In this article, first presented to a French audience at the Paroisse Universitaire in Bordeaux, Ong explains that although American and European Catholics have much in common, American Catholicism is often misunderstood by Europeans.

This is partly because American Catholics have not been effective at explaining themselves to Europeans primarily because they feel uncertain about their own status in the United States.  In essence, American Catholics have adopted a "minority mentality."  They still feel very connected to their European past, for preserving this past is a way to preserve their Catholic culture, yet they also want to be accepted and have an influence in their own country.  They have, therefore, adopted American culture in order to achieve this mission.

When American Catholics try to fit into American culture, however, they are often criticized by Europeans for being "superficial."  While Ong acknowledges that American Catholics do participate in the superficial aspects of American culture, he believes that this superficiality is not necessarily bad, for it creates the kind of optimism needed to make the United States a highly productive country.  When the Catholic Church expresses this optimism (through creating its own social clubs, sports teams, and other group-oriented organizations that are so widespread in American culture), it is engaging American culture in order to eventually transform it.

Still, Ong agrees that American Catholics need to be more self-aware, more critical of themselves and American culture in general, and more active in exploring the relationship between American Catholicism and its place in history; Ong uses the dialogue resulting from the publication of Paul Blanshard's American Freedom and Catholic Power (1949) and Communism, Democracy, and Catholic Power (1951) as an example of how American Catholics have become more self-aware and self-critical.

Blanshard's books--which Ong characterizes as similar to that of historian G.G. (George Gordon) Coulton's writing on Catholicism because both men attack Catholicism at its weakest point (relying too heavily on the past rather than developing a contemporary historical perspective on the place of the Church in society)--assert that American Catholics' loyalty to their government is inconsistent with papal documents on the issue.  While Ong believes that Catholics are not as inconsistent on this issue as Blanshard makes them out to be, he does believe that Blanshard's work has been important because it has forced American Catholics to develop their historical awareness.

Still, he argues, Catholics need to do more studies on the relationship between Catholicism and American culture (he cites Issac Hecker's work at the end of the nineteenth century as a good example of this but notes that Hecker's new vision of American Catholicism was ultimately recast in European terms and brought to a standstill by a papal document on the subject), and Ong believes that now is the time for this to happen.

Return to Listings