In Search of an American Catholicism: A History of Religion and Culture in Tension

By Jodziewicz, Thomas W. | The Catholic Historical Review, October 2003 | Go to article overview

In Search of an American Catholicism: A History of Religion and Culture in Tension


Jodziewicz, Thomas W., The Catholic Historical Review


In Search of an American Catholicism: A History of Religion and Culture in Tension. By Jay P. Dolan. (New York: Oxford University Press. 2002. Pp. viii, 312. $28.00.)

Two-thirds of the way through this well-written description and analysis of the interaction of American and Catholic over the past two centuries, Jay P. Dolan sums up the perennial quality of this "tension" quite succinctly: "This anomaly has always been a challenge for Christianity-to establish a relationship with culture without succumbing to it in a way that corrupts the Gospel values" (p. 171). His presentation of this story, Dolan writes, "places the history of Catholicism within the larger context of American history," while his hope is to demonstrate "that Catholicism and American culture can indeed complement and enrich each other." And, the two-hundred-year quest by Catholics "in search of an American Catholicism . . . will never end, but it is clear that at the dawn of the twenty-first century, Catholicism is no longer a stranger in the land. It has found a home in the United States" (p. 11). Well, yes-and no.

Throughout his survey, the author works five themes: democracy, devotional style, questions of nationality, the Americanization of Catholic doctrine, and gender. The primary narrative context is in fact the developing, indigenous democratic culture in the United States since the end of the American Revolution, and the entry of an apparently foreign Roman Catholicism into this largely Protestant republic, an entry that was not always so easy, nor so acceptable to the majority of an oftentimes apprehensive native population. Far more potentially complementary to the host culture during the Republican days of Archbishop John Carroll, according to Dolan, Catholic culture veered sharply thereafter toward Europe, and, to the point, Rome, with the arrival first of German and Irish immigrants by the 1830's and 1840's, and then with the avalanche of southern and eastern Europeans between the Civil War and World War I. After Carroll, however, other American Catholics had attempted to raise, and even to solve, the persistent issue concerning the compatibility of American and Catholic. As examples of these self-consciously Americanizing Catholics, Dolan offers Mathew Carey, Bishop John England, Orestes Brownson, Father Isaac Hecker, and the Americanists of the late nineteenth century, such as Archbishop John Ireland. These were individuals who took the question of American and Catholic seriously, articulating not just the issue itself but even engaging it and presenting their possible solutions in the public square. With the apparent failure of the Americanist moment, and the coincident condemnation of Modernism in 1907 by Pius X, however, the examination of the problematic, but promising, relationship of American and Catholic lost much of its developing momentum for a generation. But not entirely, as during the interwar period and afterward such Catholic thinkers as Father John A. Ryaii, George Shuster, contributors to Commonweal, Dorothy Day, Father John Courtney Murray, and various others energized by Neo-Scholasticism, grappled anew with the questions concerning the compatibility between a Roman Catholicism confidently hitting its stride in the New World and a postwar American culture seemingly in search of some sense of permanency and grounding in truths now decidedly less evident or available. This moment of Catholic triumphalism and sectarian self-confidence, however, came apart, or was drastically challenged and rearranged, during the 1960's. It was not just the travails of a host culture itself beset by war and civil rights issues, however, but it was a timely, perhaps Providential convening of the ecumenical council in Rome, Vatican II, that prompted the far deeper and more personal involvement of America's Catholics in that culture, according to Dolan. Coming of age in a most extraordinary moment of the new-old American quest for ever more democratization of its culture, American Catholics joined their non-Catholic neighbors in the headlong pursuit of the perennial American dream of personal freedom and equality and achievement. …

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