Posted by: frroberts | September 16, 2016

Being American and Being Catholic

Several years ago, I read John McGreevy’s Catholicism and American Freedom.  I must confess that when I have sat down with this book in the evening I found it difficult to put down because it has been so enjoyable.  The book traces the interesting process of Catholic integration into the mainstream of American culture.  This topic has been of special interest to me ever since I wrote my senior thesis, which I am in the process of revising, about how the rhetoric of the US Catholic hierarchy changed toward the Papacy during World War II.

McGreevy begins his narrative in 1859, with the story of Thomas Wahl.  Thomas Wahl was a ten year-old Catholic boy of Irish descent who, during the days of school prayer, was beaten bloody by his Protestant assistant principal in the Boston Public Schools for refusing to recite the Protestant version of the Ten Commandments, which included a denunciation of “graven images” popularly applied to Catholic religious art  (Protestants take the Ten Commandments from Exodus, Catholics from Deuteronomy).  From there he traces the tension between two different trends in the Church in the United States.  One trend focused on the otherness of Catholics, another sought to affirm American culture and adapted Catholicism to it whenever possible.

Rather than seek to conform to the dominantly Protestant culture, many Catholics in the 19th and 20th centuries embraced their differences from their countrymen.  At its best, this sense of otherness provided the energy that built an impressive system of Catholic schools, hospitals and charities that served Catholics and non-Catholics alike.  It also provided a more communitarian vision of the common good in the political discourse in a radically individualistic country.  At its worst, this sense of Catholic otherness led some prominent Catholics to show a preference for right-wing authoritarian models of government abroad and give uncritical support to American Cold War anti-communism under the rationale that these positions accorded with Papal social teaching.

The more accommodationist approach sought to create points of contact between Catholic life and democratic values.   Some of these attempts, such as allowing lay people to choose their priests and run parish finances, strike one as incompatible with hierarchical structure of the Church. Others, like promoting an American understanding of freedom of religion within Catholic social teaching, played an important role in shaping the teaching of Vatican II.   McGreevy identifies John Courtney Murray and Jacques Maritain as two prominent exponents of the accommodationist position.

By the late 1960s this tension was practically dissolved, largely on account the pressure that the organized anti-Catholicism of the Protestant elites put on Catholics by questioned whether Catholics could ever integrate themselves into “American culture.”  Just as Catholics were beginning to worship in the same tongue as their countrymen, most them rejected Pope Paul VI’s reaffirmation of traditional Catholic teaching on the immorality of artificial contraception and sterilization.   From there, there was little to stop the wholesale liquidation of the Catholic ghetto.  We should not be surprised that Catholic institutions continue to dwindle.

While I do not agree with all of McGreevy’s conclusions, the book is well-written and generally fair.  I would have liked to have seen McGreevy give more attention to two points.  Firstly, his narrative begins rather late in American History.  Had he addressed the Colonial and Revolutionary periods, he would have had to contextualize the long history of anti-Catholicism in the United States that antedated waves of Irish immigration.  For example, the only state that did not have anti-Catholic laws at the time of the American revolution was Pennsylvania.  Despite having its beginnings as a Catholic colony that had freedom of religion, Maryland had such restrictive anti-Catholic laws that Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, had to go to France in order to receive a Catholic education.  One of the four so-called “Intolerable Acts” that led to the American Revolution was the Catholic Toleration Act, which granted freedom of religion to Catholics in the newly conquered, formerly French, colony of Quebec.  Many, while not all, of the Founding Fathers were rabidly anti-Catholic.  What developments, if any, came between the Revolutionary War and the explosion of Irish immigration in the middle of the nineteenth century?

Secondly, Pope Leo XIII’s denunciation of the Americanist heresy is not treated at all.  In 1899 the Pope wrote a letter the James Cardinal Gibbons, the Archbishop of Baltimore and the United States’ most senior churchman, calling into question perceived trends in Catholicism in the United States that threatened the integrity of the Catholic faith.  The genesis of the controversy came from a popular biography of the American priest and founder of the Paulist Order, Thomas Hecker.  There is a real question as to how widely the positions described in the letter were current among American Catholics.

There were four major trends outlined by Leo XIII.  The first had to do with the articulation of doctrine. According to the Americanist thesis, historically Catholic doctrines were to be evaluated according to the spirit of the age.  Those that suited the spirit of the age were to be embraced, those that ran contrary to it were to be neglected.  The second concerned Papal Infallibility, only defined dogmatically some two decades earlier.  Since there was a definition of Papal Infallibility, Catholics were free to believe whatever they liked on any subject that was not so defined.  Thus Papal Infallibility restricted the teaching authority of the Church instead of expanding it.  This minimalist understanding of freedom of conscience tended to separate conscience from the duty to seek truth.  The third problematic strain in the American Church that Leo identified was the exaltation of the active life above the contemplative life.  The Catholic faith holds that contemplative religious live a higher calling in the Church than active priests or religious.  Many in Europe read Hecker’s biography as a reversal of this position.  The final point that Leo XIII found problematic was a theory that Catholics who left the Church for a Protestant church should be left in peace and not called back to the one, true Church.  Here freedom of religion is understood as a positive good that enables the individual to freely pursue his own subjective truth regardless of what is objectively true.

Perhaps McGreevy excluded the Americanist controversy because he felt that Leo’s denunciation described a bogey that did not exist in the American Church of the late nineteenth century.  Even if this were the case, it is hard to understand his total silence.  It is all the more interesting because many of the trends described in the papal letter are certainly widespread in the Catholic Church in the United States today.

I just finished reading John McGreevy’s Catholicism and American Freedom.  I must confess that when I have sat down with this book in the evening I found it difficult to put down because it has been so enjoyable.  The book traces the interesting process of Catholic integration into the mainstream of American culture.  This topic has been of special interest to me ever since I wrote my senior thesis, which I am in the process of revising, about how the rhetoric of the US Catholic hierarchy changed toward the Papacy during World War II.

McGreevy begins his narrative in 1859, with the story of Thomas Wahl.  Thomas Wahl was a ten year-old Catholic boy of Irish descent who, during the days of school prayer, was beaten bloody by his Protestant assistant principal in the Boston Public Schools for refusing to recite the Protestant version of the Ten Commandments, which included a denunciation of “graven images” popularly applied to Catholic religious art  (Protestants take the Ten Commandments from Exodus, Catholics from Deuteronomy).  From there he traces the tension between two different trends in the Church in the United States.  One trend focused on the otherness of Catholics, another sought to affirm American culture and adapted Catholicism to it whenever possible.

Rather than seek to conform to the dominantly Protestant culture, many Catholics in the 19th and 20th centuries embraced their differences from their countrymen.  At its best, this sense of otherness provided the energy that built an impressive system of Catholic schools, hospitals and charities that served Catholics and non-Catholics alike.  It also provided a more communitarian vision of the common good in the political discourse in a radically individualistic country.  At its worst, this sense of Catholic otherness led some prominent Catholics to show a preference for right-wing authoritarian models of government abroad and give uncritical support to American Cold War anti-communism under the rationale that these positions accorded with Papal social teaching.

The more accommodationist approach sought to create points of contact between Catholic life and democratic values.   Some of these attempts, such as allowing lay people to choose their priests and run parish finances, strike one as incompatible with hierarchical structure of the Church. Others, like promoting an American understanding of freedom of religion within Catholic social teaching, played an important role in shaping the teaching of Vatican II.   McGreevy identifies John Courtney Murray and Jacques Maritain as two prominent exponents of the accommodationist position.

By the late 1960s this tension was practically dissolved, largely on account the pressure that the organized anti-Catholicism of the Protestant elites put on Catholics by questioned whether Catholics could ever integrate themselves into “American culture.”  Just as Catholics were beginning to worship in the same tongue as their countrymen, most them rejected Pope Paul VI’s reaffirmation of traditional Catholic teaching on the immorality of artificial contraception and sterilization.   From there, there was little to stop the wholesale liquidation of the Catholic ghetto.  We should not be surprised that Catholic institutions continue to dwindle.

While I do not agree with all of McGreevy’s conclusions, the book is well-written and generally fair.  I would have liked to have seen McGreevy give more attention to two points.  Firstly, his narrative begins rather late in American History.  Had he addressed the Colonial and Revolutionary periods, he would have had to contextualize the long history of anti-Catholicism in the United States that antedated waves of Irish immigration.  For example, the only state that did not have anti-Catholic laws at the time of the American revolution was Pennsylvania.  Despite having its beginnings as a Catholic colony that had freedom of religion, Maryland had such restrictive anti-Catholic laws that Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, had to go to France in order to receive a Catholic education.  One of the four so-called “Intolerable Acts” that led to the American Revolution was the Catholic Toleration Act, which granted freedom of religion to Catholics in the newly conquered, formerly French, colony of Quebec.  Many, while not all, of the Founding Fathers were rabidly anti-Catholic.  What developments, if any, came between the Revolutionary War and the explosion of Irish immigration in the middle of the nineteenth century?

Secondly, Pope Leo XIII’s denunciation of the Americanist heresy is not treated at all.  In 1899 the Pope wrote a letter the James Cardinal Gibbons, the Archbishop of Baltimore and the United States’ most senior churchman, calling into question perceived trends in Catholicism in the United States that threatened the integrity of the Catholic faith.  The genesis of the controversy came from a popular biography of the American priest and founder of the Paulist Order, Thomas Hecker.  There is a real question as to how widely the positions described in the letter were current among American Catholics.

There were four major trends outlined by Leo XIII.  The first had to do with the articulation of doctrine. According to the Americanist thesis, historically Catholic doctrines were to be evaluated according to the spirit of the age.  Those that suited the spirit of the age were to be embraced, those that ran contrary to it were to be neglected.  The second concerned Papal Infallibility, only defined dogmatically some two decades earlier.  Since there was a definition of Papal Infallibility, Catholics were free to believe whatever they liked on any subject that was not so defined.  Thus Papal Infallibility restricted the teaching authority of the Church instead of expanding it.  This minimalist understanding of freedom of conscience tended to separate conscience from the duty to seek truth.  The third problematic strain in the American Church that Leo identified was the exaltation of the active life above the contemplative life.  The Catholic faith holds that contemplative religious live a higher calling in the Church than active priests or religious.  Many in Europe read Hecker’s biography as a reversal of this position.  The final point that Leo XIII found problematic was a theory that Catholics who left the Church for a Protestant church should be left in peace and not called back to the one, true Church.  Here freedom of religion is understood as a positive good that enables the individual to freely pursue his own subjective truth regardless of what is objectively true.

Perhaps McGreevy excluded the Americanist controversy because he felt that Leo’s denunciation described a bogey that did not exist in the American Church of the late nineteenth century.  Even if this were the case, it is hard to understand his total silence.  It is all the more interesting because many of the trends described in the papal letter are certainly widespread in the Catholic Church in the United States today.


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