David CARLIN, The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America. Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2003. 405 pp. $24.95 cloth. ISBN: 1-928832-79-2.
Reviewed by Kenneth J. ZANCA, Marymount College, Palos Verdes, CA 90275.

Remember the song "We Got Trouble" from The Music Man? It could be adapted as the theme song (swan song?) of the contemporary Roman Catholic Church in the United States according to author David Carlin. He says his book is a "warning from the Ghost of the Catholic future" (p. 320).

Carlin, a self-identified Roman Catholic, is a professor of philosophy and sociology at the Community College of Rhode Island. He has published extensively in Catholic periodicals and journals. He was a Rhode Island State senator for eleven years and a Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1992. He brings to this work a religious practitioner's knowledge of the church, its history and teachings, and an engaging, no nonsense writing style. He develops the thesis that an "authentic Catholicism needs an enemy to define itself from non-authentic Catholicism and generic Christianity," an ecclesiology that I cannot ascribe to, but more on this in a bit.

Sophia Institute Press publishes books "that help our readers (Catholic laypersons, priests and religious) understand and live according to the teachings of the Catholic Church." While Catholics are the primary target audience, others will find something of interest here as well. I could see the text used productively in several courses: Contemporary Catholic Studies, Religion in America, and Sociology of Religion. Part II ("The Philosophical Undercurrents of the Great Transformation")—the strongest section of the work, in my opinion—could be used in any Introduction to Religion class that wants to help students understand the contemporary climate in which discussions of religion take place.

The book is articulate and written to an educated reader, but not burdened with technical professional jargon of the theologian or sociologist. It is clearly within the range of even religious and cultural illiterates that are among the ranks of college students because of the author's clear and concise presentation. Carlin "tells a good story." The material is accessible to undergraduates.

The book is an analysis of the historical, philosophical and cultural forces shaping American Catholicism since the 1940's and, remarkably, a frank prediction of its probable fate. It is divided into seven parts (with two appendices): "The Great Transformation," "Philosophical Undercurrents of the Great Transformation," "Evolution of a Natural Religion," "The Deeper Problem of Catholic Identity," "The Search for a National Moral Consensus," "The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America," and "Can the Fall be Prevented?"

Using the author's own summary of the book (found in his conclusion) is the fairest way for me to provide a snapshot of his main thesis. Carlin contends that the once-flourishing Catholic Church in the United States was undermined by an unlucky convergence of three factors in the 1960's: Vatican II, the end of the old Catholic quasi-ghetto, and the rise to cultural hegemony of secularism and moral liberalism. These factors, the author says, combined to produce "a dangerously tolerant and open-minded mentality among Catholics precisely at the moment when the old mainline Protestant dominance of American culture was being replaced by a new secularist dominance." Catholics became "infected by secularism and moral liberalism."

"The root problem," Carlin says, "is that the Catholic Church in the United States has largely ceased to be Catholic. A few decades back, it quietly hung its Catholicism in the closet and put on an attractive new garment, that of generic Christianity or Christianity-in-general" (p. ix). His thesis is that this modern American easy-to-swallow form of religion does not nourish the soul nor offer compelling reasons to belong to it rather than any other church.

So, the Greatly-Tragic/Criminal-American Catholic-Sexual Abuse-Scandal is in no way the real cause of the American church's problems, but merely a symptom of a Church-in-decline, and to "fix it" will require so much more than getting rid of pedophilic clergy and morally irresponsible bishops who put the reputation of the institution before the good of the people they were called to serve.

What has happened in the recent decades gone by? Simply this: distinctive Catholic teachings have been diluted in order to find an audience raised on the cultural vitamins of personal freedom and tolerance. The church, to keep its members, had to speak to them in their idiom. The church could not appear to be condemning, exclusive or intolerant.

Here is where I have problems with Carlin's definition of Catholicism. While not blaming the changes brought about by Vatican II, he does say that these changes overwhelmed the theologically unsophisticated and took from them their sense of Catholic identity. Of special note was Vatican II's ecumenical openness to other religions, its specific rejection of "outside the church there is no salvation" mentality. Pre-Vatican II (actually post-Trent Catholicism) defined itself as being everything Protestantism was not. Vatican II wanted a new definition and self understanding ("the people of God") which was inclusive of many non-Catholics.

The pre-Vatican II church created a "Catholic ghetto" marked by certain characteristics: Catholics went to Catholic schools, not public; Catholics did not marry non-Catholics; Catholics did not get divorced; Catholics did not use birth control; Catholic priests and nuns, easily identified by their dress, were models of the best of the religion. They were "different;" "better than the rest of us."

Alas, Carlin laments, to be Catholic nowadays means....means....what? To prevent its relegation to marginal irrelevancy, the American Catholic Church must cease to compromise with secularism and ecumenism. Rather than dialogue with the modern world, the Church must live its ancient dogmatic faith no matter how un-ecumenical or intolerant that might seem to everybody else. The Church must identify secularism and its liberal moral agenda as enemy number one (replacing Protestantism) and define itself by rejecting every item in the secularists' moral agenda. Herein lies the only hope of the Catholic Church's revival and survival, in America or anywhere. So says Carlin.

At the risk of seeming "tolerant" of ideas I do not agree with, let me commend Carlin for his forthright argument. I think his book provides many excellent discussion points for those interested in this topic. (Who among us who teaches at a Catholic college have not grown weary of the conversation "What is a Catholic College?" even after Ex corde ecclesiae?.) There is no denying Catholic malaise and institutional drift. Catholics are, like liberal Protestants, among the dwindling churches while the evangelical, non-denominational, and fundamentalist churches are booming.

However, I cannot accept Carlin's suggestion that the form and theological formations of the ancient church are the only and truest expressions of the Holy Spirit. I cannot accept his notion that the church is an end in itself rather than a means to an end. I cannot accept that there is no value in working toward unity with other believers. I am sure that Prof. Carlin knows that the fracturing of Christianity into so many sects that are convinced that they are the authentic expression of Christianity is a scandal to the world. I think that the author's identification of secularism as a serious threat to religious values might not be far off the mark, but I don't think that identifying it as an enemy is any kind of a real solution. We don't change the hearts of our enemies by simply denying everything they hold sacred.

In 1911 Josiah Royce said: "Now religion, on its higher levels, is a consciousness of this over-individual unity of the life of the spirit. The problem of religion is the problem: in what sense are we men, in all our endless individual variety, still in essence One — not One in so far as our individuality is lost — but one in so far as we are members of one spiritual body, citizens of the universal city of all those who live in the spirit, companions of the great companion whose life is the significant conscious unity of all our lives?"

I think Prof. Carlin does not give this question the proper attention it is due. He may have a program for saving a kind of Catholic identity by setting Catholics apart from non-Catholics, but then what? Then what?


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