What the Bishops Hath Wrought

By Woods, Thomas E., Jr. | The American Conservative, September 25, 2006 | Go to article overview

What the Bishops Hath Wrought


Woods, Thomas E., Jr., The American Conservative


[The Catholic Experience in America, Joseph A. Varacalli, Greenwood Press, 339 pages]

What the Bishops Hath Wrought

JOSEPH VARACALLI is very much an unsung hero of American Catholic intellectual life. For decades he has quietly labored on behalf of the church, producing in the process a mountain of important articles and book-length studies written from the point of view of the orthodox faith. Against all odds, Varacalli even managed to get a Center for Catholic Studies established at Nassau Community College of the State University of New York, where he has taught sociology for many years. He argued that if the college took its commitment to multiculturalism seriously, it needed to make all cultural perspectives, including Catholicism, available to its students. As we all know, that argument never works. But it worked, somehow, for the indefatigable Varacalli.

Varacalli's latest book, The Catholic Experience in America, begins with a brief history of the Catholic Church in the United States and then examines it in light of important sociological categories like race, sex, age, and region. Varacalli likewise covers the Eastern Catholic churches in America, as well as some of the ethnic traditions by which the Catholic faith has been mediated over the course of the American experience. In each case, Varacalli guides the reader effortlessly through the pertinent literature. He does not break much new ground here, but that is not the point of this useful book, which describes the Catholic experience in America from its origins to the present in light of the findings of the most important scholarly research.

Varacalli borrows the helpful term "plausibility structure" from Peter Berger to refer to the necessary social and intellectual milieu that makes a particular religious tradition a vital factor in the lives of its adherents and inclines them to remain faithful to it. Berger doubted that such a thing could exist in the pluralistic United States, whose religious diversity he thought would inhibit the creation of such a milieu. Varacalli has elsewhere taken issue with Berger's view, arguing that the church itself can create this plausibility structure, even when the surrounding culture is indifferent or hostile, by means of the mutually supportive bodies that comprise its institutional life, including parishes, universities, media outlets, professional associations, and voluntary organizations.

Without this plausibility structure in place, the combined effect of nonCatholic and anti-Catholic influences on the Catholic population is bound to lead a good portion of them in the direction of those influences and away from Catholicism. According to Varacalli, "Given the fact that most people in any society 'worship' and consider 'sacred' the key values of that society's central value system"-what Emile Durkheim called the "collective conscience" of society-"it should come as little surprise that most ... contemporary American Catholics are 'nominally Catholic,' with some other set of socializing agents more fundamentally shaping their worldview, character, personality, and social and personal priorities."

Varacalli will have no truck with those who believe that the demands of Catholic obedience require them to disparage the pre-Vatican II church for its alleged failings. Varacalli speaks of the pre-conciliar church with deep respect and affection, for it had laboriously built and maintained the very structure whose absence Varacalli and the present writer now lament. "Precisely because of the successful implementation of the strategy to construct a Catholic subculture," Varacalli observes, "America was on its way to becoming, if not a Catholic country, a country with a powerful and united Catholic presence."

This is not mere bravado: opponents of this growing Catholic influence, like Paul Blanshard, once spoke openly of the "Catholic problem"-that is, the rapidly increasing influence and numbers that the Catholic Church in America could boast. …

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