Recovering a Catholic Subculture


On the eve of the last Super Bowl, two men were discussing the great American ritual of watching football on television. The older man admitted that he just didn’t do that anymore.

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In times past, he said, he’d seen his share of TV football, but twelve or fifteen years earlier he’d become aware that his attention to what was happening on the field was starting to wander — he’d follow a game for a few minutes and then lose interest. During the last football season, he hadn’t watched a single game, either professional or college. He felt no worse for it.

The younger man said he didn’t watch all that much football either, but now and then he took in a game on TV in the company of his kids. But he saw a problem: “The ads are so . . . so — ”

“Raunchy?” the older man suggested.

“Raunchy,” the younger agreed. “I ask myself what I’m doing to my kids letting them see that stuff.”

“Even at my age, when I watch a little television of any kind — which is something I seldom do these days — I’m embarrassed at what I see. But I guess the television people have found their audience.”

“It’s the American public. And this is American culture.”

“If that is what’s out there, I don’t want any part of it.”

“All well and good, but you’re going to run into it every time you step out your front door.”

Here in a nutshell is the dilemma now facing many people who are unhappy about the steady downhill moral slide of American culture: It offends them, but they can’t do much about it, and many believe they have no practical way of avoiding it. Still, a growing number appear to be trying.

In fact, not a few are taking steps to withdraw from what they perceive as a noxious and destructive cultural environment. Some home-school their kids because of the blatantly immoral sex education and other nasty stuff in public schools — and sometimes even in parochial schools. Others have given up on TV and carefully police the Internet. Still others have taken the radical step of moving out of big cities and suburbs to smaller, quieter, more conservative, and culturally homogeneous communities where the assaults on their eyes, ears, and morals are less numerous.

How far will this go?

No one really knows. But what I do know for certain is that the Church needs to get busy encouraging the growth of a new Catholic subculture to accommodate the healthy reaction against cultural decadence reflected in this relatively recent and extremely important development.


One of the worst mistakes American Catholicism ever made was the scrapping in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s of the subculture that had served it well up to that time. That was the era of the great flight from what Catholic intellectuals snobbishly called the “Catholic ghetto.” Yes, the subculture as it then existed did need updating and renewal. But instead of that, what we got was a foolish, self-imposed dismantling — the secularization of Catholic colleges and universities, the deliberate withering of Catholic organizations — driven largely by the craving of academic and religious elitists to be trendy and in step with the times.

To a great extent, ecclesiastical officialdom went along with it. “When I was growing up,” a friend recalls, “I watched the Legion of Mary and other local Catholic organizations struggling for lack of interest by the priests and chancery office staff who considered them anachronisms. Even as a young man, I saw the sadness and frustration in the faces of many of the older members, especially as nothing was being offered as a replacement.”

In such ways, historian Charles Morris remarks, American Catholicism went about “the dangerous and potentially catastrophic project” of severing the link between faith and a healthy Catholic subculture that had for so long been “the source of its dynamism, its appeal, and its power.”

But praise God: In recent years the pendulum has started swinging the other way. Signs of a revived Catholic subculture can be seen in such things as new, proudly orthodox colleges and universities, media ventures like EWTN and Catholic radio, a growing number of websites and a handful of publishing houses, and organizations and movements that work to promote a dynamic Catholic spirituality — especially an authentic spirituality for the laity. These coexist side by side with individual parishes, even whole dioceses, that have gotten the message and taken it to heart.

All the same, the Church in the United States has a very long way to go to create a new Catholic subculture to take the place of what was so fecklessly lost — or, more truthfully, thrown away — in the past. Meanwhile, American secular culture grows steadily more hostile to morality and religious faith. Nobody asked my advice, but I’ll give it anyway: When the Super Bowl comes around again next year, read a good book or take a walk. Bet you’ll feel better if you do.




  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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