche “Catholic culture” colleges, for sure.

    2. @Jonathan Day – comment #22:

      That period now seems to be over. A generation has gone, largely unreplaced.

      I would largely agree with that. The question is: Why?

      It actually brings to mind something R.R. Reno said not long ago in his review of Fergus Kerr’s Twentieth Century Catholic Theologians:

      A theologian friend recently made the plaintive observation that our generation seems to lack thinkers of the stature of previous generations. Is that so surprising? We lack the coherent church culture that gave their theologies precision, depth, and scope. Theologians can innovate to their hearts’ content, but without a standard theology the total effect of our efforts is far less than the sum of its parts.

      Well, at least there’s an agreement on what has happened across the spectrum, if not the *why.* I expect you may not share Reno’s diagnosis. But it hasn’t been the Vatican or even the Communio crowd running most of the theology schools in the last two generations. Why is it that Rahner’s disciples have not produced a generation of similar talent? I’m genuinely curious what people here think.

      Shaw’s “new Catholic colleges”, publishing houses, periodicals and professional associations are heavily populated with lightweights.

      Well, in their defense, these are mostly newly, relatively small, teaching focused institutions, w/limited resources. There are some fairly credible names – Peter Kwasniewski, Matthew Levering (technically at Dayton now), Matthew Lamb, Scott Hahn, Steve Long, Gregory Vall…obviously not in the class of those 20th century titans, but as I said, these are teaching schools, not research institutions.

      I do think Shaw overstates the prospects of these institutions. But I understand the impulse, given that established schools are increasingly indistinguishable from other, secular or sectarian, universities.

  12. In Thomas Merton’s last talk before he died he told a story about a young monk who had to flee his monastery due to persecution. the young monk finally contacted his elder and asked him what he should do. the elder told him “from now on each one must stand on his own feet.”
    Merton ended his talk saying that this insight will be more important than ever in the future.

    Merton does not mean some rugged individualism, but a person is called to live deeper the experience of his faith and to use his/her freedom to form his/her life by it.

    i remember an old priest making the same point, he said in a more “catholic culture” people just had to know where to get on the bus. they did not have to know how to drive, how to read maps, know the rules, how to do repairs etc……they just had to get on the bus, pay the toll and Father would get them there safe. the challenge now is that we all have to know how to drive the bus, read maps, do repairs etc.

    this transition can be very hard, but it is also a source of great creativity. perhaps the “prototype” of this goes back to the babylonian exile.
    All the visible signs of God’s presence and of his covenant were gone.
    The Temple destroyed, the holy city burned, the sons of the last davidic king were killed.
    Yet out of this came a whole new understanding of their sacred history, the creation of the Pentateuch, and the deeper meaning of Sabbath observance. With the death of Israel after 400 years, the creation of Judaism came to life.
    I am not sure what new creations, and deeper understandings will come from the current crisis, but it is a time of great hope. The best i can do for now is keep trying “to stand on my own feet” but i still have great hope that something new is being created in all this.

  13. Jonathan Day : Shaw’s “new Catholic colleges”, publishing houses, periodicals and professional associations are heavily populated with lightweights.

    To be fair, almost all of these “new Catholic colleges” are primarily teaching institutions, not research universities. The focus is on undergraduate teaching, not producing monographs or peer-reviewed articles. I know enough very smart people who teach at similar institutions (Catholic or not) that I am unwilling to dismiss them as “lightweights.” The one institution with aspirations to be a research university is Ave Maria. While it’s not exactly my cup of tea, it does house a number of scholars in its Philosophy and Theology Departments who are significant voices in those fields, or at least the niche focused on Aquinas (of course, everything in academia these days is a niche).

    Also, you could hardly find more ghettoized figures than Rahner and Lonergan. Nobody but Catholics read them (well, Rahner’s Foundations might get a glance from protestants in a seminary class on modern theology; Lonergan, not so much). They were very important for the Church in the middle of the last century, but they really are not figures of wider cultural significance. That’s not a criticism of their thought, and it’s no small achievement to have been important for the Church, but let’s not kid ourselves that the “cultured despisers” paid any attention to them.

    Now Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy are a different story.

  14. Fritz, you are in the field, I am not, so I have no doubt of what you say.

    I only observe that, when I was at the Divinity School at Chicago, Lonergan was widely read and discussed. Perhaps this was because David Tracy, who had studied with him, was one of the university’s major figures. Lonergan was considered difficult to access, less because of his Catholicism than his writing style. But people in several disciplines and institutes beyond the Div School saw him as an important figure.

    Rahner was read in theological and ministry studies circles but not much beyond these.

    I agree that they were not figures of wider cultural significance, Lonergan in particular. My claim was that Catholic thinkers were contributing to a broader academic discussion and were seen as peers by scholars in anthropology, literary criticism, history and other disciplines, in top research universities.

    Is that the case today? And if not, can the change be written off entirely to snobbery, anticatholicism and the like?

  15. Hmmm… I know of a class of (undergraduate) students who just read Rahner this week, in a secular school, not a theologate.

    Don’t underestimate the relevance of Rahner!

  16. I became a Catholic in 1960 while attending a Protestant prep school, There are four Jesuits from the school, one of the early Maryknoll priests was from the school. There are four sisters though several are no longer sisters. I think a good education naturally is the best Catholic culture education,,,Dante, Hopkins, Newman, not to mention art and music. Even Bach wrote a Mass. Maybe the dissolution of culture is the real challenge. The Protestant American school culture was wonderful. I have to say that quite innocently I began to laugh when I first heard Mother Dear Oh Pray for Me. It sounded like a bar song. De Gustibus.

  17. Liturgical minimalism is the faithful handmaid at the legal/juridical press through which Roman liturgy has largely been pressed over the past millennium.

  18. At Pope Francis’ huge outdoor Mass on the 6th Sunday of Easter with the Confraternities and his homily which clearly is directing the rank and file members of the Church to rediscover popular devotions and to wear them proudly, I looked for some historical perspective on the decline and fall of popular devotions, what some would call a sub-culture, but that term betrays a derogatory attitude toward those simple and not so simple Catholics who are imbued with the tradition of popular devotions.
    The article I found was printed in The New Oxford Review in May of 1998 and written by “just” a lay person, Noel J. Augustyn. You can read the article here:

    In the 6th Sunday of Easter’s homily, Pope Francis seems to be setting forward a template for his papacy which revolves around three important points concerning popular devotions or the restoring of a so-called subculture for such:

    “I. The popular piety of which you are an important sign is a treasure possessed by the Church, which the bishops of Latin America defined, significantly, as a spirituality, a form of mysticism, which is “a place of encounter with Jesus Christ”.

    II. Popular piety is a road which leads to what is essential, if it is lived in the Church in profound communion with your pastors.

    III. You have a specific and important mission, that of keeping alive the relationship between the faith and the cultures of the peoples to whom you belong. You do this through popular piety.”

    The point of Pope Francis’ homily was to encourage the laity in the new Evangelization which needs popular piety and devotions in order to do the following: “Be filled with an evangelical, ecclesial, missionary spirit.”

    1. @Fr. Allan J. McDonald – comment #36:
      Oh puh-LEEEZE!
      “Pope Francis seems to be setting forward a template for his papacy” ??
      He made positive reference to devotions and you think it’s the program for his papacy? Because it’s ‘conservative,’ ie on ‘your’ side, so you’re playing it up to the hilt?
      I have nothing against devotions and I’m a supporter of them. They speak to lots of Catholics and that’s fine. But they’re hardly the center of our Catholic faith, or the template for a whole papacy.
      The nervousness on the Right about this papacy must be pretty high, if it’s come to this.
      For my part, I try to cover fully the many innovations and stylistic changes of this papacy and comment on their significance, while disciplining myself not to make predictions about the future that may or may not pan out. I suggest it might be unwise to see a template for the future of this papcy in his rather standard comments about the value of devotions.

      1. @Anthony Ruff – comment #37:
        Your comments notwithstanding, I still contend that the “New Evangelization” is a significant part of this pope’s “program” and finding ways for the laity to be supported in their fundamental role in this is significant. Other than some kind of damage control, why would that be a problem for those on the left of things who have enjoyed some of Pope Francis’ marked differences from his predecessor, who now seems to be to the right of his predecessor in a newer version of the “reform of the reform” focused on popular devotions rather than the official liturgies of the Church?

        I think the Holy Father’s interesting emphasis in the last paragraph of his homily is quite telling, but of course I’m not clairvoyant. 🙂

        “…Evangelical spirit, ecclesial spirit, missionary spirit. Three words – don’t forget them: Evangelical spirit, ecclesial spirit, missionary spirit. Let us ask the Lord always to direct our minds and hearts to Him, as living stones of the Church, so that all that we do, our whole Christian life, may be a luminous witness to his mercy and love. In this way we will make our way towards the goal of our earthly pilgrimage, towards that most beautiful sanctuary, the heavenly Jerusalem. There, there is no longer any temple: God himself and the Lamb are its temple; and the light of the sun and the moon give way to the glory of the Most High. Amen.”

      2. @Anthony Ruff – comment #37:
        Help me understand this issue ……

        First, thought that Benedict’s *New Evangelization* was primarily directed at Europe – thus, the repeated use of secularism (as anti-Christian); etc.

        Second, trying to reinterpret (or shoehorn) Francis into this paradigm, IMO, ignores his ministerial experience of a lifetime. For example, his *new evangelization* is best summarized in the documents of Aperacida and are marked by a *preferential option for the poor* and Francis instructed, directed, and encouraged his priests and lay staff to form small neighborhood communities, to go out and celebrate liturgy in neighborhood chapels, etc. Yes, devotionals had a place in this but only as a background and support to be celebrated in local, small community liturgies. Francis has also been quoted that his primary focus is on the poor, those downtrodden by economics, class structures, lack of education, opportunities, etc. and that the church needs to go out on mission rather than *navel gaze* (my phrase) and be self-referential by focusing on *internal issues*. IMO, Francis would spend time in Europe in terms of the challenges those countries currently have with immigrant populations; integrating and assimilating them into a *new church* rather than what appears to be Benedict’s dwelling on the 19th/20th century European church of the past.

        And really – to say: “….who now seems to be to the right of his predecessor in a newer version of the “reform of the reform” focused on popular devotions rather than the official liturgies of the Church?” only continues to repeat ad nauseum this pre-occupation with terms such as left, right, center or conservative/liberal or reform of the reform. Think that Francis brings something completely outside of these tired phrases and his understanding of *devotions* has little to do with the typical, dated US definition/experiences.

    2. @Fr. Allan J. McDonald – comment #36:
      “Rediscover and wear them proudly” can mean a lot of different things.

      It can mean a return to the devotional culture of yesteryear, a “proud” resuscitation of devotions which compensated for and ultimately eclipsed the liturgy because through a historical process the vitality of the liturgy was farther and farther removed from the everyday life of the people and made into a clerical preserve.

      If that’s what you mean, it’s pretty clear that’s not what Pope Francis is saying.

      On the other hand, there is the vision of devotions laid out in that wonderful document “Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy: Principles and Guidelines” (2001) which makes it clear that devotions are to be encouraged when they lead to the liturgy and flow from it. They are not a substitute for liturgy which is too far off or too demanding or too clerical. Rather, they allow for pious exercises to complement the liturgy and enrich Christian prayer and spirituality.

      If that’s what you mean, it’s hard to imagine Pope Francis could be anything but for it.

      But in any case, it’s not the program of the whole pontificate. Good grief.

      1. @Rita Ferrone – comment #39:
        It’s the second way and yes when Catholics laity and clergy are engaged in their faith, intellectually, and with the heart, officially and with popular devotions, the new evangelization can certainly be energized. It’s the new evangelization that is the program, “evangelical spirit, ecclesial spirit, missionary spirit” nourished and sustained by the faith, hope and love, as it always has been and by the public official liturgies of the Church and the private and public popular devotions that have evolved over time and are particular to various cultures–today’s Mass was attended primarily by European countries which have roots in our multicultural Church in America with its so-called subculture.

  19. A very good essay by Russell Shaw.

    And Richard Malcolm’s comment no. 25 is exactly right.

  20. I grew up in the Catholic culture of the 1950’s and 60’s in Polish Catholic Milwaukee. While we moved to the new neighborhoods with Lutheran neighbors, 95% of my neighborhood were Roman Catholic. When I was in junior high, we changed our parish registration from an ethnically Polish to a general suburban parish.

    All of the changes in the Mass were a delight to me and I was active in parish life, CYO, Mass service in all of the available lay roles. Enlistment in the Air Force continued my involvement in Catholic base Chapel and then, at the close of my enlistment a girl I was dating (and, tragically, married) didn’t know why but didn’t want to be Catholic.

    Her brother went to a LCMS Lutheran School, so we checked it out and I had tragically no hesitation to becoming a Lutheran. Long story short, she left the Church for a pentecostal gnostic cult, and I became a Pastor, and she left me.

    Why was it so easy for me to leave the source of my comfort for those 21 years of life? The Church which nourished me and formed me had, in Vatican II, likely made me accept the fact that these Lutherans were “close enough”, though the lack of weekly Eucharist was troubling.

    The past 40 years, 25 as a Pastor, have not at all been a repudiation of my past, but rather the next step in the priesthood I was called to at age 7, only now I could have a wife…though that was a disaster. By God’s grace the past 12 years with a solid and sane Lutheran woman, have been an absolute joy. Watching me preside at Mass leaves no doubt regarding my Roman roots.

    While I prayed our parish could be a place where divorced Catholics could be nourished by the Mass, God has continued to send us the wounded, the broken, the seeking, most without any background at all. Such is the Church of the 21st Century in America. Any thought of Pope Francis being the Pope that reunifies? Perhaps more so than the previous 2 who seemed to be the logical ones, but for different reasons.

  21. My reaction to the post wasn’t as strong as some. I think the use of the term ‘subculture’ may only indicate that the culture in question intentionally differentiates itself from the wider cultural context. If we accept a cultural secularization thesis (whether understood as a ‘decline of religion’ or in Charles Taylor’s sense of ‘religion as one possible option among others for realizing human ‘fullness’), saying that Catholics – whether they consider themselves traditionalists or progressives or whatever – will be a subculture seems entirely accurate.
    I repeat Dcn. Bauerschmidt’s point in comment #26. To criticize institutions for not producing academic ‘heavyweights’ when their own mission is toward classroom teaching is unfair.
    As for the absence of great, public, Catholic intellectuals in this generation (or those generations that have passed since Rahner, et. al.), I have two observations: 1) it might be that ‘generations’ of great intellectuals are typically followed by a ‘lesser stock’ – or at least a stock of intellectuals more committed to working out what the greats of the previous generation were up to. That’s only a tentative claim, but much theological scholarship does seem geared toward interpretation and limited syntheses, not the grand scope of theology one can find in Rahner, etc. Further, the contemporary academic paradigm values specialization, not necessarily grand systematic visions (which seem ready-made for a intra-ecclesial audience)
    2) The advent of post-modern thought in public academia has made the theological work of people like Rahner, Lonergan, Schillebeeckx, etc. difficult to fit into the broader academy. I think Dcn. Bauerschmidt is right to say that Rahner is a figure of the ghetto (though a very important figure indeed – even outside of the ghetto). Transcendental anthropology, based as it is on a thoroughly modern philosophical vision, seems ill-fit for post-modernity. That’s not a critique so much as an observation.

  22. I’d also add that, intended or not, referring to enthusiasts of a particular theologian or theological position(s) as “Mormon Catholic” or “Amish Catholic” comes across as a little condescending (for those Catholics, Mormons and Amish). I’m assuming it wasn’t meant to come across this way, but it has an overtone to it of superiority, as if these ‘enthusiasts’ are disqualified from the broader Catholic academy for their academic interests and positions in addition to being perceived as strange. (Note: I myself am writing my dissertation on Balthasar, though I only wear a white shirt and black tie occasionally, and I disagree with much in Bl. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, and I don’t know whether someone would deem me counter-cultural or not – so this is a self-centered concern of mine). That’s not to say that any academic (or academic community) is above criticism, however.

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