In this article, Ong explains that American Catholics are often befuddled by the Catholic scene in France.  Since France is thought to be more Catholic in the twentieth century than it has been in previous centuries, the level of indifference toward religion--especially in the highest intellectual circles--is surprising and confusing to those outside French culture.  Ong believes, however, that the differences between American and French Catholicism can be understood, especially if one looks at the concepts discussed by David Riesman in The Lonely Crowd, A Study of the Changing American Character (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1950).

In this book, Riesman identifies three approaches to the world:  tradition-directed, inner-directed, and other-directed.  Tradition-directed people accept a set of behaviors given to them by the past (tradition), without requiring any rationale for adopting this set of behaviors.  Inner-directed people, on the other hand, base their behavior on the need to "make something" of themselves, an approach that comes out of asceticism but in the modern world includes business people who have an interior need to do well on their own.  Finally, other-directed people are driven not by tradition or interior needs but by looking at those individuals around them (rather than society as a whole, as tradition-directed people do) and comparing themselves to those individuals.

American Catholicism, and American society in general, tends to take the other-directed outlook while French Catholicism takes the inner-directed approach.  Yet American Catholics often make the mistake of characterizing French Catholics as tradition-driven.  In fact, both American and French Catholics are adept at making changes according to their needs, but their motivations for making changes are different.  American Catholics tend to make changes unconsciously (primarily because they are always looking at others to see how to change); the unconscious nature of their adaptation to change results in little conflict in their lives.  French Catholics, on the other hand, are, because of their inner-directed nature, more likely to encounter conflict when they adapt to new situations, for their inner-directed approach encourages a more dramatic break from tradition.

Interestingly enough, the two different approaches to breaking with tradition seen in American and French Catholics lead to different types of productivity:  the other-directed Americans are good at producing practical objects such as cars while the inner-directed French have a high level of artistic productivity.  Another aspect of French society that can be explained once one understands the difference between other-directedness and inner-directedness is the French approach to clubs and to politics.  While Americans tend to join clubs that are generalist (such as the Serra Club, where Catholics of different professions come together), the French join very specialized clubs.  When the French do look to other people for comparison, then, it is to those who do similar work rather than the general population.  In politics, most French people are leftist, but they are leftist as a matter of principle rather than because they literally support the policies of the Communist Party.  As a result, their approach to the class system is distinctly different from that of Americans; while Americans generally want to abolish the class system, the French break from one class in order to be a part of another.

Overall, Ong concludes, American and French Catholics do have very different approaches to life, but these differences need not be seen as "absolute distinctions" but as "merely different emphases" that can be understood and appreciated.  By bringing up the whole issue of American-European relations in the Catholic Church, Ong expands on the ideas found in "American Catholicism and America," as well as some of his early America articles, especially "Literature and Cultural Initiative."  In "American Catholicism and America" and "Literature and Cultural Initiative," Ong tried to explain the American Catholic mentality to American Catholics themselves (in "Literature and Cultural Initiative") and to a French audience (in "American Catholicism and America").  In this article, however, Ong reverses the process by focusing on explaining the French Catholic frame of mind to American readers of Commonweal.

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