USA Dialogue on Culture

The Church in America and the Challenge of Freedom
At the Meeting in Rimini in August, Msgr Lorenzo Albacete interviewed the Archbishop of Boston, Sean O’Malley, in a meeting entitled, “What kind of freedom for America?” The Protestant separation of life and faith has relegated the Church to promoting common values. And now, the political scientist, Huntington, has sounded the alarm about a new Catholic danger. Thus, there is a more urgent need to rediscover the originality of the contribution that Catholicism can bring to the future of America

by Luca Doninelli

The meeting in which Msgr Lorenzo Albacete interviewed the Archbishop of Boston, Sean O’ Malley sought to show, through two figures at the very forefront of the American Church, what the Christian experience means for the freedom, not only of Catholics, but of all of America, a nation that addresses the liberty of man in the first article of the Constitution. Our question is, what is the meaning, today, of a Christian experience as a help to this freedom? And, consequently, what kind of liberty can we seek?

Against Catholicism

Msgr Albacete began by reading some lines from the very recent book, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity, written by Samuel P. Huntington, perhaps the best-known political scientist alive, author of the successful and widely discussed The Clash of Civilizations and The New World Order. Here are a few passages: “Would America have been the America of today if, in the XVII and XVIII centuries, it had been conquered not by English Protestants but by French, Spanish, or Portuguese Catholics? The answer is no. It wouldn’t be the America of today; it would be Québec, Mexico, or Brazil.” “In America, the Protestant Reformation created a new society. Unique among all the nations, America is the daughter of these reforms; without them, there would not be America as we know her.” “For over 200 years, the Americans have based their identity on the opposition to Catholicism: the Catholic was first fought, then excluded and discriminated against and seen as an opponent. However, American Catholicism assimilated many of the features of the Protestant climate and in turn was assimilated into the American mainstream. The disappearance of openly anti-Catholic attitudes and activities paralleled and was directly connected with the Americanization of Catholicism.”
We offer here the summary of the Albacete-O’Malley dialogue.

“Americanized” Catholics

Albacete: Since the beginning of our country, many Americans have asked themselves whether the Catholic vision of freedom is compatible with the American national project. Throughout her history, the Catholic Church has had to fight to demonstrate that she is a valid support for the American dream–just like every other religion. This phase of anti-Catholicism ended only when American Catholics proved themselves sufficiently Americanized and accepted the Protestant separation of faith and experience in all the aspects of life, relegating the influence of the Church to the promotion of common values and to ethical inspiration.
Today, however, this question is re-emerging, and many American Catholics who occupy important positions in all the areas of public life are worried that the Church, especially under the guidance of the current Pope and the American bishops chosen and led by him, with the support of lay movements, is returning to the old anti-American way. Another factor that would support the idea of Catholicism as a threat to the American dedication to freedom is the fact that today the Church in the United States is composed of an ever-growing number of ethnic minorities that presumably resist assimilation into the dominant Anglo-Protestant melting pot.
The guest who is honoring us with his presence today is the guide of the Catholic Church in an archdiocese– Boston, Massachusetts–that has been strongly identified with the formation of the American national identity and with its strong religious dimension.

O’Malley: One of the great maladies of our modern time is a spiritual amnesia. The Russian Nobel Prize winner A. Solzhenitsyn says he recalls three episodes from his childhood that are firm in his memory. One was being taunted by other children as he walked with his mother to the only remaining Church. Another incident was when someone ripped a cross from his neck. The third memory was of a conversation he heard among some old villagers. They said, “People have forgotten God, that’s why all this has happened; all the oppression, the hopelessness, the gulag, the torture chamber, and despair.” Forgetting God is very dangerous. A priest friend of mine was visiting a nursing home and asked one of the old people, “Do you know who I am?” The old patient responded, “Dear, if you ask the nurse at the end of the hall, she’ll be able to help you.” If we forget who God is, we will forget who we are, and why we are here. In the United States, in some ways, we have forgotten some of the idealism of our founding fathers. Right from the beginning, freedom has been a core value in the American experience, but also from the beginning the seeds of destruction in the individualism of our people were always there.
Our modern culture is addicted to entertainment and obsessed with celebrities, who hold up to our young people the false ideal of a chaotic, self-absorbed existence in a frenzied pursuit of money, fame, and pleasure. Our faith challenges us to embrace an ideal of self-denial and sacrificial love at a time when the defining ethic of our politics has become a simple rule: we should all get what we want. It’s an ethic itself that cannot sustain the house of freedom, it cannot sustain democracy.
The Church has a very important message for democracy. Democracy needs to be based on the true and solid foundation of non-negotiable ethical principles.
If there is no ultimate truth that guides and directs political activities, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power.
As the Holy Father wrote in Fides et Ratio, “In a society in which truth is neither mentioned, nor sought, every form of authentic freedom will be weakened, opening the way to an individualistic distortion and undermining the protection of the good of the human person and of the entire society.” This represents a special and specific challenge.

The Catholic vote

Albacete: Let’s talk about the upcoming elections. Have the American bishops already prepared a declaration to guide Catholics in deciding for whom to vote? If so, what does this statement say?
O’Malley: We remind our Catholics that as they cast their votes they should not vote for selfish reasons, a blind allegiance to a political party, but they should be trying to promote a better society that is more moral and where the most vulnerable are protected.
Albacete: You’ve worked many years with the Catholic apostolate for Hispanics, Portuguese, Haitians, and other minorities. How do these minorities represent–as Huntington fears–a challenge to the American vision of freedom? And how does the Catholic Church of the United States respond to the concern that the Hispanic majority can constitute a threat to American liberty?
O’Malley: The history of the United States is a history of being renewed, of a country being renewed by our immigrants. Every wave of immigration to the United States has brought great energy, great commitment to human values, and it has really built up the country. The present immigrants coming from Latin America and other Catholic countries are bringing with them their strong family values, their willingness to make sacrifices to the common good, and an understanding of who we are as God’s children.

The war and the Pope

Albacete: What was the reaction of American Catholics to the Holy Father’s opposition to the war in Iraq? Do you think that the current situation is beginning to convince Catholics of the wisdom of the Holy Father’s position?
O’Malley: When the Holy Father expressed reservation about the Gulf War, there was great upset among Catholics in the United States. But in this war in Iraq, many Catholics have understood what the Holy Father’s concerns were. When the war began in Iraq, and it was seen as an attempt to stab world terrorism, there was much more support for the war. But at this moment this support has been eroded, and more and more Catholics are listening with greater attention to what the Holy Father has to say about the war in Iraq.

The mission of the Church

Albacete: Archbishop, this is your first visit to the Meeting [for Friendship Among Peoples]. What can the movement of CL bring to the mission of the Church in America at this moment?
O’Malley: The very fact that you use the title “Memores Domini” for your consecrated members I think is a good response to your question. In the United States, the spiritual amnesia I spoke of earlier has to be countered by the living testimony of people who want to live as disciples and testify to the values of the Gospel in the Church.
Albacete: Is the American Catholic school truly at the service of the new mission of the Church?
O’Malley: The Catholic school system in our country is very large. We have almost three million students and we receive no help from the government. These schools were built and maintained by the generosity and sacrifices of American Catholics. The system was begun at a time when our public school system was really a Protestant school system. Now, we have very few religious people in the schools. This implies a great challenge for the Church. First of all, the schools have become very expensive to run and it’s very difficult to have teachers who have the same capacity to teach the faith. Today, the public schools are no longer Protestant schools, but in many ways they are vehicles of secularization. Our Catholic schools have also been very important for educating minority children. We are much more successful than the public schools in providing an education to black and Hispanic children, for instance.
Albacete: Archbishop, when the Son of Man returns, will there still be faith in America?
O’Malley: America is a very religious country. As Fr Lorenzo once said, we don’t have a lack of faith, but we do have a superabundance of credulity. In the United States, every year new religions are founded, and they flourish. Being a believer in an atmosphere of materialism, individualism, and hedonism is a great challenge. But, at the same time, the presence of militant believers in this atmosphere is a very striking witness. An interesting thing is happening in the United States, ecumenical, that more and more of the Christians from the evangelical churches (who used to see the Catholic Church as the anti-Christ) now look to us as allies in a campaign to promote human values and to protect the unborn and the institution of marriage. So, I think your faith will still be in America when Christ returns.