Should Catholics accommodate to American culture?

Cardinal Gibbons with Teddy Roosevelt

Cardinal Gibbons with Teddy Roosevelt

The following comes from an April 12 posting on the Catholic World Report.

In general, I am wary of mixing history and contemporary analysis, but in American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America (Ignatius, 2013), Russell Shaw does it superbly well.

Shaw exhibits his brilliance as an investigator of Church history and an observer of Church affairs in countless ways. There is, to begin, his selection of Cardinal James Gibbons to serve as the apotheosis of American Catholicism. In the Americanist debates of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Gibbons was seen as a moderate figure, of Americanist leaning. His theology was orthodox, to be sure, but neither theology nor doctrine was his central concern. When he exerted himself, it was for the most practical—which is not to say unimportant—of causes: intervening in Rome to head off condemnation of the Knights of Labor, a move that would have cost the American Church dearly among the majority of its adherents, who were decidedly working class….

Gibbons chose to emphasize acculturation to American society rather than Catholic distinctiveness. He strove to prove to Protestant America that Catholics could be good Americans and he pushed the predominantly immigrant Church of his day toward the respectability that would support this claim. This is not a “good” choice or a “bad” choice. It is simply one among the various choices, each with its own advantages and liabilities.

This contingency can be a difficult thing for traditional Catholics to appreciate, because our minds are trained in moral theology to distinguish between what is good and what is bad. Killing an innocent person is bad, we avoid it; performing a work of mercy is good, we pursue it. Yet, some of our actions, though morally freighted as all human decisions are, do not reduce to a clear right or wrong. Should a bishop in Chicago in 1900 permit the construction of a Polish-speaking parish? Or should he insist that German and Polish ethnic Catholics worship together in a single parish? There is not a right or a wrong answer, just different responses that set the Church moving down different paths.

Shaw understands that Gibbons’ decision, in some ways, led to the difficulties the Catholic Church now faces. Deference to American culture certainly facilitated the assimilation of immigrants and their ascent up the socioeconomic ladder. This is no small consideration for Irish Catholics fleeing starvation and arriving penniless in a strange land. But the same thirst for accommodation also brought about Catholic politicians and voters, schools and universities, charitable organizations and charitable practices that are all but indistinguishable from their secular counterparts….

As an example of refusal to accommodate in the face of an incompatible national state and culture, Shaw cites Dietrich von Hildebrand’s fleeing Nazi Germany in 1933. It’s a good example. But what if Hitler had for some reason, voluntary or involuntary, moderated his views and the persecution of the Church had been mild, and the Holocaust never happened? Von Hildebrand would appear to be an extremist who overreacted.

A telling comparison of the different possible ecclesial approaches to a hostile national culture/state is that between Poland and Hungary under Communism during the Cold War era. Poland’s church, led by Cardinal Wyszynski, pursued a policy of accommodation. It made certain compromises—though, arguably, on nothing of essential importance—and it survived. Hungary’s church, led by Cardinal Mindszenty, assumed a stance of absolute opposition to the nation’s Communist government. The church was decimated.

To read the full review of Shaw’s book, click here.



  1. No. Catholics are tasked by God to preach and teach the good news of Jesus Christ which means “discipling the nations”, which means creating culture. Caesar gets the money; God gets the culture.

  2. Tom Byrne says:

    Of course even the wise cannot foresee all ends (said Gandalf), but the test can still be: were the bishops willing to change former policies once they saw their advantages disappearing? The popes of the post-Roman era supported the Byzantine Emperor to keep the barbarians at bay, until (by the 8th century) imperial power weakened, failed to protect Rome from the Lombards and got tangled in the heresy of Iconoclasm. Pope St. Zachary (an ethnic Greek from Sicily, who had more culturally in common with the emperor than with his Roman flock) began to call upon the Franks. That made all the difference for 1000 years afterwards. If a wise American bishop adopted a sound policy to fit the circumstances of 1890, then an equally wise American bishop would note that those circumstances were changing in 1960 and adjust the policy. I think it can be postulated that the US bishops remained clueless for decades until the pedophilia scandal broke over their heads.

  3. Father Karl says:

    According to a book concerning Catholics in America, two aspects which damaged Christian conservatives were support of the Vietnam War, and segregation. Because of this, traditional Protestantism has declined and with it the WASP culture which held America together for over two hundred years. Because Catholics see themselves no longer as distinct from Protestants, they have lost their identity.Together with false ecumenism, and a self destruction within the Catholic Church, most American Catholics see themselves as Americans first, and no longer believe the faith as something important. They are more concerned with sports scores, and who is winning on American Idol, then they are with professing the Catholic faith, just as the majority of Protestants do. Culture is important, but more important than culture is the faith given to us by Baptism. Unless the laity learn how precious the faith is, the faith will disappear from the majority of Catholics in America, just as Our Lady of Fatima predicted.

    • Fr. Karl, as always I have learned something new from you. I have never heard about Our Lady of Fatima’s sad prediction regarding Catholic’s in America. Unfortunately, you are correct about American Catholics valuing culture over Catholicism. In my mind, however, here in the LA Archdiocese, there is a complete denial of an American culture. Instead, the archdiocese pushes the celebration of cultures from around the world as a precursor to the celebration of Catholic tradition, if you can even find anything left of Catholic tradition.

    • Excellent insight, Fr. Karl. Now if only the bishops would become holy as requested by Pope Emeritus and Pope Francis, it would all be brought out of the mire. No doubt, however, we’ll continue to witness false leaders rise up and further the mis-direction of the faithful.

  4. We must always determine our ultimate goal. Is it the culture and politics of a Country, proving something to non-Catholics, or getting to Heaven for eternity?

    Much damage was done in the Cardinals Bernardin, Weakland and Mahony eras, and their strong influence is still felt within the USCCB. The Vatican unfortunately gave the USCCB indults (exceptional permission) to protestantise some parts of the Mass – such as shaking hands during Mass, allowing non-Priests and non-Deacons (non-consecrated hands) to distribute Holy Communion during Mass, standing rather than kneeling when receiving the Lord in violation of Philippians 2:10-11, allowing altar girls and women readers, etc. Being involved in politics with the rich and powerful became all important. (These indults are not part of Vatican II.)
    We need to put the blame squarely on the USCCB and the majority of Bishops and the LCWR and other liberal staff members. For the most part they stopped preaching about sin and Hell – as stated by Jesus.

    “Catholic politicians and voters, schools and universities, charitable organizations and charitable practices that are all but indistinguishable from their secular counterparts….” – is because the Cardinals/Bishops in the USA for the most part have refused to enforce CANON 915 and CANON 1399.
    They care little about the Mortal Sins of SCANDAL and SACRILEGE, which leads many to believe that mortal sin – is not really that bad, and that relativism and secularism is not bad either.
    Another part of the problem is the taking of tax dollars for Catholic charities. Any time government money is used, one must adhere to the government’s rules.
    Jesus never taught us to take government money or mix Catholic contributions with government tax dollars.

    Let us remember the words of Jesus (not the words of Bernardin, Weakland, Law, and Mahoney whose earthly pursuits were their main priority).
    “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. …….” Mt 7:21-23.

    Since accurate catechesis is so poor in most US Parishes, we must all read a Catholic Bible – starting with the New Testament,
    and the “Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition”.
    We must insist that our Diocese Bishop (and his Parish Priests) upholds the teachings in the CCC, and Code of Canon Law.

    • Kenneth M. Fisher says:

      You left out that when the N.Y. and L.A. Times falsely reported that the Vatican had dropped the
      required covering of women’s heads and uncovering of men’s heads, and the Vatican sought and received a correction, 30th page or more back, small print, and much smaller headlines than the original false story, our so called shepherds did nothing to stop this feminist rebellion from succeeding.

      All one need do to see the problem it caused is to attend a Novus Ordo Mass and a St. Pius V Mass, and you will see and feel the difference in the piety of those attending the Tridentine Mass.

      At a Novus Ordo Mass today, I prayed for a return to this great Marian practice of humility.

      I am currently writing a paper on this and it will be included on our Group Email at:

      God bless, yours in Their Hearts,
      Kenneth M. Fisher, Founding Director & Chairman
      Concerned Roman Catholics of America, Inc.

  5. Catherine says:

    ” It made certain compromises—though, arguably, on nothing of essential importance—and it survived. ”

    Does the writer define any specific examples “of nothing of essential importance”? The controversial Catholic Campaign for Human Development is still surviving. Notre Dame is still surviving, Most Holy Redeemer parish is still surviving too. Never mind that the faith is being internally decimated while these examples are “surviving.”

    Our Lady of Akita WARNED our shepherds about making compromises.

    Yes, and with the intention of saving His own life I suppose Jesus also could have made some accommodating responses to Pontius Pilate when Pontius Pilate asked the question to Jesus, “What is Truth”.

    “As it turns out, Pontius was staring The Truth right in the face and didn’t even know it. Jesus Christ proclaimed that He is The Truth in John 14:6: Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” …Catholic Bible 101

    The Gospel of John Chapter 12
    12:23 But Jesus answered them, saying: The hour is come that the Son of man should be glorified. 12:24 Amen, amen, I say to you, unless the grain of wheat falling into the ground die, 12:25 Itself remaineth alone. But if it die it bringeth forth much fruit. He that loveth his life shall lose it and he that hateth his life in this world keepeth it unto life eternal 12:26 If any man minister to me, let him follow me: and where I am, there also shall my minister be. If any man minister to me, him will my Father honour.

    Taken from Catholic Bible 101
    “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! And yet, that is exactly the kind of society we live in today. GK Chesterton, the great Catholic writer of the early twentieth century, once said that only dead bodies go with the current. It takes live ones to swim against it. “

    • Kenneth M. Fisher says:


      Too bad the priest who properly responded to the Boston Marathon terrorist attack did not at least take John 12:12-23 more seriously. Had they done so, they might not have obeyed Caesar in the form of the so called authorities, many of whom were probably Irish “Catholics” and left the scene without administering the Sacraments to those injured and dying. Every priest I have talked to this about, including Independents, have told me they would have risked arrest even death rather than obey Caesar (the Boston Police and Fire Dept.). It would serve them right if the next time they call for a Chaplain, none are willing to come.

      I would hate to be those priests when they stand before Our Lord and try to explain to him why they obeyed Caesar and not God!

      God bless, yours in Their Hearts,
      Kenneth M. Fisher

    • Catherine, much of the evil of what you described as still surviving is due to Bishops who do NOT do their jobs (and of course many of their Priests who follow the example of the those Bishops).
      Many US Bishops are in violation of the Code of Canon Law, disobedient to the required teachings of the Church, and do not enforce required Canon 915 and Canon 1399 – which loses many Souls. It loses the Souls of the sinners who are not corrected, and it loses the Souls of those who are Scandalized.

      If any Cardinal or Bishop refuses to enforce Canons 915 and/or 1399, on the Vatican web site point him to: ” APOSTOLIC CONSTITUTION SACRAE DISCIPLINAE LEGES of the SUPREME PONTIFF POPE JOHN PAUL II for the PROMULGATION of the NEW CODE OF CANON LAW” (1983) –
      ” The Code, as the principal legislative document of the Church, founded on the juridical – legislative heritage of Revelation and Tradition, is to be regarded as an indispensable instrument to ensure order both in individual and social life, and also in the Church’s activity itself.”
      “Finally, the canonical laws by their very nature MUST be observed.”

      Canon: ” 915 Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.”

      Canon: ” 1399 In addition to the cases established here or in other laws, the external violation of a divine or canonical law can be punished by a just penalty only when the special gravity of the violation demands punishment and there is an urgent need to prevent or repair scandals. “

  6. Proud Rhodesian says:

    The Catholic Church is the one…true Church. All other’s are man-made inventions, which were formed by fallible, sinful men after Our Lord started the Church in 33 in Jerusalem. The Church stands….like a “beacon” on a hill…it is not hidden…marching back through time, all other church’s fall away, save one. It will stand for all time…it is indefectible, and will stand for all time, unto the consummation of the world. One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic…

    • Jesus has promised that His Church will survive until He returns.
      Pope Benedict has stated that the Church will get smaller, and that there is filth within the Church. It is past time to excise the filth from the Church.
      St. Paul has clearly stated regarding driving out fellow Church members who – – – see 1 Cor 5:9-13.

      Read your ‘Catholic Bible’ folks and the ‘Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition’ in entirety so you will be able to ACCURATELY remain a member of Christ’s Catholic Church – without heresy, schism or error.
      And will accurately be able to pass on the Faith to others.
      Encourage other literate persons to do the same.

      Both the CCC and Code of Canon Law are on the Vatican web site.

  7. Idaho Pete says:

    If this was still a 1940s America, in which the society of my youth understood right from wrong and had standards of public behavior and decency I’d say yes. But that America is DEAD and in its place is a rude, crude, pagan pornographic filled society unable to get marriage right and which slaughters one-fourth of its unborn yearly as a so-called constitutional right. Many of its laws now equal confusion and chaos especially from state to state. Young people joining the military including Catholics, swear an oath to defend the Constitution and if that Constitution says killing the unborn is a right and two guys with beards can get married then, supposedly, they would have to fight to the death defending those things. I really think not for those true to the faith and in this new Utopia, Caesar is already separating Christians from society when any item, such as a cross or ten commandents, that have been placed somewhere for 50 years is then ordered removed. It’s probably going to get worse.

  8. Catherine says:

    “Many gay people I know, including myself, have had eggs thrown at them, have been punched, shoved, or worse – by anonymous people just because we are gay.”

    I am so very sorry that you have had to experience such cruelty. Cruelty is wrong, period. Experiencing cruelty does not justify the legislation of an abhorrent ruling known as same sex marriage, or perversion or unnatural acts. After all it was human beings who did this to you and we are all the products of Original sin. Christ never harmed you! He died on the Cross to Redeem all sinners, yet you, in turn are asking Christ to turn the other cheek while you continue to slap Him. A few years ago, without parental permission, my daughter’s high school allowed a free clinic speaker to come into her special ed class to teach handicap people how to not reproduce more handicapped people in society. They showed the special ed students condoms in the school colors so the message would come across loud and clear to the learning disabled. I asked one of my daughter’s classmate what did she learn from this speaker. The classmate’s exact words were, “They were telling us to go for it.”

    While living in Utah, the only Catholic family living on my street had a son who slugged my daughter in the stomach. I went to speak with the boy’s mother. The mother said, “I am so ashamed of my boy will you speak with him.” I asked the young boy why he hit her and he said that he hit her because everyone else at school did too.” Different Cross but same brand of cruelty. As I was leaving the house the Catholic mother told me that she was peeking through the kitchen blinds silently listening and she was so ashamed when she heard my son ask her boy if he was also cruel to the girl with cerebral palsy who lived up the street. The woman heard her son respond, “Do you mean that retarded cripple on the bus?” My son said, “See that is the difference between you and me. You will always see her as the retarded cripple on the bus, while I will take the time to get to know her as a person.” BTW That same young lady with cerebral palsy graduated from Stanford. Handicapped people, fat people, anorexic people and even beautiful people can become the targets of someones hatred. I understand your dislike of cruelty but instead of turning against God you could be choosing to teach others like Mark F has chosen to do. I understand what it is like to have to brace oneself in public for the unbelievable things that human beings can do to one another. Still, this will NEVER justify turning against God who IS our greatest hope and refuge. You have essentially thrown in the towel and said, “God because I have been given this difficult Cross to carry I will use my free will to join in agitating society into a collective rejection of Your Natural Law because I do not want to pick up my Cross and follow you. Since I can’t change you God, I’ll join the crowd and change what You have said. I am not too bothered at this particular moment in time because I am receiving great public support for slapping You in the face.”

    However, YFC, as comfortably confident as you are in your terrible error, there will STILL come a day of reckoning where you will be held accountable and I hope and pray that you sorrowfully repent and tell God that you are so very sorry for slapping Him in the face. Unless you do this, I am truly afraid for the eternal cruelty that is in store for those who have used their own God given gift of free will to reject Him and mock His Laws.

  9. One thing that I find puzzling about the Catholic Church in America, is that we hear very little or nothing about our American Saints, whether or not they were native born or naturalized citizens. Since they all became saints living here in America, I would think that they would have much to teach us about how to live out our Catholic faith within this culture of ours. I think we ignore them to our detriment.

    • Kenneth M. Fisher says:


      When I went to Catholic Schools and Catechism classes were taught plenty about them even when some were still not Canonized Saints! Just one more glaring example of the poor catechesis in today’s modernist Catholic Churches and Schools. I thank God every day for the good Nuns and Priests who believed and taught me the Faith.

      God bless, yours in Their Hearts,
      Kenneth M. Fisher

  10. Larry from RI says:

    The Battle of Sodomy Marriage in RI has been lost.The major cause for this defeat was the shameful and
    ignominious cowardice of the the Catholics in RI(and Mass.) The cowardice of the Knights of Columbus,
    (RI and Mass)was disgraceful and disappointing.Even big talking bishops were not enough to overcome
    the cowardice of the majority of the Catholis in New England.Where were the catholic colleges etc,etc,
    To install courage and fortitude in NE Catholics,I suggest that the bishops of NE reinstste the “St. Michael
    the Archangel defend us in battle…” prayer after all Masses in NE or the following prayer:

    Come Holy Ghost,Creator blest,
    Fill our hearts with righteousness
    Gird us for battle we humbly plead,
    Guts and gonads are what we need.

    The desire for human respectability does make cowards of us all!

  11. The Archbishop of Miami just spoke on relativism and totalitarianism … well written, comprehensive, concise, piece … perfectly composed, obviously not the work of bureaucratic machinery, rather a breath of fresh air. Of course we’ll all be awaiting any actual action to follow, such as excommunicating the heretics and demoniacs infesting his archdiocese.

  12. Cardinal Gibbons , Archbishop Ireland , et. al. were hardly moderates. They were facilitators of Americanism. Americanism , the putting America first and Catholicism second, was a movement which was condemned by Pope Leo Xlll in various writings of his including an encyclical. Later, Pope Pius X issued his own encyclical condemning Modernism, which was an expantion of Americanism to include the nations of Europe which were also putting state ahead of Christianity. Another thing that Gibbons did which was wrong, was to speak against Catholic schools. He wanted Catholic children to go to public school. Luckily, he changed his mind on this later in his life. Another bad thing that the Americanism bishops and clergy did was persecute Polish, German, Italian and any non Irish- American Catholics and clergy. I think one reason for this is they felt that the non brittish (english speaking) Catholic immigrants gave American, english speaking, Catholics a bad name. There was en excellent series of articles about this last year in The Wanderer. I can also attest to this by the way my west european grandparents were horribly treated by Irish clergy when they immigrated to this country. Another reason I believe the Irish American clergy felt this way was the fact that they were persecuted by the English in Great Brittian and were use to compomising and capitulating as a matter of servival. So I’m not condeming them. They felt they were doing what they needed to do. But their ideas were flawed and that is why Pope Leo Xlll had to intervene. Unfortunatly, this legacy has continued and today we have Amchurch, the USCCB and the pro-abort, pro-homosexual “catholic” politicians. It is so bad that the majority of the Catholics in politics do not follow Church teaching. Note this not a small fringe group, but the majority. These people are advancing the work of Satan rather than Christ and His Church here on Earth. Hugh

  13. American Catholic says:

    1. Is there anything in the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution which is anti-Catholic or un-Catholic ? 2. Speaking of immigrants, how many Catholic immigrants have fled here from Catholic countries because their situation at home was worse than they hoped to find here in a mainly Protestant country ? 3. Which “culture” did a better job of addressing the abuse problem in the Church, the “Church” culture or the American judicial system ? 4. I could go on. American culture in many ways is more Catholic than Catholic culture. I don’t understand why the Church can’t seem to appeal to mainstream Americans or even seem care about them. The Church only knows how to address the immigrant ghetto for some reason. Maybe because it’s easy to be liked when people and in need and come to you for help. It is more difficult to actually do the Church’s job of evangelization and fighting evil. I think the Church needs to adapt to the U.S., not the other way around. There is much the Church and the world could learn from our country. We have been given a great deal of power and influence in the world for a reason. Sign me American Catholic whose ancestors have been here for many generations — and still Catholic. Fancy that.

  14. Abeca Christian says:

    We are hungry Lord! This American Culture has gone horribly wrong. It has left you Lord. I pray that Saint Padre Pio will deliver our prayers to you Lord for us, He is far worthy for his love and obedience to your holy will. Our faith is being persecuted. Your People Lord need your assistance and all virtue to help us endure and to be empowered in your ways. St. Padre Pio pray for us…we are lost without Jesus, we are hurting and we are blind.

    ‘Obedience is mission: “I have come into this world to do the will of my Father, who has sent me.” Where there is no obedience, there is no virtue; where there is no virtue there is no good; where good is wanting, there is no love, there is no God; where God is not, there is no Heaven.’
    –St. Padre Pio

  15. Abeca Christian says:

    I will go peaceably and firmly to the Catholic Church: for if Faith is so important to our salvation, I will seek it where true Faith first began, seek it among those who received it from God Himself.
    –St. Elizabeth Ann Seton


    “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.”
    –St. Thomas Aquinas

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