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American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America

1 rating: 5.0
2013 nonfiction book by Russell Shaw
1 review about American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric...

Can one be fully Catholic and fully American at one and the same time?

  • Nov 3, 2013
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"Catholics of the United States have been preoccupied too long with the wrong question: What kind of Catholics should they be—‘American' or ‘Roman'? But Catholicism itself is a given, open to only limited and rather well-defined variations without becoming something else. A better question for Catholics would be this: What kind of Americans do they want to be—assimilated creatures of the secular culture, or people of faith who seek for themselves a national identity superior to the one that the secular culture wishes to impose on them, an identity grounded in the Gospel, leading them to distinguish carefully between what is acceptable and good in secular culture and what expresses secularist values in conflict with their faith?' – page 62

I am 62 years old now and it feels as though I have lived through it all. I was attending a Catholic high school in Rhode Island during the years 1965-1969, a tumultuous period that roughly coincided with the Second Vatican Council. Winds of change would quickly evolve into a violent storm. As the title of this book suggests the downfall of the Roman Catholic Church in America over the next 50 years would prove to be nothing short of breathtaking. In his riveting new book "American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America" author Russell Shaw succinctly and methodically depicts the century long clash of philosophies that would eventually lead to the sharp and potentially irreconcilable divisions within the Catholic Church in America. Shaw firmly believes that if the American Church is ever going to recover it is imperative that committed Catholics fully understand the reasons behind the precipitous decline of the American Church and equip themselves with a plan of action to create a new Catholic subculture in America. Much of what Shaw presents in his book was brand new to me. I simply could not put this one down.

Central to the presentation made by Russell Shaw in "American Church" is the term "Americanism". What is this? "Americanism" is the notion that the Roman Catholic Church in the United States should adapt itself to the values of the modern American republic. In the pages of "American Church" you will meet a number of the major proponents of this way of thinking including Cardinal James Gibbons and Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulist Fathers. Meanwhile, you will also be introduced to some of those with a markedly different point of view including Orestes Brownson and Fr. John Hugo, a vocal parish priest who in the 1940's warned that assimilation of American Catholics into the popular culture could only lead to "a watering down of Catholic identity". Shaw also quotes Hugo's diatribe on the evils of birth control that appears to be every bit as relevant today as it was back in the 1940's. The debate over "Americanism" is a tug-of war that has been raging within the Church for decades and continues even to this day.

Fast forward now to the 1960's and to the Second Vatican Council. Russell Shaw reveals how and why Vatican II unleashed forces that would fundamentally transform the Catholic Church in America. The growing number of Progressives within the church would frequently point to "the spirit of Vatican II" when promoting their radical left-wing agenda. Traditional groups like the Legion of Mary and the Knights of Columbus were marginalized and many Catholic colleges and universities began to foster a culture that actually drove students away from their faith. The laity experienced the disheartening phenomenon of priests and nuns leaving ministry in droves while traditional rites and devotions gradually disappeared.  And now under the administration of Barack Obama the attacks on the Catholic Church have only intensified. Committed Catholics across America are casting about trying to figure out how to pick up the pieces and begin to rebuild their torn and tattered Church.

In the final chapter of "American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America" offers some common sense suggestions on how to go about doing just that. He opines that the solution is the creation of a new Catholic subculture with an emphasis on the new evangelization that Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have been talking about. There is reason to be hopeful because as Shaw points out: "Recent converts to Catholicism not infrequently report that they were repelled by the growing depravity of secular culture and attracted to Catholicism as the only serious response to it." Touche! I found much food for thought in "American Church". This is an extremely well-written book that is well worth your time and attention. Very highly recommended!

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November 03, 2013
You raise some good points about the secular culture! The Church in America has to stay financially solvent in order to have any moral suasion at all. Otherwise, it will be subject to the will of influences that are averse to what the Church teaches. Nevertheless, people still understand the value of having a firm moral grounding from the disastrous experiences of the Great Depression and The Great Recession. If anything, the spiritual side of life is gaining momentum rather than losing it.
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