In Search of a “Catholic Moment” in U.S. History
Book Review – Bright Promise, Failed Community: Catholics and the American Public Order by Joseph A. Varacalli – Lexington Books, 1 (800) 462-6420
Reviewed by Mary Ann Kreitzer
In the early years of the 20th century my grandfather, Thomas E. Croke, a Cleveland lawyer, ran for City Council. One of his legal clients, a protestant clergyman, told his congregation not to vote for his friend Tom. “Nothing personal,” he said later, but Grandpa was a Catholic. Anti-Catholic bigotry gets scant attention in our nation’s textbooks, but it’s a very real chapter in American history, one yet to be closed. Catholics responded to persecution by accommodation to the protestant majority. Evangelization, a mainstay of Catholicism since the first Pentecost Sunday, all but disappeared in America. Silence was the price of acceptance and success.
Dr. Varacalli is a Professor of Sociology and cofounder of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists. His book is a short analysis of the impact of Catholicism on the public order in the U.S. drawing from a number of other researchers as well as his own work. It begins with the thesis that Catholics have failed to shape our American Republic, that there has never been a “Catholic moment.” The rich tradition of Catholic social doctrine and teaching on natural law has had little influence in America due to material pursuits and secularization. “Much of the individual success of Catholics,” Varacalli says, “has come at the expense of either abandoning or privatizing the Catholic faith, or…redefining it to mean something else.”
He points out two types of secularization, one from without where secularism “fills the void” created by abandoning traditional institutions and ideas (more typical in Europe) and the second, common to the U.S., from within where traditional religion remains, but stripped and ineffective. Chapters 9 and 10 explore the post Vatican II Church in America and the failure of leadership among the American bishops. Those fighting in the trenches will find no surprises, but a concise and accurate summary of a sad situation, particularly with regard to the USCCB bureau-cracy and its statements on “trendy liberal issues.” Varacalli echoes J. Brian Benestad’s thesis that the bishops have “neglected their two primary duties in the social sphere, that is, evangelization and the teaching of Catholic social doctrine.” In Varacalli’s words, “Instead of leading their flocks along the righteous path, they themselves have turned sheepish in their duties.” These chapters are particularly applicable in light of the current flawed approach the bishops are taking to the sex abuse scandals.
Varacalli sees a three-pronged, interdependent strategy for restoring Christendom in the United States. It involves individual, cultural, and structural levels – in short, personal conversion; taking back institutions of government, business, education, and mass media; and taking back the Church herself. “Simply put, let priests, religious, teachers, and parents proclaim loud and clear the truth of the Catholic religion. Let Catholic social scientists produce Catholic social science…Let Catholic artists produce Catholic art, music, films…Let Catholic citizens consistently vote for candidates who will not violate the natural law.” In addition Varacalli calls for a “systematic strategy” of “mediating structures” to both “surround and protect” the Church and take the battle “to the enemy’s turf.” He cites Catholics United for the Faith, Women for Faith and Family, the Catholic League and others as examples and calls for more groups in all fields of endeavor “guided by Magisterial authority” and “working cooperatively with one another.”
I found Varacalli’s book exciting because what he sees as necessary to the restoration of Catholic culture is taking place by the grace of God. A personal example: two years ago a dozen small Catholic media groups from 10 states met at my house for three days to establish the Catholic Media Coalition (CMC – www.catholicmediacoalition.org). Since then we have cooperated on projects to advance authentic Catholic teaching. We continue to make contact with orthodox Catholics fighting for the faith all over the country and have grown to about 30 groups. It’s exciting to see this apostolate in the larger context of restoring Catholic culture.
Bright Promise, Failed Community is concise and readable with an extensive bibliography for a short work (113 pages including notes.) It’s well worth reading and ends on a hopeful tone encouraging Catholics to stay the course, something my grandfather did after he lost that election so many years ago. He was Catholic from the soles of his shoes to the top of his balding head, a charter member of Cleveland Council 733 of the Knights of Columbus. My mom often talked about his untiring service to both the Church and the community given without fanfare or notice. Grandpa Croke illustrates one of Varacalli’s imperatives – personal holiness. Ultimately, that’s where the Catholic moment must begin.