Recovering a Catholic Subculture


On the eve of the last Super Bowl, two men were discussing the great American ritual of watching football on television. The older man admitted that he just didn’t do that anymore.

In times past, he said, he’d seen his share of TV football, but twelve or fifteen years earlier he’d become aware that his attention to what was happening on the field was starting to wander — he’d follow a game for a few minutes and then lose interest. During the last football season, he hadn’t watched a single game, either professional or college. He felt no worse for it.

The younger man said he didn’t watch all that much football either, but now and then he took in a game on TV in the company of his kids. But he saw a problem: “The ads are so . . . so — ”

“Raunchy?” the older man suggested.

“Raunchy,” the younger agreed. “I ask myself what I’m doing to my kids letting them see that stuff.”

“Even at my age, when I watch a little television of any kind — which is something I seldom do these days — I’m embarrassed at what I see. But I guess the television people have found their audience.”

“It’s the American public. And this is American culture.”

“If that is what’s out there, I don’t want any part of it.”

“All well and good, but you’re going to run into it every time you step out your front door.”

Here in a nutshell is the dilemma now facing many people who are unhappy about the steady downhill moral slide of American culture: It offends them, but they can’t do much about it, and many believe they have no practical way of avoiding it. Still, a growing number appear to be trying.

In fact, not a few are taking steps to withdraw from what they perceive as a noxious and destructive cultural environment. Some home-school their kids because of the blatantly immoral sex education and other nasty stuff in public schools — and sometimes even in parochial schools. Others have given up on TV and carefully police the Internet. Still others have taken the radical step of moving out of big cities and suburbs to smaller, quieter, more conservative, and culturally homogeneous communities where the assaults on their eyes, ears, and morals are less numerous.

How far will this go?

No one really knows. But what I do know for certain is that the Church needs to get busy encouraging the growth of a new Catholic subculture to accommodate the healthy reaction against cultural decadence reflected in this relatively recent and extremely important development.


One of the worst mistakes American Catholicism ever made was the scrapping in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s of the subculture that had served it well up to that time. That was the era of the great flight from what Catholic intellectuals snobbishly called the “Catholic ghetto.” Yes, the subculture as it then existed did need updating and renewal. But instead of that, what we got was a foolish, self-imposed dismantling — the secularization of Catholic colleges and universities, the deliberate withering of Catholic organizations — driven largely by the craving of academic and religious elitists to be trendy and in step with the times.

To a great extent, ecclesiastical officialdom went along with it. “When I was growing up,” a friend recalls, “I watched the Legion of Mary and other local Catholic organizations struggling for lack of interest by the priests and chancery office staff who considered them anachronisms. Even as a young man, I saw the sadness and frustration in the faces of many of the older members, especially as nothing was being offered as a replacement.”

In such ways, historian Charles Morris remarks, American Catholicism went about “the dangerous and potentially catastrophic project” of severing the link between faith and a healthy Catholic subculture that had for so long been “the source of its dynamism, its appeal, and its power.”

But praise God: In recent years the pendulum has started swinging the other way. Signs of a revived Catholic subculture can be seen in such things as new, proudly orthodox colleges and universities, media ventures like EWTN and Catholic radio, a growing number of websites and a handful of publishing houses, and organizations and movements that work to promote a dynamic Catholic spirituality — especially an authentic spirituality for the laity. These coexist side by side with individual parishes, even whole dioceses, that have gotten the message and taken it to heart.

All the same, the Church in the United States has a very long way to go to create a new Catholic subculture to take the place of what was so fecklessly lost — or, more truthfully, thrown away — in the past. Meanwhile, American secular culture grows steadily more hostile to morality and religious faith. Nobody asked my advice, but I’ll give it anyway: When the Super Bowl comes around again next year, read a good book or take a walk. Bet you’ll feel better if you do.



Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

  • Phocion

    “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

  • Kevin B

    I’ve seen these subcultures in communities like Front Royal Virginia, and some Catholic Campus Ministries around the country.

  • sibyl

    Despite the title line here, I am not at all anti-hierarchy. But the main thing to remember is that culture — when authentic — comes from the bottom up. True culture is built at the grass roots level, as many failed Communist governments have found; no May Day “workers’ celebration” festivals can equal in power, meaning, or appeal, the organic celebrations that come from authentic culture, such as Christmas or Thanksgiving.

    Because of this, Catholic culture will not be revived by our priests and religious, not even by our bishops, although they can make a great difference in sustaining and encouraging. Nope, IMHO the new Catholic subculture actually rises to that status because of the ordinary lay people who have made radical decisions to recover what is lost.

    Do bishops wonder why so many younger Catholics seriously consider homeschooling? Maybe they should see that the schools they themselves oversee have completely lost their Catholic character, while retaining the name and the religion class.

    This should inspire us as lay Catholics to realize that these seemingly small things matter greatly. Celebrating All Saints’ Day instead of Halloween, having a Mexican dinner on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, restoring the practice of saying the rosary, requiring our children (and ourselves) to dress with more care for Mass, and so on.

  • tubbins

    All the way to Rwanda and back. This American anti-culture will destroy us.

  • Dan Deeny

    Interesting, and debatable, article. Does Mr. Shaw think a Catholic painter like Caravaggio could paint in our country? Doesn’t he really want a sort of Calvinist-lite culture? What about Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Teresa? I tried to have a copy of that put up at my work station and it was thought a bit too daring. Perhaps the problem is not so much in the culture but in the Catholic action inside the culture? Are there any beautiful Catholic churches being built? What about Catholic painters? Catholic symphony composers? It seems to me that Mr. Shaw wants us to surrender.

  • Meredith

    Dappled Things (, which is produced by younger Catholics, is publishing stories, poetry, articles, painting, photography, and architectural designs. We’ve interviewed Carlos Eire, winner of the National Book Award for Waiting for Snow in Havana, and our next issue will feature poetry by Timothy Murphy and Pave Chichikov, among others. Check it out, and subscribe if you like it!

  • Fr Eric

    Let the sanctoral cycle guide the celebrations. just like the example of using OLOG to have the big parties.
    That being said, the answer to the future is not necessarily the Legion of Mary. the New Evangelization is to address people where they live right now. Luigi Giusanni does this in his Communion Liberation movement. People want what is real and true, and we must make the PRESENCE known.

  • Andrew

    I agree. We seem to have forgotten that while we must be “in the world”, we should not be “of the world.”
    However, as someone born at the tail end of Generation X, I consistently see the assumption made that “the subculture as it then existed did need updating and renewal” yet have yet to find an adequate explanation for this. To me, the Church being timeless (and indirectly the culture stemming from it) needs no updating. It is precisely its timelessness that makes it relevant in all ages.

  • Blake Helgoth

    Culture comes from cult, the cult of worship. When we have true liturgical reform it will go a long way to begining the sub-culture of which Mr. Shaw is speaking. Heck, even if we could reclaim Sunday as a Holy Day that would be an incredible improvement.

  • Sam Schmitt

    I sure hope that Carvaggio could paint in our country! I don’t see where Mr. Shaw is advocating a Purtianical Catholicism – and thinking that many ads on TV are off-base is not the same as rejecting Caravaggio or Bernini.

    I fail to see where Mr. Shaw is advocating surrender. Quite the contrary. But with the mainstream culture in such bad shape, it has to start at home with Catholics building a culture of their own. After all they can’t give what they don’t have.

  • Kevin J.

    The old Catholic subculture tended to be geographically contiguous – ethnic settlements in urban or rural areas. While we might have shed a few animosities, we lost a lot when we lost ethnic parishes.

    Too much of the new subculture is virtual or geographically scattered. For urban or suburban parishes, I suggest making a conscious effort to encourage Catholics to move closer to their church. Have priests or deacons or other parish leaders make a conscious effort to find out what homes are for sale or what apartments are for rent, and to let others know about them. It’s as easy as a Facebook posting.

    We also need to shed American optimistic platitudes like competing in the free marketplace of ideas. That marketplace is rigged. Even assuming the American founding was great for religious liberty, that assumption does not necessarily hold today. There are actual laws on the books which encourage businesses and professions to be secularist, feminist or sexually liberationist, and it’ll get worse before it gets better.

    If a Catholic subculture starts showing significant signs of vitality, won’t it actually be targeted for destruction by secular powers? My local “urban renewal authority” has already been plotting how to “develop” the property of the oldest parochial school in the city. If a hostile city establishment, or a state or national establishment, were faced with an active Catholic population its reaction could be subtle and fierce.

  • TeaPot562

    Are you “walking distance” from your parish church? If you are living within a mile or less, you could conceivably walk to mass on days that you aren’t working. If you choose where to live, with proximity to your parish church being one criteria, you CAN be part of a “catholic subculture”.
    You don’t have to walk to church each day; but being close enough so that you could walk on some days is a good influence, particularly if you have walked with your children on some Sundays to Mass. Your neighborhood is likely to be “enriched” by a larger number of practicing Catholics than a proportionate number of families in your state (based on census data). And having others in your neighborhood with whom you share Catholicity isn’t all bad, either.

  • Alejandro

    Catholicism has such a rich culture and history that it is really troubling to see how we have dismantled it in such short time. In Hispanic communities in the US there is a growing Evangelical subculture which I find very comparable to the Catholic subculture that died in the 60’s. They have their own stores, they tend to know each other just by their expressions,they are very conscious that they are “Christians” and even as kids they’re aware of being “different”. Generally their lives revolve around their church and they seek each other out when doing business. Social relations are mostly limited to other “Christians” and there is strong pressure to conform. Hispanics are turning more and more towards evangelicalism because they find the community and social network that most Catholic parishes lack. Catholics are just too secularized, I think we are almost at the point of no return.

  • J
  • Lee Gilbert

    As a young parent 35 yrs ago I also was very concerned about television and the “culture,” mostly because it had totally undermined our family when I was growing up.

    Providentially, we lived across the hall from a young Korean couple who also had a baby boy. From their apartment came very strong cooking odors and a lot of Korean chatter.

    It occurred to me one day that their child might as well be growing up in Seoul. And with that came the realization that we could create in our own home whatever culture we wished. We did that.

    We threw out the TV, and eventually spent our evenings as a family reading 30 minutes of good secular literature such as the Chronicles of Narnia, 30 minutes of the life of a saint, and 15 to 20 minutes of catechism.

    We never experienced any teen-age rebellion. The kids never asked, “Why do we have to go to Mass?” At 28 and 30 yrs old now they are daily communicants, and my daughter a contemplative nun.

    Ironically, the one decision to throw out the TV kept me from coming across as the censorious parent: “Don’t watch this, don’t watch that,” etc. That causes a lot of resentment and rebellion in itself.

    It was the best financial decision I ever made, because it opened up aeons of time and a quiet atmosphere in which to study. My son became a fantastic guitarist, my daughter an artist. All this paid off handsomely in scholarships. My daughter was a National Merit Scholar Finalist..

    There is a very popular counsel of despair that goes like this, “What is the point of our getting rid of our television, since they will see it at their friends’ homes anyway?”

    The self-interest underlying this question is obvious, and televised sports has everything to do with it.

    Of course, they saw television at their friends’ homes nor were they forbidden from doing so. But their own home was a quiet, prayerful, peaceful refuge from the “world.”

    Beyond that, we emphatically wanted and needed the Lord to protect our kids from “the world, the flesh and the devil” (otherwise known as “the culture”) but I could not reasonably expect Him to do that if I did not do all in my power. If we will do ALL, He will do ALL. If not, not.

    If I was not going to do my part, and be the gatekeeper of my own home, how could I expect Him to be the gatekeeper of their hearts?

    If I did my part, He would do His. And so it proved. To God be the glory! It was His warnings, His chastisements, His instruction that brought us around to this way of thinking.

    In other words, the alarming reality is that the entire responsibility and opportunity for the formation of children rests on parents. The “culture” has little to do with it.

  • Kevin J.

    During a good season of weather (and low crime!), parishes should organize a “walk to Mass” day for a particular Mass so that people who live close by can meet new neighbors with whom they have something in common. You can even tie it in with environmentalism and personal exercise fads.

  • Dan Deeny

    Thank you for your comment. You and I might like Caravaggio but most American Catholics would have problems. Caravaggio has a painting of a red-headed, naked, adolescent boy, his equipment in full view, reclining, and smiling very happily at the viewer. The painting is of John the Baptist. John the Baptist? No one ever saw him painted like that! Most orthodox Catholics would go nuts if someone tried that today. Caravaggio has another painting of Mary and Jesus in which Mary is puting her foot on a snake’s head and guiding Jesus to step on the snake also. It’s a very good and wonderful painting with clear reference to Genesis. If there is a problem, it is that Jesus is about 10 or 12 and he is naked. Again, if that were tried today, there would be a problem.
    I agree with you that mainstream culture is in bad shape. Perhaps one of the reasons is that we Catholics have not created great works of art.

  • Don L

    A good place begin turning this culture around is to catechize in the comment sections of most blogs. A large number of comments acknowedging the existence of God fearing/loving people who are politically savvy might wake up the many disenfranchised folks terribly upset with the direction of our culture. With enough folks giving the Catholic view on most issues the “followers” will start to question acceptable seculare values. Even non- church goers are getting the feeling of self-destruction out there. The new street corner soap box pulpit may very well be the blogs.

  • David L Alexander
  • David L Alexander

    The link in the article (from, by the way) doesn’t seem to work. Let’s try these two:

  • Bob G

    I loved Lee Gilbert

  • Tim H

    Lee G – fantastic work with your own kids, an amazing story really.

    But for the center of this article, what is next? This notion of Catholic community and a subculture is in the air right now. I hear it from all different quarters.

    But (a little scolding) where are the people doing it right now? Come on folks it is simply not good enough to talk about it. I can’t believe that no one who reads this website is not involved in some active Catholic subcultural community right now. So whoever you are, come on, spill the beans. How are you making this work?

    The problem with the Lee G comment above (if there is one) is that it brings into stark relief that any fight against the general cultural ethos out there is an individual one and that is doomed. I applaud Lee G and his family but I can’t do it alone with my family. I need mutual support from other like minded individuals on a face to face basis. Virtual is good, but not nearly good enough.

    I honestly have no idea where to start except at the parish level and I feel I’m an army of one dragging a platoon up a hill if I wanted to start some kind of connection amongst my fellow parishoners.

    So if anyone is ‘doing the subculture’ thing right now, I think we would all love to hear about it.

    I simply can’t believe it’s not already happening out there.

    (I read the man with the black hat blogs above, but there wasn’t much there and some of the content seems to have gone away from the posts.)