Cultural Assimilation: A Threat to Catholic Identity

For the most part, American Catholics have wanted to be like other people. They arrived in America as immigrants from places where they had a definite (if sometimes lowly) position. They left that for a country where social positions were fluid, they would be held in contempt if they stayed as they were, and they could rise to the heights if they Americanized.

So they became dedicated Americans. They were used to being part of the social whole, and that was the way to be part of it here. What they lost in security of position by moving to the New World they could, if they gave themselves whole-heartedly to their new way of life, gain in eminence and (as it seemed) freedom to go their own way.

And going their own way is what people want here. America’s the land of opportunity, where anybody can become anything. We’re all independent individuals, and we don’t like labels, so background and connections aren’t supposed to matter. If a candidate for office is Catholic that’s not supposed to be an issue. Each of us has a mind and will of his own, so we should be judged individually and not lumped together.

The strategy of conforming to individualism has been a roaring success in its way. American Catholics have become like everyone else only more so. If anything, they are to the left of their compatriots on social issues.  Six justices of the Supreme Court are Catholics, and if John Kerry is nominated and confirmed as Secretary of State the first four offices in the line of succession to the presidency will be held by Catholics as well.  As immigration proponents say, assimilation works!

Even so, something seems amiss, something about gaining the world and losing what is more important. Catholics have something in common that’s different and important, that other people don’t necessarily agree with, and that ought to affect our outlook and loyalties and how we act. Is it really a good thing if none of that says anything about how a politician will act in office?

Catholics want to fit in, and they want to live the American Dream. That’s understandable, given human nature and the history of how most of us came here and what we found when we arrived, but it doesn’t seem entirely what Our Lord had in mind:

If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you. (John 15:19)

Most people don’t pay much attention to such comments today. People who do are considered fundies, cultists, or misfits looking for a reason to explain why they are failures and nobody likes them. Sensible, public-spirited people mostly want to participate in today’s pluralistic democracy, in a Catholic manner if they happen to be Catholic, but by the rules and within the limits set by the overall system.

Distinguished Catholic thinkers like Fr. John Courtney Murray have thought the circle could be closed, so that Constitution and Church would go together like Throne and Altar. The key was to renew America’s founding principles, and with them the unstated core of natural law they inherited from antiquity and the European Middle Ages. Accept the First Amendment as the guardian of civil peace and the freedom of religion, and we could pursue Catholicism in private life and civil society, and discuss politics with our fellow citizens based on right reason. We could be fully Catholic as well as fully American.

That looked like an admirable solution to a difficult problem, but it doesn’t seem to be working. Our leaders in every field of public life, as a matter of fundamental principle, increasingly reject natural law in favor of will and technology as a guide to life. That’s the meaning of Choice and Change, and it’s why abortion has become a right guaranteed by the Constitution. That rejection is taught in the schools, propagandized by pop culture, and enforced by the courts. As public opinion polls and the recent election shows, it has also gained traction among the people at large.

Nor is the belief that things are good or bad by human decision rather than nature a random trend that could easily turn the other way. Natural law requires positive authority to become a workable system, because the specifics are not always immediately obvious. The human world is complex and subtle, and it’s easy to go astray when we try to make sense of it. Reflection and experience are needed for its realities to come into focus, and habit and education to recognize them as natural. As a practical matter, an understanding of natural law can become effectual only when embodied in a living authoritative tradition and way of life.

That’s a problem, because we’re individualistic and multicultural today. The rejection of hierarchical and transcendent authority that led to the rejection of Pope, Church, and King has continued. It now demands rejection of the authority of tradition and culture in ever more thoroughgoing ways. They’re great as a source of suggestions—why else have ethnic cookbooks?—but to feel bound by them would deny our right to go our own way. The only tradition and culture that now has public authority is the tradition and culture of rejecting tradition and culture.

So it seems that there’s a basic conflict between Catholicism and the principles that are increasingly defined as normative by public authorities in America. So what do we do?

In spite of all difficulties, the effort to reconcile America, modern life, and the Church by way of natural law remains worthwhile. Modern life is more than a dominant ideology, and America more than official rhetoric. We live in a complex society of human beings who succeed or fail in their efforts to realize true or false goods. To deal with that situation intelligently we need a realistic understanding of human life that dispenses with platitudes and concentrates on the things that have actually helped bring about the goods that have existed among us. Such an understanding would necessarily involve natural goods and tendencies, and therefore natural law.

Society could not exist if it truly accepted “do what you want” and “one is as good as another” as first principles. Freedom and equality are always limited, and until recently Americans limited them by vaguely referenced but nonetheless authoritative principles of religion and natural law. That situation changed decisively in the Sixties, and since then the theory has been that freedom and equality should be limited only by their own demands. That hasn’t worked, and the result has been a mess of contradictions: administered freedom, supervised democracy, inquisitorial tolerance, bureaucratized equality, and the slavish uniformity of pluralism. The abolition of cultural and religious authorities has meant not freedom and progress but political and social dysfunction and the absolutism of bureaucracy, the market, and the media.

It’s evident we need a better direction, one that takes into account human nature and the enduring need for principles that are higher than getting our own way. At some point the bubble of progressivist illusion will burst, and that need will become evident to all but the most obdurate. Catholics became American by conforming to what is dominant here. We can help restore our country to itself by aspiring to what has been best in it, as well as in our own tradition. That may not fix things fast, but nothing else will either, and as citizens and Catholics we can do no less.

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

  • One of the great debates to be held is that of the so called natural law concept and its centrality to Catholicism as it is understood today. I think time will concede that natural law is a concept and a tool for analysis and understanding that is extiguisihing its useful time while Christianity and Catholicism as such hold truth. And that is different.

    • If God made the world and called it good, and God is reasonable, then it seems to me there’s going to be some kind of natural law. And conversely, if there’s nothing that’s good by nature and knowable as such by reason, then it’s hard to see how rational moral thought and theology can even get started. We just have ungrounded assertion.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        I agree with Ramon A Sanchez

        Pascal asked “On what shall man found the order of the world which he would govern? Shall it be on the caprice of each individual? What confusion! Shall it be on justice? Man is ignorant of it.”

        As to natural law, “Men admit that justice does not consist in these customs, but that it resides in natural laws, common to every country. They would certainly maintain it obstinately, if reckless chance which has distributed human laws had encountered even one which was universal; but the farce [la plaisanterie] is that the caprice of men has so many vagaries that there is no such law Theft, incest, infanticide, parricide, have all had a place among virtuous actions.”

        Hence, “He who obeys them [the laws] because they are just, obeys a justice which is imaginary and not the essence of law; it is quite self-contained [elle est toute ramassée en soi], it is law and nothing more.”

        The reason is clear. “You are not in the state of your creation,” hence, “Man without faith cannot know the true good, nor justice.”

        • Unpublished notes are not a considered judgment. It seems to me that the passage you cite is addressed by his comments on the esprit de geometrie and esprit de finesse. Rational knowledge of man and the world is indeed possible to us even in areas where demonstrative proof is impossible.

          I’d agree that rational knowledge tends in the long run to fall apart as a socially effective force if there’s no way to settle disputes that go on and on. That’s one reason we can’t get by without the Church. But as Pascal notes we should do as much with it as we can: “To deny, to believe, and to doubt well, are to a man what the race is to a horse.”

    • Ford Oxaal

      I could not disagree more. God is the author of natural law. Natural law is discoverable through reason. It’s just that modern society has become less and less reasonable as it has become more and more avaricious. Catholics today must noodle out a more thorough exposition of natural law, and show how it does not contradict revelation.

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  • Prof_Override

    We are in the stage of the collapse of natural law as a driving priciple in the tsunami of the ascendant, post modern, information age (see your children and grandchildren and the way they understand and react to the world – we’re not in Kansas anymore Toto). We can choose to be neanderthals (see any anthropology text to see how well that worked out), or you work your way through the post modern, deconstruction thresher and rebuild what it means to be the original church in the brave new post-post modern world. Each thresher piece needs to be examined for relevancy vs. non-canonical, traditionalist (or modernist in the case of buses of nuns) dreck, understanding that re-integrated whole needs to be leaner, more meaningful and more seemless to survive. Failure to do so won’t cause “Cultural Assimilation”, it will cause cultural anachonism and a continuation of the current slow fade into the dumpster of irrelevance.

    • A religion is basically an understanding and orientation toward ultimate issues. Your point seems to be that the best source for those things is advertising, political spin, urban legends, and internet memes. I don’t think that approach works very well. We shall see how it plays out though.

      • Prof_Override

        Quite the opposite. Catholicism needs to extricate itself from the non-canonical , man created silliness that has been injected into the religion over the last 2000 years, and there has been quite a lot. Is Catholicism a bolted together “Columbo” car with all these weird mismatched pieces or is it at it’s core the engine and drive train that work quite well, thank you. The engine and drive train are essential, the assemblage of mismatched, external pieces are not.

        • Ford Oxaal

          So I hope you’re not saying, for example, that Summa Theologica, which harmonizes reason with revelation, was a waste of time. Catholicism consists precisely in operating on all cylinders of Truth, whether discovered through reason, or received on faith through revelation.

          • Prof_Override

            Again, quite the opposite. The strength of the Catholic Church is it’s intellectual heft (this magazine is an excellent example). Saint idolatry would be an example of a weird, non-canon bolt on (stemming form missionary years?). Likewise, I find no basis in the bible for traditionalist priestly garb, but the depth and breadth of the liturgy is biblically derived and uniquely Catholic in origin (particularily when compared to a shallow, happy-clappy, big box church services spouting prosperity gospel nonsense). I could go on, but I hope the point is clearer.

            I can envision such a Catholic Church going toe-to-toe with Mars Hill in Seattle (not that it’s a competition:) or being a relevant player vs. the big boxes where I live in the north Dallas suburbs. Creative destruction/reconstruction (ala Apple) without sacrificing one’s true core (sorry, an Our Lady of Guadalupe lawn statue isn’t core).

            • John H. Graney

              You must be an exceptionally holy and insightful person, sir, to be able to discern all by yourself what is a “core” part of the Christian Religion and what is “not core.” I am a sinner whose intellect is subject to biases and prejudices introduced by the fall of man, and so I will continue to defer to the Church in these matters.

              • Prof_Override

                There is no “church” outside of the living breathing people who make up “the church”, so your statement doesn’t make any sense.

                • Flavius

                  Church triumphant, perhaps?

            • If the Church as you say is just a group of particular individuals, and nothing more, then how can it be anything but “a bolted together ‘Columbo’ car with all these weird mismatched pieces”? How can it have “an engine and drive train at its core” when it’s a pure aggregate and doesn’t have a core?

              • Prof_Override

                The conundrum of the abstract sequential is it’s undeniable non-reality in physical terms, yet it’s equally undeniable existance in behavioral measurement (non-physical science). So yes any church or other mental construct is just sum of those who support the construct and yes there is a core and there is detritis to any construct. If I say “Catholic”, those that are Catholic (and those that aren’t, but they aren’t part of the discussion) each has a mental picture of what that means, and … each one is different (I believe the term is “relative”). If I create the analogy of each person’s perspective being represented by a Venn diagram, I can overlay all who are “Catholic” on top of each other and lo and behold a picture is painted of areas of agreement and areas of disagreement of what it means to be “Catholic”. An attribute such as saint idolatry would have both adherents and detractors, but certain areas of the Venn picture would have almost universal support, hence “core” to what it means to be Catholic. So, no I don’t agree with you and I don’t see that you’ve constructed a picture beyond the anachonistic Traditionalist vs Modernist arch – “At some point the bubble of progressivist illusion will burst, and that need will become evident to all but the most obdurate. Catholics became American by conforming to what is dominant here. We can help restore our country to itself by aspiring to what has been best in it, as well as in our own tradition.” You are living in the past. If you are watching Fox News (or MSNBC), or listening to right wing anger radio, you’ve been sucked (suckered) into the contemporary cultural phenomena of the coalition of the Traditional with the narssistic post modern news/entertainment complex. “The abolition of cultural and religious authorities has meant not freedom and progress but political and social dysfunction and the absolutism of bureaucracy, the market, and the media.” This is a free country and you are free to believe what you will, but don’t pawn that nonsense off as fact – it isn’t, never has been, never will be.

  • flavius

    Relevance. Boy has the pursuit of that chimera resulted in disaster for the Church, and churches.
    With that said, the Church has been strangely missing in action, or at least inconspicuous in the public square, with respect to putting authoratative guidance to work on certain critical issues that have arisen real time in the American moment. Here I am writing of such issues as pre-emptive war, drone warfare, torture etc which constitute novelties in the traditional American understanding of self defense. Even at a very basic level, it is not at all clear to me that a typical enlistee at the time of his enlistment is entering into a moral environment that justifies itself with the same reasoning as prevailed, say, before 2002, or certainly before 1989. I do not like to think that the American Church, anyway, has been nowhere on these issues because by being relevant, it would risk irrelevance.

    • Ford Oxaal

      An interesting and ominous post. Publications like Crisis are part of the solution which is to bolster the Catholic voice in America — which should include the voice of natural reason, and harmonize with it. There is a lot of work to do. It will become easier as the endless chit chat about how to divide the spoils of American wealth become “irrelevant”, ha ha.

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  • misplacedbook

    Prof_Override, how exactly could we regain “relevance” in the way you suggest?
    “Saint idolatry?” What does this even mean?
    Do you honestly believe that the world would start listening if we just get “rid of things?” The Episcopal/Anglican ecclesial community is an example of a group that has tried to do that, and they are a sad shell of what they were.
    Why should we attempt a strategy that is showing itself to be a failure?

    • Prof_Override

      Do you own a Saint Christopher medal or have an Our Lady of Guadeloupe picture or statue (which BTW, having lived in the Southwest for a dozen + years I adore). These are Catholic saint idolatry – ““You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them” Deuteronomy 5:8-9. Evangelicals mock Catholics in this regard. It’s an accommodation vs canonical. Your point about the Episcopal/Anglican ecclesial community is well taken, but at some point you draw your line. A very good friend of mine told me (quoting another un-annotated source) that you approach the liturgy the liturgy doesn’t approach you. I feel that if we are “core” (eliminating that which is a “bolt on”), then the truth of that core will carry the day.

      • SamB

        Prof_Override do you have a picture of yourself and your family in your house and/or wallet, that is an image of “yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below”?
        But your God in Ex 26 contradicts Himself according to you. Catholics don’t “worship” the statutes they just venerate them. Please get your Catholic right. Thank You.

  • Alecto

    I disagree with the conclusion here. Assimilation does not explain the failure of Catholic influence. Vatican II, its implementation or perversion does. After all, Catholics in Europe, Africa, Asia and elsewhere are just as likely to support the secular agenda as Catholics in the U.S. Vatican II is the nexus, the point at which Catholicism ceased to be a lifestyle that existed apart from the world, and morphed into a watered-down, cowardly and “feel good” version of mainline Protestantism. When the emphasis on catechism and sacramental living was replaced by social justice activities and the bulk of Catholic teaching consists of pushing for government intrusion into private life like advocating for single payer government sponsored healthcare, wholesale dismantling of the rule of law, arguing over immigration policy or budgets, Catholics aren’t Catholic at all. Jesus said that we will know them by their fruits. It’s high time we examine what has happened. Mass exodus from the Catholic church, a failure to inculcate a basic understanding of doctrine into Catholics, making them more likely to succumb to modern pressures and practices, scandals, etc…. Forgive me, but I fail to see how the culture accomplished this? Seems to me the Catholic hierarchy did it all by themselves and they did it to us.

    I am still so stunned, so shocked to learn that Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago is ultimately responsible for giving Barak Obama his start in politics, I am not certain I can forgive the clergy for that one. If that is “leadership”, Mr. Kalb, I want none of it. And yet this effort to dismantle authentic Catholic culture continues. I look at my own diocese (Arlington) and see more appointments of people to “social justice” or “community” positions. My diocese is more interested in money than faith or Catholic life. Assimilation does not account for what is happening to Catholics.

    • Assimilation takes a lot of forms. The desire of ordinary people to blend in, do what they feel like doing, and make their way in the world is one form. The desire of upwardly mobile intellectuals, politicians, and hierarchs to gain worldly respectability is an aspect of that. And the reduction of the Kingdom of Heaven to the comprehensive politically correct welfare state helps the upwardly mobile in their efforts to gain secular cred. All those forms were active in the postwar period, and that’s a big reason the implementation of Vatican II went the way it did. I don’t think that talking about some of them denies the others.

  • Joe DeCarlo

    Any Catholic who is pro-choice, e.g. John Kerry, and pro-gay marriage is not a Catholic. Catholics can not pick and choose what doctrine that they want to believe, especially pro-choice, which is a no-no. I would suggest to those Catholics who are pro-choice and pro-gay marriage to choose another Christian denomination or religion, because they are not Catholics. We have a weak hierarchy which should be excommunicating those who are do not believe in the teachings of the church.

  • hombre111

    Sigh. We will never go back to the olden days. The Church needs to figure out a way to witness to Christ and his resurrection within this modern context. This change began with the Enlightenment, which put the Church on the defensive. That was hundreds of years ago. The hierarchy still hasn’t figured it out. But that is not new. It took the Church hundreds of years to realize the silgnificance of nationalism, where people were Englishmen or Frenchmen first, Catholics second. Pope tried using the excommunication tool (such as with Queen Elizabeth) hoping in vain that it would cause the people to act in the name of the Church. Caused lots of damage to the Church.

  • John O’Neill

    In the 19th century America the anti Catholic Know Nothings asserted that one could not be a true American and a Catholic at the same time. In this year of our Lord 2013 I think that these bigots were right. To be an American is to support a government and constitution that says that aborting or killing an unborn child is okay and not only that but you must help to pay for it through your government taxes. The American government is now conducting an indiscrimate bombing campaign against so called targets around the world and we Catholics are supposed to support that. The American government is moving fast to establish a change in the definition of marriage by the state in order to allow homosexuals to marry in state institutions and it will only be a matter of time before Christian clergy are forced to conduct these ceremonies under pain of hate crime indictment. The American govenment has been conducting a very successful campaign to remove the mention of Christianity in the govenment controlled schools going as far as banning the observance of Christmas and other Christian holidays. The American government through its control of medical care has already started their preliminary trials of mercy killing and intending to make it a national policy to carry out a killing off of the aging population. To those Catholics who think that assimilating into this evil society or culture of death society is the right thing, they are sadly mistaken. There is as Augustine ascertained a city of God and a city of Man, the city of Man is the city of Satan and human evil. In today’s world the American government and culture is squarely in the realm of satanic evil. Thomas Moore stated that he died God’s good servant first; the state was secondary. Finally the American Catholic Church is being led by bishops who have sold their souls to the American government specfically the demcrat party; possibly because many are of Irish background and have come to believe that the democrat party and its prophets the Kennedy family are to be worshipped. Extra ecclesiam veram nemo salvus erit.

  • Theorist

    Even in mainstream history, it’s admitted that Catholics were bullied into assimilating by puritans and their public-“school” system (which was supposed to out-compete parochial schools).

    I think that in a way, a Catholic can be fully American in that Americans have always believed in allowing the truth of an idea to be shown by its success against other ideas in a free competition. If something is successful it will have at least some truth to it. So let us Catholics participate in Americanism by rolling-up our sleeves and abolishing the puritans and New England “Catholicism”.

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