Politics & Policy

Whither American Catholicism?

Pope Francis may be the leader of a great awakening in America and the world.

‘The Church in America is in many ways the key to the future of the Church today,” says Carl Anderson, the head of the Knights of Columbus and author of Proclaim Liberty: Notes on the Next Great Awakening in America, in an interview with ’s National Review Onlines Kathryn Jean Lopez. Before the world had met a Pope Francis, Anderson was seeing — and encouraging — the beginnings of a great awakening in the Church.

The rise of secularism is often aided by the actions and attitudes of self-identified Christians, so the need for reform and renewal, as well as a review of the essentials of Christian faith, is an urgent one for the Church today, perhaps especially in America, where religious freedom is under attack. That we have a pope from the Americas who sees the urgency of this need is a hopeful sign for such an awakening.


KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Is Pope Francis the leader of a new great awakening?

CARL ANDERSON: He certainly can be. We might say that in 1978, the election of John Paul II led to a great awakening for Catholics behind the Iron Curtain. And that spiritual awakening grew into a global phenomenon with initiatives like World Youth Day, his many encyclicals, and his work with the Church in America, Africa, Asia, and Europe. With Pope Francis, I think we could see something very similar. The Church in America is in many ways the key to the future of the Church today. The affinity of the people in our hemisphere for the new pope is likewise obvious. He has the ability to lead a new evangelization of Catholics not only in Latin America but throughout our hemisphere. I think he will do this mostly by his personal witness to the faith, especially his charity and humility.

I was there in St. Peter’s Square when Pope Francis first appeared to the world and it was clear by the reaction of the thousands of people present that night and in the days following that he has struck a great chord among Catholics.

Especially in terms of charity, he will continue to challenge each of us to see Christ in our neighbors, whoever they are, whatever their physical condition or economic status and whatever their background. I think this has the potential to create a new solidarity not only between the affluent and the poor, but also between the more affluent nations and the less affluent nations in our hemisphere.


LOPEZ: John Paul II addressed the whole continent, all of the Americas, in his Ecclesia in America. Will we ever see it as one in that way? Could Pope Francis make it happen?

ANDERSON: If globalization has brought our world closer together, I think it is safe to say that it has brought America as a hemisphere closer together, too. Our new pope is the son of immigrants; he is from a Latin American country with very European roots. He is uniquely positioned to understand the entire hemisphere, the cultural dialogue between countries, issues of poverty, immigration, social issues, etc. He has seen in Argentina the same issues that are coming to the fore now in other countries of our hemisphere. His pontificate could really unify Catholics in an important way.

I think the most important country in regard to this question is the United States. The real question is how seriously Catholics in the United States will take the challenge of Ecclesia in America. Will we truly begin to look south and see a hemisphere with which we can have a common future? From the standpoint of the Church and also from an economic and geopolitical one, the potential is enormous.


LOPEZ: What has impressed you most about this pope thus far? What do you most anticipate?

ANDERSON: Pope Francis has already done something very extraordinary. He has been able to personally engage millions of people around the globe by his witness and example. The office of the pope is fundamentally a teaching office. But as Pope Paul VI reminded us in 1975, “modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” Pope Francis knows this reality very well. And I think he will continue to “teach” by his personal example. Already, this has been a papacy of firsts, and I would expect that Pope Francis will continue to surprise people with the many ways in which he witnesses to the Gospel.


LOPEZ: What do you make of all the media coverage of Pope Benedict’s resignation, the conclave, and the installation of Pope Francis?

ANDERSON: I think it clearly reflects the recognition that, in our time, a pope changes the world. He will do this at one level by directly affecting the lives of more than a billion Catholics around the globe. But he does so in other ways as well, for example, by championing respect for human rights. We saw this clearly with Pope John Paul II and the fall of the Iron Curtain and Soviet Communism. Whatever the media and others may say about the diminished relevance of the Church from time to time, I think the world’s collective focus on the conclave shows how incredibly important the Church and its leadership is in the too often confused world of today.


LOPEZ: Were you surprised that cardinals from the U.S. were talked about as much as they were?

ANDERSON: Not really. The election of Pope John Paul II showed that during a time of accelerating globalization a pope could come from beyond Italy. And in a way the speculation about people from this hemisphere, from both North and South America, made clear that going into this conclave there wasn’t a geographical limitation at work.


LOPEZ: Does Pope Francis have the ability to heal the divide between the Right and the Left?

ANDERSON: Pope Francis has written extensively about the Church’s need to be faithful to and motivated by the Gospel rather than by politics. He resists the temptation to judge the Gospel by worldly criteria. The Left–Right divide is essentially a secular political dialectic, which should have no place in Christianity. His witness to charity is fundamental to Christianity and it is a mistake to view it politically. I think his example can do much to heal this divide, but the responsibility for healing political divides really lies with those who approach their Bible politically, rather than approaching their politics Biblically. He will certainly lead the way in how to do that. The overly politicized among us will need to have both the courage and the humility to follow his lead.


LOPEZ: What can be done about bad Catholic public witness in America? As you know, it can lead to confusion and anger — and bad public policy.

ANDERSON: We are familiar with the observation that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” We might say the same about public witness.

Bad public witness comes from not reconciling one’s life to the Gospel. We have to have the courage to say that this is the case. The solution is for people to commit first and foremost to living out their faith — including not only the teachings that may be easier for them to accept but also those that are difficult. The measure of faithfulness is not when we agree and it is easy, but when we may not agree or are in doubt or when it costs us something socially, economically, or politically to be faithful. This is the path we must pursue, and I think Pope Francis is a good example of how to do this.


LOPEZ: What’s going to happen to religious freedom in America?

ANDERSON: That will depend entirely on what people of faith do in the next several years. Our recent Knights of Columbus/Marist poll showed that nearly six in ten Americans will attend church on Easter. The real question is whether these people will be able to continue to influence American society for the better in the thousand different ways that people of faith have traditionally done so in America. Much of this will turn on whether religious freedom in America continues to be understood in terms of the First Amendment’s protection of the “free exercise” of religion or whether our freedom will be limited to a more narrow “freedom of worship.” In other words, will Americans continue to be able to live according to their fundamental religious beliefs or will the political order be able to have the last word regarding our values? What our nation’s strong tradition of religious freedom has meant in part is that it has been impossible for the state to have the last word on our values and our moral code. The protection of religious liberty depends on whether people of faith are willing to stand up for their beliefs in a respectful and civil manner, and whether our political and judicial institutions are willing to respect the opinions and contributions offered by religious people and institutions.


LOPEZ: How can Catholics in America live as Easter people?

ANDERSON: First of all, there is no Christianity without Easter. As Christians, we need a deeper understanding of this reality in our own lives in all its dimensions. We have to resist the secular temptation to reduce Christianity to merely a lifestyle or value system. Christianity is about a personal relationship with a living person. This changes everything and the more this reality enters into our own lives, the more it will be exhibited in our own relationships with others. This is the fundamental dynamic of Christian witness, and for Catholics this is the fundamental dynamic of the new evangelization. It is very clear that today there is a strong tendency toward a militant secularism in the United States. Ultimately this tendency will not be reversed by words alone. It will require both a personal and a community witness that there is a life that is more abundant than that of the closed horizon of materialism. The challenge, of course, is that we cannot share what we do not first possess.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.


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