What should a Catholic think of America? To the extent that America has promoted the modernist heresy around the world then the Catholic has to view the USA in a negative light. For many the USA embodies modernism or the flight from traditional values and the embrace of an ideology that promotes a pulverized, homogenized, mindless people capable only of servile state worship.
On the other hand America has also constituted a bulwark against the deadliest heresies of the 20th century (Naziism and Communism) and it has arranged its political system (as de Tocqueville pointed out in the early 19th century) to allow a multitude of political structures interposed between the citizen and the state. Those intermediate structures buffer the citizen against the worst excesses of state power so they are absolutely essential to a free people. They include local polities (cities, counties, states), many levels of a judiciary, all kinds of business and civic associations, all kinds of non-profits, institutionalized political parties and most crucially of all… all kinds of religious groups.
Consistent with its principles of subsidiarity, solidarity and collegiality the Catholic Church thrives in those intermediate zones between the individual citizen and the power of the sword or state. The Church has learned that it pays too high a price when it is too closely allied with the state power or when it rules directly….and conversely it pays too high a price when it exerts no influence at all on the state power. Its optimal play is in between those two extremes. It can then check the arbitrary power of the state while still informing and infusing its political culture with real Christian values. The state in this case will NOT be a Christian state but maybe Christian state is a contradiction in terms if we recall that the modern state is really an inherently evil Leviathan designed only to accrue power. That does not mean we cannot use the state for some good ends. it simply means that there can be no long term alliance with the beast without the alliance corrupting the non-state partner.
To play its optimal role in the political life of a people or country the Church needs to operate in that that legally protected intermediate zone in between the summits of power and the individual citizen. That zone provides an opening for a real civic culture where reasoned debate can happen and where consensus around fundamental values can be worked out. The Church always thrives where there is real reasoned debate and the Church therefore thrived in America in the 20th century after 19th century persecutions ceased and then right up to the modern era.
As everyone knows the turning point came in the 1960s. It was then that the Church’s influence on American life began to peak (with the election of Kennedy) and then abruptly and catastrophically collapse right after Kennedy;s asassination. It is no secret that America itself went into decline as well around that time.
In my view America went into decline right after the Catholic Church went into decline at the mid-1960s precisely because the decline of the Church triggered the decline of America. Most analyses of American decline agree that it started in the 1960s but most analysts say the decline was due to international economic forces and not to anything so “inconsequentially cultural” as the decline of the Church in America. After all, they say, the decline into political, cultural and economic stagnation was worldwide–it did not just happen in America.
I agree. The cultural decline was worldwide. But that this just strengthens the case for ripple effects from Vatican II. After all the Church then and now was and is a global player. Its influence extends around the globe. Most importantly intellectuals around the globe saw it at that time as a touchstone of orthodoxy in the West and the West was pre-eminent among global powers and had been pre-eminent for centuries. I suggest that Vatican II triggered the worldwide intellectual flight from orthodoxy and the resultant worldwide cultural decline and the worldwide drift into secularism that we see regnant everywhere today among political elites (not among ordinary people thank God).
I know this sounds unreasonable so lets return to the American case for a moment. Ask yourself, dear reader, a simple question: “Why, right at the peak of the Church’s influence in American life, did it suddenly collapse in terms of its influence?” In the space of less than 10 years the churches were abandoned. Priests, monks and nuns left religious life in droves, Catholic school systems all around the country went into steep decline in terms of enrollees. The political elite stopped listening to and worrying about the opinions of Bishops and Catholic laity stopped attending mass en masse!
Nothing else can explain so precipitous a decline in so short a period of time than THE major event in Catholic intellectual life at the time…Vatican II. The church went into precipitous decline in America because it sabotaged itself–it inflicted the damage on itself. Vatican II had similar effects in countries all around the world. The Church is the one true Church and therefore the entire world depends, whether they acknowledge it or not, on its spiritual capital. When that capital is squandered the world’s loses it spiritual North Star and it drifts in ignorance.
Now I am NOT one the those people who think Vatican Ii was invalid or a total disaster as I believe it produced some really wonderful documents and recovered some beautiful pieces of authentic catholic tradition. BUT the evidence is overwhelming that its efforts in many of its documents amounted to an inappropriate emphasis of some interpretations of some key Catholic positions. All of that language in these key documents was designed to appease the protestants. The ambiguous language of official documents from Vatican II allowed public interpretations of those documents to be slanted towards a more protestant understanding of things. Things like the nature of the Eucharistic sacrifice and the doctrine Extra ecclesiam nulla salus–no salvation outside the church were given non-orthodox portestant interpretations in the press and in intellectual circles.
Everyone therefore thought that the Church was “modernizing” and protestantizing itself! After all if the Church herself says that it is not the one thing necessary for salvation then why should anyone be Catholic? Why should anyone listen to it? Why dedicate your life to it? Why die for it?
Why did the Church Fathers at Vatican II allow the inappropriate emphases on key doctrinal issues in its documents? For the sake of ecumenical dialog with protestants mostly. When you read the documents themselves however they are orthodox. But it is clear that they can be interpreted in manifold ways. It was the public interpretation of these documents that caused the cultural disaster. Why did the erroneous public reception of Vatican II documents win the war of interpretation? The Bishops who should have guided the interpretation of the documents were lax while the loudest voices on Vatican II were the protestants who shouted from the rooftops that the Roman Church was finally coming round to its point of view. Heretical Catholic theologians also played a very negative role. In any case the end result was that the world including Catholic priests and nuns and laity believed what they read in the press about the decisions of the Church fathers at Vatican II. The world therefore concluded that the Roman Church had now decided that it was just one more faith among the bevy of religions in the world parliament of religions.
The world therefore no longer had a spiritual North Star and it went into a permanent cultural decline–as did America. America today is at its lowest moral ebb–even minor restrictions against abortion on demand are struck down by a supreme court and the majority decision striking down those minor restrictions was written by a practicing Catholic (Stephen Breyer). But that is just one of the symptoms of moral and cultural decay in America today. the precious intermediate zone between the state power and the citizen is narrowing and narrowing down dramatically.
Nonetheless, America has a lot of inner spiritual resources it can and will call upon to shake off its moral stupor, pull itself out of its malaise and self-doubt and once more take its role at the head of the free nations of the world. But it can only do that if it recalls its Christian character and that can only happen when the Catholic Church revives itself….as it surely will. The only question is when will the Catholic Church revive and WHO will revive it?