Wednesday, September 23, 2015

America's Current Fascination With Catholicism

For at least a few days, Americans will be obsessed with all things Catholic.  Americans--Catholics and non-Catholics-- are even willing to watch an entire televised mass.  Some pundits can't seem to make sense of it all.  For example, here is a tweet from New York Times Magazine writer Julia Ioffe.

But apparently a mass by the Pope in America does have news value.  I assume that CNN kept running the mass because people were interested in watching it.  Over at MSNBC, Kathy Sprows Cummings of the University of Notre Dame is taking this opportunity to teach non-Catholics (and probably some Catholics as well) about what happens in a Catholic mass and the meaning of Catholic rituals.  (On Twitter I described her as the "Doris Kearns Goodwin" of Catholic history).

What is going on here?

First, this is an amazing moment not only for American Catholicism, but for the nation.  Francis has arrived in an age in which we are all saturated with news coverage and social media commentary.  I know that Benedict XVI also came to America during the current media age (April 2008), but he was not very popular, especially in light of the sexual abuse scandal in the Church.  Francis, on the other hand, is a rock star.  We can only wonder how his visit would compare to the visits of John Paul II in 1979 and 1987 if there was social media back then,

Second, I can't help but believe that the content of Francis's message is resonating with people.  So
far he has encouraged Americans to live out their faith in the world and seek God as a source of joy and happiness. I am sure more is coming.

Think about what is happening here. Millions of people are watching Francis preach a Christian message on cable television.  He seems to be meeting a real spiritual need--perhaps a longing--for something transcendent and true.  His homily at the canonization mass challenged people of faith to rise above their complacency and live out the Gospel in the world.

Last week we all watched the GOP candidates for president bloviating in front of millions of people. (I am sure we will see much of the same at the upcoming Democratic debate).  This week we are hearing a message of compassion, grace, humility, and love.  I can't help but think that many Americans need this right now.

Third, as a historian, the irony is hard to miss. The United States has come a long way since the anti-Catholicism of earlier centuries.  We have commented on this here, but I also want to point you to Ed O'Donnell's recent piece at The Huffington Post.

Maybe we better rethink the idea that America is becoming a more secular place.

Just some preliminary thoughts here.  I am sure I will return to them later in the week.