The Rise, Fall and Future of Catholicism in the U.S. | CWR Staff
An interview with Russell Shaw, author of American Church.
Author and journalist Russell Shaw has written over twenty books, including To Hunt, To Shoot, To Entertain: Clericalism and the Catholic Laity and Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church. For 18 years, Shaw directed media relations for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the United States Catholic Conference. From 1987 to 1997 he oversaw media relations for the Knights of Columbus. Since resigning from that position, he has worked full time as a freelance writer. His most recent book, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America (Ignatius Press, 2013), has been widely praised as an incisive examination of the recent history of the Catholic Church in the United States. “If you want to understand the Church in the United States and the challenges she now faces,” states Abp. Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., Archbishop of Philadelphia, “American Church should be on the short list of books you need to read.” Shaw recently answered some questions from CWR about his book and the past, present, and future of Catholicism in the United States.
CWR: How and why was James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore such a key figure in the story of the Catholic Church in the U.S.?
Shaw: Cardinal Gibbons was Archbishop of Baltimore from 1877 until his death in 1921. That's 44 crucial years in American Catholic history during which he was the leader of the American hierarchy, recognized as such by Rome and by his episcopal colleagues. He also was leader of the Americanizing bishops—the members of the hierarchy who advocated rapid and total integration of immigrant Catholics into American culture.
The group included some who were more flamboyant, like Archbishop John Ireland of Saint Paul, and others who were more intellectual, like Bishop John Lancaster Spalding of Peoria, but the patient, prudent, diplomatic Gibbons was the most effective of them all, trusted by the Holy See and widely respected at home. By the time of his death, he was one of the most admired public figures in the country, and his policy of Americanization was the policy of the Church in the United States. I have no hesitation saying his impact on American Catholicism was greater than that of any bishop before or since..
CWR: You describe Orestes Brownson as "the most distinguished (and very nearly only) American Catholic public intellectual of his day." How did Brownson's view of the relationship between Catholicism and the American experiment change or develop? How accurate were his mostly negative assessment of that relationship?