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John Adams Blog

The blog of The Antient and Honourable John Adams Society, Minnesota's Conservative Debating Society www.johnadamssociety.org

Saturday, January 21, 2006

First Things Perspective on Catholicism in America

January 19, 2006
Joseph Bottum writes:
There’s no contradiction in saying “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” for the two facts occasionally coexist.
So, I recently argued in the Weekly Standard, we are living in a moment in which a set of Catholic ideas and rhetorical gestures—the Catholic way of phrasing and framing certain arguments—plays a greater role in American public life than ever before. For both its supporters and its detractors, the moral imagination of Catholicism is a marker: to be praised and deployed, for some; to be mocked and decried, for others—but for all, a point of reference in the ongoing debates about the law, abortion, church-state relations, and many other of the issues that roil public debate.
And yet, I suggested, we are also at a moment when the institutional Church in America has less political power than ever before. For all the raging during the 2004 presidential election about the baleful effect of the Catholic hierarchy’s preaching against abortion—editorials in the New York Times, television talk show after television talk show—here’s a simple measure: pro-abortion politicians won the political district of every cardinal in the United States, from Los Angeles to Boston.
One commentator complained that I had imagined a backlash against the cardinals when, in fact, the vote proved the complete indifference to them. But that is precisely what I meant: the institutional Church has a political effect these days that is almost non-existent, even for provoking a counter-effect. Like John Kerry when he boasted that he had been an altar boy, the newspaper editorialists suppose we still live in a day in which, for instance, John F. Kennedy could win 87 percent of Mass-going Catholics’ votes.
Still, the New York Times is right to be disturbed, for there is something going on in America that involves Catholicism and is profoundly antithetical to much that the Times holds dear. But to blame it on the institutional power of the Catholic Church is a dated and false analysis. That was yesterday. Today’s problem, for those who want to resist it, is the rhetorical and intellectual role of Catholicism in America.
Yesterday, my friend Russell Hittinger, the Catholic philosopher at the University of Tulsa, sent a note warning against overestimating the influence of intellectual Catholicism in the United States—particularly in academia. Perhaps he’s right. But the question is how there can be any influence at all, for fifty years of work by sociology professors has assured us of the assimilation of Catholics, and two hundred years of polished epigrams from Enlightenment-style philosophes have informed us that religion in general, and Catholicism in particular, belong to the childhood of mankind.
The answer, I think, is this: Catholicism is the new mainline church in America. As mainline Protestantism was to the nation, so Catholicism now is. That’s not to say Catholics aren’t a sprawling mess, for they are: Catholic voters are divided nearly perfectly between the political parties, and the internal arguments are waged with an absurd venom and bile (as when the editor of a Catholic journal recently concluded a review of George Weigel’s The Cube and the Cathedral with the observation: “This is a third-rate book permeated with the odor of witchcraft”). Meanwhile, Catholic universities are in disarray, Catholic politicians are as likely to be pro-abortion as not, and Catholic art has shown little life since the 1940s and 1950s.
And yet, the nation has need of something, which—almost by default—Catholicism is providing. This is Toqueville’s kind of thesis, of course, about the American experience, but it feels right. The United States has always required some source of moral imagination in the public square that does not derive from either the politics of democracy or the economics of capitalism. For a long time, the mainline Protestant churches remained that source, even though they were often as sprawling and as envenomed as American Catholicism now is. And when, for a number of fascinating reasons, those mainline churches collapsed, the nation was left with Catholicism. (This is to leave for another day the role of the evangelical churches, and also the question of what happens when evangelicals and Catholics meet in the space that the mainline used to occupy.)
To decide about all this would require two movements: explaining what happened to America, and explaining what happened to Catholicism. And those two explanations may seem at times to give contradictory answers—like “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Still, the role of Catholicism in America today seems to me the most interesting and pressing social and political question around.