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Catholics and American Culture

by James Hitchcock
July 5, 1999

The fact that most of the Catholic immigrants who settled in America kept their faith is perhaps the major instance in the history of the world of a massive process of urbanization and industrialization which did not lead to a decline in religious belief and practice. In Europe most Catholics were peasants, but in America they became a predominantly urban people, and the Church successfully adapted to this new situation.

Inevitably some Catholics were embarrassed by the dominantly immigrant character of their Church, and they determined to demonstrate that their religion was not an exotic European transplant but fit well with American culture at its best. In l899, Pope Leo XIII officially warned against making too easy an identification between the Church and American culture, and since then some critics have argued that his warning placed a kind of damper on American Catholicism. In fact, however, the Church after l900 began its greatest period of growth.

In l907 the United States officially ceased to be a mission country, and by that time perhaps most American dioceses were beginning to rely on a native priesthood. The great system of churches, schools, universities, monasteries, seminaries, hospitals, orphanages, and other institutions continued to expand. By the time of World War I not only was the United States no longer dependant on missionaries from abroad, it began itself to send out missionaries.

The kind of cultural assimilation which occured in American Catholicism was not for the most part the intellectual kind envisioned by the Americanists of the l890's but was instead an almost instinctive, often not entirely intentional, mode of adaptation.

Thus the Church's very material prosperity made it respected in a society where success of this kind was admired. Its bishops, whatever else they were, appeared to be effective businessmen and administrators. On the other hand Catholics were overwhelmingly working-class, became active in labor unions and, strongly encouraged by some clerical leaders, generally supported programs of social reform.

Accused sometimes of being in thrall to a foreign despot in Rome, Catholics embraced American patriotism with great fervor and were proud of the fact that in both world wars they served in the armed forces out of proportion to their numbers. As Communism came to be recognized as a grave threat to the world, the Catholic Church stood out as one of the earliest and most uncompromising opponents of that system.

The nature of the Catholic parish bound its people to the Church by more than just religious bonds, as parishes commonly were the centers of socialization, through clubs and societies; of the education of children; and of recreation, through athletic teams, dances, etc. The parish was in fact the center of each neighborhood, so that for many Catholics ceasing to belong to the the Church was almost literally unthinkable.

Although it may not have been intended in this way, the development of the parish as a neighborhood center strongly reaffirmed the Church's essential congruence with American culture, giving Catholics an easy sense that their religion "fit" with the surrounding society.

In l960 most American industrial cities were very religious places, among the few countries in the world, along with Canada and Australia, where that might be said. However, the United States after l945 was ceasing in some ways to be a predominantly urban nation and was becoming instead a suburban society, and Catholics were among those who eagerly undertook the trek to the suburbs.

This was another major American Catholic success story, as bishops found it possible in a matter of only a few years often to double the number of parishes in a given metropolitan area, even as the movement of parishioners left many of the older urban parishes no longer viable. The entire process was enormously expensive and required considerable managerial skill, but in most dioceses it was carried out successfully.

The decline of American Catholicism after l965 closely paralleled the decline of the American city and, if the dislocation of immigrants from Europe to America did not weaken people's faith, the move from city to suburb seems to have had that result, not because of the physical and psychological affects of the move itself but in terms of the general direction of American culture in the l960's. The move from city to suburb was experienced by most people as hopeful, fulfilling long dreams of prosperity amidst pleasant surroundings. But in making the transition from city to suburb Catholics were also, however unwittingly, embracing new kinds of middle-class values which would eventually prove to be not fully compatible with their faith.

James Hitchcock,
professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. Dr. Hitchcock's The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life, Vol. 1 The Odyssey of the Religion Clauses and Vol. II From 'Higher Law' to 'Sectarian Scruples', were released by Princeton University Press September 2, 2004.

E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock

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