U.S. Catholics generally know little about the Church’s history in our country. But whether you’re trying to fill gaps in your knowledge or just looking for a good read, let me recommend Russell Shaw’s “Catholics in America – Religious Identity and Cultural Assimilation from John Carroll to Flannery O’Connor” (Ignatius Press).
Its formidable subtitle notwithstanding, Shaw’s new book is an easy-to-digest smorgasbord, a portrait gallery of 15 important characters in the American Catholic story. Three heroes of my Baltimore boyhood get their just deserts: Archbishop John Carroll, first and arguably greatest of U.S. bishops; Cardinal James Gibbons, America’s most prominent Catholic for four decades; and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, “Wild Betty” as she once called herself, foundress of the Catholic school system that’s still the Church’s best anti-poverty program.
The politicos (Al Smith and John F. Kennedy), intellectuals (combustible, cantankerous Orestes Brownson and the scholarly old-school Jesuit, John Courtney Murray) are neatly sketched, as are three women of consequence: St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, Dorothy Day and Flannery O’Connor. There is a trio of New Yorkers (one born in Ireland, another in Massachusetts and another in Peoria), namely Archbishop “Dagger John” Hughes, Cardinal Francis Spellman and Spelly’s rival, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, as well as Father Michael McGivney, Knights of Columbus’ founder.
One of the most suggestive of Shaw’s portraits is that of Father Isaac Hecker, a candidate for beatification. Shortly after his death in 1888, he became the subject of contention in Rome, when an ill-translated biography of the founder of the Paulists, and some intra-Catholic brawling among U.S. hierarchs, led to a papal warning against “Americanism” – a way-of-being-Catholic that Pope Leo XIII deemed excessively privatized, insufficiently contemplative and dismissive of the Church’s magisterium. Ever since, U.S. Catholic historians have been arguing about whether “Americanism” was a phantom heresy.
There seem to be three contending parties in that debate. The canonical view of classic U.S. Catholic historians like John Tracy Ellis was that “Americanism” was indeed a phantasm of fevered Roman minds. In the 1970s came the revisionist view that Father Hecker, and bishops, like Bishops John Ireland of St. Paul-Minneapolis and John Keane of Catholic University, and Cardinal Gibbons, were in fact exploring a new ecclesiology, a new way of thinking about the Church, that Vatican II would vindicate in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church and Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.
In his portrait of Father Hecker, Shaw continues to press an argument he first raised in 2013 in “American Catholic: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America.” His contention is that Father Hecker and those of his “Americanist” cast of mind represented an assimilationist current in U.S. Catholic thought – a tendency to bend over backward to “fit into” American culture – that eventually made possible Ted Kennedy, Barbara Mikulski, Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden: cradle-Catholic politicians who support public policies that contradict basic moral truths taught by the Church on the basis of reason and revelation, justify their votes in the name of “democracy” and “pluralism,” and are supported by a lot of fellow-Catholics in doing so.
Shaw acknowledges that Father Hecker’s goal was to convert America to Catholicism, not retrofit Catholicism to the culture of his day (which I think my friend misstates as “secular” rather than “Protestant”). Father Hecker’s failure, as I read Shaw, is that he didn’t grasp that there were corrosives built into American public culture that would eventually eat away at core Catholic convictions. If that’s what Shaw is arguing, then he’s implicitly adopting the “ill-founded Republic” optic on U.S. history advanced by such scholars as Patrick Deneen and David Schindler.
My view is that the failure of Catholics to infuse American politics with Catholic social doctrine has had more to do with creating Joe Biden than Father Hecker and the “Americanists.” Shaw’s new book and its predecessor are good places to begin thinking about what went wrong and why.
George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.