American Catholic Lay Groups and Transatlantic Social Reform in the Progressive Era

By Gleason, Philip | The Catholic Historical Review, October 2002 | Go to article overview

American Catholic Lay Groups and Transatlantic Social Reform in the Progressive Era


Gleason, Philip, The Catholic Historical Review


American Catholic Lay Groups and Transatlantic Social Reform in the Progressive Era. By Deirdre M. Moloney. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 2002. Pp. xvii, 267. $49.95 clothbound; $19.95 paperback.)

Though hardly catchy, the title exemplifies truth in advertising. After an introductory look at the Columbian Catholic Congress of 1893, Deirdre Moloney surveys the transnationally inflected activities of Catholic lay people in the temperance movement, in rural colonization and immigrant-aid projects, in the St. Vincent de Paul Society, in the Catholic settlement house movement, and in the more general involvement of Catholic women's groups in efforts to promote social betterment (concentrating, in the latter case, on the [German] Catholic Women's Union and Boston's League of Catholic Women).

Moloney links these activities to the emergence in the late nineteenth century of a Catholic middle class. She portrays the new middle-class reformers as acting from a variety of motives-emulation of Protestants; a drive for respectability; a desire to improve the image of the Church; a genuine concern for their needy co-religionists; and the aim of legitimating their own higher status. Moloney also detects underlying tensions between their upward mobility and desire for Protestant acceptance, on the one hand, and their determination to maintain a distinctive religious identity and resist Protestant efforts at proselytization, on the other. This is all quite plausible, but since class plays so central a role, one wishes that the author had systematically established the existence, extent, and occupational make-up of the new Catholic middle class, rather than simply extrapolating from the activities of selected individuals and groups.

Gender also figures prominently as an interpretive theme. Besides devoting a chapter to women's organizations, Moloney shows that while men dominated temperance work, colonization, and the St. Vincent de Paul Society, women played a significant auxiliary role in these areas, and she highlights Charlotte Grace O'Brien's importance in the field of immigrant aid. In keeping with the "maternalist" dimension of the Catholic gender ideology, women move front and center in the discussion of day care and settlement houses.

Race comes into the picture only in connection with African American participation in the Columbian Catholic Congress. Ethnicity figures more prominently, though Moloney notes that its presence was uneven and diminished over time. …

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