Roman Catholicism in the United States: A Thematic History

By Margaret M. McGuinness; James T. Fisher | Go to book overview

THREE
Left Coast Catholicism: The Tradition of Dissent
in the California Church

Jeffrey M. Burns

California has long occupied a special place in the American imagination. From the Gold Rush to the Summer of Love to Governor Jerry Brown, California has been regarded as a land of possibilities, innovation, and new beginnings. Berkeley, San Francisco, and other California communities are virtually synonymous with the spirit of cultural and political radicalism and creative innovation. Journalist/historian Carey McWilliams equated the California experience with “a spirit of independence and a tradition of bold action.”1 None of these attributes—change, innovation, independence, bold action—are values traditionally associated with Catholicism in popular thought. Rather, the church has represented stability and tradition, if not outright reaction. To many, the church is a monolithic institution insisting on uniformity in directing the lives of its faithful, who ostensibly march in lockstep. This stereotype does not fit the reality of the Catholic Church in California.

The church in California has been made up of a vast array of personalities seeking to respond to the prompting of the spirit and to live out the gospel call in their time and place. This effort has often brought California Catholics into conflict with their age and, at times, with their church. These individuals were “dissenters” for their disruption of the status quo in church and society. Most of these individuals did not consider themselves “dissidents” or radicals. Rather they saw themselves as loyal Catholics struggling to work out their vocation in fidelity to the church in a complex and, at times, hostile world. Often, it was the circumstance in which they found themselves that led to dissent. For the most part, these men and women were unaware of one another and did not define themselves as part of this tradition. Nonetheless, they share several basic principles. First, they

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