Winter Books
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Issue Date:  October 8, 2004

By Peter R. D’Agostino
University of North Carolina Press, 393 pages, $55.95 cloth, $22.50 paper
Reassessing 'Americanism' in the Catholic church


“Americanism” dominates the study of Roman Catholicism in the United States. In this perspective, American Catholics strive to create a uniquely “American” Catholic identity while simultaneously (and gradually) convincing newer immigrants to jettison their burdensome ethnicity. Undergraduates still recognize this as a variation of the American melting pot. The term itself describes a label created by conservative Vatican officials or anybody who favors uniquely American characteristics over the church’s centralized authority. A wide array of scholars employ this perspective, as do probably many books reviewed in NCR.

Peter D’Agostino’s Rome in America overturns this entire enterprise. D’Agostino examines the relationship between papal Rome and the American Catholic church from the 1840s to the 1930s. In that time Italian nationalists literally made modern Italy. To do so, they annexed the Papal States, capped by the 1870 occupation of Rome itself (just after Vatican I accorded Pius IX powers of infallibility). D’Agostino makes a simple argument: During those years the Catholic church in the United States sought to advance the papacy’s cause in a modern and increasingly secular (and hostile) Europe. Far from severing its connections with Europe, the American church aggressively sought to strengthen its bonds and vilify the perceived despoilers of papal Rome. In other words, the Americanist interpretation of American Catholic history mistakenly deemphasizes the very core of Catholic identity: its ties to Rome.

D’Agostino describes the “Roman Question” as a “transnational ideology.” Its creators hailed from a “neoguelph” mentality wherein the papacy retained only its spiritual, not temporal, power in a fully modernized and unified Italy. Italian nationalists were themselves Catholic and wanted the Vatican to retain everything except temporal power. The non-Catholic American press at first celebrated Pope Pius IX (1846-78) as a liberal nationalist, only to excoriate the pope for his reactionary about-face in 1848. Tensions did not ease in either Leo XIII’s pontificate (1878-1903), or St. Pius X’s (1903-14). Previously, American Catholic history posited a dichotomy between “liberal” Americanists and “conservative” immigrant Catholics. D’Agostino demonstrates that actually the two perspectives united to defend papal intransigence. Both sides claimed that American democratic liberalism differed noticeably from the secular liberalism that had annexed the papacy’s temporal power. Papal loyalties repeatedly set Catholic Americans at odds with their American neighbors such as Chicago’s social reformer Jane Addams, who enthusiastically endorsed liberal (and secular) Italy. World War I’s aftermath offered American Catholics a chance to assist the Vatican directly in its attempts to resolve the Roman Question. Catholics, led by Commonweal and America magazines, celebrated Mussolini’s anticommunism and restorative authority while Protestants viewed him as the providential heir of the Risorgimento. The resolution of the Roman Question -- the 1929 Lateran Pacts -- likewise appeared to American Catholics as a reassertion of divine right, but evangelical Protestants feared Mussolini might be the anti-Christ.

The impressive scope of D’Agostino’s work enables him to address events in Rome as well as reactions -- among Protestants as well as Catholics -- in America. Therefore, he successfully transcends the tricky loyalty conflicts Catholics face between American identity and Roman identity. D’Agostino’s broader view enables him to confront two consequences of American Catholics embracing “the Roman Question”: anti-Semitism and approval of Mussolini’s fascism. American Catholics supported these now discredited movements because of their overarching devotion to Catholic, not secular, Rome. The Jesuit weekly America and several diocesan newspapers espoused an aggressive anti-Semitism in response to Rome’s Jewish mayor, Ernesto Nathan. Few American Catholics questioned the Vatican’s pro-fascist stance.

D’Agostino’s analysis of the Roman Question ideology thus also provides a new perspective on anti-Catholicism. Recent studies by Philip Jenkins and Jesuit Fr. Mark Massa attend to the American expressions; D’Agostino addresses the transatlantic bonds that influenced Catholics and non-Catholics alike. D’Agostino’s discussion of Americanism’s theoretical shortcomings markedly increases the book’s worthiness. He pointedly comments that American Catholic scholarship is “frustratingly internalist,” and thus ignores the transnational dimension of Catholic identity in America. D’Agostino’s attention to the entire swath of this issue -- its intellectual foundations, its political and social legacies, its ethnic and ecumenical dimensions -- make Rome in America a provocative, perhaps unavoidable, contribution to American Catholic history.

Jeffrey Marlett teaches religious studies at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, N.Y. He is the author of Saving the Heartland.

National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 2004

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