A partially told history of American Catholics.
PATRICK CAREY'S BOOK IS ONE of a series on different religious denominations (Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians) published by Praeger, and it seeks to provide a comprehensive overview of the historical experience of Catholics in America. Readers might well wonder whether we need yet another general history of Catholicism when the ground seems so well covered already. To enhance their applicability, newly published histories extend their time frame to include the recent (post-Vatican II) debates in the church as well as the required nod to the impact of the sex abuse crisis on American Catholicism. Additionally, Carey considers the changing ecumenical and political challenges confronting American Catholicism post-9/11. Although a professor of theology at Marquette University, Carey does not use the opportunity presented by his book to explicitly identify any overarching theological threads in the ongoing development of American Catholicism. Nor does he probe how the church's interaction with American culture may have emboldened it to reinvigorate some strands within Catholic theology (e.g., reason) while simultaneously dampening the excesses of rationality that are so frequently visible in American society. Instead, Carey presents a dutiful, accessible and even-handed descriptive account of the major historical developments and events in American Catholicism from a brief review of Colonial Catholicism to current "troubled times" (1990-2003).
Readers of Conscience may be disappointed that, in keeping with his descriptive style, Carey does not apply his theological expertise to identify how politically contested issues such as abortion, for example, have challenged theologians in helping Catholic politicians and laity come to a well-developed moral understanding of the issues involved in living as full participatory citizens in a society in which contraception and abortion are legal. Instead, Carey notes the emergence of these and other divisive issues (e.g., homosexuality), but does not dwell on their complex theological and sociological implications for the church, confining his discussion to a mere five pages.
At the outset, Carey emphasizes the historical significance of the timing of the church's institutionalization in American society--John Carroll's elevation as the first American bishop in 1789, and his progressive role in post-Revolutionary America and in shaping a "free church in a free state." Though not fully explicated, Carey reminds us that, despite the deeply embedded cultural and historical legacy of Colonial Puritanism, the Catholic church grew within and, importantly, along with, the nation itself, "in an atmosphere of unprecedented liberty." Given the contentiousness within the church today over doctrinal and structural issues and the cultural polarization that appears to have taken hold in American politics and society in regard to church-state boundaries, Carey's account reminds us that the interpretation of religious freedom has rarely been straightforward. The controversies that mark current debates, for example, over the teaching of evolution and human sexuality in public schools or the debate over federal funding for faith-based social services, find precedent in the intense debate over the place of religion (i.e. Protestantism) in public schools in the mid-19th century. Importantly, that debate (and subsequent debates in regard to education) unearthed the very modern question not so much whether religion belonged in the public culture, but whose religion should get symbolic and legal support. (Catholics objected to the King James Bible students were required to read aloud). The complexity of religion and how different denominational traditions as well as particular social and historical circumstances give rise to varying public policy stances is also highlighted by Carey's discussion of the 18th Amendment on prohibition in 1920. Pointing out that many Catholics opposed the amendment, Carey notes, "Many Catholic leaders continued to believe that moral persuasion, rather than legislation, was a more effective remedy against the evils of intemperance and alcoholism."
CONFLICT AND TENSION AMONG Catholics also has a long history. Within the church, the freedom of the laity to control parish assets and resources, a question that has been given renewed prominence through the current activism of Voice of the Faithful and other lay-rights groups, dominated much of Catholic life in the early decades of the 19th century and indeed, was the "most significant crisis before the first provincial council of Baltimore in 1829." That crisis was essentially resolved, as the subsequent history of the church attests, in favor of allowing the church hierarchy to articulate the boundaries of Catholic identity. Nonetheless, recalling these historical events and crises offers a much-needed contextual frame by which to make sense of some of what is going on in the church today. On the one hand, the assertion of lay freedom in the church is not new, and nor is the Vatican's suppression of theological dialogue as the crises surrounding Americanism and Modernism make plain. Being attentive simply to the narrative of Catholic history provides a useful reminder that institutional "crises" are not necessarily threatening to the long-term vitality of the church--notwithstanding the costs they nonetheless exact.
The story of Catholicism reported here, in line with the historical canon, replicates the narrative of the church as a hierarchical structure. It is a history of the immigrant planting and shaping of Catholicism, and of the expansion and consolidation of the church's institutional presence, especially in parish life, education and family matters, and, additionally, in more recent decades, its presence as a voice in the public culture. Accentuating the hierarchical emphasis of the church, Carey provides a series of biographical sketches of church leaders, mostly bishops and priests, and a sprinkling of women religious (e.g., Frances Cabrini and Katharine Drexel) as well as influential lay Catholics (e.g., Dorothy Day, John Tracy Ellis and Thomas Wyatt Turner). Although the focus here may risk intimating that Catholic history is made by great men (and a few women), reading through these biographies one after another conveys a powerful inspirational message that, though none of us make history under conditions of our own choosing, visionary leadership and courage can resolutely push institutions and traditions to reach toward attaining their highest ideals. Given the challenges facing Catholicism and citizenship in our current historical moment, these varying biographical narratives can motivate both Catholic laity and the ordained alike, in the words of the late Cardinal Bernardin, not to "waste the precious gift of time ... on acrimony and division" but on efforts that would complement and extend what Carey sees as an effort by the bishops through their diverse public policy statements, to "apply the gospel to the social, economic, and political conditions in ways that reflect the Catholic Church's mission in a troubled modern world."
In closing, what this and most other histories of American Catholics do not provide is empirical evidence of how ordinary Catholics, in particular parishes and locales, were getting on with their everyday lives being Catholic and American at various historical moments. American Catholicism has a rich history--and much of it can be gleaned from parish and school registers, Catholic newspapers and in the newspapers and socio-economic censuses of heavily Catholic neighborhoods. These narratives remain to be written, and until then, our knowledge and understanding of the historical vibrancy of American Catholicism will necessarily remain partial.
MICHELE DILLON is professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire. She earned her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California at Berkeley and has written extensively on Catholicism in the United States and elsewhere, with special interest in the institutional and cultural processes that enable Catholics who selectively disagree with aspects of Catholic teaching to remain loyal to Catholicism.
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|Title Annotation:||Catholics in America: A History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2005|
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