Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The Seven Types of American Catholics

Avery Robert Cardinal Dulles, S.J., Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University, described four kinds of American Catholics: Traditionalists, Neo-Conservatives, Liberals, and Radicals. These terms are more familiar from politics but also applicable to Catholicism. Cardinal Dulles, being over eighty years old, was not an elector in the recent Papal Conclave.


This type of American Catholic looks at the great piety and holiness of his Church before the Second Vatican Council and the decay of belief and practice since then, and especially notes that much of the decline is due to failed reforms based on the "Spirit of the Council". He notes the loss of vast numbers of Religious and Ordained clergy and the widely diverging celebrations of the Mass of Pope Paul VI, which often don't even seem to be Catholic anymore. So the Traditionalist starts to rebuild this past culture in one of the many new Traditional Latin Mass communities formed after the promulgation of Ecclesia Dei.

The Traditionalist seeks refuge from the world of pornography, recreational drugs, violence, and materialism. He tends to be an articulate, confident, committed, and intelligent Catholic. But, Cardinal Dulles thinks that clinging to the past is a mistake, and that Traditionalists may not "cooperate responsibly" with others in building society, and also that children in this kind of household may be eventually rebellious and reject Catholicism outright. Also, will the Traditionalist accept the directives of Vatican II?


The "Neo-Conservative", as Cardinal Dulles calls him, sees that the government of the United States was originally founded on recognizably Catholic natural law principles and reason in the tradition of Saint Thomas Aquinas, and the freedom of religion acknowledged in the Constitution has allowed Catholicism to flourish in this largely Protestant country. Our American system of government, even with its faults, is recognized as being the most moral social order developed in history. Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Ratzinger, even said that the American system is the best for Church-State relations. The older "Conservative" tradition upheld "Throne and Altar" as the bedrock of society, but that depends on the particular monarch, and is in any case, not applicable to a Republic. The Neo-Conservative sees that the American system of government allows Catholicism to be a constant factor in society, regardless of the individuals that happen to be in power at the time, and hopes for greater influence of Church moral teachings in informing our democracy. He is, however, alarmed at the increasing power of the Federal Courts, who create Law from the bench, with judges repudiating long-held Catholic principles of the development of the law.

The Neo-Conservative, however, tends to uncritically accept the theories of the Enlightenment, including Utilitarianism and Individualism. But these theories are materialist, deny objective virtue, and are quite against the Catholic view of man in society. Is he too affected by American culture with its denial of Sin and the Cross? Cardinal Dulles asks if these Neo-Conservatives are pious in the pews while repudiating Catholicism out in the world.


The Liberal Catholic embraces the social justice mission of the Church, and the view of Catholic community as seen in the Acts of Apostles. He has a great love of the American democratic tradition, but tends to want to apply these traditions to the Church itself and the deposit of faith. The Liberal wants a married and female clergy, decentralization of power, and an endless list of reforms, and feels that he is the true champion of the Second Vatican Council. The Liberal Catholic may tend to theological heresy. Dulles thinks that Liberal reforms would eventually lead to a disappearance of American Catholicism itself.

Like the Neo-Conservative, the Liberal also uncritically accepts Utilitarianism and Individualism, and other non-Catholic theories, and is also too affected by the American culture.


Cardinal Dulles uses the term "Radical" in its Catholic sense -- from the Latin word radix, or root. The Radical makes a total commitment to the Gospel, to voluntary poverty, and self-sacrifice for others. The Radical gives without counting the cost. The Radical is to be admired for his commitment, but he may have a feeling that he is a prophet, and may not take criticism lightly, be unable to take direction or do self-examination, and eventually may become an elitist.


Deacon Owen F. Cummings describes two other types of American Catholic, in addition to the four above mentioned by Cardinal Dulles. The Evangelical-Catholic is usually a Protestant convert, or has been affected by evangelical Protestantism in some way. He loves Scripture and incorporates into his daily life. He has a clear vision of Catholic morals and doctrines, and makes great effort to adhere to them. However, his interpretation of Scripture may not be in line with Catholic teaching, and may not accept legitimate plurality in doctrinal expression.

New Catholic

The years following the Second Vatican Council was a time of collapse of the Catholic faith and its traditions. Deacon Cummings describes the New Catholic as a young person who has rediscovered this lost faith, often due to the evangelization of Pope John Paul II. The New Catholic is enthusiastic, refreshing, and somewhat traditional, and the source of new vocations; he rejects relativism, and is in many ways the opposite of the older Liberal Catholic. While the New Catholic is seen as being good for the Church, a possible problem is his too narrow a view of orthodoxy, and anyway, the New Catholic is still a youth and not yet completely mature.


The Cardinal and Deacon have not described a type of American Catholic that I can fit into, so perhaps the reader can grant me the conceit to create a new category, the Lukewarm Catholic. Not sufficiently Traditional in cult, Neo-Conservative in thought, Liberal in Practice, Radical in laziness, not Evangelical in any sense, and a New Catholic in sense of a lack of maturity can characterize the Lukewarm. Cafeteria Catholics, the "Drop the Kids Off at Mass While I Watch Football" Catholics, and "I Am a Good Person and God will Forgive Me" Catholics could fit in this category. May God forgive us Lukewarm, and not spit us out of His mouth.


  1. So we Traditionalists are "confident, committed, and intelligent Catholic[s]" but we (aside from being crappy parents) "may ... reject Catholicism outright"???


    I'm really, really glad His Emminence didn't get a vote at the Conclave.


  2. I think Cardinal Dulles said that the children could be rebellious. These rebels can be generally called 'teenagers'. Any good parent can only hope that these wayward kids come back before its too late.