Catholic Vitalism


This article was written on 02 Apr 2016, and is filled under Uncategorized.

The Future of Catholicism Part 3: Zombie Catholicism

After completing my Master’s degree, I spent ten years teaching in an all-boys ‘Zombie Catholic’ school in the suburbs of Rhode Island. With a few notable exceptions, the students I taught and were exactly like the students I had gone myself gone to school with as a suburban public school student: the only differences I could see were 1) they were much wealthier than public school students (since tuition was very expensive), and 2) they were thoroughly bored by all things Catholic. Not, let me be clear, opposed to these things: most of them liked the school’s chaplain and their parish priest and their CCD teachers and the Pope; surprisingly, they didn’t seem too fazed by the abuse scandals which were continuously in the headlines in the years I was teaching. Rather, they saw Religion class as completely irrelevant to their lives, a waste of time. And, even more fascinating, their parents, many of whom were making huge sacrifices to send their sons to this school, seemed to share their utter apathy: I can count on my fingers, among the hundreds of parents who I saw during Parent-Teacher conferences, the number of those who asked anything about the content of what was being taught in religion class. They seemed only to be concerned about Johnny’s grades, and why Johnny was so lazy… And, with the exception of a few colleagues in the Theology Department, these views were largely shared by the faculty, staff and administration as well.

Which of course led me to the question: why were parents sending their sons, at great expense, to this Catholic school? Since they obviously had no interest in the Theology program, it must have been something else that was compelling them to this choice: but I doubted it was the academic program or the extracurricular options, which were almost an exact replica of the education these young men could receive for free in their local suburban public schools. The main things that set this school in particular apart from its public peers were its all-male demographic and its legendary athletic program, but it was hard to imagine that these minor differences could account for such an expensive investment, especially since there were plenty of other Catholic schools who seemed to be able to fill the seats despite being co-ed and having a lackluster athletic program.

The History of Zombie Catholicism

While I was teaching, my family became involved with a few parishes near our home in Providence. The Diocese of Providence, like most of the Northeast, is loaded with Zombie Catholics, for complicated historical reasons. These reasons are ably described by Russell Shaw in American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America. His thesis is that American Catholicism, under the leadership of men like Archbishop James Cardinal Gibbons, chose early on to orient these ethnic Catholics in the direction of assimilation to the Protestant-dominated American society in which they found themselves. In New England, the waves of Polish, French, Irish, Italian and Portuguese immigrants who settled in New England in search of work, went to work on this program, by forming thousands of vibrant ethnic parishes and creating an immense structure of Catholic institutions which reached dizzying heights in the ‘50s. These new Americans enthusiastically contributed to the American project: they proudly fought the Second World, and returned to obtain degrees on the G.I Bill, get good jobs, buy cars, and join the ‘White Flight’ from cramped cities like Providence to the suburbs, where the materialistic ‘American Dream’ seemed attainable to nearly everyone. The full assimilation of this cadre of ethnic Catholics was ratified by the election of John F. Kennedy, the embodiment of Boston Irish pride, as President of the United States in 1960.

When the political, social and religious turmoil of the late ’60s hit these Americans and their Church,… Though they retained some connection with and nostalgia for the Catholic Church, they began to drift towards secularism. In doing so, they merely replicated the same drifting away from the particular customs, language and traditions of their native culture, since their new identity as Americans seemed so much more compelling, comfortable, and above all lucrative than clinging rigidly to ‘the old ways’. And, though Zombie Catholics achieved great success financially and socially, they failed (with notable exceptions like Thomas Merton and Flannery O’Connor) to develop an authentically Catholic intellectual or cultural tradition in their new home that could negotiate the increasingly hostile forces of Liberalism which would soon launch a new series of attacks on traditional values. In fact, though educated and intelligent, Zombie Catholics, like their actual zombie counterparts, are anti-intellectual, ‘eating the brains’ of those outside their group.

Attachment to Bourgeois Culture

In abandoning the faith as a relic of their ethnic heritage, Zombie Catholics instead embraced bourgeois culture, the. The great English Catholic historian published a brilliant essay entitled “Catholicism and the Bourgeois Mind”


To continue the ongoing analogy, Zombie Catholics are the children who don’t realize that this Modern visitor represents a threat to their mother. Accustomed as they are to change and newness, they welcome him in, and assume everything’s going to be fine. Like small children, they are most concerned about their immediate natural needs being met, and are too immature to ask questions of the visitor.


Without grasping this background, Zombie Catholicism makes very little sense. As an outsider encountering this vast and lethargic system as a convert to the Faith, I was continually asking myself “why do these people go to Mass and send their kids to Catholic schools, when they really don’t care about Catholicism?” This is where the analogy to zombies is apt: after all, what motivates zombies to slowly chase the living and eat their brains, despite the fact that they have no hope of returning to a vital human state by doing so? My best guess is that they do so because that’s how they were raised:  and that they have a vague belief that the Catholic Church and its institutions are nice places where you can have a sense of community and a vague sense of doing good things that will get you to heaven.

The role of catechetical teaching?

Sociological Analysis:

What Zombie Catholics lack in quality, they more than make up for in quantity. My guess is that at least half of involved American Catholics are basically Zombie Catholics, though their involvement tends to be limited.

If the future of Liberal Catholicism is obvious, the future of Zombie Catholicism is even more so: as the larger culture continues to embrace positions that are radically opposed to Catholicism, Zombie Catholics will largely drift into the larger secular culture: those warm, vague feelings won’t be enough to withstand the stridency and sophistry of the Liberal agenda. As I’m sure the vast majority of my former students drifted away when challenged by their secularist professors at college and lured by the licentiousness of college culture, most will abandon their faith when the slightest difficulty presents itself. There are abundant statistical studies that show this trend has already caused huge numbers of baptized Catholics to fall away from the practice of their faith, and the trends shows no signs of reversal. To cite one such statistic, a recent Pew study posited that if lapsed Catholics were considered a denomination, they would be the largest denomination in America.

The huge wave of Hispanic Catholics who immigrated to the U.S. since the 1980s represent an interesting… They seem to be following in the path of previous ethnic Catholics, only in a much more rapid progression, but (with the exception of Cuban-Americans) with much less socio-economic success.

Of course, some Zombie Catholics (‘reverts’) will ‘wake up’ and recognize the situation they’re in. I think that many Bishops who have extracted themselves from the Zombie ranks see this group as the target of the ‘New Evangelization’, but I have serious reservations about the prudence of that project.

And unfortunately, when they look for more solid ground, their intellectual atrophy will make it nearly impossible to grasp what is going on, and they’ll gravitate to positions reminiscent of Archie Bunker, or in today’s terms, Donald Trump.

Revivified Sacramental Grace?

One of the Church’s mysterious responses to the precipitous drop in numbers is the obsessive number crunching of the amount of souls lost and their belated interest their parishoners who left a long, long time ago, the bishop of ____ hired researchers to ask lapsed Catholics why they had left. Divorce, sexual morality, bad music, clericalist clergy: they get it, and they’re going to be tough to bring back. I leave it to a more expert theologian than me to examine the economy of  ‘revivified grace’ for those who had received the sacraments as Zombies… but from a natural perpective, there doesn’t seem to be much cause for hope. Zombie Catholicism seems to act like a vaccine: by injecting just enough Catholicsm to teach the soul to inoculate it against the ‘disease’ of an engaged faith.

One Comment

  1. Hope and Despair: Notes from ‘The Future of Catholicism’ Symposium | Catholic Vitalism
    April 9, 2016

    […] Of course, that very same strategy, of embracing America uncritically, had already been tried by Catholics for the first half of the 20th century under the inspiration of leaders like Cardinal Gibbons; by the 1980s this experiment had failed spectacularly, as the waves of ethnic Catholics who had succeeded in the bourgeois culture abandoned Catholicism in favor of the comforts of secularism, a  phenomenon I refer to as ‘Zombie Catholicism’. […]

Leave a Reply