Thursday, July 2, 2020

American Catholics: A History

I grew up when schools still taught history. Also I attended to a Catholic parochial school. So the history we learned about the European settlement of the future United States started with the Spanish and French explorers, settlers, and missionaries, in contrast to an Anglo-centric narrative focused on the 13 coastal colonies. Years later a grad school classmate mentioned visiting the site of the first Mass in the U.S. I knew he meant the site in Maryland, but I couldn't resist saying it was a long trip fromPrinceton to St Augustine, Florida! He got my point. Of course, we need to recognize and appreciate the central role of New England in constituting our American character, but as a Catholic I am also always conscious of the other people (some of whom got here earlier) who also played important parts in our American story.  

So, in anticipation of Independence Day this year, I have treated myself to Leslie Woodcock Tentler's new account of American Catholic history, American Catholics: A History (Yale University Press, 2020). And it was with the greatest satisfaction that I noted how the author devotes the first part of her book, "On the Fringes of Empire," to the stories of Spanish and French explorations and settlements and the Catholic missionaries who were so central to them. That, of course, was just the beginning of the great ethnic and cultural variety that has been American Catholic life and which, Tentler suggests, "constitutes a metaphor of sorts for our shared experience as a nation." She asks: "What is more central to our national history than the creation of one out of many - the building of a nation almost entirely peopled by immigrants and their descendants?" (Servant of God Isaac Hecker saw something similar, if somewhat uncritically, in the 19th century, ascribing this simultaneous accomplishment of "the republic and the Catholic Church" to "divine guidance, forming the various races of men and nationalities into a homogeneous people.)

Tentler divides her history into five parts, beginning each with a brief profile of an exemplary figure from the period. For Part I, She profiles colonial-era, Jesuit missionary priest Eusebio Kino. (Kino represents Arizona in Statuary Hall, along with three other priests - Saint Junipero Serra for California, Saint Damien de Veuster for Hawaii, and Fr. Jacques Marquette for Wisconsin.) Part II, "Growing with the Nation, 1815-1870," opens with a profile of Dominican missionary priest Samuel Mazzuchelli, who served both on the "frontier" and in Dubuque. Part III, "A Turbulent Passage, 1871-1919," opens with the story of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, rightly recognized now as patron saint of Italian and other immigrants. Part IV, "Exuberant Maturity, 1920-1962," begins with convert John C. Cort, Catholic Worker activist and founder of the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists, admittedly "hardly a typical Catholic of his own or any other generation" (and the only one of the five I had never heard of before). Finally, Part V, "A World Unbound, 1963-2015," profiles Patricia Crowley, one of the leaders of the 1950s Christian Family Movement and lay member of the 1960s Papal Birth Control Commission. The profiles are short (as is the book(, but the selections speak volumes.

Tentler's treatment of the "frontier" experience in Part II is a healthy reminder of how priest-poor the U.S. Church was at that time and the consequent infrequency of access to the sacraments that characterized much American Catholic experience, especially in the first half of the 19th century. The situation was different in the cities, where most Catholics converged, making the Catholic Church the largest denomination in the U.S. by the 1850s. For many 19th-century American Catholics, however, their Catholicism was hardly what we later came to expect in the 20th century. "Many of the Catholics arriving from Ireland in the antebellum years had hardly been catechized at all. Nor had they been habituated to anything approaching the regular practice of their religion." And, although that was an era of strong anti-Catholic nativism, Tentler tells a story of much less well known positive patterns of getting along between Catholics and non-Catholics. She also highlights the remarkable role played by Religious Sisters in the Church's life - notably in schools and hospitals - and the positive effect the Sisters' ministry had on non-Catholic opinion, particularly during and after the Civil War. Catholics' participation in that war (on both sides) also highlights the sensitive subject of the American Church's relationship with slavery and its imperfect record on race.

As one would guess from the Mother Cabrini profile, Part III highlights the immigrant experience and the era it produced. Nine million immigrants came to the U.S. in the first decade of the 20th century! Tentler describes both the strain this put on the Church's resources and how effectively and successfully the Church - clergy, women religious, and laity - responded. She profiles in particular the paradigmatic experiences of Italians (then called "the worst Catholics that ever came to this country") and Poles. Assimilation succeeded also in the religious realm, as more and more Catholics, men as well as women, became more regular in observance. Tentler also covers the complex and confusing internal factional fights within the 19th-century American Church, culminating in the Americanist crisis - and then later the Modernist crisis that followed - and their largely different impacts on clergy and laity. That the Church so successfully weathered all this set the stage for her most successful era that was to follow.

In that fourth period of "Exuberant Maturity," the Catholic population, after a brief dip thanks to the decline of European immigration and the Depression, grew, and "Catholics' confidence surged with their numbers, as did Catholics' political influence." It was an era of consolidation and powerful bishops with a public presence. It was a period of vibrant parish life, centered on an upsurge in Eucharistic piety, and active lay organizations, and the phenomenal institutional expansion of Catholic education. It was also the era of increasing Catholic isolation on the issue of birth control. But it was politically a confident time too. After the traumatic defeat of Al Smith came the FDR coalition, of which Catholics were a significant component (and probably would have been anyway even if FDR hadn't quoted Quadragesimo Anno) and eventually even the election of a Catholic president. That was, of course, the Catholic world in which I was born and experienced my foundational religious formation. To apply Winston Churchill's famous phrase about the Edwardian era: "The old world in its sunset was fair to see."

But it was sunset, as the final section, "A World Unbound," inevitably shows. Tentler begins, unsurprisingly, with Vatican II, which she believes was generally well received. "Since American Catholics had long ago made their peace with political modernity, many of the council's reforms came as welcome validation." Even so the changes proved sufficiently startling as to produce an inevitable institutional crisis. She notes for example, how the Council had neglected to "address the meaning of priesthood in an updated church." Perhaps the Council didn't anticipate how much updating was going to happen. That was clearly the case with the liturgy, the are where the impact hit ordinary Catholics most immediately. For all her enthusiasm for the Council, Tentlere admits that the liturgical reform we finally got came from Pope Paul's commission more than form the council itself. Maybe more to the point, as other divisions developed in the 1960s, "differences over the liturgy assumed an overtly political cast." The Mass "ceased to be an invariable source of Catholic unity." The key point she makes is that "Had the council never happened, the cultural ferment of the 1960s might plausibly have had the same effect,' for example, in regard to attitudes about authority and sin. "The culture of fear that permeated preconciliar Catholicism was bound to elicit a backlash as Catholics rose in educational attainment and social standing." Overall, she provides a good survey of postconciliar Church life - its stresses, but also the vitality of new movements such as the charismatic renewal and cursillo and even Call to Action. Inevitably, of course, the crises in the priesthood and religious life (especially among Sisters) gets a lot of attention. She focuses perceptibly on the effect of the erosion of communal support for religious vocation and lifestyle. This largely reflected changes in the wider culture, of course, but the internal erosion of community life in religious orders has also played  a prominent part, as she notes especially in regard to Sisters. She praises how since the Council "growing numbers of sisters have challenged Catholics to a new mode of selflessness." But, she asks, "Can this challenge survive sisters' near disappearance? If it does not, we will all be the poorer." In material terms, one inevitable result has been church closings, which have "severed Catholics from their pasts, both personal and communal" and have "distanced Catholics from a distinctively Catholic orientation to the material world."

Tentler truly recognizes and, I think, wants to celebrate the varied accomplishments of the postconciliar period. But she wonders about its future. "Can lay leadership ever fully substitute for the labor and inspiration of the male and female religious who underwrote not just the Catholic schools but also the various Catholic movements for spiritual renewal and social reform?" And how can the Eucharist continue as "the principal source of Catholic unity and identity ... if the Catholic future brings more and more priestless Sundays?"
Tentler's focus throughout her five-part history of almost 500 years of American Catholic experience is "What did it mean to be a 'good Catholic' at particular times and in particular places? How many Catholics, and which ones, were best able to approximate the ideal? What about the religious imaginations of the seemingly lukewarm?" Her effort to answer those questions effectively probes the complex edifice of American Catholic communal history and may leave the reader ready to seek to learn even more about the amazing story she tells.

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