Catholics in America: A Tale of Two Flags | Russell Shaw | Catholic World Report
Yes, assimilation has been the preferred strategy of Catholic leadership since the days of John Carroll. But should it always be? There is good reason to think it shouldn’t.
In a certain parish church that I know well, as also, I suppose, in many other Catholic churches in the United States, two flags are prominently displayed. One is the Stars and Stripes. The other, unfamiliar to most Americans, including many Catholics, is the gold and white flag of Vatican City, with the papal coat of arms—the keys of Peter and the papal tiara—imposed upon its vertical white band. In many churches the two flags flank the sanctuary as if to salute the sacred ritual celebrated there. In the one I’m thinking of, they hang from the choir loft in benevolent surveillance of the congregation.
In all my years of visiting Catholic churches I’ve never heard anyone, priest or lay person, say a word about the symbolism of the two flags. Perhaps it’s so obvious that it doesn’t need explaining. The message is plainly twofold: first, that Catholics have a dual loyalty—to the Church and to the United States; second, that there is no conflict here. On the contrary, the flags’ answer to the ancient question, “Can you be a good Catholic and a good American?” is a silent “Who says you can’t?”
For a long time that was entirely reasonable. It was the necessary starting-point for the Americanization program pursued by Catholic leaders from John Carroll on. Some people had their doubts, of course. In the early years of the twentieth century, for example, the Harvard philosopher George Santayana, a self-described “aesthetic Catholic,” expressed surprise that American Catholics busily assimilating into American culture were so ready to embrace something so “profoundly hostile” to their faith.
But despite the reservations of a few, a letter dispatched to the Vatican a few years later by the princely Cardinal George Mundelein of Chicago offered a candid explanation of why assimilation wasn’t merely desirable but necessary for the Church in America. Responding to an impassioned protest to Rome by Polish priests infuriated by his efforts to prevent Polish members of his Windy City flock from retaining their Catholic-centered old country culture, Mundelein declared it of “the utmost importance” that nationality groups in America “fuse into one homogeneous people…imbued with the one harmonious national thought, sentiment and spirit.” This was “the idea of Americanization,” he told Rome, and anything else instead of it would be “a disaster for the Catholic Church in the United States.”
That remained the conventional wisdom until recently. Now, though, the situation is changing as it becomes clear that the Church needs to rethink the old project of unconditional cultural assimilation. Yes, assimilation has been the preferred strategy of Catholic leadership since the days of John Carroll. But should it always be? There is good reason to think it shouldn’t. Assimilation’s cost to the Church has skyrocketed as the secular culture has become ever more hostile to Catholic beliefs and values on issues from abortion and same-sex marriage to the creeping economic strangulation of parochial schools. The wisdom of assimilation takes on particular urgency now from the presence in the U.S. of yet another large body of mainly Catholic newcomers, the Hispanics.
Three years ago I published a book called American Church examining the problem of assimilation suggested by its subtitle: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America. In laying out my thesis, I said this:
“As a sociological, psychological, and even spiritual process, Americanization was bound to happen. But it did not have to happen just as it did, nor must all the results now be accepted just as they stand….[T]wo linked questions become more and more pressing: How American—in contemporary American secular terms—can Catholics afford to become without compromising their Catholic identity; and must the future of Catholicism in the United States be more Americanization as we’ve experienced it up to now, or do we have other, better options?”
My new book, Catholics in America: Religious Identity and Cultural Assimilation from John Carroll to Flannery O’Connor, seeks to continue the discussion.