It has often been observed that American Catholics sound more like American Baptists or Presbyterians than like Old World Catholics. They share with their Protestant compatriots an intensely privatised religiosity, an intensely privatised conscience. Nancy Pelosi, Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, has given an amazing interview to the National Catholic Reporter explaining that, despite her views on women priests and abortion, she remains a conservative Catholic because she enjoyed a “strict upbringing in a Catholic home where the fundamental belief was that God gave us all a free will and we were accountable for that, each of us”. In the United States, that does not seem an eccentric definition of Catholicism.
American Catholicism is ethnic, not dogmatic. The descendants of Irish and Italian and Polish immigrants, long bereft of the old country’s language, maintain their ancestors’ religious identification, which does for them what Catholic nationalism did for Ireland and Poland in the days of British and Soviet rule. It makes a people where there would otherwise not be a people. Yet in this land of voluntarist and intensely subjective Protestants, Catholics who are, in the sense of ethnic identity, “more Catholic than the Pope”, still share the radical Protestant “fundamental belief” that, to quote Pelosi, “God gave us all a free will and we are accountable for that”. Each believer stands alone with his God, and no Pope intervenes on that solitude