Tribal Catholicism in the United States


One of the personal challenges I have with my faith as a Catholic in the U.S. is the disfunctional and negatively personal nature of our politics sometimes seeps into the Church.  What is intended to be a source of unity unfortunately, becomes the subject to divisiveness, as evidenced by the number of “partisan” Catholic blogs claiming that the other side is “not Catholic enough” or “too rigid”.

John Allen of National Catholic Reporter summed up the problem nicely at the end of his excellent piece on his recent trip to Buenos Aires to find out what Argentinians thought of Pope Francis.

“I told the crowd I have thought a fair bit about the subject of unity, perhaps because I come from a Catholic culture in the United States that in many ways is profoundly divided. I served up my usual diagnosis, which is that although people say we American Catholics are polarized, the truth is that we’re more tribalized.

Looking around, what one sees are different tribes: pro-life Catholic, peace-and-justice Catholics, liturgical traditionalist Catholics, church reform Catholics, Obama Catholics, neo-con Catholics, the movements, various ethnic churches, and on and on. In principle, all that diversity is a treasure, but it becomes dysfunctional when these various tribes start seeing one another as the enemy, and too often that’s our situation.

I suggested that what the church in the United States needs is a grassroots effort to build zones of friendship across the tribal lines, places where Catholics of different temperaments and outlooks can rub shoulders — not to debate issues, but simply to get to know one another.”

Unfortunately, I personally am all too aware of this phenomenon.  Last summer was a jarring example.  I went on a week-long silent retreat in what would be considered a “Liberal Catholic” environment.  The experience was wonderful:  surrounded by exceptional natural beauty, silence and a laid back atmosphere.  The liturgies and sacramental rights were simple but exceptionally beautiful.  Moreover, while the surroundings and sacraments were distinctly Catholic, there was a strong emphasis on finding ways to speak of God to skeptics and non-believers, similar to Paul and Barnabas in the readings this week in the Acts of the Apostles.

The next week, I went to what would be considered a “Conservative Catholic” conference.  The focus on this conference was on the intellectual teachings of the Church and concern that religion was being drowned out of the public square in a dictatorship of relativism.  While the substance of the conference was outstanding, there was also more than a bit of an us-vs-them mentality that expressed itself in a desire to retreat so a 13th Century Golden Age of Christendom Europe rather than push the Church forward into the 21st Century culture.

I thoroughly enjoyed both experiences and found them to be very enriching to my faith.  Unfortunately, the problem is that too often, these too Catholic (universal) groups tend to attack each other rather than stay united in furtherance of common causes.  That is one of the reasons why I am a strong admirer of Teilhard de Chardin.  He was intensely loyal to the traditional Church, despite some of the injustices it inflicted on him, because he realized that “the spirit of freedom in the Church was indissolubly linked to its corporate body, however vulgar and objectionable the appearances and even the actions of that body might be.”  (quote from Robert Speaight, The Life of Teilhard de Chardin)

About William Ockham

I am a father of two with eclectic interests in theology, philosophy and sports. I chose the pseudonym William Ockham in honor of his contributions to philosophy, specifically Occam's Razor, and its contributions to modern scientific theory. My blog ( explores Ignatian Spirituality and the intersection of faith, science and reason through the life and writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (pictured above).
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1 Response to Tribal Catholicism in the United States

  1. Pingback: Report: ‘Catholic McCarthyism’ Threatens U.S. Bishops’ Anti-Poverty Mission | Teilhard de Chardin

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