Reflections on American Catholic History: Part II—Religious Pluralism
by David J. O’Brien

We are pleased to present this second of a three-part reflection on the recent history of American Catholicism by professor emeritus David J. O’Brien of the College of the Holy Cross. The reflection is a lightly revised version of the Monsignor Hugh Crean Distinguished Memorial Lecture delivered by Professor O’Brien at Our Lady of the Elms College, Chicopee, Massachusetts, on April 20, 2021. Part I, “Community Expectations,” is available here.—Ed.

It is now 50 years since I wrote The Renewal of American Catholicism. A lot has happened in that time. Once again, we the American Catholic people have changed, the legacy of Vatican II is contested, and many of the struggles of the sixties are still with us. I do not have to tell people in Massachusetts about the impact of sin within our church, and all of us are anxious about our country’s political divisions and the huge challenges facing the human family. Far more than 50 years ago, everything now seems up for grabs, “folk memories” seem a bit thinner and more complicated, and many of us hunger for new aspirations for our own lives and for our country and our church.

So we need to sort things out, as we did in the wake of Vatican II and the sixties. The temptation we all feel is to look back, wondering what went wrong and who was responsible. I loved the community I grew up in and often laugh, sadly, about its loss. When our children were grown, we moved to a suburb and a house on preservation land, joining the friendly parish. One evening we attended a parish event where I found a tall, impressively serious man waiting for me with a copy of the very conservative Catholic paper The Wanderer under his arm. Suspecting me as an agent of the supposedly “liberal” Jesuits at Holy Cross, he peppered me with questions about challenges to Catholic, and American, moral “teachings.” But at one point he asked me where I was from. When I answered Pittsfield, he laughed and embraced me. “Me too!” he said, and continued: “What we have to do, Dave is get the church—and the country—back to where they were in the 1950s!”

I am less inclined to looking back, recalling immigrant ancestors inspired by those “new aspirations” while holding on to cherished “folk memories”.[1] Like my ancestors, we need to find some of that “creative courage” of Saint Joseph celebrated by Pope Francis. We might start by considering the advice of the Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor. His provocative assessment of our situation suggests that my rather optimistic reading of the decade of the sixties 50 years ago hinted at a lingering American innocence. Today it seems clear that the changes I noted were part of a wider transformation of Western culture that we are still trying to figure out.

Taylor is very critical of our usual ideas of secularism, a term easily weaponized in the culture wars. How often we blame society for our problems, as if that society is not our own, and as if we were not agents of our history. Instead of secularization he uses the term “unbundling” to describe the way in which areas of life—family and community, education and social services, private and public morality—once integrated around faith and often under the influence and direct or indirect control of the church (think of his Quebec or my ancestral Ireland) are now detached from one another.

For the Catholic Church, this process is twofold. First, the decline, marginalization, and eventual end of integrated Christian societies: Christendom as a memory, fueling passions for restoration for one faction of church and society. Prior to World War II, this was often associated with a poisonous nationalism in Europe. Here in the United States, Catholics were a minority with no claim to take over, but our subculture retained many of the assumptions of Christendom. As the lay theologian Frank Sheed put it years ago: “We are the sweet, selected few / the rest of you are damned / there isn’t room enough for you / we can’t have heaven crammed.” We have a taste of those lingering resistance passions in America’s Christian nationalists, and similar feelings inform some wider negative reaction to growing diversity and to perceptions of state or market pressures against what now seem to be traditional ideals and practices.

For some Catholics, here and elsewhere, what is hard to accept is that religion has become, as Karl Rahner articulated before the Second Vatican Council, “a matter of personal decision constantly renewed amid perilous surroundings.” That reality of individualism is accompanied by another: the multiplication of options in what resembles a religious marketplace. The combination of freedom of conscience and religious pluralism upsets many strong Catholic impulses; it also helps explain Pope Francis’s emphasis on attraction more than persuasion, encounter rather than exclusion, dialogue rather than proclamations. It also helps explain many of our pastoral challenges, from the family and the parish to colleges like my Holy Cross and Elms College.

The second part of the “unbundling” process concerns the various facets of Catholic life themselves. Where worship, prayer, education, and social services were once carried out under one umbrella held by clergy and bishops over laity and religious, now these areas are often separated from one another. There are competing options within as well as outside the very permeable boundaries of Catholicism.

Think of our own bewildering daily associations, often requiring shifts in language and comportment, from family to workplace to book club to prayer group to extended family to political meeting. Our church becomes more segmented with us. I was warned years ago by Msgr. John Egan about the separation of pastoral and social ministry, for which we have paid a great price. In higher education, the Vatican and bishops have repeatedly complained about a supposed loss of Catholic identity, while many of us worry about disconnection from the other Catholic institutions and ministries. Massimo Faggioli has highlighted the separation of academic theology from pastoral work and experience, and now we are faced with the cost of our inability to think together about the status of Catholic institutions receiving public support in medical care, social services, and higher education. Segmentation, fragmentation, conflicts and resolutions ranging from passionate commitment to resigned indifference: all these are part of our everyday experience, both inside and outside of what we experience as church.

After Vatican II, the American theologian John Courtney Murray worried about what would happen when the religious liberty now affirmed by the church began to inform the life of the church itself. Scholars of American Protestant experience alerted me to Murray’s concern. They showed that religious liberty led to religious diversity, and the combination of the two led to the individualism Rahner anticipated and to evangelical forms of piety and ministry. Notice this everywhere Christians gather their attentiveness to Scripture, centering on Jesus, with a populist hermeneutic (the Bible as the “people’s book”); in calls to conversion and re-conversion (Rahner’s “personal commitment” echoed in piety and prayer); in assembly of voluntary communities (congregationalism, what are today called “affinity parishes” and movements of small groups aimed at deepening prayer, supporting relationships, relieving the poor); and in the social and personal moral compass taught in the popular catchphrase “What Would Jesus Do?”

In this world of diversity and freedom, Christian unity, intelligence, and moral discipline are extremely important but very fragile. For Protestants from the start, and for all American Christians now, a church order sustained by unifying creeds requires deliberate attention and pastoral creativity, particularly from bishops and scholars who operate within an evangelical culture that is the default drive of democratic Christianity. ♦

[1] See my essay “Reflecting on the Trajectory of American Catholic History” and several critical responses in American Catholic Studies, Fall 2018, pp. 1–27.

David J. O’Brien is professor emeritus, Loyola Professor of Roman Catholic Studies, at the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. He is the author, among other books, of Public Catholicism and Isaac Hecker: An American Catholic.

Image: Karl Rahner – Monchrome Representation | Gabriel Sozzi | CC BY-SA 4.0

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