The National Catholic Review
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How does the future of Catholicism in America appear to be shaping? Let us look at the facts. Immigration, the constant source hitherto of Catholic increase, has been cut down from the wide torrential river which it was before the Great War to an insignificant trickle. Mere numerical increase of the Catholic body in the United States for the future can only come from either a higher birthrate or from conversion, or both.

As to a higher birth-rate, a priori one might expect this to be a considerable factor in Catholic increase; but only the future will show whether in point of fact the superior Catholic birth-rate will tell heavily. It must be remembered also that the very fact that the discipline and cohesion is so strict tends to make the indifferent or the discontented man alienate himself from his family tradition. Still, taking it all round, it is presumable that the mere numerical increase of Catholics will in the near future continue to be appreciable, from the religious insistence upon family life.

As to converts, so far the numbers are not there, any more than they are here, sufficient to be of great and immediate effect. But it is to be remembered that in America, even more than in Europe, and certainly more than in England, the rapid breakdown of all other philosophies except the Catholic may make for a big movement towards Catholicism, not by individual conversions, but by mass conversions; it is a factor to be watched in the future....

As it is, the Catholic Church is everywhere becoming the sole champion of certain parts of traditional morality which numbers of people who have never associated the idea with Catholicism desire to preserve. One has only to mention the private property of the small man, the authority of the family and the permanence of marriage to see the truth of this.

There is another factor, apart from the numerical factor, which may make for the expansion of Catholicism in the States during the next lifetime. That is the economic factor....

In the old days the proportion of large fortunes among Catholics in the United States was very small. Even the proportion of moderate professional fortunes was small compared with the total number of Catholics.... Today, comparing one’s experience with that of the first days in which I knew America, nearly fifty years ago, the increased weight of Catholic wealth, not only collectively but in the shape of private fortunes, is very striking. If one could strike a curve, as one can in some simple social matters, one might predict with firm confidence a steadily increasing influence for America in numbers and in social force generally, until with the absence of any other positive philosophy to oppose her the Church there might triumph.

But there is a powerful consideration on the other side to make us pause before we come to such a conclusion. The American national tradition as a whole is opposed to the Catholic culture. No matter how much the doctrinal force of the original American Protestantism decays the old feeling that Catholicism is alien survives, in spite of that decay. The feeling is not at all like the feeling here in England, where the whole of the national history since the Cecils led the great social revolution three and one half centuries ago, treats Catholicism not only as something foreign but as something hostile. All our official teaching in school and college, our fiction, our press, is full of that conception. Our national heroes are the anti-Catholic figures, and the chief Catholic figures in European history during the last three hundred years stand out as the enemies of England. There is nothing of that in the United States, but there are a number of deeply rooted national traditions which appear strongly in local feeling, connecting the American spirit with non-Catholic or anti-Catholic ideas....

The proportion of all these factors differs from one great center to another. But everywhere in the great American cities, especially of the North, there is something of the same situation: the Church very strong financially and numerically, and still somewhat increasing, perhaps about to increase rapidly in a new generation; but tradition, national and local, still attached to the old days before Catholics were either wealthy or numerous.

Read the full text of this article here.

Hilaire Belloc, a French-born Catholic writer who published widely in English from 1896 to 1951, was a regular contributor to America in the 1930s. He wrote this reflection for the Sept. 18, 1937, issue.

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