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Published in Culture Wars in July/August 2004

Review of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America by David Carlin (Sophia Press, 2003)

By Rosemary Fielding


The first 26 chapters of  The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America constitute a primer for modern Catholics. David Carlin paints a broad but vivid picture of the position that the Catholic Church has historically held in Protestant America; and then he sounds the alarm on just how weak and ineffective the institutional Church in the U.S. has become as a moral and spiritual leader. If her decline continues, Carlin says, the Church will have virtually no say in American culture.

In these chapters  Carlin "tried to write as though [he] were an impartial observer.'"  Carlin's intention is to study the Catholic Church using general sociological paradigms used for studying all American religious bodies. In doing so, he writes in such a disinterested, objective, and measured way that the book could persuade any reasonable person, even a liberal, that liberalism has spelled out the "decline and fall of the Catholic Church in America." For this reason alone, it is a valuable and useful book.

In the last four chapters, Carlin becomes "frankly partisan." In this section, he makes it clear that if the Catholic Church is to continue to exist in this country, she must cease to compromise with liberalism within the Church and secularism outside of it. Carlin's main thesis is this: unless the Catholic Church correctly identifies her number-one enemy today as secularism, sheds her "denominational mentality," and defends her God-given identity as the true Church, she will decline in this country in every way. She will become, at the very most, a small, non-influential sect, such as the Amish. And that end is fast approaching unless the hierarchy of the Church acts quickly, wisely and courageously.

In supporting his thesis, Carlin presents a "sociological interpretation" of large-scale Church developments in this country that took place roughly from the time (in the 1800s) of the great Catholic immigration to the present, concentrating particularly on those events that started with the cultural revolution of the '60s. "I have taken certain ‘common knowledge’ facts about American Catholicism and about the United States as a whole," he writes, "and I have tried to link them together in a coherent pattern that explains what has happened to American Catholicism in the last forty years. After arriving at some very pessimistic conclusions about the future of the American Church, I have added a few more chapters in which I look—perhaps not very successfully—for grounds for hope and optimism."

Encyclopedia Britannica notes that at the heart of sociology lies a dispute about its main purpose: "whether it works to understand behavior or to cause social change." Carlin's book is an example of the former type of sociology. To his treatment of the latter—otherwise known as "social engineering"—as a factor in the history of the American Catholicism, I will refer later.

As well as being a professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, Carlin was a Rhode Island state senator from 1981 to 1992, and a Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1992.

In the first part of the book, Carlin shows how Catholics in the U.S. have become "generic Christians." Generic Christianity of modern times is quite different from the generic Christianity that was explained and defended by C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity. Today generic Christians "affirm the existence of God; they tell us that Jesus was an excellent person, a model of human goodness; they remind us that we should be kind to our neighbors and that we should forgive those who have offended us; and so on." This is not Catholicism, as Carlin points out and as thousands of Catholics have fumed after Sunday homilies, but "this is the Faith—the very boring Faith—that has been proclaimed from the typical Catholic pulpit for the last thirty years."

Carlin then gives a history of the rise of this watered-down generic Christianity, the history, in other words, of the decline of the Church. It may be familiar to many informed Catholics, but its coherent narrative will still be instructive. It could be even more valuable as an extremely convincing historical account for poorly-informed, badly-catechized and puzzled Catholics.

Basically, Carlin accounts for Catholicism becoming generic Christianity through the process of assimilation. At the point that Catholics began to assimilate into the United States, the dominant WASP culture was turning from its traditional Protestant beliefs to secular beliefs. The end result of Catholicism's assimilation into such a culture is that Catholics think like Protestants. They "think of the Church as a man-made institution, free to change its practices whenever it sees fit." At the same time, "most Catholic priests prefer to preach on themes that are noncontroversial and acceptable to all Christians,” including the most “modern” and “liberal.” Therefore, Catholics rarely hear their priests "preach on specifically Catholic themes—themes that differentiate Catholicism from other Christian denominations."

As in all books of ideas, the strength and compelling interest of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America lie in the details of the historical and sociological documentation. The book recounts the people, places, and times that marked the Protestant denominations' slide into liberalism, and thus into secularism. "Unitarianism," he writes of the first American Protestant sect that shed itself of most of Christian doctrine, "had set its foot on the slippery slope of increasing liberalism, a slope that, if followed all the way to the bottom, results in the complete eradication of Christianity."

Liberal Protestantism went on to compromise with secularism in two major periods. In the first period, after the Civil War, the compromise was doctrinal.The second major period took place in the last third of the twentieth century, and this compromise was moral. "Much of this revolution—a secularist revolution—consisted in rejecting the traditional sexual morality of Christianity. Premarital sex now became widely acceptable; so did unmarried cohabitation; so did relatively easy divorce and remarriage; so did homosexuality; and so did abortion-all of this representing a 'new morality' that was completely unacceptable from the point of view of traditional Christianity."

Carlin notes that "liberal Catholics who emerged in the United States in the immediate aftermath of the Second Vatican Council" also accommodated and promoted this new secularist morality. He gives an historically and sociologically-grounded explanation of why modernism reappeared with such vengeance among Catholics during the period before and following Vatican II (the Council ended in 1965). The modernization of Catholic practice and thinking was powerfully influenced by the process of assimilation into Protestant America. Carlin summarizes the "great transformation" of the Church from an "immutable fortress" to the divided and confused religious body we have today.
The three social factors that "converged by historical accident to produce the 'perfect storm' that would effect this great transformation: first, Vatican II; second, the end of the Catholic 'ghetto' in the United States; and third the great American cultural revolution of the late 1960s and early 70s" [emphasis mine]. No doubt, readers of Culture Wars and E. Michael Jones' books will take issue with the claim of "historical accident," but I will come back to that issue when I discuss social engineering.

Several interesting sociological interpretations emerge in this section. Carlin points out that much of the outward appearance of Catholicism before Vatican II was the direct result of the ongoing battle against Protestantism (carried over from the Old World.) Carlin gives examples of this type and concludes, "In short, Catholicism defined itself negatively as being anti-Protestant."

Carlin also explains that Catholicism at this time was a "semi closed" religion, as opposed to an "open" one. In other words, it had erected some degree of barrier between itself and the outside world. Interestingly, Carlin says one essential barrier is that "mixed marriages" were banned. "The seriousness with which a religion enforces the taboo on intermarriage with outsiders is the most important indicator of how ‘closed’ the religion is. In a certain sense, all the other measures intended to keep the religion closed are ordered to this ultimate measure, the prevention of mixed marriages; for a religion that is highly tolerant of intermarriage with outsiders will not be able to thrive in the long run; indeed, it may not even be able to survive.”

Carlin describes the creation and sustenance of the Catholic "quasi ghetto" and its subsequent dismantling. (More about that later.) He describes the "blindsiding" that the Church suffered from the body blows of the cultural revolution. He describes some of the reasons that led the younger generation to decide "that those in an official position of either legal or moral authority had no real legitimacy." He presents a notably instructive summary of the three ideas that constituted the "philosophical undercurrents of the great transformation" from the "immutable fortress" to the splintered and weak Church we have today. These were cultural relativism, ethical emotivism, and the suspicion of the "authoritarian personality."

Cultural relativism claimed that no moral code has universal validity—each culture constructs its own moral code, and all codes are equally valid and equally valuable. Ethical emotivism was the theory of morality that accompanied Logical Positivism: "When we make a moral judgment, we are simply expressing our feelings." The practical conclusion of the theory is moral anarchy; and “if human nature is not as benign as the proponents of the theory imagine, this moral anarchy may not turn out to be very pleasant."

In describing the so-called "authoritarian personality," Carlin brings to the surface a very important part of recent history. That is the way in which liberals—meaning most of the media—came to assume that conservatism is a form of psychopathology. This assumption arose from the specious science of a very influential book, The Authoritarian Personality written by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, two Jewish intellectual refugees from Nazi Germany. The book gave rise to the prevailing idea that those who disagreed with the liberal agenda, on whatever front, had some kind of disorder: "ethnocentric," "xenophobic," sexually repressed"—whatever  disorder fit the situation. Those with the conservative "pathology," "it went without saying, would be doctrinaire and authority-bound in their religious belief."

Though Carlin doesn't say so, this "pathology" would describe most ethnic Catholics as this time. Without mentioning Catholics by name, though he is clearly speaking about unassimilated Catholic ethnics, Carlin observes that the elite had decided that conservative, authority-abiding Americans "were morally perverse, potential fascists."  (We must go to the research of author E. Michael Jones to fill out the rest of this history.  Jones shows in both Libido Dominandi  and The Slaughter of Cities: Urban Renewal as Ethnic Cleansing that the WASP establishment decided that these potential domestic fascists, i.e. Catholics, needed to get "therapy" by way of being ethnically cleansed from their neighborhood. The only thing that could "cure" the ethnics was to force them to assimilate into the WASP American culture. Jones also documents the pattern which emerged at that time: the WASP establishment relied on Jewish intellectuals such as Horkheimer and Adorno to provide some of the intellectual justification for forcing Catholics to change their beliefs. I will go into Jones’ work in more detail later in this review.)

Carlin's critique of The Authoritarian Personality is an example of the book's usefulness. Carlin points out the philosophical error that undermines the book’s thesis. Give Carlin’s book to any poorly educated American, and he will learn some methods of critiquing a thesis. He will also learn that “ideas have consequences.” (This expression comes from a book by Richard M. Weaver of the same title.)  "The book had its direct impact on the class of adult intellectuals, many of them college and university professors; but its influence ‘trickled down’ to the younger generation—first to the aspiring intellectuals among them, and then to nearly all young persons, the vast majority of whom had never heard of the book." As a result of an extreme position arising from a philosophical error, The Authoritarian Personality led the way for rebellion to become a fashionable "virtue."

Another useful explanation for confused, puzzled, or defensive Catholics is Carlin's explanation of why Catholics often feel as if they are the religious body whose beliefs are most shut out from the "public square." That's because that is exactly the case. The reasons for Catholics facing such pressure to shed most of their beliefs in order to be allowed to participate in the "public square" are twofold. The first is the mandate of the "unofficial national religion" and the second is the mandate of the "denominational mentality."  This section’s historical explanation is very helpful in understanding American Catholicism and the way it has been shaped by Protestantism from the very beginning of its planting in the U.S. At the end of this history, Carlin concludes that religious doctrine as a basis for morality now has no standing in American culture. Both Protestants and Catholics will now watch their culture drift further from their beliefs, but because their religion is more doctrinaire, Catholics even more than Protestants would be alienated from their culture.

In explaining the destructive qualities of the "denominational mentality," Carlin once again uses an instructive sociological interpretation of the history of Christianity in Europe after the Protestant revolution. Christendom was torn apart, and the Catholic Church’s teaching that Christ the King rules over both the Church and the political body of a country was denounced by Protestants. In the U.S., this is called separation of Church and State. The upshot of this was that in America, a new experience arose for Christianity—that of “denominations.” In the U.S. the Catholic Church became just another denomination. However, the tenet of "theological tolerance" which is essential to denominationalism contradicts the Catholic Church's identity as the one, true Church under the rule of Christ the King.
 "The Catholic religion is not a religion of a denominational type. Hence, there is a contradiction, a potentially fatal contradiction, at the heart of American Catholicism today: a nondenominational religion peopled by members and leaders with a denominational frame of mind," writes Carlin.

Carlin spends a section of the book developing the reasons the denominational mentality of "theological tolerance" will ultimately spell the death of American Catholicism. This is an extremely valuable section of the book.  Carlin deals with the way Catholics bend over backward to remain in harmony with the consensus of the larger group—the post-Christian, secular society. It is the very nature of theological tolerance to reach a denominational consensus—a doctrine that works for everyone. The problem is that a "high doctrine" religion like Catholicism loses the most in achieving a light-weight consensus within a federation of denominational Christians, whereas the Quakers lose nothing at all, since they have no doctrine.

"If the principles we just examined are true, it would be fatal, at least in the long run, for Catholicism to become part” of such a consensus. “Catholicism is a high-doctrine religion. Entering into a DC [denominational consensus] with many forms of religion, some of them a low-doctrine character, Catholicism would have to check many of its typical beliefs at the door. On the principle that what we share in common is more important than what divides us, the beliefs left outside the consensus-beliefs, for instance, relative to the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Virgin Mary, and the papacy would be seriously devalued in importance.

"On the same principle, Catholicism's center of doctrinal gravity would shift. Most doctrines that were traditionally at the heart of the Faith would, now being matters of secondary importance, shift to the periphery.

"Catholicism would no longer be the same religion it has been for many centuries. For all practical purposes, it would cease to exist even though there would be a modern denomination going by the old name." (my emphasis).

Here Carlin reveals the emperor in all his naked reality. The Catholicism that people like Ted Kennedy, Anna Quindlen, many of the local DRE’s and some bishops and priests cling to is like a parallel church that has grown up—and at times overlaps—with the true Church. Carlin's explanation of how this has happened is powerfully persuasive, and should sound an alarm that even the most tolerant Catholic could hear—especially if he is not a Catholic politician, a Catholic quisling, or being paid to say maintain that everything is just fine in the Catholic Church.

The rest of the book deals with many other important issues, such as the misfortune of 40 years of abysmal leadership in the Church in America, and such as the toxic ideas slowly being accepted by Catholics, e.g., the "personal liberty principle." He admonishes the Catholic Church to "get over its habit of grossly overestimating the actual number of American Catholics: [S] ociologically speaking Catholics—real Catholics, that is—probably make up much less than 10 percent of the American population," as opposed to the 25 percent routinely touted by Church bureaucrats. In connection with that, he advises the leadership of the Church to stop bending over backward to accommodate and not offend generic Christians and liberal Catholics. He advises them to instead "focus its efforts on the authentic Catholics first," "the hardcore of orthodox believers," pay them more respect than the leadership has typically paid them, and "accustom themselves to the idea that they lead a much smaller Church than they had hitherto imagined."

Complacent Catholics

Carlin reminds complacent Catholics that though Scripture promises Catholics the Church will survive to the end of times, there is nothing that promises she will survive in the United States. Carlin proposes that in a showdown between traditionalists and liberals, the traditionalists will win control of American Catholicism. However, this "saving remnant" will be forced to retreat to a new quasi-ghetto with the realization that "true Catholics will never have an important role to play in what will, by that time, be America’s thoroughly secularized dominant culture. This saving remnant will have little or no influence on the larger American society."

Though Carlin concedes this saving remnant might well serve God's plan, as a sociologist he would like to propose another possible way for the American Church to serve God. And that way would involve the Church becoming an influential force in the dominant American culture. The last four chapters, therefore, contain Carlin's thoughtful ideas on how to rescue the Church from its demise in this country in order to pass on to our children a "vigorous, surviving Church." Here he draws on all the ideas he has already developed to give a concise, cautious and humble assessment of the steps that could, at least, get the Church on track so that she can begin to create a new identity for herself in the United States—one that is neither denominational, sectarian nor national church, one that identifies its real enemy, secularism, and one that "returns to its Counter-Reformation tactic of stressing precisely those elements in its makeup that are most offensive to its opponent."

Social Engineering

For all of the many strengths of this book, the one major omission is that Carlin never deals with the reality of social engineering. This reality is within the purview of his book. Indeed, social engineering had a direct bearing on the historical events he is interpreting.

Social engineering means to rely on hidden, subversive means to achieve an end—social change.  First, a policy is decided by those in control (“invisible governors”). They hide it from those on whom they execute the policy. It is carried out by various means and various lieutenants. The means are “hidden” in advertising and public relations campaigns, news reporting, educational policies, grants rewarded, and other highly financed endeavors. It is only made possible by large sums of money that reward those lieutenants who fall into line. Those who resist are punished by the withholding of money or by some other means. The goal of social engineering is, according to Jones, deracination, the stripping of one's ethnic identity. In America, sociologist define ethnicity as religious identification—Protestant, Catholic or Jew.  In the U.S., social engineering was used to strip Catholics of their Catholicism.

One of the goals of social engineering in the U.S. was to destroy Catholics' voting blocs by destroying Catholic urban parishes. Urban renewal and induced black migration into ethnic neighborhoods went a long way towards dismantling the ghetto and Catholic political power.

As pointed out earlier in this article, the social forces that undermined the Catholic Church did not converge "by historical accident," as Carlin says, or at least not completely.  Both the "dismantling of the ghetto" and the way the American cultural revolution made inroads into Catholicism were the direct result of forces used against Catholics in the United States. The forces were political, as most people can observe, but they were also private, such as foundation money used to undermine the Church.

They were also religious, as in the Quakers trying to directly undermine Catholic unity and political strength.  (Because the archives of the Quaker organizational meetings of the 1960’s were opened after being closed to scrutiny for decades, Jones was able to read the planning of this undermining.   It is this kind of research that makes Jones’ books so valuable to history.) "[W]hat went by the name of urban renewal was, in effect, one ethnic group, namely the WASPs, coming up with a plan for destroying the neighborhood of another ethnic group, without that group's consultation or permission, even when the obvious indicators of blight were missing,” writes Jones in The Slaughter of Cities.

Though Carlin says that the denominational mentality has worked "at minimizing social friction" and “virtually without tension,” that is not true in this case.  The ethnics who were forced through one means or another to move from their beloved urban neighborhoods after World War II felt a great deal of force—though they did not know from where it came.  They simply felt that something beyond their control overtook their peaceful lives and forced them to flee the cities and move to the suburbs. That “something” was the psychological warfare induced by social engineering.

Jones also shows that the fighting among ethnic gangs was largely induced by social engineering.  He makes the interesting point that the elites came up with the idea of using gang hostilities to their advantage from their experience in the World Wars when First-World nations used  “irregular warfare” and terrorist operations in Third-World countries.

In Libido Dominandi: Sexual Liberation and Political Control, Jones also outlines the second major assault on Catholics—again carried out by WASPs with a definite agenda to destroy Catholic political power and cultural influence.  Using their power and money, the WASP elite were determined to ensure that at the moment when Catholics were about to assimilate into the culture, they would shed their Catholicism and assimilate WASP values and beliefs. At the same time, they worked another angle to strip Catholics of their political power.  This was simply to ensure there would be far fewer Catholics. To do this, they had to make sure Catholics stopped having such large families. Thus, social engineering was applied to getting Catholics to accept contraception. Social engineered once again worked. Consequently, the Catholic birth rate was radically reduced, and Catholics’ demographic advantage was eliminated before they could become the largest "voting bloc" in the nation.


To talk about such outside forces does not absolve the forces within the Catholic Church who worked alongside Protestants, Jews and the government to change Catholic belief.  Jones calls them a “fifth column” within the Church, and both his books document their accomplishment after Vatican II of the liberal agenda within the Church.

But by not including the reality of psychological warfare that bore down on Catholics from the outside the Church but from inside their society, Carlin overlooks one of the primary weapons of secularism—social engineering. The inclusion of it would have strengthened his last section, that which deals with the Church's current fight for survival. If, as Carlin says in the last section, the Church must define herself against her enemies in order to save herself, she must define herself against the goal of social engineering. In other words, she must define herself as "rooted" in Catholicism, not in the rootless, consumerist,  Pan-American society that only knows how to conform to the wishes of the powerful elite who control the media.

 Clearly, in the case of the social engineers, the Church failed to identify her enemies. Without the inclusion of this historical reality, any portrait of American Catholicism, to use Jones' analogy, is like filming King Kong without King Kong: all those terrified people running down the street, but who is chasing them? The individuals who drove Catholics out of their ethnic enclaves and into the arms of the sexual revolution are simply invisible (as they wished to remain). As a result, Catholics and their episcopal leaders look more unreasonable, incompetent and unfaithful than they were in actuality.

The chilling fact is that as long as American Catholics—lay and hierarchical—remain ignorant of the covert operation applied with such success against them as documented in Jones' two books, the same WASP elite network—federal and state government, foundations, nonelected government agencies, religious bodies, and private wealth—can work yet another black operation at any future moment Catholics begin to regroup and try once again to get a representative voice in this country.

Catholics need to learn about social engineering. The modern Catholic Church in America is, in large part, the result of it. Also, if Carlin wants to incite large numbers of apathetic American Catholics to zealously fight for their Church's survival, the inclusion of the ugly history of their own government's "black" operation against them would likely do the trick.

Wake Up Call for Catholics

But even with the above omission, this book is a powerful expose and wake-up call. It could well shake many Catholics out of their complacency, and make them aware of the small and large betrayals of their faith that have become as common as the housefly. It exposes many of the intellectual and emotional traps that mislead Catholics into compromising their faith in a culture that has always expressed a high degree of animosity against Catholicism. It will help Catholics to obey their Lord's warning to stay as wise as serpents.

His historical presentation is so concise and so lucidly and logically
organized that no literate adult should have trouble comprehending it; yet it covers most of the profound, complex, and somewhat hidden issues and problems that the Catholic Church has faced and does face in the Protestant nation of America. Thus, anyone from a high school student to an academic could read it and gain a great deal of understanding and help in navigating through American culture today keeping his Catholic identity intact. Finally, the leadership of the Catholic Church in the U.S. could gain a great deal of insight into the crisis of the Church and how to resolve it. The body of bishops might stop, as Father Joseph W. Wilson once noted, rearranging the deck chairs and begin saving the ship. A valuable book indeed.

© Rosemary Hugo Fielding

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