Book Review: Catholics in the American Century: Recasting Narratives of U.S. History

By Nabhan-Warren, Kristy | Church History, September 2014 | Go to article overview

Book Review: Catholics in the American Century: Recasting Narratives of U.S. History


Nabhan-Warren, Kristy, Church History


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Catholics in the American Century: Recasting Narratives of U.S. History . Edited by R. Scott Appleby and Kathleen Sprows Cummings . Ithaca, N.Y. : Cornell University Press , 2012. v + 218 pp. $69.95 cloth; $21.95 paper.

Book Reviews and Notes

Catholics in the American Century is an excellent and timely contribution to the ever-emerging field of Catholic Studies. Kathleen Sprows Cummings and R. Scott Appleby have assembled an impressive group of scholars who reflect on the role U.S. Catholics in the mid to late twentieth century played in their own parishes and communities and more broadly, as part of the American historical landscape. An organizing theme of the essays is the limitations and possibilities of assimilation for mid-twentieth-century American Catholics. Moreover, the risks and rewards of assimilating into a broader American civic context for U.S. Catholics are explored by Robert A. Orsi, Lizabeth Cohen, Thomas J. Sugrue, R. Marie Griffith, David G. Gutiérrez, and Wilfred M. McClay. John T. McGreevy sets the tone for unpacking the tensions between Catholics' assimilation to mainstream culture as they maintain an ethno-religious distinctiveness. In his introductory essay, he writes, "how these Catholic ideas and institutions at once inhabited and facilitated assimilation into U.S. society is the central drama of twentieth-century U.S. Catholic history" (4). McGreevy's introductory piece, the six main essays, and R. Scott Appleby's concluding essay are all excellent examples of thoughtful, revisionist Catholic Studies scholarship. Taken individually as well as collectively, they seek to excavate this historic and ongoing drama of assimilating, maintaining distinctiveness, and crafting American Catholic realities.

In chapter 1, "U.S. Catholics Between Memory and Modernity," Robert Orsi revisits and challenges any assumption that American Catholics were indistinguishable from other Americans in the 1960s and 1970s. While it was true that Catholics were throwing out "in great trash heaps the old statues that filled their churches, and special instruments needed for various rituals," U.S. Catholics "waited with great excitement for news of the intervention of the nonhuman in the zone of the human" (14). As Orsi points out, American Catholics were eagerly modern but at the same time embraced a "divergent ontology" which set them apart from mainstream American culture (15). American Catholics, Orsi argues, were at once assimilationists as well as staunchly anti-assimilationalist and occupied an in-between realm of uneasy existence with dominant U.S. culture. Orsi ends his provocative essay by insisting that "it is necessary to hold together in creative tension the fact that Catholics have and have not been like their fellow citizens before the American Century" (42).

Picking up on this focus on American Catholics being simultaneously in tune with modernity and the mysterious, Lizabeth Cohen reflects on the current trend of globalizing American Catholic Studies. In chapter 2, "Re-viewing the Twentieth Century through an American Catholic Lens" she writes that American Catholic history is at once local, national, transnational, and global and should be interpreted as such. As much as Orsi shares his concerns with scholars' interpretation of American Catholics as modern pro-assimilationists, Cohen points out the limitations of a strictly globalizing focus within U.S. history more broadly. Specifically, she is concerned with what is lost when historians insist on reading American Catholic history as strictly transnational and global. Historians can and should, she argues, "move back and forth across registers of local, national, and international history" (53). She advocates in a thorough and convincing way for a "broadband transnational history," one that "moves agilely among the local, the national, and the global" and proposes that this comprehensive historical focus is the greatest challenge that awaits twentieth-century U. …

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