Thursday, July 19, 2012

"Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?" Reflections on Protestantism, Fidelity and the Catholic Faith in America

I grew up a Methodist in the small town of Anadarko, a farming community in southwestern Oklahoma. Anadarko's First Methodist Church still stands on the courthouse square, a magnificent neo-Grecian building with tall pillars, wide steps, and beautiful stained glass windows. The First Presbyterian Church, also a lovely structure, stood just across the courthouse square, and Anadarko's First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) was located across an alley from First Methodist.

When I was a child, all these churches were full, solidly packed with middle-class white families. Today, the First Methodist Church is struggling. Attendance has shrunk to less than half of what it was when I was a child, and most parishioners are elderly. The First Presbyterian Church closed several years ago. The Disciples of Christ limp along.

In my overwhelmingly Protestant community, no one paid much attention to St. Patrick's Catholic Church when I was growing up. As a child, I did not know that St. Patrick's had been founded by French Benedictine Fathers in 1894 as a mission to the Comanche Indians and that St. Katharine Drexel donated the money to construct all the mission buildings. I recall seeing an occasional group of nuns in downtown Anadarko. I did not know they were the Franciscan Sisters of Philadelphia.

I worship at St. Patrick's when I visit my home town, and the church is always overflowing at Sunday Mass. Solid farmers, with faces deeply tanned below their hat lines, attend with their wives and children. They look like Baptists to me, and I am always a little shocked to see them genuflect and make the sign of the cross. Mexican immigrants and people of Vietnamese descent intermingle with Anglo worshipers and Comanche, Kiowa, and Caddo Indians. Without a doubt, the Mass at St. Patrick's is the most multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-racial collection of people in my home town.

I thought of my hometown's religious life a few days ago as I read Ross Douthat's column in the New York Times, in which he commented on the decline of the Episcopal Church in the United States. The Episcopal Church, Douthat wrote, is "flexible to the point of indifference about dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology in favor of secular political causes."

Nevertheless, Douthat continued, in spite of its limitless willingness to accommodate itself to modern culture, the Episcopal Church is not thriving. On the contrary, it is on the verge of collapse.

Other mainline Protestant denominations are also in trouble: the Methodists, the Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Lutherans, and Disciples of Christ. Venerable denominations that trace their roots to the Reformation are sinking into oblivion. As Douthat correctly observed, the liberal Protestant faith traditions are disappearing because they "often don't seem to be offering anything you can't already get from a purely secular liberalism."

Douthat urged Episcopalians and other liberal Protestant groups to "pause amid their frantic renovations, and consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world."

I contend, however, that the mainline Protestant groups threw out the essence of Christianity long ago, although they retain the habit of Christian charity. As Eamon Duffy wrote in The Stripping of the Altars, his seminal history of the English Reformation, the Church of England cast away essential Catholic doctrines in the sixteenth century:  veneration of the saints, devotion to Mary, and the bedrock belief in Christ's real presence in the Eucharist. As Ronald Knox observed, in time the Anglican Church came to represent mere kindliness, "especially toward animals." No wonder, the Anglicans and the American Episcopalians are withering away.

Meanwhile, in the United States at least (and also in Africa and Latin America), the Catholic Church is thriving. At the time of the American Revolution only two percent of Americans were Catholics, and they were mostly confined to the colonies of Pennsylvania and Maryland.Today, about a quarter of the American population are Catholics. We have been the largest religious group in the U.S. since the 1850s.

Why does the Catholic Church remain strong in the United States while the liberal Protestant communities are faltering?  We have remained strong through our fidelity--fidelity to the ancient Catholic faith. Through times of tolerance and times of bigotry, through good times and bad--our people have remained faithful; they have not wavered.

But American Catholics should not be smug about our enhanced strength and status. We face the same mortal threat that confronts liberal Protestantism in the U.S.--prosperity.

We were a stronger and more vital Church when Catholics were poor. Indeed, Dorothy Day, perhaps the greatest American Catholic convert, wrote that she was drawn to the Catholic Church because Catholics were poor. "It was the Irish of New England, the Italians, the Hungarians, the Lithuanians, the Poles, it was the great mass of the poor, the workers, who were Catholics in this country, and this fact in itself drew me to the Church."

Today we see a few small hints of the old anti-Catholic bigotry in the columns of the New York Times and the Obama administration's Health Care Mandate. Perhaps we should pray for this bigotry to intensify. Catholics would be better Christians if we were again despised and discriminated against like we were in the nineteenth century. God save us from too much prosperity (although a little would be nice). God save us from the esteem of the New York Times.  And--although most Episcopalians are very nice people--God save us from becoming Episcopalians.


Day, Dorothy (1952). The Long Loneliness. New York: Harper & Row.

Douthat, R. (2012, July 14). Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved? New York Times.

Duffy, Eamon (1992). The Stripping of the Altars. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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