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Keys to the Kingdom

IN SEARCH OF AN AMERICAN CATHOLICISM: A History of Religion and Culture in Tension, By Jay P. Dolan, Oxford University Press: 312 pp., $28

September 01, 2002|CHARLES R. MORRIS | Charles R. Morris is the author of "American Catholic: The Saints and Sinners Who Built America's Most Powerful Church."

The tension between religion and American culture dates from the earliest settlements. Although most of the colonies had some form of established church, religious pluralism was the norm by the early 18th century. A country peopled by the descendants of fugitives seeking freedom of worship was poor soil for the kind of religious repression characteristic of the Old World. Still, the commitment to principled consistency embodied in the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment to the Constitution was extraordinary.

Under the constitutional theory of the day, however, the 1st Amendment did not apply to the states, many of which still legislated religious discrimination, chiefly against "papists"--the adherents of the "Romish" church, the "Whore of Babylon" of the Apocalypse. Beyond sheer prejudice, in fact, there were many reasons why one might conclude that Catholicism was fundamentally disposed against the American experiment. The Vatican left no doubt of its preference for monarchy, fulminating in encyclical after encyclical that freedom of speech, of the press and of religion was "insanity."

Jay P. Dolan is the author and editor of numerous books on American Catholic history. Over the last 30 years at Notre Dame University, he has built the nation's finest archive of source materials on American Catholicism. His new book, "In Search of an American Catholicism," is an essay on the ups and downs of the always-uneasy accommodation between Catholicism and American-style religious pluralism.

Dolan distinguishes five broad stages of adaptation. From the revolutionary era through the 1820s, the Catholic population contained a high proportion of upper-middle-class, educated individuals imbued with Enlightenment and republican ideals. Despite the instinctive mistrust of Catholics by Protestant fundamentalists, Catholicism had actually begun to acquire a certain intellectual cachet in the early 19th century. The year 1832 marked the first and only time that a Catholic priest was named chaplain to the U.S. Congress. Matthew Carey, a university-educated Philadelphia publisher and pamphleteer who emigrated from Ireland in 1784, and the remarkable Maryland Carroll family--Charles Carroll was a signer of the Declaration of Independence--are Dolan's prime exhibits.

Virulent anti-Catholicism returned during the antebellum period of rapid emigration of European peasants and small farmers, especially from Ireland. To the guardians of order in large cities, Catholic immigrants appeared to be destructive hordes, their religion a bizarre form of theater dedicated to extracting money from inert masses. John Hughes, the fiery archbishop of New York City and the bete noire of New York intellectuals, created the carapaced, immigrant-based, ghettoized style of American Catholicism that persisted until the 1950s.

After the Civil War--Dolan's third period--the Hughes brand of ghetto Catholicism was challenged by an "Americanist" wing of the U.S. hierarchy, led by Minnesota bishop, John Ireland. The battle centered on the church's commitment to a separate parochial school system. Ireland was eventually routed out by the hierarchy's conservatives, who counterbalanced their distancing of the church from American culture with a vigorous flag-waving patriotism. By World War I, the patriotism of Catholics was no longer in question.

That adroit combination of separatism and patriotism was the platform for the American church's most successful expansionist period, which extended roughly from the 1920s through John Kennedy's election as president in 1960. Catholics, and Catholic priests, defined the progressive but socially conservative style of American unionism. Powerful big-city bishops were a force in Democratic Party politics. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen ruled the airwaves. The vigorous Spencer Tracy stereotype of the Catholic priest became almost a masculine ideal. Influential Protestant journals lamented that Catholicism seemed to be taking over the whole country.

Just as it was influencing American culture, the powerful American Catholic Church was also transmitting American values to world Catholicism. The final episode in Dolan's tale opens with an account of how Vatican II, the council of bishops summoned by Pope John XXIII in 1962, officially endorsed American-style freedom of religion. It was the sweetest of victories for the American Jesuit John Courtney Murray, the primary drafter of the canons, who had been firmly squelched by the Vatican just a decade before for his justifications of religious toleration.

To Dolan, the attributes of the post-Vatican II American church that he most admires--the respect for parish democracy, the leading role of women, the vibrant engagement with American culture--are finally bringing it back to its true roots, in the Enlightenment and republican ideals represented by the Careys and Carrolls at the very outset of the American Catholic experience.

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