The Catholic Experience at Taming Pluralism

by Joseph M. McShane, S.J.

Joseph M. McShane, S.J., is associate professor of religious studies at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 26, 1989, p. 443. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


At the dawn of the 20th century, Catholics finally learned that the First Amendment gave the churches wide latitude to influence public policy.

For American Catholics, 1989 is a year crowded with anniversaries, including the centennial of the founding of the Catholic University of America and the bicentennial of both the establishment of Georgetown University (and, by extension, of Jesuit education) and the erection of the American hierarchy. While these various milestones will be celebrated with assemblies both festive and solemn, they also invite the church to reflect on its American experience, and especially on its experience of American pluralism.

No church benefited more from American religious liberty than the Roman Catholic. In evaluating the American religious settlement, however, Catholics have had to weigh the practical advantages of pluralism against its challenges and ideological difficulties. The benefits impressed pragmatic American Catholics far more than the ideological complexities. In spite of Rome’s misgivings, American Catholics fervently supported a religio-political arrangement that had no theological justification until the Second Vatican Council. They weren’t unaware of the problem of pluralism, however. On the contrary, they have had a lively sense of the issues involved, and -- at least until quite recently -- have dealt with the challenge of pluralism with sophistication, ingenuity and great success.

In describing the situation in America, John Carroll, the first bishop of Baltimore, the bicentennial of whose episcopal election and consecration is also observed this year, told Rome that "our Religious system has undergone a revolution . . . more extraordinary, than our political one." A shrewd and patriotic man, Carroll supported the religious revolution as fervently as he did the political one. His status as the leader of a previously persecuted church at least partially explains his enthusiasm for the American religious experiment. To his mind, the First Amendment freed Catholics from the stigma of second-class citizenship and offered the church not only equal status with other churches but protection from enemies and freedom to govern its own affairs. He believed that the American church would thrive when freed from the threat of persecution and enlivened by that spirit of voluntarism made necessary by pluralism. Impressed by both its immediate benefits and its promise for the future, he praised the American system and advised European churches and nations to adopt it as their own.

But Carroll also saw that pluralism was a mixed blessing. The legal and political judgment that all churches are equal could lead to a similar theological judgment. Such indifferentism could in turn result in defection. The church’s survival in America would therefore depend on its ability to capitalize on the legal benefits of pluralism while protecting itself from the corrosion of indifferentism.

Carroll formulated an ingenious solution to the Catholic dilemma. Perceiving that a pluralistic environment demanded both civil tolerance and theological intolerance, he was convinced that any church that lacked a lively sense of its uniqueness and its necessary role in securing human salvation would fail in the religious marketplace. On the other hand, he realized that competition among religious groups of strong conviction could have disastrous consequences for civic life. Unless the nation was firmly committed to protecting the legal equality of all churches and all believers’ freedom of conscience, it would suffer the fate of the Old World, where the civic order was disrupted by persecutions and the natural rights of religious minorities were abridged. Therefore Carroll cautioned against religious convictions that were fanatical, civilly disruptive or politically imperialistic. He concluded that the church could maximize the practical advantages of pluralism and minimize its dangers by resisting all attempts to erect an established church (whether de lege or de facto) and also by cultivating a somewhat tribalistic spirit among its members.

Catholics soon discovered the wisdom of Carroll’s vision. After a brief irenic period, American denominations began to cultivate a degree of self-preserving theological intolerance among their members. Moreover, as the 19th century progressed, evangelical Protestants availed themselves of the wide freedom accorded them under the First Amendment to form voluntary associations, the goal of whose activities was the erection of a de facto religious establishment in America.

Protestant animosity heightened the Catholic community’s sense of uniqueness and invited its members to retreat behind a stance of reciprocal theological intolerance, effectively defusing the danger of indifferentism. On the other hand, conscious of their minority status in an overwhelmingly Protestant nation, Catholics naturally feared the restrictions which the hostile minority could impose on them if they translated cultural leverage into political power. Demanding that the nation be true to its pledge of civil tolerance for all (and buttressing their demands by citing their record of patriotism) , they dedicated themselves to keeping the gap between Protestant culture and American politics as wide as possible, following Carroll’s prescription.

The church was able to meet immigrant needs, however, in a way that left it nearly immune to indifferentism. Under siege by a hostile and intolerant host culture, the immigrants clung all the more tenaciously to one another and to the church, an institution that offered security in a strange and forbidding new world. As one bishop observed, the Nativists made the church’s job of retaining the immigrants’ loyalty much easier. The defections that did occur in the American environment convinced the church to do even more to strengthen its ties with the immigrants.

This meant catering to the specific needs of each ethnic group and providing a refuge for them where Old World languages and customs could be preserved. As a result, in the 19th century the church pursued an exhausting policy of seemingly endless diversification. Although the strategy taxed its resources, the immigrants came to look upon the church as a legally protected repository of national or ethnic identity, and upon the faith as a taken-for-granted -- even a necessary -- part of life. Precisely because it thus multiplied the bases on which a Catholic sense of differentiation was built, the church further insulated itself from the danger of indifferentism.

At the same time that the church was dodging the potentially corrosive effect of freedom, it continued to demand the freedoms that the First Amendment promised. In the process it seriously tested the nation’s resolve to be truly pluralistic and tolerant.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries the church both invoked the law against unwarranted government interference in internal church matters and demanded that the nation reject any activity that seemed to move it closer to erecting an established church. Nowhere was its insistence that the nation observe the proper separation of church and state more apparent than in the area of education.

In the first half of the 19th century, when it became more clear that the public schools of New York and Philadelphia were really thinly veiled proselytizing institutions whose curricula were strongly sectarian, Bishops Hughes and Kenrick raised a protest: they demanded that either the schools display a greater sensitivity to religious diversity or Catholics be given a fair share of tax money to run schools that would not endanger the faith of their children. The bishops forced the nation to face the embarrassing fact that its commitment to religious neutrality in public life had been seriously compromised. (Ironically, the bishops’ protests were at least partially responsible for inaugurating the trend toward fully secularizing public education.)

Convinced that the common schools represented a threat to the future of the faith in America, the church determined to erect its own comprehensive educational system. The third plenary council of Baltimore mandated the erection of a Catholic school in every parish in the country. When states attempted to step in and limit the freedom of the church to operate these schools, the church was quick to cry foul and repair to the courts. Correctly presenting itself as the guardian of the First Amendment’s non-abridgment clause, the church fought Illinois, Oregon and Wisconsin statutes that would have given the government a foothold in church-related schools.

In the latter part of the 19th and the early part of the 20th century, Catholics developed additional responses to America’s pluralistic environment. The church did not abandon the old strategies overnight. But an accommodationist camp reasoned that the long-term interests of the church would be far better served if the church wore a more American face. It advised the church and its members to assimilate themselves into American society. While Rome rebuked parts of the Americanizers’ program, the fact that American Catholics could even contemplate a change in strategy indicated that they were beginning to reassess their involvement in public life. The church began to display a bold new understanding of one of the freedoms offered by pluralism. At the dawn of the 20th century, Catholics finally learned -- as evangelical Christians had a century earlier -- that the First Amendment gave the churches wide latitude to influence public policy. Catholics determined to use a central organization to trumpet their achievements, amplify their demands and protect their interests. The American Federation of Catholic Societies was formed in 1901 for this purpose. It was disorganized and timid, but a subsequent organization met with much greater results.

A growing Catholic sense of security and a desire to erase some of the barriers that separated Catholics from other Americans spurred the NCWC to issue policy statements and position papers directed to the nation as a whole. In order to win a wider hearing, the church developed a moral bilingualism. It used overtly religious language when addressing the faithful, but when it addressed the nation it employed the religiously neutral language of natural law, a language suited to the Enlightenment-rooted American political arena.

Meanwhile, the Catholic desire for assimilation gave birth to the NCWC-sponsored Americanization drive which used Catholic schools and agencies to teach English and civics to the church’s diverse ethnic flock. The very institutions founded to insulate the church from contact with American society now dedicated themselves to suppressing ethnicity and smoothing the path to full Catholic incorporation in American life.

The church’s new-found boldness did not endear it to all Americans. Cultural hostility toward Catholicism continued to appear from time to time, most noticeably during the presidential campaign in 1928. Such hostility fanned a sense of difference that insulated Catholics from indifferentism while they experimented with pluralism’s political freedom.

For most of 200 years, then, the American church managed to enjoy the blessings of pluralism while escaping its major problems. To the amazement of its European confreres and overseers, the contagion of indifferentism never carried away large numbers of the faithful. Indeed, as a result of the perfect freedom and the voluntarism born of pluralism, the American church boasted a vital, generous membership served by a necessarily vigilant and attentive body of priests and religious. In the light of the church’s remarkable growth, Carroll’s prediction that with a little care the church could thrive in a pluralistic environment seemed correct.

In the past 40, and especially the last 20, years, however, the church has finally had to face the corrosive effects of pluralism. Many of the barriers that once differentiated Catholics from other Americans have simply disappeared. The schools initially founded to insulate Catholic students from the lure of the outside world and other religions have become instruments of social mobility. The postwar suburbanization of American has been doubly destructive of the protective Catholic sense of uniqueness. It has lured Catholics out of the cities and away from their institutional empires, frustrating bishops and pastors who have attempted to duplicate the networks that made urban Catholicism a way of life and a world apart. Meanwhile, in the homogenizing suburbs, ethnicity has evaporated or diminished to mere sentimentality or nostalgic attachment to folk customs.

Finally, the fortuitous rise of ecumenism (aided by the elections of John F. Kennedy and the pontificate of John XXIII, and given theological justification by the decrees of Vatican II) undercut the motive for theological intolerance toward other religious Americans. The breakdown of these old bases of differentiation both signaled and facilitated the almost complete assimilation of the Catholic community into the American mainstream.

The loss of so many protective barriers would make the church’s task of coping with pluralism difficult in any age. But Catholics became assimilated to American culture at a time when the culture itself was being secularized. Both the nature of assimilation and the character of the secular world complicate the church’s attempts to retain members’ loyalty.

This is precisely where problems arise for the church. Catholics have claimed the values and worldview of secular society. They revere material success, progress, and personal and intellectual freedom and, more ominously, they have rather uncritically adopted a secularized view of the role of religion. Specifically, they are prone to see religious tribalism as a threat to the orderly progress of civil society, and to see religion itself as a force that should govern a small -- and it is hoped private -- area of human activity. Catholics are now prey to the most seductive and dangerous challenge secularism poses, the challenge to exercise the ultimate freedom that a pluralistic environment offers: the freedom not to believe. In the present age then, pluralism does not so much lead to indifferentism as to complete indifference to religion.

As quixotic as it may sound, I think that if the church wishes to remain a vital institution, it must follow a similar strategy in the future. Of course, its teaching mission is now complicated by the fact that secularism’s invitation to non-belief is both subtle and seductive. It seems to argue that religious fervor is a hindrance to human freedom and progress (if not a positive threat to civility and public order) , and it convinces people that non-belief is a civic duty. Moreover, the social and economic success that Catholics have achieved in the secular world has seduced them into adopting wholesale the values and strategies of that world.

The church must argue for its superiority on precisely those points on which secularism bases its claims. Specifically, it has to prove that its program leads more surely to personal happiness and social peace than does that of secularism. Thus it must smoke out the false presuppositions upon which secularism grounds its program. In order to do so the church must continue to engage in the ministry of social analysis that has so distinguished the United States Catholic Conference of late, a ministry that seeks to reveal the ways in which the materialism, excessive competition and amoral economics of the secular world have not led to progress for the entire human family but rather to a serious imbalance in economic life.

In addition, the church must convince its members that personal happiness consists of more than material possessions. This essentially negative activity, however, must be complemented by more positive action. Concretely, the church must exhort its more committed members -- the gathered remnant -- to ever more strenuous work in the service of social justice, work which will reveal to both the world and its wavering members the fact that religious fervor is conducive to true social progress. Through the use of these complementary strategies, the church will be able to do once again what it has always done to tame pluralism: by building a case for itself and discrediting the stance of its competitors, it will undercut any motive which Catholics may have to make use of the freedom not to believe offered them by a pluralistic, and now secularist, environment.

Finally, to trigger that protective tribalist reflex that Carroll saw as a bulwark against defection, the church must make its members aware of secularism’s intolerance of belief. That attitude may spark a burst of reciprocal intolerance among the faithful, an intolerance which must (as Carroll would advise) be protective but never civilly disruptive.