Is the Church Prepared to Confront the Secular Culture?

The Catholic Church in America (CCA) seems to be unable to play a leading role in fighting the damaging socio-cultural trends of our time and now, for the first time since the colonial era, even faces serious threats to religious liberty. Why is the Church in such a weakened state? Some commentators would single out the priest sexual abuse scandal, but that’s only one small part of the picture. The answer lies in longer-run trends, which have been discussed by faithful Catholic commentators and scholars for some time but now come into sharp relief. Most of these, but not all, date to the years after Vatican II.

The CCA historically has not been willing to counter the predominant cultural trends. It has gone in one of two directions: ghettoization or accommodationism. Ghettoization tends to be identified with the pre-conciliar period and accommodationism with the decades since, although it was going on before (recall the Americanist heresy of the nineteenth century). The earlier culture, especially before the twentieth century, was of course shaped by Protestantism and as the twentieth century progressed by secularism. The much-maligned ghettoization basically sought to keep Catholics Catholic in a culture that didn’t have much regard for the Church, except for a brief twenty-year period after World War II before secularism began to overwhelm the country. Before the Council, the Church seemed to feel inadequate to the task of engaging the culture. After the Council the much-touted opening to the modern world became for many an opening to the ascendant secular culture, and neutralized the CCA as a force to confront secularism.

Many in the CCA believed that, except for the worst moral features of this new secular culture (such as abortion), Catholics could accommodate themselves to it. So, for example, the message came across that contraception wasn’t a big deal—and, of course, many Catholics began to practice it. Priests now would seldom talk about it; that would make them unpopular or “judgmental.” So, the new norm within American Catholicism—imported from inter-confessional relations that were increasingly stressed in the post-conciliar period—was “no offense.” What began with contraception soon went onto other things.

Accommodationism came increasingly to mean “reaching people where they’re at.” That often meant bending Church practice—not denying Catholic teaching, mind you—to avoid estranging people from the Church, even at the cost of not demanding enough of them. So, there was a loosening up on annulments as the CCA tried to come to grips with the growing divorce culture. Now, we have some in the Church reaching out to homosexual couples—almost as if their ongoing moral transgression is irrelevant. Even some orthodox Catholics are ready to embrace the “New Homophiles,” who seem to believe that same-sex attraction can almost be celebrated, its unnatural character ignored, and those with it have unique gifts to offer for the very reason that they have it—just so long as they are celibate.

The accommodationist and “no offense” mentalities, then, have caused both many in the institutional CCA and among the laity to downplay Catholic teachings that are unpopular with the secular culture—to, if you will, “hide their light under a bushel.”

All this underscores another problem that has paralyzed the CCA as a counter-cultural force: the lack of discipline that it has come to expect of its adherents. So, the pews are filled with contracepting Catholics who don’t have the least idea they’re doing anything wrong. More dramatically, substantial numbers of Catholic politicians promote a pro-abortion and pro-homosexualist agenda and the CCA hardly ever holds them accountable. Even more dramatically, the priest sexual abuse scandal can be traced this lack of discipline: selection of candidates for the priesthood and priestly formation and oversight often became haphazard. By the way, the opening to the secular culture may be said to have contributed to the scandal in another way: some bishops and diocesan officials came to excessively trust the secular social sciences. Their psychological consultants convinced them that counseling was all that the abusive priests needed. At the same time, a tendency developed to let pop psychology influence pastoral efforts.

One wonders if even small, seemingly innocuous “buy-ins” to the thinking of the secular American culture have had negative effects. When John Paul II in 1994 lifted the canon law prohibition on female altar servers, almost all the U.S. bishops readily permitted it (even though Rome stated that male altar service was still normative). While it’s true that altar servers have a different function in the Novus Ordo than in the Tridentine Mass, the likely symbolic effect of such a change on the faithful seemed to be lost—especially when coupled with the fact that most CCA parishes and dioceses offer little exclusively directed to boys and that can encourage their development in solid Catholic manhood. One wonders if in the context of the secular culture’s tidal wave of feminism and gender ideology such things have not contributed to Catholics’ confusion about male-female differences and, conceivably, made them more susceptible to the appeals of such ideologies.

Another post-conciliar example of the CCA’s embracing of the outlook of the secular culture and imperviousness to the importance of symbolism concerns the role of the laity. The rush to fashion a whole new set of lay “ministries” perhaps partly betrayed the influence of an ever-expanding notion of democracy—a kind of “cultural democracy”—in American life generally. So, many parishes today have an excessive number of “eucharistic” ministers (sometimes conducting priest-less “communion services”), readers, servers, cantors, and masters of ceremonies. While it’s true that none of them replaces the priest, one wonders if this does not have the symbolic effect—at least for some amongst a poorly catechized laity—of blurring the differences between clergy and laity. Also, are many Catholics sanguine that such parish roles are enough to provide a true Catholic witness, when the cultural situation calls for much more? Could this be one reason why the laity has not understood that its essential apostolate is in the realm of affairs—with the effect of weakening the Church’s public witness and efforts to confront the secular culture?

Yes, we can’t overlook the literal disaster of catechetics in the post-conciliar CCA in all this. Should we be surprised that Catholic politicians push public policy agendas against sound morality and other laity don’t defend the Church when they have been so poorly formed in the Faith?

On the subject of symbolism, we certainly have to add the desacralization of the ambiance of Catholic worship. The revolution in church architecture and what Cardinal Arinze called the “banalization” of liturgy in the post-conciliar period are almost legendary. “Horizontalism” has abounded, so that many Catholics seem to forget that God and not the community are at the center of worship. We can add to this the tendency of Catholic churches after Mass to take on the character of meeting halls and social gatherings where talking to friends has replaced a time for personal prayer. The effect of all this is to subtly weaken the sense of God in people’s lives, so they are then less likely to bring the Catholic message to the marketplace and take on the secular culture.

Added to this confusing of the hierarchical/clerical and lay roles has been the excessive tendency of the post-conciliar institutional CCA to make pronouncements on public policy issues. Certainly, it has a role here. That role, however, is mostly to speak against policies or policy proposals that affront sound morality or threaten the Church’s mission. While there have perhaps been improvements recently, too often over the years these pronouncements have crossed into areas where Catholics can legitimately disagree and have had the effect of unduly restricting lay options. This, again, has created confusion among the laity and made the Church look just like just another political player. What’s more, in addressing public issues the institutional CCA has often exhibited a lack of comprehensive understanding, deep analysis, and good prudential judgment. That’s seen clearly with the immigration question where genuine, serious issues seemed to be pushed aside and near-reductionism prevails: the U.S. is made to be the heavy, foreign leaders and elites are let off the hook, and something close to a secular notion of compassion overrides all else.

Sometimes, the institutional CCA even seems to turn to the secular culture and politics as its reference point in deciding which public issues to address. The Church has always strongly stressed the family and the natural rights and responsibilities of parents. How can it be, then, that the CCA has never raised its voice against the systemically abusive child protective system (CPS) that routinely intrudes into the sacred precincts of U.S. families without cause and tramples on the legitimate rights and child-rearing prerogatives of vast numbers of innocent parents each year?

The CCA’s questionable judgment about public questions and, in different ways, in these other areas (for example, thinking that unsubstantive catechesis and desacralization of liturgy will have no effect on people’s faith commitment) bespeaks a troubling lack of prudence.

In short, even while Catholic teaching is not rejected, the CCA’s praxis has occasionally seemed to suggest something else or has conveyed that a kind of “Catholic-lite” stance is acceptable. If the faithful are confused or uncertain they are not likely to confront and evangelize an increasingly hostile culture or battle in its public arena. As the expression goes, “no one follows an uncertain trumpet.” In my book The Public Order and the Sacred Order, I argued that rejuvenating the CCA was a necessary prelude to renewing American culture. It needs to reflect on these problems where they still exist and apply decisive correctives (and be supported by much prayer) so it can challenge and engage—in the right way—a secular culture that aims to overwhelm it.

Stephen M. Krason

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Stephen M. Krason's "Neither Left nor Right, but Catholic" column appears monthly (sometimes bi-monthly) in Crisis Magazine. He is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and associate director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also co-founder and president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists. He is the author, most recently, of The Transformation of the American Democratic Republic (Transaction Publishers, 2012), and editor of three volumes: Child Abuse, Family Rights, and the Child Protective System (Scarecrow Press, 2013) and The Crisis of Religious Liberty (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014); and most recently, Challenging the Secular Culture: A Call to Christians (Franciscan University Press). His next book is Catholicism and American Political Ideologies (forthcoming this fall from Hamilton Books). He is also the author of a new novel, American Cincinnatus.

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