Yesterday was Memorial Day, so some reflection on the state of the nation is in order. I offer for your review and comment the speech of Archbishop Charles Chaput to the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars last fall. It is not, in my view, a jeremiad, but the closely related form of biblical speech, a lamentation. While Chaput’s doctrinal commitments are always in line with Church teaching, his rhetorical style and sensibilities, in my view, are distinctly American–and in particular, deeply indebted to the American Puritans.
In this speech, as he has in other speeches in the past, Chaput invokes the Puritan founders of this nation–in particular, John Winthrop’s “Modell of Christan Charity.” We have, in his view, declined in our religious commitments, our commitment to the common good since that time. Many people would say the same thing. It is sad, but not surprising–it’s been nearly 500 years.
What is surprising, however, is the degree to which the idea of moral (and with it political) decline animated the spirit of religious leaders much closer in time to Winthrop’s “Modell.” The second generation of Puritan divines, distressed at the comparative lack of religious dedication in their peers, devoted a significant part of their sermonizing to castigating those who were falling away and lamenting the loss. For the Puritans, the loss of faith in God meant the loss in success in the country. For this “new Israel,” the twin blessings of fidelity to God and material prosperity were deeply intertwined.
Moreover, how many are there, that were born under the covenant as they grew up to years of discretion, doe not endeavor to prepare themselves to take hold on the Lords Covenant, but are such that if they should be put upon renewing their Covenant, they would but profane the holy Covenant. Some of them are grossly ignorant, others are of a scandalous conversation. Drunkards, Swearers, Sabbath breakers, disobedient to Parents, Lascivious, Theeves, Lyars. Such whilst they so continue be put upon mocking God, by they will be his Covenant Servants?
–Increase Mather, Renewal of Covenant the great Duty incumbent upon decaying or distressed Churches (Boston: J.F., 1677).
In his magisterial writings on the Puritans, Perry Miller calls into question whether the decline was as sharp and steep as the sermonizers made it out to be. He also points out, and I think this is important, that what they see as decline may simply be difference. The hazy line between medieval thought and modernity can be drawn around the time of the second generation; Winthrop’s “Modell” embodied a medieval, corporatist view of society, whereas by the end of Increase Mather’s long life, that world was gone.
So here are my questions/comments
1. Are Chaput and others constructing their own myth of modern Catholic decline–with the late forties and fifties being the “Winthrop” generation and he and they being the equivalent of Increase Mather and his cohort? Does that myth reflect reality? Ought one to consider the defects of Catholic intellectual life and culture at that time as well as its benefits (I think about John Tracy Ellis and his article ab9ut Catholic intellectual life)? The Puritans, as it happened, were wrong about both the political and religious decline of the nation. Scholars of American religious history have shown, for example the great infusion of faith in the country came long after they were dead, in the form of immigrants and revivals. The early Puritans wouldn’t have much liked the later religiosity–but it was religiosity nonetheless.
2. Are we, like the second generation Puritans, at the end of age, and the beginning of another one? I think the invention of the computer and the internet is about as big a revolution as the invention of the printing press, myself.
3. The American Puritan notion of decline was connected with New England’s particular “chosenness” by God, and the intertwining of material blessings and spiritual fidelity. While we deeply love our country, it seems to me that Catholics as such cannot endorse the Puritan view of American exceptionalism in an unqualified way. The word “Catholic” means universal.
4. Is there anything specifically “Catholic” about the myth of decline –or the myth of progress, for that matter? Nations may rise, nations may fall. Individuals may progress or devolve. But do we have any reason in our theological anthropology to think that human nature is getting better or worse as a whole over time?