Five Questions with Russell Shaw


EDITOR’S NOTECV is happy to include a new entry in our “Five Questions” series. This interview features author, columnist, and former communications director for the U.S. Catholic bishops, Russell Shaw, who spoke with CV’s Stephen Kokx about his new book American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America. We hope you find this a helpful addition to our ongoing conversation about how to best live out our Catholic faith in the modern world.

CV-5-Questions-Russell-ShawHalf of Catholics in the United States think it is possible to be a good Catholic without attending mass every Sunday. Nearly two-thirds believe you can be in good standing with the Church and practice birth control. And when it comes to issues like divorce, abortion and same-sex marriage, more and more Catholics feel it is the laity who should have the final say, not the hierarchy.

This radical, public insubordination is a far cry from the 1950s; a decade when Catholic seminaries and convents were bursting at the seams, when Catholic elementary education was at its zenith and when nearly every Catholic attended mass more than twice a year.

So, how did we get here? How did Catholics come to think it is possible to call themselves Catholic while disagreeing so virulently with Church teaching? What can Catholics who wish to create an environment conducive to their faith do in a country increasingly hostile to that faith? And can you consider yourself fully American and remain fully Catholic? These are the questions Russell Shaw seeks to answer in his latest book American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America.

Shaw is a veteran Catholic writer whose decades of experience shines through in this powerfully argued, insightful exposition that forces Catholics living in the United States to reconsider their assumptions about the compatibility of their faith and their country. I highly recommend it.

The first half of “American Church” is devoted to how Catholicism evolved in America during the 19th century. You discuss the views of Isaac Hecker, James Cardinal Gibbons, Orestes Brownson and Pope Leo XIII, all of whom had strong opinions about Catholicism in America. Briefly tell me what these men believed and who you most agree with.

American Church

Father Hecker believed that the United States was ripe for conversion to Catholicism and advocated the assimilation of American Catholics into the larger American culture to facilitate its conversion. Cardinal Gibbons believed that America provided a congenial home for Catholics and held that the assimilation of Catholics into American culture was in their best interests and the best interests of the nation. Orestes Brownson originally shared Father Hecker’s views but eventually came to believe that American individualism was radically hostile to the spirit of Catholicism. Pope Leo was similarly concerned with the spirit of individualism that he saw at the heart of what he called “Americanism.” Personally, I think there are significant elements of truth in the views held by all of these men.

You write that the 1950s “were the high-water mark for the Catholic Church in the United States.” You also believe that 1976 was “the all-time low point for the Church” in America. What happened to the Church over that twenty year period and do you feel that the Church in America today is closer to the 1950s or 1976?

What happened in those twenty years in American society can be summed up very briefly as the cultural revolution/sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. It hardly needs saying that this was not friendly to Catholic beliefs and values. As for what happened in the Church: the breakdown of the American Catholic subculture via the movement of Catholic population from center cities to suburbs, upward socioeconomic mobility among Catholics, and a deliberate policy on the part of many Catholic intellectuals (with the tacit support of Church leadership) of either destroying or secularizing many Catholic institutions and organizations in order to escape from the so-called Catholic ghetto of the past and integrate into the secular mainstream. This was further reinforced by the widespread confusion and the rise of dissent among Catholics in the wake of Vatican II and Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae.

You say that Catholics need to create a new subculture, one that rejects Rawlsian liberal democracy. What should this subculture look like and what is Rawlsian liberal democracy? Is Rawlsian liberal democracy what ‘Americanizers’ like Fr. Hecker and Cardinal Gibbons sought to assimilate Catholics into? 

Briefly, the new subculture should be committed to fostering and sustaining Catholic identity and forming Catholics as agents of cultural evangelization. As for Rawlsian liberal democracy: John Rawls (a 20th century philosopher who taught at Harvard for many years) developed a theory of democracy as fairness, which at least implicitly embodies relativism as its working principle. Americanizers like Hecker and Gibbons were certainly not thinking of anything like this and would have roundly rejected the idea that Catholics should become part of it.

You lament the fact that “the Catholic Church isn’t getting her fair share of converts,” and that since the middle half of the 20th century the “number of Catholic conversions” has dropped precipitously. Does this mean that the Church should re-think its emphasis on interfaith dialogue and ecumenism and return to what Pope Pius XI wrote about in his 1928 encyclical “On Fostering True Religious Unity,” which teaches that “there is but one way in which the unity of Christians may be fostered, and that is by furthering the return to the one true Church of Christ of those who are separated from it”?

I don’t recall having lamented that the Catholic Church “isn’t getting her fair share of converts.” Instead, I cited the drop-off in converts as evidence, along with much else, that something has gone badly wrong in American Catholicism — that, for reasons which I explain at length in my book, the evangelizing energy of American Catholics has apparently suffered a precipitous decline. A rather half-baked understanding of interfaith dialogue and ecumenism may indeed have something, though not everything, to do with this, as David Carlin suggests in his book (which I admire and cite at length in mine). If so, that doesn’t invalidate interfaith dialogue and ecumenism, but it does point to the need for Catholics to acquire a more intelligent and sophisticated understanding of how these things are related to evangelization and proselytizing.

I’m going to bend the rules a bit here and ask a series of questions, some of which are unrelated to the book but none of which are unrelated to Catholicism and America. You can respond in any way you’d like. Many Catholic scholars maintain that the type of liberalism adopted by the Founders is compatible with Catholicism, primarily because it adhered to the natural law tradition. This type of liberalism is different than the Rawlsian liberalism we have today as well as the anti-clerical liberalism of the French Revolution. However, Notre Dame Professor Patrick J. Deneen  thinks “natural law liberalism” is a “chimera” that “does not and cannot exist in reality.” Pope Leo XIII seems to have felt the same way. In his 1888 encyclical “On the Nature of True Liberty,” Leo says that “there are some adherents of Liberalism” who “do not subscribe” to the notion that liberty should be seen as “boundless license.” They believe that liberty should be “ruled and directed by…the natural law.” However, in holding this view, these people become “plainly inconsistent.” Why? Because “if the will of the Divine Law-giver is to be obeyed,” Leo argues – alluding to the idea that the church and state should not be separated – “it follows that no one can assign limits to His legislative authority without failing in the obedience which is due.” A couple questions: What are we to make of this apparent conflict? Is there such a thing as “natural law” liberalism? Is American liberalism incompatible with Catholicism? What sort of liberalism did Fr. Hecker and Cardinal Gibbons seek assimilation into and what did they think about Pope Leo XIII? Finally, if it is true that liberalism gradually evolves into a “dictatorship of relativism,” isn’t American liberalism and the anti-clerical liberalism of the French Revolution essentially the same? 

First and most important, I think the question and the argument it describes are disastrously missing the here-and-now point. The American secular establishment today doesn’t care two hoots about natural law of any kind and indeed regards it with contempt. I still recall how one of the things held against Clarence Thomas during his Senate confirmation hearings was that he’d actually expressed sympathy for natural law. Oh, horrors! So what a happy, happy circumstance it would be if the issue you raise — was the Founders’ version of natural law compatible or not with the authentic Catholic version?—were a truly relevant question today. Alas, it’s not. The argument you sketch smacks for me entirely too much of the graduate seminar. Orestes Brownson would have loved it, John Courtney Murray seems to have labored hard to shoot it down, but for me it’s just a distraction. And if, God willing, we ever do get the point where it’s worth discussing, tactical common sense would suggest the wisdom of backing John Courtney Murray to the hilt.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of


About Author

Stephen Kokx is a freelance writer and adjunct professor of political science living in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has previously worked for the Archdiocese of Chicago's Office for Peace and Justice. His writing on religion, politics and Catholic social teaching has appeared in a number of outlets, including Crisis Magazine, The American Thinker and his hometown paper The Grand Rapids Press. He is a member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars and the Society of Catholic Social Scientists, and is a graduate of Aquinas College and Loyola University Chicago. Follow Stephen on twitter @StephenKokx

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