Browsing News Entries

Louis Marie de Montfort and the Spirituality of “Totus Tuus”

Today is the feast day of St. Louis Marie de Montfort (1673-1716). St. Louis was a French priest who is remembered for his love for the Blessed Mother and for being the author of the classic book True Devotion to Mary. Within that great work is a prayer where St. Louis writes to Mary: “Totus tuus ego sum et omnia mea tua sunt”—“I am totally yours and all that I have is yours.” With these words, St. Louis not only expresses his love for Mary but his desire to belong completely to God like her and with her. Louis believed that this Marian spirituality of “Totus tuus . . . totally yours” is “the most perfect of all devotions” because “it conforms, unites, and consecrates us most perfectly to Jesus Christ” (St. Louis de Montfort, True Devotion to Mary). Roll on to October 1978 when the newly elected Pope John…

The Hard World and How to Restore Mercy to a Merciless Age

“We men and women are all in the same boat, upon a stormy sea. We owe to each other a terrible and tragic loyalty.” – G.K. Chesterton We live in a merciless age. Gone are the days of the uncalculating kind word, the politely doffed hat, and the deferential door-opening. No longer is it customary for the young to offer their bus seat to an elder, for the rushing commuter to allow someone to merge, or for the unconsciously offered “please” and timely penned thank-you note. When any of this does happen, it is the exception and not the rule. Flatly counter-cultural instead of cultural. Sadly, our conversation is even worse. People talk all the time and rarely listen. And when they do “listen,” they process nothing their interlocutor is offering. Instead, they simply stay silent while crafting their next rebuttal or riposte. It is…

Kaplan Interview, Part II: “Our Victim Is a Better Victim Than Your Victim”

In the first part of our interview, Dr. Grant Kaplan introduced René Girard and the basics of his theory of mimetic desire. In this last part of the interview, Dr. Kaplan explains why Girard’s analysis is apologetically useful and similar to some insights made by modern figures like Nietzsche and Freud.  Robert Mixa: Besides Freud, who else influenced Girard?  Grant Kaplan: Nietzsche. Nietzsche sees the situation very clearly. He cannot stand what he sees, and so when he talks about the priest, he will talk about the priest in this very nasty way and say the priest is this “vampire” of society.  The challenge is to go through the exercise. Imagine you have two primitive societies with equal access to natural resources. They have the same access to water, food, etc. Imagine that one society is going to be areligious. They are going…

Vow of Silence?

Religious leaders from diverse faith traditions are speaking out and organizing against a surge of voter suppression in states across the country. Pastors, rabbis, and imams have lobbied lawmakers, written op-eds, and pressured corporations in response to laws that create barriers to the ballot box and disproportionately impact Black voters. When Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed a controversial and widely criticized election reform package last month, activists (including from my organization, Faith in Public Life) were especially vocal in protesting the law’s prohibition on giving food and water to people waiting in line to vote.

Amid this growing resistance to attacks on voting rights, however, the Catholic hierarchy is silent. The Archdiocese of Atlanta and the Georgia Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state’s bishops, have issued no statements since the law passed. The archdiocese declined to comment for this article. At the national level, Church leaders are also quiet.

In recent months, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has opposed the Equality Act, which would ban discrimination against LGBTQ people; objected to abortion funding in the American Rescue Plan; and expressed support for legislation that would protect faith-based adoption and foster providers that refuse to place children with same-sex parents. The conference has also addressed mass shootings and the Armenian genocide, and has lauded immigration-reform legislation. 

But there has been no public reaction from the bishops’ conference to the fact that in forty-seven states, according to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, Republican lawmakers have proposed 361 bills with restrictive provisions that, among other things, would limit mail-in, early in-person, and election-day voting. Nor have bishops voiced any public support for legislation in Congress—the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act—that respond to the proliferation of state-level restrictions with proposals to expand voting access and curb partisan gerrymandering.

Given our nation’s history of racism as a motivating factor in suppressing voters, there’s a compelling imperative for bishops and other Catholic leaders to act.

The silence from Catholic bishops when it comes to systematic, partisan, and racist efforts to undermine voting rights is a failure to apply Catholic social teaching to one of the most brazen injustices of our time. Church leaders could draw from their own documents and teachings if they need any motivation to get involved. In Faithful Citizenship, the U.S. bishops’ detailed reflection guide issued every four years, “participation in political life” is described as “a moral obligation.” While voting is not the only way to participate in the political process, it’s a linchpin of civic engagement. Fair access to the polls is a prerequisite for a healthy democracy.

If civic participation is defined as a moral obligation, according to Church teaching, it would stand to reason that Catholic bishops should be concerned about widespread efforts that will make it harder for historically marginalized people to vote. Given our nation’s history of racism as a motivating factor in suppressing voters, there’s a compelling imperative for bishops and other Catholic leaders to act.

David DeCosse, a religious studies professor at Santa Clara University, encouraged bishops to grapple with voter suppression in Faithful Citizenship during a 2018 address to the Catholic Theological Society of America. Church leaders could use theological teaching on conscience and an understanding of the Church as the “people of God,” he argued, as frameworks for reflection. “The document should pair its appropriate reluctance to tell the Catholic laity how to vote with an outspoken, prophetic advocacy for the right to vote,” DeCosse said. “There is no justification whatsoever for the voter suppression tactics now being practiced throughout the United States.”

The need for a robust Catholic response to voter suppression is even more urgent given that some wealthy conservative Catholics are helping bankroll these anti-democratic efforts. As Christopher White found in a National Catholic Reporter investigation, “in the wake of the 2020 presidential election and Georgia’s January senate runoffs, which delivered two Senate seats and a narrow congressional majority to Democrats, a number of Catholic-led organizations and donors have pumped millions of dollars into voter-suppression efforts under the banner of ‘election integrity.’”

Georgia’s success in expanding the electorate and bringing new voters into the process was part of a national trend. More people voted in the 2020 election—two-thirds of the voting eligible population—than in any election over the past century. A defeated Donald Trump and Republican lawmakers responded by claiming widespread voter fraud, a desperate claim unsupported by evidence. The fallout from the presidential race has only supercharged GOP efforts to tighten its grip on state election laws.

“We need to make voting more accessible to everyone,” David Key, a longtime faith-based activist in Athens, Georgia, told me. “It’s about fairness and inclusivity.” Key sits on the steering committee of Georgia Catholics for the Common Good, a recently formed group of lay Catholics in the state. He is equally unsurprised and disappointed that Catholic bishops in Georgia have not joined other faith leaders in condemning the new law. “It’s really an issue of power,” Key said. “The religious leaders speaking out and showing up at protests are largely from minority communities that will be most impacted. The Catholic Church in Georgia is now mainline and establishment. We’re not a Church on the margins, but we do have a pope calling us to the margins. It’s not the time for silence. It’s a moment for witness.” Key said that until bishops show visible leadership, most Catholic clergy will not feel empowered to address the issue.

But at least one Black Catholic priest in Atlanta, Fr. Bruce Wilkinson, has used Twitter to challenge the state’s new law:

Papal encyclicals and other Church teaching offer a framework for discerning how bishops and other Catholics could do more to address voter suppression.

Papal encyclicals and other Church teaching offer a framework for discerning how bishops and other Catholics could do more to address voter suppression.

“Praise is due to those national procedures which allow the largest possible number of citizens to participate in public affairs with genuine freedom,” according to the seminal Second Vatican Council document Gaudium et spes. In his 1963 encyclical, Pacem in terris, Pope John XXIII addressed citizens’ participation in public life by underscoring that “a natural consequence of men’s dignity is unquestionably their right to take an active part in government.” Pope John Paul II, writing in Centesimus annus, noted that “the Church values the democratic system inasmuch as it ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices.”

San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy, a frequent commentator on the themes of Faithful Citizenship and voting, agrees that voter suppression demands a more significant Catholic response. “Catholic social teaching assigns a central role to the broadest possible participation of citizens in government, so that the powerless are more protected, substantive justice is vindicated, and democratic societies are continually renewed by the ever greater involvement of men and women in their own government,” McElroy told me.

Our country has known many moments in its history when government has moved to curb the effective rights of specific groups of Americans to vote. This is such a moment. The intentional limiting of effective voting is a grave violation of Catholic teaching. It is worse when it is contoured to partisan or special interest goals. And it is worst of all when those limitations knowingly lead to suppressing the votes of racial minorities in our society who have been so frequently disenfranchised in our past.

Jonathan Rothchild, professor of theological ethics at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, notes how even past mechanisms to address racist voter disenfranchisement have been undermined in recent years. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, is a prime example. In a 2017 journal article for Cambridge University Press, Rothchild wrote about the ruling by using key themes of Catholic social teaching—including subsidiarity, participation, solidarity, and the common good—to critique what he calls the decision’s prioritization of “states’ rights federalism.” While conservatives often preference local and state rights over federal intervention, Rothchild argues that an authentically Catholic notion of subsidiarity can’t be reduced to that narrow ideological interpretation. The Shelby decision opened the floodgates for states like Georgia to turn away from ensuring equitable voting systems.

What we see in Georgia is not new, and it’s a deliberate attempt to disqualify and dissuade Black voters and communities of color,” Rothchild told me. “One of the roles the Catholic Church has to play here is calling all people of goodwill back to a common commitment to justice regardless of what political party is in power.”

St. Joseph: Worker, Teacher, and Icon of Jesus

Hanging on the wall in my childhood home was a simple image of Joseph the carpenter, working with a piece of wood. My dad for most of his life was also a carpenter, building homes for his small business, The Village Carpenter, and thus especially liked this image. On May 1, we celebrate the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker. In the year 1955, amidst the tumultuous era of Communism and their May Day celebrations—which emphasized what the ideology was supposed to do for workers—Pius XII established May 1 as the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker. In a sense, this was a new feast to highlight the teachings of the many papal social encyclicals, issued since Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891. Taken as a whole, Catholic social teaching emphasizes the dignity of the worker, the responsibility of employers, the need for humane methods of employment, and a just wage.

Kaplan Interview, Part I: Girard, Scapegoating, and the Antidote to Annihilation

Following up on last week’s brief exposition of the theories and writings of René Girard, I had the great privilege of speaking with Dr. Grant Kaplan, author of the book René Girard, Unlikely Apologist: Mimetic Theory and Fundamental Theology. Given that Girard’s theories and analysis are immensely useful in helping people see and understand sin, grace, conversion, and revelation, the book is essential reading for catechists.   Robert Mixa: I have used the work of Girard in the classroom and found that it resonated with many students. Why do you think that is the case?   Dr. Grant Kaplan: I remember talking to a student, after I taught a class on Girard, who said, “Oh yeah, that mimetic desire thing totally works.” She immediately applied it to her dating life or something. It is like she got it, how universally applicable it can be, before…

Club 451: Don’t Burn These Books! Read Them with Word on Fire!

Most of my school day from third through eighth grade was spent reading in a treehouse in my backyard, but I wasn’t a truant; my parents just homeschooled my brother and me for a few years. When I returned to traditional school, not even a string of particularly uninspiring English teachers could kill my love of books, but I went from reading for pleasure to reading for my class assignments. When I became a first-time mom just after graduating from college, I had to re-learn how to read for personal enrichment, not just for grades. Recently, I had a conversation with my friend (and Word on Fire Institute Fellow) Rachel Bulman about parenting. It became clear as we talked that Rachel’s study of philosophy had a huge impact on how she parented and addressed big issues with her children. “Rachel, where were you trained in philosophy?” I asked. She explained…

The Beauty of the Incomprehensible

Karen Kilby, an occasional Commonweal contributor, is the Bede Professor of Catholic Theology at Durham University. Although Kilby lives and teaches in England, she is an American by birth. She majored in math and religious studies as an undergraduate at Yale, before receiving a PhD there. As a graduate student she worked with the Lutheran scholar George Lindbeck, author of the influential The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, and the formidable Kathryn Tanner, author of Christ the Key.

Kilby is the author of Karl Rahner: A Brief Introduction and Balthasar: A (Very) Critical Introduction. Both are first-rate. I am a journalist, not a theologian, but I do read academic theology and back in the day used to edit it into something accessible to the general reader. I think good theological writing, like Kilby’s, makes for stimulating reading as well as sharper thinking on a host of non-theological questions. Her new book, God, Evil and the Limits of Theology (T&T Clark, $90, 176 pp.), a collection of essays first published in theological journals, is both challenging and rewarding. Kilby discusses abstruse theological questions clearly and with intellectual modesty. This is a theologian who praises the “deep beauty which lurks in Karl Rahner’s” work but is candid about his “sometimes torturous writings.” She convincingly demonstrates that Hans Urs von Balthasar is more of a mythologizer than his conservative theological champions might be willing to concede. Refreshingly, she is also a believer who acknowledges that the “beautiful, orderly ideal” of Christian truth and life needs to include “thinking about the boredom, the conflicts, the inadequacies, the sheer ordinariness that marks so much of most Christians’ experience of being a Christian and being in community with other Christians.” Welcome to Sunday Mass.

The problem Kilby tackles in her new book concerns one of the central paradoxes of theology: “How does one engage in a mode of enquiry—an enquiry which includes argument, disagreement and debate—if one presumes in advance that the ‘thing’ under discussion is and must remain mysterious, beyond understanding?” To illuminate that riddle, Kilby devotes essays to the Trinity, to the conundrums of theodicy and the meaning of suffering and evil (or its absence), and to the possibly complementary relationship between “pure mathematics” and theology. This is sometimes difficult material, but she leads even a lay reader through the theoretical thickets (including the infinity of prime numbers and Godel’s incompleteness theorem) with a gentle and steady hand.

Particularly striking is Kilby’s discussion of how we might think about suffering and loss by recovering the Christian tradition’s understanding of evil as a nullity—as the absence of good rather than an ontological reality of its own. A while ago I wrote a piece for Commonweal about Jean Donovan, one of the women missionaries raped and murdered by a Salvadoran death squad in 1980 (she was just twenty-seven). As it happens, I went to high school with Donovan, but only discovered that connection decades after her death. Her courage was remarkable and humbling, and her brutal and senseless killing left one asking all the familiar questions about how and why a loving and all-powerful God could create a world in which evil and suffering flourish.

A better way to think about misery and death is to reject the idea that there is some “dimly perceived and mysterious ultimate value in suffering and loss.”

Many Christian theodicies, Kilby writes, have tried to imbue such suffering with meaning, just as they stress the importance of Christ’s suffering on the Cross. “It seems hard to resist the conclusion that a Christian must revere something in loss and death itself—that these are in some ways good,” she writes. Reflecting on the writings of Julian of Norwich, Kilby suggests that a better way to think about misery and death is to reject the idea that there is some “dimly perceived and mysterious ultimate value in suffering and loss.” Kilby is not saying we can be indifferent to the pain of others. Rather, she is trying to make sense of Julian’s faith that our suffering is nevertheless “bounded by time” and that in God’s good time “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” As Christians, our understanding and knowledge is foreshortened. “Our desire for an explanation, for a story that makes sense of both love and suffering, simply is not met,” Kilby writes. “A life of faith is a life lived with a tension which, before the last day, cannot, for either Julian or her readers, be resolved.” 

One of the more inexplicable aspects of Donovan’s decision to return to El Salvador was the fact that, to many of her friends, she seemed to be heedlessly courting death. Her decision looked irrational, immature, or incomprehensible to those who begged her not to go back to a place where activist Christians were being killed. Kilby offers a different way of understanding what at first looks like a reckless embrace of suffering. Might not such martyrdoms testify to the truth of the privatio boni tradition in Christian theology, which grants evil and sin no meaning? “On the level of the course of action chosen, the living out of the commitment, we do have an ultimate indifference, in the sense that the action taken is taken exactly as if there were no threat of suffering or loss,” Kilby writes. Thinking about Jean Donovan’s actions in this way is not easy if we insist on reconciling propositional definitions of God’s omnipotence with the existence of evil, but it does help make sense of what is so powerfully moving about Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and the witness of Christians like Donovan.

In her discussion of the Trinity, Kilby cautions against efforts by some theologians to find in the Trinity’s three-persons-in-one formulation a social or political model for how Christians should act toward others. That sort of “projection” risks domesticating the mystery and ultimate unknowability of God. “It is a mistake,” Kilby suggests, “to look for Trinitarian theology to have too practical a payoff, socio-politically or otherwise: it is wrong to insist that the doctrine of the Trinity must be justified in some sort of functional way.” Of course, the Trinity does tell us something important about how to talk to and about God. But the doctrine should be understood as “grammatical,” Kilby writes, “a rule, or perhaps a set of rules, for how to read the biblical stories, how to speak about some of the characters we come across in these stories, how to talk about the experience of prayer, how to deploy the ‘vocabulary’ of Christianity in an appropriate way.”

The book’s concluding essay, “Beauty and Mystery in Mathematics and Theology,” is an eye-opener for anyone who thinks mathematics is solely about exacting calculations, measurement, manipulation, and control. Kilby explains that the field of “pure” mathematics does not describe the natural world, nor is it of practical use to the engineer or scientist. It is about “beauty.” In that sense—and in its exploration of the ungraspable concept of infinity—it is analogous to the work done by theologians, which also should be valued for its beauty. Like the God who reveals himself yet remains hidden, pure mathematics cannot deliver any final answers. “One of the most striking features of some of the best of pure mathematics—one thing which makes it beautiful—is the way in which it confronts us with that which exceeds our control, the way it opens up to us things which are beyond our ability to comprehend,” Kilby writes. Pure mathematics enables practitioners to describe with greater and greater clarity and beauty what is finally incalculable and unknowable about the nature of numbers and thus reality. I’ll take her word for it. A search for greater clarity, guided by humility and a sense of awe, is also how Kilby understands theology. It is a compelling vision, one that does not surrender either to an apophatic reticence or to a complacent orthodoxy. 

A Historic Resignation

When Msgr. Roger Grundhaus wanted to baptize his niece’s baby in the cathedral of a nearby diocese, there was the simple matter of getting a letter from his bishop affirming that he was a priest in good standing.

Bishop Michael J. Hoeppner of Crookston in northwest Minnesota obliged the retired priest, a former vicar general of his diocese. “He is a person of good moral character and reputation,” he wrote in 2012. “I am unaware of anything in his background which would render him unsuitable to work with minor children.”

But contrary to that blanket statement, Hoeppner had already heard allegations directly from a diaconate candidate, Ron Vasek, that Grundhaus had molested him in the early 1970s. And so, attorney Jeff Anderson confronted the bishop with the letter during a deposition: “That’s a lie, isn’t it?”

“Counsel, can you rephrase in a non-argumentative way?” the diocesan lawyer interjected, and there was no admission from the bishop in settling the lawsuit.

This letter was part of a trail of evidence leading to the announcement that Pope Francis had asked for and received Hoeppner’s resignation as bishop, a first in the United States under the 2019 Vatican regulations designed to prevent cover-ups of clergy sexual abuse. The disclosure that the pope had “asked for” the bishop’s resignation, appearing in a statement from the Diocese of Crookston, marked a significant advance in the long effort to hold prelates accountable for concealing clergy sexual abuse. 

But at the same time, there is a void of information on exactly where the Church’s investigators and Pope Francis found the bishop went astray. In lieu of any kind of fact-finding report, we are left with Hoeppner’s vague statement to the people of his diocese: “I apologize to you, as I have apologized to our Holy Father, for my failures in governing as bishop.” In the meantime, he wrote, he would enjoy living in a “warmer climate” near his sister, adding, “I look forward to returning to Crookston for personal visits and will await the appointment of a new bishop here to determine other activity.”

In a telephone interview, Vasek said he was pleased with the thoroughness of the investigation, conducted for the Vatican through Archbishop Bernard Hebda of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “I would really like to see what they found in the investigation, but I don’t think we’ll ever see that,” he said, adding that the outcome “tells me there was sufficient evidence there to boot a bishop.” He continued: “I was really pleased to see that Pope Francis asked for the resignation. They could have just said, ‘he resigned.’ They could have said his health was bad.... That tells everything to me.”

As is so often the case for those who wrestle with whether to file abuse charges, Vasek grew up in a devout Catholic family deeply involved in their parish. His mother became friendly with Grundhaus, and the priest visited the Vasek home for Sunday dinners and birthday parties. Vasek volunteered frequently at the parish, and, Grundhaus said in his testimony, he counseled the family after one of Vasek’s brothers died in a tractor accident.

According to a lawsuit Vasek filed in 2017, Grundhaus sexually abused him in 1971. (Grundhaus declined to comment.) As a newly licensed driver at the age of sixteen, he drove the priest to a meeting of canon lawyers in Columbus, Ohio; Grundhaus allegedly made his move on the boy when they roomed together overnight. In a deposition, Grundhaus denied touching him inappropriately, but confirmed that he did room with Vasek on the trip, although in 1972 when he was seventeen. Grundhaus added in his deposition an incident that he said occurred on a similar trip in 1973 when he held Vasek from behind in “kind of a bear hug” as he lay in bed in the morning; the priest said he was horsing around, without a sexual intent. 

According to the lawsuit, Vasek disclosed what happened to another priest when he was considering entry into the diaconate program. That led to a meeting between Vasek and the bishop around 2011.

There is a void of information on exactly where the Church’s investigators and Pope Francis found the bishop went astray.

This is where the account Hoeppner gave under oath in a deposition veers sharply from Vasek’s account. Vasek alleges that the bishop coerced him into silence by threatening his success in the diaconate program and also that of his son Craig, who was ordained a priest in the Crookston diocese in 2010. Hoeppner denied that, saying he didn’t follow up on Vasek’s allegation because Vasek wanted it to remain confidential. (Vasek ultimately withdrew from the diaconate program.)

Meanwhile, a judge presiding over another case against the Crookston diocese ordered the diocese on August 13, 2015 to turn over “all information” about clergy sexual-abuse allegations to the plaintiff’s attorneys. But Vasek’s allegation against Msgr. Grundhaus was not handed over.

The allegation did come to the attention of officials in the neighboring Diocese of Fargo, though, when they reviewed whether to let Msgr. Grundhaus assist there. As a result, Vasek was asked to meet with Hoeppner at his private residence and there, according to Vasek, the bishop coerced him into signing a document that essentially recanted the allegation he had raised. 

Under oath, Hoeppner said he had “absolutely not” done that. What’s not disputed is the resulting statement: “I, Ron Vasek, regarding a trip I was on when I was 16 years old, and on which a priest of the Diocese of Crookston was also participating, clearly and freely state that I have no desire to nor do I make any accusation of sexual impropriety by the priest toward me,” stated over his signature, dated October 21, 2015.

In his testimony, the bishop called this a “normal procedure” done without consulting a lawyer, and said no one was given a copy of the letter. He kept it, and, he testified, didn’t save it on his computer “because it’s confidential.” But confidential or not, the diocesan Safe Environment coordinator testified that the rules required all allegations to be reported to the vicar general of the diocese. (An attorney who represented Hoeppner in Vasek’s lawsuit didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

“It’s just the most grotesque abuse of power,” said Anne Barrett Doyle of BishopAccountability.org, which tracks bishops’ role in the sex-abuse crisis. She questioned the deterrent effect of allowing Hoeppner to retain his status as a bishop.

Hoeppner settled the coercion lawsuit Vasek filed in September 2017, not long after Vasek’s lawyers filed papers charging that the Crookston diocese had covered up Vasek’s allegations in the earlier lawsuit. There was no admission of wrongdoing; the bishop again denied pressuring Vasek, though.

And then there was that letter to the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the one in which the bishop said he was unaware of anything in Grundhaus’s background to prevent him from working with children.

“That’s not the truth, is it?” attorney Anderson asked him under oath.

A: I’m respecting the confidentiality. That’s why I signed that.

Q: Is that true or is that false?

A: I’m respecting the confidentiality.

Vasek told me he had inquired with local authorities about whether the bishop could be charged with perjury, but was told it was a difficult type of charge to prove. Still, he is glad to put the Hoeppner matter behind him. “I was just praying that the pope...would find him guilty,” he said.

The Long, Withdrawing Roar

Will we U.S. Catholics return to the pews once the pandemic is over? Of course, some of us have already returned. Others fully intend to do so. Probably there are yet others, however, who have discovered that they enjoy Sunday mornings free and have begun to wonder why, apart from a feeling of guilt, they used to spend that time in church. And then there are the people—who knows at this point how many?—who have found new and different spiritual practices and nourishment over the course of the past year. Maybe they are Zooming with a community hundreds of miles away from where they live. Will they want to return to their parishes? Will they be willing to put up with the old normal—the poorly prepared homilies and lackluster music of many parishes; in English-speaking parishes, the insults to robust, plain-spoken English that abound in the 2011 translation of the Mass? What if these Catholics have even (heaven forfend!) been listening to women preach? Will they still be willing to attend and support a Church that is sunk in antiquated patriarchy? It isn’t hard to imagine that, for a lot of us, the answer might be yes. Old habits can reassert themselves quickly. But one can also imagine 2022 accelerating the rate of attrition by a couple of decades, leapfrogging ahead to what 2042 would have been like without the pandemic. Dissatisfactions that might have festered for decades might burst forth all at once. If they do, how will bishops and pastors respond?

David E. Campbell, Geoffrey C. Layman, and John C. Green have produced an essential study of a trend that was well under way before the pandemic; as they simply put it, “Americans are pulling away from religion.” (Full disclosure: I participated with Campbell in an Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies project on the growth of religious non-affiliation, and I hosted him through the center I direct to speak on that topic.) This is a work of political science, with an emphasis on science. The stories that the authors tell are grounded in data sets and experiments, the full details of which are available in a fifty-page online appendix. The book’s basic aim is to understand the political implications of what the authors call a “secular surge” in the United States, by which they mean “the expanding size, increased political engagement, and emerging collective identity of secular Americans.” The main lessons have to do with U.S. politics, but there are plenty of other lessons here both for Church leaders and for those who work in Catholic education.

Before the book turns to “political seismology”—its account of what changes the new fault line between secularists and religionists might bring to the political landscape—it surveys the lay of the land and clarifies such terms as “secularists” and “religionists.” People without religious affiliation—the so-called Nones—now constitute somewhere between 18 and 25 percent of the U.S. population, up from 5 percent in 1972. But, as the authors point out, there is considerable diversity among these people. The key distinction for this book is between non-religiosity and secularism. Some people without religious affiliation embrace distinctively secular beliefs, identities, and activities. These are the secularists: they have a “secular worldview,” and can thus be defined by what they are, not merely by what they are not. By contrast, non-religionists lack both religious and secular beliefs and values. As such, they are typically disengaged both from religious and civic institutions. Many of these disaffected non-religionists gravitated to Donald Trump in the 2016 primaries, drawn to his appeals to nativism and white racial grievance. According to the authors’ research, “only 43 percent of Nones are Secularists, while 45 percent are Non-Religionists.” The secularist Nones tend to have more education and higher incomes than the non-religionists.     

Does my holding secularist principles make me a secularist Catholic, or should we conclude instead that Catholicism is a “secularist religion”?

What makes for a secularist worldview is a fraught question. The authors propose three core principles: first, “a commitment to science and objective evidence as the basis for understanding the world”; second, “the view that only human experience and knowledge provide the proper basis for comprehending reality and making ethical judgments”; and third, “the idea that human development and understanding should be based on logic and reason, rather than received authority, dogma, or tradition.”

It seems fair to ask whether this simply describes what it is not to be an Evangelical Protestant. The authors acknowledge that “many religious traditions have space for beliefs that come from the natural realm, such as science and philosophy.” They accordingly insist that a secularist worldview “is not zero-sum with religiosity”—and in fact they recognize not only non-religionists, secularists, and religionists, but also what they call “religious secularists,” people who blend secularism and religiosity. According to the authors’ research, non-religionists, who are low in both religiosity and secularism, now make up 18 percent of the U.S. population; secularists, who are low in religiosity and high in secularism, make up 28 percent; religionists, who are high in religiosity and low in secularism, make up about 37 percent; and religious secularists, who are high in both religiosity and secularism, make up 16 percent. Some 23 percent of Catholics count as religious secularists, along with 21 percent of Jews and 23 percent of mainline Protestants.

The authors’ taxonomy led me to wonder: Does my holding (with due qualifications) secularist principles like the three above make me a secularist Catholic, or should we conclude instead that Catholicism is a “secularist religion”—or at least that it has a more secularist incarnation? Further, the authors sometimes seem to disregard the nuances of their own taxonomy. For example, they write that “we have seen that the United States is more secular than suggested by the common narrative of Americans as a highly religious people.” Here “secular” does seem to be “zero-sum with religiosity,” which leaves Catholic who identify, at least to some extent, with the authors’ three principles of secularism in an awkward position.


That there is a secular surge in the United States, however, is undeniable. People who identify as atheists or agnostics now constitute between 7 and 12 percent of the U.S. population, and the more religion has become associated with reactionary politics, the more non-reactionaries have been driven away from it—especially young people whose attachment to religion hadn’t yet solidified. As the authors observe, “politics drives nonreligiosity,” but they also report that “secularism...drives political views,” which is not surprising inasmuch as it “encompasses commitment to a set of distinctive beliefs and a sense of social identity.” In particular, “secularism is connected to greater liberalism, commitment to ideological goals, opposition to political compromise, and support for progressive candidates” (for example, Bernie over Biden in the 2020 primaries). At the same time, while the association of religion with right-wing politics turns liberals off religion, the authors found that it “spurs Republicans and conservatives to grow even more religious.” The upshot is that the secular surge has the potential to give rise to a “confessional” party system, further deepening so-called affective polarization between the burn-it-down Left and the burn-it-down Right.

The secular surge has the potential to give rise to a “confessional” party system, further deepening so-called affective polarization between the burn-it-down Left and the burn-it-down Right.

If that story isn’t scary enough, the authors document potential risks posed by the surge of secularists into the Democratic Party. In brief, “the growth of secularism in the Democratic activist base may antagonize the party’s traditional bases of support among people of color and working-class whites.” We already saw signs of this in the 2020 general election. Black and Latino Democrats tend to be strong religionists, and there are also strong religionists among working-class whites. The more secularist the Democratic activist base becomes, the less secure the party’s hold will be on other parts of its coalition. “Religious secularists,” including some Catholics, might also be alienated over the Democratic Party’s increasingly rigid position on abortion. If you think Catholics are politically homeless now, just wait.

Perhaps the Biden administration is sensitive to these risks. A viewer of President Biden’s inauguration ceremony could have been forgiven for wondering whether Catholicism is the established religion in the United States. And surely the administration is aware that Biden likely wouldn’t have won the Democratic nomination without the strong support of religious Black voters in the South. Whether that center will hold, however, is an open question.       

The risks to the U.S. Catholic Church, and to U.S. Catholic schools from kindergarten through college, are no less existential. The more the Church becomes associated with right-wing politics, the more Catholics repelled by that politics will vote with their feet. At the same time, less secularist, more “religionist” Catholics can be expected to become more right-wing in reaction.

Take the recent controversy at the Catholic University of America over a student group’s invitation to pro-life activist and all-purpose right-wing provocateur Abby Johnson, who was among the crowd outside the Capitol on January 6. After Cardinals for Life, the pro-life group that had invited Johnson, rescinded its invitation in the face of uproar and outrage on campus and beyond on account of Johnson’s history of racist statements, CUA’s College Republicans invited Johnson to speak, and of course she agreed. In his introduction to Johnson’s talk, the president of the CUA chapter of the College Republicans observed, “The campaign against us...ironically had the effect of strengthening our club, not weakening it.” That’s likely right, but the controversy surely didn’t help the U.S. Church, or the reputation and cause of Catholic higher education. Who except for a small club of people wants to be associated with that?

Ironically, post-pandemic, the U.S. Church’s fortunes may be bound up with Joe Biden’s. His Catholicism may be crucial in keeping the Democratic Party from breaking up. The example of his Catholicism also may be crucial in keeping the Church from losing everyone but the far Right.

Secular Surge
A New Fault Line in American Politics

David E. Campbell, Geoffrey C. Layman, and John C. Green
Cambridge University Press
$29.99 | 268 pp.