Mark Stricherz at CatholicVote attempts to translate the past few decades of changes in the Catholic Church in America into the terms of debate introduced by Charles Murray’s recent book, Coming Apart. It’s an angle that makes a good deal of sense given that the decline of religiosity among working-class citizens is a major theme of Murray’s.
For his part, Stricherz scrutinizes various popular catechisms, and the changes they have undergone. He writes:
I am wary of heaping the Church’s woes after 1965 at the feet of Vatican II. The secularization of non-Catholic America was well underway in the 1950s, and Catholics were all but helpless to stop it. But to the extent that the reforms of Vatican II, and the liberal reaction to them, contributed to the decline in religious devotion, the behavior of a few dissident priests does not strike me as the main or sole reason. In my opinion, the institutional Church’s failure to appeal to ordinary Catholics was the bigger reason.
The eclipse of the old Baltimore Catechism is a good example. From the 1880s to the late 1960s, the Catechism was a staple in Catholic schools. Its chief appeal was simplicity: It explained the Catholic faith in a question-and-answer format. Take question number four: “What must we do to gain the happiness of heaven? To gain the happiness of heaven, we must know, love, and serve God in this world.” As the late Archbishop Philip Hannan wrote in his autobiography, the Baltimore Catechism had great appeal to those without a four-year college degree.
I commend Stricherz’ efforts to nullify the pernicious fantasy that “Vatican II changed everything” or somehow “damaged the deposit of faith,” and he shifts the focus to the catechism as a hermeneutic device for what he sees as one of the major problems of the Church in America today: namely, it’s failing to appeal to the poor, working class, and uneducated. For him, the appeal of the old Baltimore Catechism is not that it’s old but that it is both simple and elegant at the same time, lending itself equally to rote memorization and high-level theological discussion. In other words, it didn’t take much formal learning to understand. These days, he worries, “by accident or design, the American Church has gravitated toward the college educated. It is pulling in great intellectuals and theologians, but losing the non-intellectuals among us.”
As Stricherz notes in a follow-up post, it’s worth remembering that the very adjective “catholic” implies “[appealing] to everyone, including those who are content to learn the basics of the faith and apply them.” The Gospel message calls not for acceptance of a series of intellectual propositions but a conversion of heart. Obviously, this in no way excludes the intellectual life (and, to some degree, even the dichotomy between contemplation and action is a false one). But if the Church needs everyone then she needs blue-collar members, too, and she cannot be fully herself, especially in this country, if her membership begins to resemble the Harvard Club.