Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The Search for an American Catholicism

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The Search for an American Catholicism

Article excerpt

From the very first moment Europeans set foot on America's shores they have sought to adapt their culture and customs to the environment of the New World. This was very evident in the area of religion. For more than one hundred and fifty years Jews in America had to learn how to survive without a rabbi to lead them in prayer. This meant that throughout the colonial period lay men became the dominant religious leaders in the local synagogue. In Virginia the first English settlers wanted to fashion a church that would be in conformity with the Church of England "as neere as may be." Since no bishop was willing to settle in Virginia, this pioneer generation was forced to establish "an Episcopal church without bishops."(1) Because of this situation lay vestrymen took control of church affairs. The first generation of Catholic settlers in Maryland had to learn how to govern a colony in which Protestants outnumbered Catholics. For Cecil Calvert, the founder of the Maryland colony, this meant that civil harmony was of primary importance; for this reason religion was to remain a private affair, neither shaping the destiny of the colony nor impeding its progress. The first Jesuits in Maryland were not pleased with this idea. They wanted the Catholic Church and its clergy to enjoy a special place in the new colony, a privileged status that was commonplace at that time in Europe. Calvert would not give in to their demands. If the Jesuits were to remain in Maryland, they would have to do so without any special privileges. The Jesuits stayed, and Catholicism in America became a church free and independent of state control.

Each of these three stories suggests that new models of church and denomination were to emerge in the New World. The first generation of European settlers was compelled to adapt its ways to the challenges posed by the New World's geographical, social, and political environment. Thus, the history of religion in America has been a history of the adaptation of the ancient religious traditions, be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu, to the challenges posed by the New World environment. For Catholics their history has been a continuous search for an American Catholicism, a Catholicism rooted in the ancient Catholic tradition but always seeking to adapt itself to the culture of what we now call the United States.

In 1966 I began my graduate studies in the history of American Christianity at the University of Chicago. During these past thirty years the historical study of religion in the United States, and of Catholicism in particular, has undergone substantial change. Many of us have lived through these changes and they have been truly remarkable. The emergence of the new social history in the 1960's sparked an interest in intensive studies of individual communities. With this focus on community studies the local parish became a concern of historians, and this has remained true to the present. For this new generation of historians the religion of the people rather than the activities of the prelates has become a primary focus of study. The growth and development of immigration history sparked an interest in the study of immigrant groups; the emergence of cultural pluralism as the assimilation theory of choice during these years reinforced this scholarly interest in Catholic ethnic groups. This focus on Catholic immigrants has enriched the historical understanding of immigrant Catholicism. Developments in women's history during the past thirty years have also been remarkable; this is slowly but decisively having an influence on the way historians understand and interpret the American Catholic past. Scholars have also shown increased interest in the culture of Catholicism as it is manifested in the religious practice of the people. This has drawn attention to the devotional life of Catholics and has resulted in some insightful studies of popular piety.(2)

The new Catholic history, however, lacks coherence. …

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