Let us cut to the chase…The American dream has killed Catholic discipleship. Not only do I believe the argument bears consideration, but I believe we will never truly win the nation to Jesus until we realize we can’t live as everyone else does and at the same time be Catholic disciples that please our Lord.
Let us start with identifying the American Dream. The phrase was coined by James Truslow Adams, when he wrote:
“But there has been also the American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
There are some admirable things in such a vision of life – responsibility, equality of opportunity, a desire to be financially successful, etc. So, at the very essence of the American dream, we find good things. If that was what the American Dream was today, it might be a different story. But, the story doessn’t end there.
CATHOLICS AND THE USA – A BRIEF HISTORY
Catholics came to the USA primarily to find religious freedom and social opportunity. In fact, so many came that it caused a huge demographic shift in the USA’s population, due to Catholic immigration in the early years of the USA. In 1850 5% of the population in the USA was Catholic. In 1906, it was 17%, the largest religious single religious group in the country! Most of these immigrants were poor and many were oppressed. They came to the USA looking for better lives – religious / political freedom, health, safety, and more stable lives.
Most of the Catholic immigrants were supported by the large Catholic social structures which were built to help them – parishes, schools, orphanages, hospitals, etc. The Catholic community was strong in helping integrate the new Catholics into the country. These immigrants also started to gather into neighborhoods and parishes, and live out some of the habits, traditions, and social norms they brought from their native lands. Still, the American ethos was a stronger influence.
Many Catholics were hated, shunned and persecuted by the wealthy non-Catholics who were the leaders of the government, business, and society. In response, Catholics started their own small businesses, organizations, and groups. Some began to run for political office. Many were just trying to make ends meet and feed their families. Regardless, there was a social stigma attached to being a Catholic, that led to a suspicion that one couldn’t really be a true American, if they were Catholic. This tension started to be played out even more in the 20th Century.
Catholicism is deeply rooted in a distinct identity. Catholics worship differently than all others. Believe differently. Have a different moral code. Different traditions. We even have distinct art, architecture, clothing, etc. Catholics stand out in a crowd.
This means being a deeply committed Catholic follower of Jesus (in all the ways Jesus calls us to follow him) in a country that has never liked Catholics is very very hard. It isn’t just counter-cultural, it is counter to the modern understanding of the American dream.
THE MODERN AMERICAN DREAM
If we were to update the American dream, it would involve financial wealth, social upward mobility, freedom (to do whatever you choose), equality (not based on human dignity, but human ability), comfort, pleasure, and the ability to consume what you desire to consume.
This is contrary to the Gospel and Catholicism.
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” -Matt 6:24
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” -Phil 2:3-4
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” -Matt 5:11-12
“I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” -Matt 5:44-45
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.“ -Luke 9:23
“For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” -Matt 16:24
”When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”” -Luke 14:13-14
”If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.” -John 15:20-21
If we believe the values of Jesus, then we must live as he did. He values:
- Others over himself
- Humility over pride
- The meaning of suffering over what comfort gains us
- Faithfulness over success
- Spiritual poverty over material success
- Evangelizing others over social status
- Serving others over being served
- Community/relationships over power/prestige
Let us be clear, there is nothing innately wrong with having a nice house, being financially successful, having worldly power, etc. – as long as they are placed at the service of following Jesus. But let us be honest in this moment – how many of us (self-identified Catholics in the USA) are willing to give it all up for the sake of the Gospel? How many are willing to suffer and die for Jesus?
If the price of entry into acceptance as Americans is to lose the very heart of what it means to follow Jesus – then this means that many Catholics in the USA have allowed the American dream to kill their discipleship. I believe this has happened to most self-described Catholics today. As CS Lewis put it:
“I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”
Most Catholics in the USA aren’t even willing to get slightly uncomfortable, but neither are most Americans. This repulsion of being uncomfortable is natural, in some respects. Our human nature fights suffering. But, it is also why the prosperity gospel has infected so many parts of Christianity in the USA. The prosperity gospel (also called the “name it and claim it gospel”) is the false belief that Christians who believe properly, will be materially and physically blessed by God, because he loves them more. It is heresy and it has also infected American religion in general, including Catholicism. Like Veruca Salt – we want it all. We want God to bless us, but through wealth, power, comfort, etc. AND we want salvation, holiness, and God’s spiritual favor. The problem is, Scripture tells us that God wants to bless us all spiritually, not necessarily in other ways.
How can the Catholic Church expect to change the world, if we aren’t open to change ourselves? When did it become ok for Christians to be comfortable, not evangelize, not pray daily, not become holy, not bear our crosses? When Satan sold us the American dream in place of sainthood!
The remedy is that we have do what Jesus did, choose what Jesus chose, and live as Jesus lived. We can’t stay comfortable, rather we have to allow God to shake us up. Notice, we don’t do the shaking up ourselves. This isn’t another pull yourself up by your bootstraps, self achievement. No, that is too American. Rather, God is the one who we surrender to and then allow to change us. Otherwise, it is just another win for the American side of us and a loss for the Catholic side. By ourselves, we can’t make ourselves into great Christians nor can we make our Church into a better one. It takes our cooperation with God’s grace and an openness to let Jesus take the lead, as our Master and we as his disciples.
Let us live the Catholic dream, not just the American dream.
Honestly ask yourself (this challenges me as well – so I am not off the hook here):
-Am I willing to get uncomfortable, lose everything, be persecuted, and even die – to be an instrument of salvation in God’s hand, for another person? If not, then we are worshiping the god of comfort, ease, ourselves, etc. The false god of the modern American dream.
-Am I willing to lose all material things, to gain the one spiritual thing that matters?
-Am I more American than I am Catholic?
So, let us repent of the times we have fallen in love with our own selfishness, comfort, notoriety, pride, belongings, or opinion.
Lord – make us saints, great evangelists, humble instruments of salvation for others.
Jesus. we beg you to help us lean into your grace and not our selfish desires.
Let us be disciples who allow God’s dream to be over and above the American dream, so that we can truly “make disciples of all nations”, including the USA.
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