“American Catholics”: American, or Catholic?

It was only a matter of time: with the election of Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI, news outlets from NPR to the New York Times were quick to divine the response of so-called “American Catholics.” The trickle of laments so far (Jack Miles, Charles Curran, and Jesuits everywhere) is sure to be followed by a torrent of jeremiads over the next several weeks from the usual suspects (Peter Steinfels, Gary Wills, et. al.) who will bemoan the fact that the cardinals chose a Pope who, of all things, endorses the teaching of Church. (This happens even as other American neocons like Michael Novak and Richard John Neuhaus are eager to paint Benedict XVI as the Pope of the free market.)
But the apoplexy of these “American Catholics” is not the sort of response you’ll find in the Pulaski Square or Burton Heights neighborhoods in Grand Rapids. Nor will you find such weeping and gnashing of teeth amongst those worshipping in the basilica in Dyersville, IA—or even in the Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, where immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala greet the news of Benedict XVI with joy. No, for the opinions of these so-called “American Catholics” you’ll have to make your way to the halls of east coast Jesuit universities and New York editorial offices.
So the notion that these New York and Washington intellectuals represent “American Catholics” is a gross overstatement and misnomer. (Sometimes the label is more specific and rightly indicates that these are the opinions of “liberal Catholics.”) Many Americans who are Catholic—not too mention the Catholic faithful in Latin America and Africa—won’t find the election of Cardinal Ratzinger the least disturbing or surprising. In fact, they will eagerly look to Pope Benedict XVI as shepherd of the flock.
Why the difference of response? Why does Cardinal Ratzinger’s election as Pope generate such despair among “American Catholics,” and yet is welcomed by many Catholics who live in the United States?
I think it has something to do with how you conjoin the terms. The so-called “American Catholics” want a church that conforms to the sensibilities of American liberalism: personal freedom and autonomy, a rejection of authority, a disparaging of tradition, and an expanding “private” sphere that let’s us do what we want. The Church is great, they’ll say, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of us pursuing our version of the American dream.
But that is precisely to miss what it means to be Catholic—indeed, what it means to be a Christian. The way of the cross is not the way of self-invention and private fulfillment. It is the way of discipleship. And discipleship requires learning to subject one’s desires and interests to God’s authority. As we see in Mary, the first disciple, to follow Jesus means learning to say, “Let it be.” In this respect we must recognize, as Pope John Paul II argued, that there is a deep antithesis between liberalism and Catholicism. The fact that Pope Benedict XVI agrees with this only indicates that he affirms the centuries old tradition of the faith. Should we really be surprised that the Cardinals elected a Pope who affirms the faith?

The chorus of “American Catholics” want a church without discipleship. I expect Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy will force them to be honest and choose between being American liberals and being Catholic.