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Catholic in Faith, Protestant in Culture?

By Thomas Storck
Are American Catholics more like Protestants in the way they think and live?

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The Catholic Faith is meant to infuse every aspect of our lives. American Catholics, growing up in a predominately Protestant culture, cannot take for granted that “the American way” of life is necessarily Catholic—in fact many of our mores, opinions, and ways of viewing the world are inherited, rather unconsciously, from the culture around us. Thomas Storck takes up Francis Cardinal George’s challenge to Americans to truly build a Catholic culture in the midst of those around us—with the communion of the Trinity and the Incarnation or the Son of God as our models.

Archbishop Francis George of Chicago received a good deal of press coverage for a statement he made during the Synod of Bishops for the Americas in November of 1997. Archbishop (now Cardinal) George was quoted as saying that U.S. citizens "are culturally Calvinist, even those who profess the Catholic faith."  He continued by saying that American society "is the civil counterpart of a faith based on private interpretation of Scripture and private experience of God."  The Archbishop contrasted this kind of society with one based on the Catholic Church's teaching of community and a vision of life greater than the individual.

Now I agree entirely with Cardinal George's remarks, but I think that their meaning must be unpacked a bit in order to be more easily understood.  In the first place, we are not accustomed to thinking in such terms as "Catholic culture" or "Calvinist culture."  Secondly, the notion of community has been misused so much since the Second Vatican Council that the very term is now suspect in the eyes of many Catholics.  But, in fact, both the idea of culture and the idea of community are valuable means for understanding the ways in which society and religion interact, and thus for understanding how our faith affects, or fails to affect, our own life and the life of our society.

A society or culture tends to reflect, in a larger pattern, the dominant religious beliefs of its members.  For example, the two most basic and important articles of the Catholic faith are the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation.  Both the concept of the Trinity and of the Incarnation involve the notion of community.  The Trinity is itself a community of Persons, and the doctrine of the Incarnation leads to the doctrine of the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, which is an extension of the Incarnation.  St. Paul describes the Church as one body made up of many interrelated members with different functions; in fact, a community of persons linked in the most intimate way possible, since we are all members of Christ himself.  Secondly, from the doctrine of the Incarnation comes that wonderful union of the Divine and the human which is one of the hallmarks of Catholicism.  Thus, just as the Divine Word brought the Infinite and Timeless Majesty of God into a little baby at a certain time and place, so Catholics are always ready to externalize and incarnate their faith in objects and places, everything from blessed medals to shrines—sacred, it is true—but still material, just as God the Son did not think it incompatible with his Divinity to actually experience our material condition.

It is certainly the case that some have promoted a false notion of community, as if we could have community without God or as if the community were the primary locus of the Divine.  But the best way to create a community is to look toward God. Christ formed the Church as his Mystical Body, and no amount of standing around and holding hands could ever have done so.  But on the other hand, since Jesus Christ has constituted us as his Mystical Body, we naturally exhibit that unity in outward forms, as Catholic cultures have always done in their processions, pilgrimages, and festivals—just as these same cultures have exhibited the concreteness of the Incarnation by consecrating shrines and holy places to show that God and the life of mankind are not separated from each other.

But this is not the case with Protestant cultures.  Though Protestants do not deny either the Incarnation or the concept of the Mystical Body, one can say that their theology has focused on different matters.  Sometimes Protestant theology emphasizes certain truths, but emphasizes them out of proportion or out of context; in other cases what it promotes is not true at all.  But, in any case, the final product results in a different belief and thus in a different society expressing that different belief.  An example of this is what Cardinal George says about the U.S. being "a civil counterpart of a faith based on private interpretation of Scripture."  Our economic system, in particular, encourages each of us to think only in terms of his own private good and rarely, or never, in terms of the common good.  Similarly, our obsession with rights, which are usually conceived of as being rights against someone else, is another indication that our society is not based on Catholic principles.

If this is a fair assessment of American society, then we can ask, along with Cardinal George, whether U.S. Catholics also share in these Protestant ideas. Back in 1899, Pope Leo XIII warned Catholics in the United States of the heresy of subjecting Catholicism to certain traits which were part of the spirit of North American civilization.  Pope Leo called this heresy nothing other than Americanism! Thus, there has been a consistent tendency on the part of Catholics in the United States to accept the same cultural attitudes as their Protestant neighbors.  So that to be Catholic in faith and Protestant in culture is, unfortunately, not a new phenomenon.

Cardinal George made his remarks in the context of looking at the immigration of so many Latin American Catholics to the United States.  He noted that it was difficult for these immigrants from Catholic cultures to adapt to living in this country.  He said, for example, "The government schools, which are the U.S. equivalent of a state church, teach the children of immigrants a history of human progress from which religious influence has been expunged."  As a child, I went to these government schools, since I was not then a Catholic.  One of the dominant impressions that I think they gave was one of industrial and scientific progress as the highest and unquestioned good.  I remember a high school chemistry textbook which stated that the level of civilization in a country could be measured by the amount of sulfuric acid it consumed!  This was because sulfuric acid was very important at the time (late 1960s) in manufacturing processes, and industrialization was assumed to be the same as civilization.  Even then I knew that religion, morality, literature, art, and music were much better indices of civilization than technology.  But I wonder how many Catholics would read over that statement about civilization and sulfuric acid without batting an eye.  Such Catholics, whatever their faith might be, are sadly deficient in Catholic culture, for they implicitly accept a materialistic understanding of society.  Nazi Germany certainly used more sulfuric acid than the Paris in which St. Thomas Aquinas taught or the Italy in which St. Francis preached; therefore, Nazi Germany had a higher level of civilization?

North Americans, including North American Catholics, are apt to look down on Latin America because we think it is backward, disorderly, and dirty.  And without doubt, Latin America is not perfect.  But I am afraid that in our attitudes toward that region we are showing that Cardinal George is exactly on the mark.  U.S. Catholics are Calvinist in their thinking and their culture.  Yet, if we care about living lives that are entirely Catholic, about showing our faith in what we do, then we ought to try to rethink things from the standpoint of the true Faith.  Reading sound Catholic books is one way in which we can work against the Protestant atmosphere in which we are forced to exist.  The books of the English Catholic writer, Hilaire Belloc, especially Essays of a Catholic and Survivals and New Arrivals (Available from TAN Books, 1-800-437-5876) are very good antidotes to Calvinist thinking, as are the works of Christopher Dawson and G. K. Chesterton.

The Archbishop of Chicago has definitely identified a weakness of Catholics in the United States.  In the midst of our battles to preserve the Faith it might not seem like a very big weakness.  But, in fact, if we really want to preserve and hand on the Faith, then it should go without saying that we want to be Catholic in every part of our being.  We want to believe as Catholics, to think as Catholics, to live as Catholics. And if Belloc were alive, he might add:  "Yes, and to sing, to walk, to sail, even to drink as Catholics!"  To which I can only add, Amen.

Copyright © 2000 Thomas Storck

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