Thursday, March 09, 2006

Strengths and weaknesses in American Catholicism

There is a paradox inherent in all her history that the Church, designed in her nature to be universal, remains everywhere a minority. We are inclined to think that from the ago of Constantine to that of Luther there was a single, consistently triumphant, universally respected authority and to wonder why, in fact, she made such poor use of her opportunities. In fact, of course, the Church has always been at grips with enemies inside or outside her body, has never enjoyed that serene rule her constitution expects, has repeatedly suffered disasters from which it seemed barely possible she would recover. Her position in America cannot be understood unless her previous history is kept always in mind. From time to time, from place to place, she has been in hiding; and she has been on the throne. In America her problems are less simple. There she is firmly grounded in a neutral, secular state.

The United States does not form part of Christendom in the traditional sense of the word. She is the child of late eighteenth-century "enlightenment" and the liberalism of her founders has persisted through all the changes of her history and penetrated into every part of her life. Separation of Church and State was an essential dogma. Government, whatever its form, was looked on as the captain of a liner, whose concern is purely with navigation. He holds his command ultimately from the passengers. Under his immediate authority the public rooms of his ship are used for religious assemblies of all kinds, while in the bar anyone may quietly blaspheme. That is the ideal relationship between ruler and ruled, between the individual qua citizen and the individual qua immortal soul, as conceived by doctrinaire liberals of the period when the United States were founded. Men required and tolerated very little from their government. The realm of "private life" was large and inviolable. And the division of Church and State is feasible only under those conditions. To-day in most nations the analogy between State and ship has broken down. In some places the Captain has developed the mentality of Bligh of the Bounty; in others the passengers have been more or less willingly pressed into the crew; all are continuously occupied in keeping the ship running; the voyage is no longer a means to an end but an end in itself. As the State, wither it consist of the will of the majority or the power of a clique, usurps more and more of the individual's "private life," the more prominent become the discrepancies between the secular and the religious philosophies, for many things are convenient to the ruler which are not healthy for the soul.

Of course, that isn't me talking. It's from Evelyn Waugh, "The American Epoch in the Catholic Church," Life, 19 Sept. 1949

Mr. Waugh, however, foresaw in large part what was coming for the Church, and a reading of his entire article is disheartening, as he focuses largely on the great successes of the church in America through the middle of the Twentieth Century, and at the same time warns, through a discussion of what's happening elsewhere in the world and what the weaknesses are in American culture, that the then-current success of the church might be short-lived.


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