Considering Russell Shaw's American Church

When Russell Shaw, former press spokesman for the U.S.Catholic Bishops Conference, subtitles his new book "The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America," he knows what he's talking about. From a handful of Catholics at the time of the American Revolution, the Church in this country grew incredibly, with huge waves of immigration from Catholic Europe in the nineteenth century: Ireland, Germany and central Europe, and then Italy and southern Europe. The Church was a force to be reckoned with, particularly in the cities. Thus its "Remarkable Rise," which was a time of "ghetto Catholicism."

There is evidence in the prefatory materials that this book was originally entitled The Gibbons Legacy, after James Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore for almost half a century until he died in 1921. But maybe Ignatius Press decided that wasn't catchy enough, since few today outside of historians of American Catholicism remember Cardinal Gibbons.

In any case, when he took possession of his titular Church in Rome on March 25, 1887 (The Feast of the Annunciation, and also, not coincidentally, Maryland Day), Gibbons said, "Thanks to the fructifying grace of God, the grain of mustard seed...has grown to be a large tree, spreading its branches over the length and breadth of our fair land. ...I proclaim, with a deep sense of pride and gratitude...that I belong to a country where the civil government holds over us the aegis of its protection without interfering in the legitimate exercise of our sublime mission as ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ."

Shaw questions whether that optimistic assessment of the good cardinal is still true. President Obama and his nominally Catholic Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius are doing everything they can to try and coerce Catholic organizations and individuals into providing free morning-after pills, and so violate principles of Catholic morality. (Along the same statist and secularist lines, Obama in northern Ireland this week questioned the continued existence of religious schools in northern Ireland: "If towns remain divided--if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs--if we can't see ourselves in one another, if fear or resentment are allowed to harden, that encourages division. It discourages cooperation." So much for religious freedom in education!)

Of course, the Catholic Church in the United States did not remain in the urban ghetto. As Shaw's chapter "Into and Out of the Ghetto" notes, Catholics in America assimilated into the larger culture. A Catholic became president, but at the price of renouncing the socio-political ramifications of the faith. Shaw notes that in 1965, the year Vatican II ended, priestly ordinations in the country were almost one thousand; but in 2010, they were not even five hundred. There has also been a huge drop-off in Catholic school attendance.

Of course, the most obvious measure of public decline has been the priest sex-abuse scandal, which hit the Church in this country, and particularly Boston, especially hard. We have been in what Shaw characterizes as "Meteoric Fall." I suppose the good news is that there's nowhere to go but up. One of the wonderful things about our new pope is that, by continually highlighting God's loving mercy, and taking a forthright stand against clerical privilege and hypocrisy, he is offering a compelling witness to what George Weigel has called "Evangelical Catholicism," the new evangelization that this country and the modern world so desperately need.

Shaw talks about the "Uncertain Future" of Catholicism in America. God's grace is not lacking, but everyone is ultimately free to choose their future. Shaw recommends that "Catholic laypeople must be the new subculture's primary agents of evangelization. Shaw quotes a friend of his who said, "The biggest problem of all--and the cause of all the rest--is that we haven't preached holiness."

The Church in this country has been known for its bishops and its buildings--churches, schools, hospitals. But not as well known for its saints. That is fortunately changing. With figures like military chaplains Father Vincent Capodanno or Father Emil Kapaun up for holiness, or Capuchin friar Solanus Casey, or recently canonized St. Maryanne Cope, we can see the "uncertain future" flower into holiness in America. But to understand where we've been, where we are, and where we're going, Russell Shaw's book is required reading.

Dwight G. Duncan is professor at UMass School of Law Dartmouth. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.