National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  July 18, 2003

By John T. McGreevy
W.W. Norton, 2003, 431 pages, $26.95
Liberation or loss

The complicated history of American Catholicism

Reviewed by DAVID O’BRIEN

Not too long ago people thought that unity, if not uniformity, was a distinguishing mark of the Catholic church. Non-Catholics thought their Catholic fellow citizens were, in religious matters, sheep. In the popular image, Catholics were “papists,” automatically accepting orders transmitted from Rome. Respectable, tolerant, liberal people were more subtle, less insulting, but equally convinced of Catholic submissiveness. By definition Catholics walked in lockstep behind the clergy, mindlessly affirming ideas indefensible by any modern standard. American critics of Catholicism, from the days of Maria Monk on, were convinced that Catholics were united by their lack of freedom.

Catholics did not deny that they valued unity, nor did they hide their reservations about modern freedom. After the Protestant Reformation the church reaffirmed orthodox doctrine and promoted more uniform practice across national divisions. Few concessions were made to religious freedom, individual or corporate. After the French Revolution a remarkable Catholic revival rejected the culture of freedom associated with modern liberalism and instead sought greater unity of pastoral practice, to be achieved in part by strengthening the power and authority of the clergy, the bishops and, especially, the pope. Such “ultramontane” reforms, most Catholic leaders believed, would provide religious foundations for the solidarity essential for social order, political stability, class harmony and genuine freedom. In the United States, where Catholics were a minority and liberalism dominated the culture, Catholics leaders worked hard to keep their growing church united amid pressures created by American freedom, religious and otherwise. But they also sought to ease worries that Catholics constituted a united and subversive fifth column by pointing out their ethnic and cultural diversity and their political differences.

Nevertheless, American Catholics, from cardinals to parishioners, resented and rejected charges of sheepishness. They had freely built and paid for their churches and schools; their bishops, priests and nuns came as volunteers from their families, neighborhoods and parishes; and their faith and practice gave them a genuine freedom, quite unlike the license, social division and essential loneliness that their critics confused with liberty. Long before the rise of modern American fundamentalisms, there were genuine culture wars, the most important the argument between Catholics and liberals. This argument helped shape the national response to every major issue, “from abolition to abortion.”

Historian John McGreevy tells the story of that argument in this superbly researched study of the encounter of Catholicism and freedom in the United States. McGreevy is a leader among a group of young historians dissatisfied with the long dominant Americanist narrative. In that story, told most recently by McGreevy’s colleague Jay P. Dolan, immigration shaped the Catholic story in the United States. The desire of the newcomers to form community with people like themselves, outsiders, gave rise to ethnic parishes and alternative Catholic institutions. Here as elsewhere, Catholics and their church fought a long, at times brilliant, delaying action against the pressure of modernity.

But American modernity, with its blend of economic abundance, democratic politics and religious liberty, was far more attractive than the dogmatic liberalism and anticlericalism of Europe. Americanization was thus a live Catholic option, legitimated by affirmations of American liberty and progress. The Vatican was suspicion of such modernist-sounding claims and cracked down on “Americanism.” But after World War II the universal church began to come to terms with modernity at the very moment that American Catholics moved from working-class urban neighborhoods to middle-class suburbs, from the perceived margins to the mainstream of American society. Thus Vatican II (1962-1965) corresponded with the Americanization of the immigrant church and the triumph of Americanist ideas of human freedom and religious liberty. That is the Americanist story, now contested between those who still think Americanization was a good thing and those who think it came at too high a cost in Catholic integrity.

John McGreevy’s prize-winning first book, Parish Boundaries, explored the Catholic encounter with race and racism in the urban north. This encounter was at the heart of American history throughout the 20th century, but McGreevy’s analysis exposed some of the shortcomings of the long dominant Americanist narrative. Now McGreevy examines the relationship between American liberalism and American Catholicism. He examines slavery, education, social reform, politics, postwar pluralism and questions of sexuality. It is a rich, sophisticated examination by an historian equally comfortable with Catholic and liberal ideas. He defines his project: “The trick is to capture two traditions in motion, not one: to explore American ideas about Catholicism, along with the predispositions (at times blinders) framing the mental landscape of Catholics.”

Among the many merits of this book, three deserve special attention. First, this is American history, not church history. It is the story of two vital American traditions, Catholic and liberal, each with its own voice. McGreevy brilliantly takes both groups at their word, and treats each with respect. Catholics are part of American history. They shared responsibility for these public questions that faced their society. Immigrants did not become American; they always were. Irish-born John Hughes, the combative anti-abolitionist archbishop of New York, claimed a place at the center of American society quite as vigorously as did Joseph and John Kennedy. So it was always a bit misleading to treat these debates as arguments between Americans and Catholics. McGreevy sees them instead as debates among Americans, about differing ways of living with integrity in an ever-changing society. Here, as in the earlier book on race, McGreevy’s research suggests that it is about time for scholars to finally jettison their patronizing dismissal of Catholic ideas (and parishes and schools and charities) as if they were anachronistic remnants of medievalism doomed to disappear before a triumphant modernity. This relocation of the story is important: If contemporary Catholics are unhappy with American society and culture, they will have to admit that Catholics helped make it what it is.

Second, McGreevy gives voice and respect to people not always heard in the accepted American Catholic story. Much has been said about those regarded as Americanists, Orestes Brownson (in his early and mid-Catholic life), Archbishop John Ireland, Fr. John A. Ryan and Fr. John Courtney Murray. McGreevy pays attention to anti-Americanist voices, Hughes, the later Brownson, German-American corporatists, Ryan writing about the family and sex as well as the living wage, critics of Murray’s ideas on religious liberty, and, remarkably, moral theologian Fr. John C. Ford, the most influential exponent of Catholic sexual ethics and behind-the-scenes conspirator on the birth control question. These are genuine, sophisticated Catholic voices, often, though not always, closer than the Americanists to actual pastoral practice. Taking them seriously helps deepen our knowledge of American Catholic history and our understanding of what is at stake in our own contemporary debates about Catholic freedom and responsibility.

Third, McGreevy explores, for the first time in a scholarly project, the complicated history of American Catholic teaching, and to some degree pastoral practice, on matters of human sexuality. Here we get a full account of how sex, birth control and abortion came to dominate the Catholic-liberal debate, and to dominate Catholic politics, including the internal politics of the American church. Here McGreevy’s distance from Americanism is most apparent, for he resists quick judgments and dismisses the slogans of right and left. He ends the book with some modest comments on the current crisis arising from clerical sexual abuse, an experience that at once makes the sexuality question more central and moderates the righteousness that so often dominates discussion of these matters.

The central theme of the study is the genuine tension between the autonomy of the human person, central to American liberalism, and the organic sense of community and solidarity central to the Catholic revival, to ethnic Catholic experience, and to Catholic social teaching. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau set a framework of individual freedom and responsibility that echoed through the long history of American liberalism. American Catholics admired much in this tradition but could never surrender the solidarity that informed their faith and their experience. We make our choices within and among a people, we are always connected to others, and that connectedness is built into the way God made the world. Murray once referred to “the eternal return of natural law” arising from shared humanity, an idea at odds with the radical individualism of American culture.

Three brief critical comments on this wonderful book. First, McGreevy does not always do justice to the Americanists, or to the Americanist side of mediating figures like Murray, Ryan and Dorothy Day. In discussion of the Americanism debate of the 1890s, for example, he convicts Ireland of excessive nationalism, but he would find a new angle on Catholics and liberalism if he explored the ideas of the Paulist founder Fr. Isaac Thomas Hecker. His ideas inspired many Americanists and were explicitly cited in the 1899 condemnation of Americanism by Pope Leo XIII. Hecker, more than any other figure until Thomas Merton, truly probed the depths of American freedom. He may have risked Catholic integrity, as the pope warned, but he did full justice to the claims of freedom and uniquely suggested a coherent pastoral response.

Secondly, this is intellectual history of the non-functionalist variety. McGreevy avoids the dangers that arise with the pragmatic method of relating ideas to the purposes they serve, but at times the ideas he discusses seem suspended in midair. One does not have to be a post-modernist to wonder about the relationship between these ideas and power, political and ecclesiastical. There is no question that until the mid-20th century counter-Americanist attacks on liberalism worked, for the church and for many of its people, and that they did not work, at least not as well, for the post-World War II generation.

Finally, American Catholics will have to think about the trajectory of their history. The Americanist story affirmed both Catholic and liberal claims and shaped a liberal Catholicism that now seems wishy-washy. Counter-Americanist arguments, usually anti-liberal, now seek to restore a robust Catholicism through subcultural restoration or evangelical witness. Still, if Americanism was not rigorous enough in its assessment of modernity, countercultural claims of integrity can mask social and political irresponsibility. Attention to people like Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton and Isaac Hecker might suggest approaches to the relation of religion and culture that could move the quest for faithful discipleship more deeply into and not away from the larger human family. McGreevy points us to the central debate about freedom, and to the central question of American Catholic history: Is ours a story of liberation or of renewed captivity?

David O’Brien teaches history at the College of the Holy Cross and recently served as president of the American Catholic Historical Association.

National Catholic Reporter, July 18, 2003

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