Wednesday, September 25, 2013

America's Unique Freedoms and Catholic Evangelization

In class yesterday afternoon we were discussing the history of the Catholic Church in America. The Catholic population was very small at first, 1/10th of 1% in 1776 but expanded rapidly later on especially as the immigration floodgates from Europe were opened.

This situation created a difficulty that no one really expected. The "American experiment" of democracy, of a government for and by the people worked quite well for the Protestants who were very comfortable with the idea that every man could and in fact should determine what is best for him and go about it as he sees fit. The massive diversity of the modern Protestant Church is a witness to the comfort it had with the questioning of authority and the pioneer spirit.

Catholics did not have such an easy time. Catholics are used to giving consent to the wisdom of those in authority, you know, like that guy in Rome (who is a faithful followers and servant of the one God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, just to be clear). There was much disagreement among the Catholic hierarchy about how Catholics ought to go about being Americans.

As no one will be surprised, many Church leaders at the time advocated isolationism, where Catholics basically self-enforced the formation of ghettos where they could live, work and die surrounded by fellow Catholics (of course Catholics of their home country). We all know about the Irish, Italian and other ghettos that used to exist very prominently in cities like New York.

But there were other Bishops who proposed an opposite approach. Now, they weren't wanting the people to totally assimilate and lose their Catholic practice or identity but they were much more in favor of Catholics going out and engaging the world.

Some Church leaders in Europe heard about the freedoms allowed in American and American Catholics talking about "freedom" and became understandably nervous and resistant. I don't blame them for their caution. Just think of how awfully the Church was treated in other countries that talked big about "Freedom". See: France.  Thankfully though, America didn't turn out like France. Our ideas of freedom have played out in a more productive way.

There exist big books of dense philosophy and theology that lay out a way that the American ideals of "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" line up perfectly with not only Christianity but Catholicism too. I'm not prepared to go that far, especially since that kind of attitude tends to raise the State to a level uncomfortably close to the Church. (I am all for God blessing America; I hope he does, but I don't like to blur the line between patriotism and faith. Loving my country and loving my God are separate.)

So, it isn't my intention to say that America and Christianity go together in what they hold as important. They often disagree.What I mean to get at with all of this is that, like some of the early bishops that broke with the isolationist mentality, I think the United States is a great place for Catholics to be out among everyone living their faith boldly and even, dare I say it, pro-actively evangelizing. Definitely way more than we have been comfortable doing so far.

Many of our Protestant brethren and other religions like the Mormons take great advantage of this uniquely American situation. Why don't Catholics??? I hope any non-Catholics readers will forgive me but, Catholics, we've got the good stuff, the real deal, the unbroken line of leadership from Jesus himself through St. Peter and all the Popes up until now! We have the Saints! We have the Eucharist! We've got the Jackpot and yet too many Catholics barely get to mass on Sunday (or not at all) and wouldn't even dream of mentioning their faith to a co-worker let alone going door to door or standing on a street corner preaching.

There is something unique and wonderful about the American respect for freedom of speech and I think that we should be taking as full advantage of that as possible. We may get strange looks but who cares? I have heard many many conversion stories that start with "What is that crazy Catholic talking about?" and end with "..and after careful consideration I decided to join the Church."

The great thing about the Truth the we have is that it speaks for itself and since we live in a country where we're free to speak what we want let's do it! Let's make good use of the opportunity we have, this "American Experiment" to out there and be active, to preach and teach and be bold proclaimers of the Gospel that we have been given!

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