John T. McGreevy: The Next Pope's Challenges

Roundup: Talking About History

John T. McGreevy, in the New Republic (4-6-05):

[John T. McGreevy teaches history at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Catholicism and American Freedom: A History.]

... The primary task for the next Pope and the next generation of American Catholic leaders will be to manage the transition from a Catholic culture to a Catholic creed. Until the 1960s, the faith inherited by American Catholics came from an extraordinarily dense network of Catholic families, schools, parishes, and Catholic associations. This Catholic faith was not an assent to an abstract set of propositions. Instead, it was the result of a shared culture--one that allowed Catholics to recognize that they had been speaking "Catholic" all their lives.

To some extent, this Catholic culture still exists: There are 60 to 65 million Catholics in the United States, and two-thirds of them describe religion as "very important" or "important" in their lives. But these numbers mask a growing disengagement. The percentage of Catholic schoolchildren enrolled in Catholic schools is steadily declining, and after-school programs in religious education remain badly underdeveloped. At Notre Dame, where I teach and where almost all of my students are Catholic, professors in entry level classes cannot assume basic knowledge of the Bible, the sacraments, or Church history. Most Notre Dame students do voluntarily attend Mass, but nationally only slightly more than one-third of Catholics attend church once a week, down from two-thirds in 1965. The searing disillusionment generated by the sexual-abuse crisis has only deepened a more general alienation. Now, when Cardinal George and the more alert of the John Paul II bishops scan the American religious landscape, they worry that Catholicism will suffer the fate of mainline Protestantism edging toward cultural irrelevance or Reformed Judaism fearful of demographic extinction.

So far, the Vatican and the American bishops have tried to combat this threat with two strategies. The first has been to focus on evangelism. While most Catholics born before 1965 tend to think of personal statements of faith and mass rallies as, well, Protestant, American Catholic leaders have recently embraced these methods to provide a kind of Catholic creed or identity in the absence of the cultural supports young Catholics once took for granted. Pope John Paul II led this effort, with his ceaseless travels that brought him to the United States seven times, including to Denver in 1993 for one of the Church's massive World Youth Days conferences, which drew 500,000 young Catholics.

The second strategy has been to portray the Church as a counterweight to what George terms "the secular individualist" ethos of the United States. And, at times, this prophetic posture has yielded considerable fruits: John Paul's claim--in his 1998 encyclical, Fides et Ratio--that truth existed independent of social construction offered a much-needed challenge to fashionable academic relativism; and his relentless juxtaposition of a "culture of life" with a "culture of death" has clearly shifted the terms of debate on abortion and the death penalty. That Bush, in his tribute to John Paul II, sounded more like a Catholic bishop than a non-Catholic president, with references to his support for the "culture of life," reflects something more genuine than Karl Rove's ongoing effort to sway Catholic voters. ...

comments powered by Disqus