What’s Wrong with Cultural Catholicism?

Commentary by Susan Brinkmann, OCDS

The disappointing vote to legalize abortion in Ireland may be the result of the slow death of cultural Catholicism – which some of us believe can’t die too soon.

In a recent blog post, Father Longenecker explains that what happened in Ireland last week could be due to what has been happening in the USA and Europe for decades – that is, the slow death of cultural Catholicism. He uses his own life story to explain exactly what it is and why it’s not such a bad thing if this form of Catholicism should fade into obscurity.

“When I was a Catholic in England it was different,” he explains. “Catholicism was not the national church so you had to belong intentionally either because you were Irish or you were a convert or you were one of those rare birds, an English cradle Catholic…even so your parents or grandparents were either Irish or converts or you might be one of those even rarer birds–a descendent of one of the great recusant families. Either way, you were Catholic and you were different, and that is a healthy way to be a Christian.”

When he came to the Diocese of Charleston in the U.S., he found himself once again in the minority. Deep inside the “Bible Belt,” only five percent of the state’s population is Catholic.

He compares this diocese to the huge Catholic strongholds of Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago where the church has vast real estate holdings and (mostly empty) seminaries, convents, and Catholic schools.

“It was cultural Catholicism that built these great parishes and dioceses in the Northern cities, just like it was cultural Catholicism that strengthened the Catholic Church in Ireland. The fact that the immigrants were members of a minority group and their religion was a minority, strengthened both identities and helped them build a strong Catholicism,” he writes.

“But the problem was that their Catholicism was too linked to their national or ethnic culture. They were Catholic because they were Polish or because they were Italian or because they were Irish or Portuguese, and when, after a few generations, they stopped being Irish, Polish or Italian and were just American, they also stopped being Catholic.”

This accounts for the huge departure of so many American Catholics to either Protestantism or the golf course, he continues.

He’s seeing the same phenomenon take place in Ireland where Irish Catholics once had a strong national identity and clung to their Catholicism as part of that identity. But once Ireland joined the European Union, their strong Irish identity got watered down along with their Catholicism.

“When this cultural phenomenon is combined with poor catechesis, the culture of privilege and power among the clergy, the financial and moral corruption of the church–no wonder Irish Catholicism is sinking fast.”

But there’s a different kind of Catholicism afoot in places such as the American South which is not so much about ethnicity than it is about being Catholic. This is what makes the Church so strong and vibrant in the South. Although there are Hispanics and Irish and Vietnamese with their cultural links, these are just “minor currents,” Father explains. For the most part, Catholics in the South are Catholics because they want to be Catholics.

He offers this example as hope for the rest of us that our Church can recover from its current malaise and enter that new springtime that St. John Paul so ardently prayed for.

“ . . . [W]hat if the thing the drew us together was a dynamic new appreciation of our shared Catholic culture?” Father suggests.

For example, his parish built a new church in a traditional Romanesque style which parishioners of all backgrounds appreciate. While it’s rooted in the Italian tradition, as is our liturgy, music, and art, it’s not so much Italian as it is Catholic.

“The Gregorian chant and plainsong, like the romanesque architecture, is timeless and transcends culture. Those who argue for the Extraordinary Form of the Mass have some good points and some weak points, but one of their strong points is that a uniform liturgy and language is important because it transcends individual cultural or aesthetic choices in liturgy and therefore unites all of the faithful,” he writes.

In my travels across the United States, I never fail to find a core of solid Catholics in each parish that hosts me, all of which are united not by their ethnic background but by their sincere love for all things Catholic. They thrive on the challenges of our faith, of “swimming against the tide” in a godless culture, of living the Gospel “in season and out,” of the joy and hope they find in the person of Jesus Christ and the Church He founded on earth. Even though I come to the parish as a stranger, I am instantly absorbed into this parish “family” because we all speak the same “soul language.” While there, I’m a part of them, and when I leave, I take them with me because they are now a part of my own heart.

And none of this has to do with anything other than our sheer love for the faith.

For this reason, I have to agree with Father Longenecker who believes cultural Cathlicism can’t die too soon.

“I don’t propose any magic solutions, but I predict that over the next few decades we will see cultural Catholicism continue to fade away (and 1970s folk Masses are another form of transient cultural Catholicism) and a smaller, more vibrant church will emerge in which traditional architecture, music and liturgy proclaim to the world a Catholicism that looks, feels and smells Catholic (don’t forget the incense) and is therefore firm in its identity as Catholic – nothing more and nothing less.”

From his lips to God’s ears!

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