American Catholic: The Saints and Sinners Who Built America's Most Powerful Church

Article excerpt

Charles R. Morris Times Books, 511 pages, $27.50 hardcover

American Catholics may not know it, but they have a momentous anniversary coming up and a spectacular opportunity to celebrate whatever it is that makes them what they are. 1999 will be the 100th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII's letter Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae, a condemnation of "Americanism."

The document roundly denounced a list of no-noes peculiar (or so Leo was fallibly informed) to the form of the faith that, tested on and adapted to the American frontier, had sprung up in the American Eden.

Leo especially rejected the notion that the so called "active" virtues, like humanitarianism and democracy, were of greater value than the "passive," like humility and respect for authority. Never mind that this formulation was really a French spinoff of American ideas, rather than anything actually taught by American theologians -- Leo swatted it all away as "Americanism."

Whether or not the frontier soil actually nurtured heretical thoughts, Charles R. Morris in American Catholic argues that American Catholicism -- has had a paradoxical ethos all its own. It has wrapped itself in an institutional protective shield, the so-called "Catholic ghetto," to screen out the contaminating influence of American pluralism. At the same time, the church has prided itself on its patriotism, as if its twin loyalties to God and country could never come into conflict.

As Morris tells it, the 19th century struggle between the "Americanist" or assimilationist bishops and the more conservative bishops was a fight for the soul and the future of the American church. Among those on the Americanist side was John Ireland of St. Paul, Minn., who would cooperate with the public schools rather than herd Catholic children into a costly parallel system. Among the conservatives were Bernard McQuaid of Rochester, N.Y., and New York's John Corrigan, who wanted separate schools to protect the young from mixed marriages.

In the end, the conservatives -- or separatists -- won. Not only did Catholics create a "separate universe" that maintained the Baltimore Catechism's principles more or less intact, but at its triumphal height in the 1950s, Catholic culture dominated the American landscape. Catholic politicians governed virtually every urban center in the country, and through the entertainment industry, the church had an influence that reached beyond its confessional borders. For a whole generation of Americans, Bing Crosby in "The Bells of St. Mary's" was religion.

Above all, for better or worse, this was an Irish church, a reality Morris captures in his brilliant opening chapter on the 1879 dedication of the still unfinished, spireless and buttressless Saint Patrick's Cathedral in New York. Archbishop "Dagger John" Hughes delivered a typically defiant statement to the rest of New York and the world that not only were the Irish Catholics here to stay, but, as he said on another occasion, they were determined to convert all America -- indeed, the whole world -- to the Catholic faith.

Typical of Irish history and temperament, America's Catholic Irish have had to fight for their ascendancy, such as it is, almost all the way. In the 1830s and '40s, a decade that parallels in many ways the upheaval of the 1960s, Nativist mobs burned a convent school in Charleston, Mass., and ransacked a Catholic neighborhood in Philadelphia. Cartoonist Thomas Nast and New York upper-crust diarist John Templeton Strong depicted Irish immigrants as gorillas and bums. But the Irish gave as good as they got: Hughes threatened to turn New York into "another Moscow" (a reference to the 1812 burning of Moscow to thwart Napoleon's advance) if mobs touched a Catholic church. Predominantly Irish mobs roared through Manhattan for five days during the 1863 Draft Riots, in which 105 people died -- most killed by police and troops (many of whom were Irish) putting down the rebellion. …