The Need for Catholic Studies
JAMES T. FISHER AND MARGARET M. MCGUINNESS
Margaret McGuinness was a graduate student at Union Theological Seminary (New York) when Father James J. Hennesey’s A History of the Roman Catholic Community in the United States was published in 1981, even as James Fisher was studying American cultural history down the New Jersey Turnpike at Rutgers. Although other scholars, including Notre Dame’s Philip Gleason and Jay Dolan, were also writing about American Catholicism at this time, McGuinness’s church history classes were paying very little attention to their work, focusing primarily on the U.S. Protestant experience. Hennesey’s book convinced her that American Catholicism was a vital part of the U.S. religious landscape, but it also made her realize how many chapters were still missing from the story. She decided to write her dissertation on “something Catholic” (Catholic social settlements in the United States), as did a number of her contemporaries (Fisher wrote on the mid-twentiethcentury Catholic counterculture), and a more complete picture of how American Catholics have lived and practiced their religion slowly began to take shape. Twenty-five years later, from McGuinness’s vantage point as chair of the Religion Department at Philadelphia’s La Salle University and coeditor of American Catholic Studies (formerly Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia), it is clear that one result of this scholarship has been the development of the emerging discipline of Catholic Studies.
To a certain extent, Catholic Studies has had a place in institutions of higher education as long as Catholics have had a sustained presence in American academia. The approach favored by scholars between 1890 and 1950, however, was very different from that of today’s practitioners of Catholic Studies. The American Catholic Sociological Society (ACSS), for instance, was founded in 1938 to validate the importance of a distinctively Catholic sociology in what some scholars believed