Everyone wants to know what Pope Francis is really up to. Is he the warm and fuzzy fulfillment of the “Spirit of Vatican II”? Is he really another John Paul II or Benedict XVI in “progressive” clothing? Who knows? Russell Shaw comes up with as plausible an answer as any – really, better than most. The Pope, he says, wants “to reshape the Catholic Church as a Missionary Church” (“Wanted: An American Missionary Church – Soon” here at The Catholic Thing). Shaw cites Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, in which the Pope says:
All of us are called to take part in this new missionary “going forth.” Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all “the peripheries in need of the light of the Gospel” 
“This”, Shaw tells us, “should be taken seriously”. But he also adds that “taking up the challenge of being a Missionary Church would be a far more demanding – and exhilarating – project than this one-dimensional version of Francis and the Church” (he’s referring to the fluffy, easy-going, “who am I to judge?” image of the Pope popular with progressive types both in the Church and in the secular media).
I don’t doubt that Shaw is correct that Pope Francis intends to encourage a more missionary ethos in the Church; it is also true that putting this ethos into practice is no easy task. The Pope, quite properly, has presented a general direction; he has not dictated a concrete program or detailed plan, which leaves room for Catholic commentators like Mr. Shaw (and me - and you, if you’d like) to toss out our own ideas.
The Assimilated Church and the Fortress Church
Shaw turns his discussion at this point to the Church in the United States (although this discussion can apply to westernized countries in general). Here is how he characterizes the issue:
Taking him seriously also could be a matter of survival, or something close to it. Certainly, unless American Catholicism remakes itself as a Missionary Church, actively engaged in outreach to the world, it could become a rapidly, and irreversibly, shrinking ecclesiastical entity.
The alternatives to a missionary Church for American Catholics are two and only two: the Assimilated Church and the Fortress Church.
Shaw goes on to explain that
In the Assimilated Church, most Catholics will have been homogenized into the values of American secular culture and become parts of it. Indeed, many American Catholics already have chosen this option . . .
The Fortress Church, on the other hand,
Is fundamentally different. If this is to be the future, Catholics will have largely withdrawn – psychologically, spiritually, and even physically – from contact with secular culture, raising the ecclesiastical ramparts against its influence as they retreat. The Fortress Church is already disturbingly evident in some elements of the new Catholic subculture that’s begun to emerge. It is a survival tactic born of desperation.
By contrast, while American Catholicism as Missionary Church will also be committed to opposing secular values incompatible with the faith, it will work hard to preach the Gospel, attract adherents, and, where, possible, evangelize the culture itself.
This is where Mr. Shaw takes a wrong turn. I agree with what he says about the Assimilated Church - one might argue that many, maybe most, American Catholics are there already. It seems to me that in the case of the Fortress Church, however, he’s putting up a straw man. I don’t doubt that such a thing is a possibility, a fortress mentality may well take hold in the case of some individuals or in isolated pockets of the Church, but what I’ve seen of the “emerging Catholic subculture” looks nothing like what Mr. Shaw is describing above.
The Valley Forge Gambit
It’s hard for me to be specific here, because Shaw does not say what, specifically, he finds so alarming in that “subculture”. I’m supposing that he means things such as homeschooling, doing away with television, attending the Extraordinary Form of the Mass and other apparent “retreats” from the societal norm. These things, however, don’t necessarily mean closing oneself off from the larger world. In fact, just such measures may be necessary if one is to be an effective missionary to the world, which includes both Assimilated Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
A historical analogy may help illustrate my point. In 1776 George Washington led his large and enthusiastic but largely untrained army against a combined force of British regulars and Hessian mercenaries at the Battle of Brooklyn [here]. His inexperienced Continental Army was simply not prepared for the shock of its encounter with professional soldiers, and collapsed in a disastrous rout. After Washington was subsequently driven from New York, he withdrew his army to the relative protection of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Had Washington and his army stayed in Valley Forge, of course, the war would eventually have been lost. Instead, temporarily safe from enemy attack his army was able to reform, refit (at least after Congress voted the funds) and receive solid military training under the supervision Friedrich Von Steuben, a European soldier who had served as an officer in Frederick the Great’s Prussian Army. As a result, a much better prepared Continental Army met the British two years later at the Battle of Monmouth [here] and fought them to a standstill, and but for the inept leadership of one of Washington’s subordinates, General Charles Lee, might have won a decisive victory. As it was, the British withdrew leaving Washington in possession of the battlefield.
Von Steuben drilling American troops at Valley Forge
This, I suggest, is a better analogy for what is happening among many American Catholics than Shaw’s fortress. The culture at large has become toxic: anti-family, anti-morality . . . anti-God. It is dangerous to immerse ourselves in it, deadly to allow our children to be formed by it. We need to equip ourselves properly before going out into such a world, or else we’ll fare no better than the Continental Army did in the Battle of Brooklyn. In fact, we may be more likely to be converted by the world than we are to convert it. We need some space and time in a healthier atmosphere, away from the temptations and onslaughts of the secular world. We need to train ourselves in our faith, both its meaning and its practice. We need our own Valley Forge, and perhaps the spiritual equivalent of a Von Steuben, before we can be that Missionary Church that Pope Francis is calling us to be. And that's what the subculture that Shaw sees emerging is all about.
Did Someone Say “Clericalism”?
Russell Shaw, who has been a fine observer of and commenter upon the Catholic scene in the United States for a long time, has got this one wrong because he only sees part of the picture. He believes that our biggest problem is “clericalism” (!) in the form of a “passivity” that assumes that the ordained clergy will do all the heavy lifting:
Thus a plan of action designed for execution only or mainly by Church professionals won’t do the job. Unfortunately, this is what we’re all too likely to get from the clericalized cadres of today’s American Catholicism, indoctrinated as they are in the merits of lay ministry and cut off from the experience of a robust lay apostolate directed to engagement with the world.
With all due respect to Mr. Shaw, he seems completely unaware of the new ecclesial movements (Opus Dei, Communion and Liberation, Focolare, etc.), composed mostly of lay people, and most of which have an explicit goal of better equipping the laity to witness to Christ “out in the world”. He makes no mention of a whole Apologetics Industry that includes Catholic television, radio, print publications, and more online resources than can be listed here. None of these resources, created and staffed overwhelmingly by lay persons, existed fifty years ago at the time of the Second Vatican Council. I regularly listen to one Catholic radio program that at least once a week has programs restricted to calls from non-Catholics, or from Atheists, or pro-abortion or pro-gay marriage callers – and they never seem to run out of such callers. That’s hardly a fortress mentality. And it’s worth pointing out that homeschooled students tend to be more socially involved than the population as a whole, both as teens and adults (see here and here).
What Do You Want First, The Good News Or The Bad News?
Am I saying that all is well, and that the Church in the United States is the picture of spiritual health? No, indeed. The statistics that Mr. Shaw cites to illustrate the decline of the Church are real and sobering:
According to the Official Catholic Directory, from 1998 tom 2013 the annual number of Catholic marriages dropped from 289,000 to 164,000; infant baptisms from just over 1 million to 763,000; enrollment in Catholic elementary and secondary schools from 2.7 million to barely 2 million; and enrollment in non-school religious education from 4.3 million to 3.4 million.
The logical end point of assimilation is to become so assimilated that one ceases to be Catholic altogether. At the same time, there’s a growing core of lay Catholics who are committed to living a truly Christ-centered life, and who are likewise committed to bringing the faith in its fullness to both their fallen-away brethren and to the wider world. They fit very nicely, in fact, Russell Shaw’s description of the Missionary Church: “committed to opposing secular values incompatible with the faith, [working] hard to preach the Gospel, attract adherents, and, where, possible, evangelize the culture itself.”
There lies the future of Catholicism.