On Catholic culture

Our Faith

I’m grateful to the editors of U.S. Catholic for inviting me to contribute to a weekly blog. As a professor at The Catholic University of America and head of an institute that considers public policy from a Catholic perspective, my engagement in public life takes place at the intersection of religion, policy, and politics. Since this is my first blog, I thought I’d use it to introduce myself a bit by offering my take on the big topic of Catholic culture.

I grew up in a Catholic cultural bubble. It was the 1950s and ‘60s in Clinton, Iowa, a smallish town of what was then about 25,000 that lies along the Mississippi River south of Dubuque.  The culture I grew up in—the culture of millions of other American Catholics—is now gone for good. This has both welcome and worrisome implications; for the future of the Church in America, the question of Catholic culture may be more important than ever.

Clinton, in my boyhood, had five parishes, each with its own grade school, all pretty neatly divided between Catholics of German and Irish heritage—St. Boniface, St. Patrick’s, and so on. The Germans had come in the 19th century to farm and the Irish a bit later for the railroads and to work in a milling industry that had closed shop before I was born. There were three Catholic high schools; two were girls’ schools and the other coed.

The town was split between Catholics and mainline Protestants (mostly Lutherans and Presbyterians) and we tended to stay with our own. As kids we played with other Catholics, had our own Catholic scouting troops, CYO athletics and mixers, and even our own 4-H groups.  Our parishes forbade us from joining the YMCA and the like so as not to mingle too much with the Protestants. We were encouraged to avoid the public schools. Our parents, likewise, tended to socialize within the faith. One of the VFW posts was Catholic and the other Protestant. A “mixed marriage” was one between German and Irish parishes. We marched around the block for the feast of Christ the King and for May crowning, surrounded by a thick and comforting Catholic culture that offered us identity and place.


Over the course of my growing up, much of that changed.  Clinton’s five parishes were merged into one (much drama ensued). The high schools closed and only a single, much smaller, Catholic high school remains. The grade schools all merged, too. Our white Catholic ethnicities pretty much melted away with the march of assimilation. The little things that once mattered—probably way too much—about being Catholic and distinct from other Americans seemed over time not to matter so much.  The Catholic cultural bubble of my boyhood gradually faded into the American societal landscape.

Clinton’s experience was pretty typical. Similar changes occurred in other Catholic communities of the Northeast, the upper Midwest, and the northern Plains. In big cities like Chicago, New York, and so on it was a little different, with waves of new Catholic immigrants arriving. Likewise, it was a little different in West Coast Catholic communities that also experienced new immigration. But for white Catholics nationwide, the changes seemed profound. There was a feeling that our cultural identity had disappeared. Catholicism that was for us a way of life and a culture faded—leaving only Catholicism, the religion. Arguably, that shift is a very important one for understanding Catholicism in America today and its future.

Many studies of the state of the Catholic Church in the United States seem to overlook this fact. Consider the studies of the many who have left or are leaving the church. The Pew Research Center recently reported that 13% of Americans are former Catholics and that for every new convert, there are six Catholics leaving the faith. Those are sobering numbers. No denomination in America is losing more adherents than Catholics.

Pundits tend to approach such issues by focusing on the religion side, talking about doctrine and liturgy. So some blame the post-Vatican II changes in religious practice that, to their mind, compromised orthodoxy (Rod Dreher, for example). Some, on the other hand, blame our religion for not adapting to mainstream norms of American society regarding things like abortion, same-sex marriage, and so forth (Damon Linker, for example). These approaches miss something. Despite what former and lapsed Catholics often rationalize to pollsters, there’s much to suspect that the erosion has less to do with doctrine or liturgy and more to do with what’s happened to Catholic culture.


Even when culture does get mentioned, the focus is usually wrong. The talk too often is about Catholicism versus American culture—with some wanting to change American culture to accommodate religion and some wanting to change religion to accommodate American culture. But both groups overlook the problem of our own Catholic culture, as distinct from Catholic religion.

Yes, of course Catholicism is a religion. Doctrine, liturgy, scripture—of course! Of course our religion should be something intentionally chosen, something open to our reason and knowledge. It ought not be reduced to a pastiche of folkways, social customs, lifestyles, and communal attitudes. But, what’s become clear to me is that however much religion must be intentional, it still depends on an underlying culture, and for many American Catholics that dimension is increasingly wanting.

What can be done? Well, don’t be misled by rosy memories to wallow in nostalgia. There was very much not to admire about that closed Catholic culture of my youth.  Just ask those who didn’t fit in. And, cultures cannot be artificially recreated. Nothing is phonier than manufactured culture. Going back now to meatless Fridays, CYO mixers, and women with doilies over their hair would be about as authentic as sword-toting reenactors at a Renaissance Fair.

In fact, culture is authentic when it is not a task for itself. It grows only in fresh solidarity. It works when it speaks to its historical moment. It flourishes in communities that open outward rather than retreat inward. It is brightest when not defensive, when its mode is inclusion more than seclusion, bridges not walls, when its message is an exuberant “Yes” and not a parsimonious “No.”


Now for a spoiler alert…something that will be evident in many future posts. I’m a HUGE fan of Pope Francis. The culture issue is one reason why.

In part, I’m a huge fan of Pope Francis because of what I see for the possibilities of a new and authentic Catholic culture. It won’t be the one of my Iowa boyhood, nor should it be. But a fresh Catholic solidarity is growing in this age of Francis that addresses the faith’s need to be more than doctrine and liturgy.  If I’m right that many of the problems dogging the church in the United States over the course of my lifetime have roots in a fading Catholic culture, and if I’m right—thanks to Pope Francis—that there is hope again for Catholicism being a way of life and a distinctive culture, then maybe the outlook is brighter for today’s Catholics than it has been over the course of much of my life.

Stephen Schneck’s blog, Church and state, will update every Monday. Follow him on Twitter @StephenSchneck.

Image: Flickr cc by Michael 1952.


About the author

Stephen Schneck

Stephen Schneck is a Catholic advocate for social justice and former professor at The Catholic University of America. He currently serves on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.