Russell Shaw is a veteran journalist and author, as well as an observer of political affairs in Washington DC of many years. His newest book, “Catholics in America: Religious Identity and Cultural Assimilation from John Carroll to Flannery O'Connor
,” is a collection of profiles of significant personalities of American history who lived as Catholics. Among the these are familiar figures such as President John F. Kennedy and Governor Al Smith, and converts such as Orestes Brownson and Elizabeth Ann Seton, as well as activists and writers such as Dorothy Day and Flannery O’Connor.
In an exclusive interview with Spero News, Shaw reflected on the significance of these Americans in the story that they lived as Catholics within a larger social context that was by turns hostile or much too inviting. How each of these Catholics lived their lives serves as an answer to the perennial question: “Is it possible to be a good Catholic and a good American?” How this question has been answered and is being answered is of interest to both Catholics and non-Catholics. Shaw is a convert to the Catholic Church, as were Brownson and Seton, the latter of which has been canonized as a saint.
“The process of Americanization or assimilation, as social scientists call it, began over two centuries ago,” said Shaw. It continues to impact Catholics’ religious identity, said Shaw, while its effects are “rather disturbing.” When asked to answer the question he posed above, Shaw chuckled when he said, “The answer is ‘yes’ and ‘no’.” The Catholic hierarchy, said Shaw, has long held that “there is no conflict between our religious commitment and our role as members of this secular society. But I think the society itself has changed, and this change has been very radical and very serious since at least the 1960s and 1970s.” As society has changed, Shaw said that it has become “very problematic whether our unconditional membership in that society is good for our religious identity or if in fact it calls into question our religious identity and in many ways undermines it.”
Shaw noted the growing hostility shown in the United States towards traditional religion, as well as the drop-off in religious practice as symptoms of the milieu in which Catholics now live. The resulting “loss of identity” among Catholics, he said, is the source of many of the problems within American Catholicism. He mentioned particularly the diminishing participation in the “sacramental life of the Church,” as well as Catholics’ “political behavior” that appears to correspond more closely to secular politics. As for Catholic higher education, Shaw said that many educators have sought to advance their academic careers through accommodation to the secular culture rather than serving as faithful witnesses to their Church.
Rather than reviewing in his book the ongoing debate over the place of religion in the founding of the American republic and the Constitution, Shaw said that he is much more interested in “the consequences in the here and now and what it means for our religious identity, and what it means is alarming and deeply troubling to me and, I think, to many others who are beginning to wake up to the what the Americanization process has meant to Catholicism.”
He said that his book is not an unpatriotic attack on the United States. “America is a great country, and I feel myself a patriotic American,” Shaw said. “My argument is not with America but with the secular value system” into which Catholics have “unthinkingly” adopted over the last few decades. As for the values enshrined in the Constitution, such as due process before the law and freedom of expression, he expressed the concern that without a “strong sense of the continuity of Christian values, it is difficult to see any viable underpinning for those values embedded in our founding documents. You have commendment to our very admirable set of values and procedures without being rooted in anything in particular.”
Catholics in America are faced in “the here and now,” said Shaw, with real issues that require a response from the very basis of their faith. These include collaboration with abortion and same-sex marriage, among other issues. He was reminded that the Catholic bishops of the United States recently declared a “Fortnight for Freedom” in order to remind their flocks, once again, that “religious liberty is under attack” in America. “We need to take that threat very seriously, and respond to it.”
Of those profiled in his book, Shaw mentioned in the interview how much more he learned about Governor Al Smith of New York, who he described as a brave man. “We could use more Al Smiths today.” Shaw recalled that Smith, “a devout and unapologetic Roman Catholic,” was nominated by the Democratic party as its presidential nominee in 1928. “The response to Smith, unfortunately, in many places in the United States in 1928 was a rather vicious and virulent attack on him and his religion.” In the face of a great upsurge of anti-Catholicism, Shaw said that Smith was courageous and eloquent in defending himself and his faith during the presidential campaign. Shaw said, “There is a great contrast -- and not a happy contrast either -- between how Al Smith handled the anti-Catholic response to his candidacy and how Catholics in politics today respond.”
Shaw has worked in the past as chief spokesman for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference, and later for the Knights of Columbus. He is the author of more than twenty books besides his newly released “Catholics in America.” Among them is “Our Sunday Visitor’s Encyclopedia of Catholic Doctrine,” for which he served as editor, while he is the author of “Church and State,” “To Hunt, To Shoot, To Entertain: Clericalism and the Catholic Laity
,” “Understanding Your Rights,” and “Papal Primacy in the Third Millennium.” He has written hundreds of articles in publications such as The Washington Times
, L’Osservatore Romano
, Catholic World Report
, and The National Catholic Reporter
, among others.
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