Printer Friendly

The American Catholic Experience: A History From Colonial Times to the Present.

These books constitute a kind of triptych, if the figure is appropriate for such substantial works of religious history and the sociology of religion.

The first panel, the Catholic presence in the United States, is the work of Jay P. Dolan, who teaches history at Notre Dame and has distinguished himself in previous studies of American Catholicism.

This work, arranged in five broad periods from 1500 to 1984, was published originally by Doubleday in 1985 for $19.95. It is a good buy and not just monetarily, for it continues Dolan's excellent research in earlier parish life.

For the Catholic church in the New World, attempting both to adjust to "the American way of life" -- whether in the colonies, where the few English Catholics, who were of the upper class in Maryland, had already experienced toleration as a minority sect or in the rugged frontiers or the crowded ghettos of the cities -- and to safeguard its heritages was a "delicate balancing act," and Dolan tells well its human-interest story.

That was not the only balancing, though. Catholics had to adjust, as we have seen, not only to their new surroundings in America, where often they were the victims of nativists' hostility and mistrust, but also culturally to one another: to the Irish immigrants, the Germans, the Italians ("Eye-talians" to some Irish), the Polish, the French Canadians, the Mexicans, the Slovaks, the Lithuanians and the Ukraninians.

Besides those, who made up the bulk of the Catholics at the beginning of the 20th century, "there were sizable numbers of Hungarians, Slovenians, Croats and Portuguese, as well as numerous smaller groups, such as the Syrians, Arabs and Dutch."

Some of their mutual mistrusts, which threatened to fragment the church, make for discomforting reading; overcoming so many of them is a tribute to wise leadership and responsible followership. Ironically, the Protestant prejudice helped at times to unite the diverse groups. Dolan faithfully records the painful failures and the promising successes.

As the church entered the second quarter of the 20th century, one such success was the gigantic display of faith represented by the 1926 International Eucharistic Congress in Chicago. Half a million Catholics attended services; pageantry abounded; it was "Catholic triumphalism" at its spectacular best. Confidence marked the American Catholic scene. Everything was go.

But underneath it all, reaching to full strength in the late 1950s, some 30 years later, were currents of change: the liturgical movement, the new theology of the church, the growing concern for social and racial justice, the emerging laity ("Catholic action") and the questioning by Catholic thinkers.

The middle panel of our triptych features the work of Robert H. Craig, who teaches religion and philosophy at Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio. His book, as he says, is an "exploration of the history of Christians who discovered the convergence between radical politics and Christian faith and the implications this convergence has for movements for social change."

Craig's five chapters embrace American history from the end of the Civil War to the latter part of the 20th century. It is an interesting and novel study of the prophetic "oddballs" and annoying activists whose faith led them to challenge authorities on social and political issues.

Poised against the early activists were those like the famous Protestant preacher Henry Ward Beecher, for whom wealth was a sign of God's favor, and the Baptist minister Russell Conwell, founder of what would later become Temple University, proclaiming the "duty to get rich."

The Catholic response to the needs of the working class, unlike the Protestant celebration of wealth, affirmed the rights of working people. Many of the Catholic clergy, though, fearing the disruption of law and order by the activists, counseled contentment with "your station in life."

The third panel bears the provocative and challenging work of two sociologists, Roger Finke of Purdue and Rodney Stark of the University of Washington. Using the analogy of the marketplace, they view religions as engaged in a holy competition for sales/souls.

After all, if the new kid on the block, Wal-Mart, can supersede venerable Sears in sales, if gigantic General Motors can stumble, if vaunted IBM can falter so much that it now needs spin doctors to improve its image and if the seemingly invincible Railway Express can disappear altogether, is there not a lesson here to be learned by the established religions?

The answer, as it is developed here, is yes, that just as monopolies tend to become lazy, so mainline religions that make fewer demands upon their members tend to be surpassed by aggressive sects that demand more. In a cyclical movement, mainline religions become sidelined; sects become mainline and in time eventually suffer the same fate. Thus, as the authors see it within their definitions of "sects" and "churches," the Catholic church in the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries was "far more sectlike than churchlike."

This book, containing seven fascinating chapters that span the last two centuries, also has an excellent selection of 47 illustrations, relevant figures and tables, a bibliography with a synoptic view of the sources and endnote headings that are comfortably correlated with the pages as well as the chapters. It is eminently reader-friendly.

In their final chapter ("Why 'Mainline' Denominations Decline"), like Dolan in his ("A New Catholicism"), the authors focus on the effects of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Their conclusion, highly summarized: aggiornamento resulted in too much accommodation to the spirit of the world and a loss of individual sacrifice. Religion prospers when it makes demands on its members.

Dolan, acknowledging the decline in Catholic schools, Catholic newspapers, interest in convert-making and foreign missions and religious personnel, recognizes on the other hand the contribution of liturgical changes, ecumenism, religious freedom, the charismatic movement, the involvement of bishops in the struggle of the workers and the emphasis on peace and civil rights. He concludes that Catholics, living in a period of transition, are now "part of the American mainstream."

Ouch! That's very much like the code word for Finke and Starke. While they say that catholics need not go the way of the Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Methodists, at heart they are not so sanguine about avoiding it: "The mainline bodies are always headed for the sideline."

So once upon a time there was a strong Sears, a powerful General Motors and a flourishing IBM.

Yes, but was the Holy Spirit on a corporate board?
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Catholic Reporter
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:McMannus, E. Leo
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 5, 1993
Previous Article:Modern Esoteric Spirituality: World Spirituality: An Encyclopedic History of the Religious Quest.
Next Article:Religion and Radical Politics: An Alternative Christian Tradition in the United States.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters