An immensely accomplished New York writer, Charles R. Morris is a regular contributor to The Atlantic magazine and the author of books on such diverse topics as the arms race, the decline of IBM, and liberal politics in New York City. He is also a “cradle Catholic raised in Philadelphia during Cardinal Denis J. Dougherty’s rule, which epitomized the fortress state-within-a-state Catholicism that is now a fading memory. Not the least of the virtues of American Catholic is Morris’s feel for this great period of the Church’s history, when it met Protestantism’s suspicion and the wider culture’s secularity by building immense churches and seminaries, schools, hospitals, retreat centers and monasteries, publishing houses, retirement homes—in short, an enveloping parallel Catholic culture. Because this happened during a period of war and “de-Christianization” in Europe, the American church’s vitality bolstered international Catholicism in ways that will surprise many readers.
While Morris’s work offers itself as history, it is both less and more than that—and the better for that fact. In part 1, “Rise,” the reader learns little about Catholicism in the Middle Colonies, California, or the area of the Louisiana Purchase. Rather, Morris treats the transformative impact of Irish immigration on the American church. Not only did the Irish displace Germans as the dominant ethnicity in both lay and ordained ranks, but they also brought with them an intense sense of mission. Purified in their struggle against the English and the harshness of their material lot, “Nothing was left to them but faith and virtue, and yet they knelt to [the Church] with hearts of purest love nor cared to have a home or country, if she were not there”—so wrote John Lancaster Spalding in his 1880 pamphlet, The Religious Mission of the Irish Race.
Morris describes the great struggles of the Civil War and the early industrial period under the heading “The Whore of Babylon Learns to Vote,” maintaining this Irish focus. The Irish enthusiasm for the Church combined with the Papacy’s embattled position in Europe to produce a scheme of loyalties that very much disturbed Protestants. Pius IX’s famous antiliberal period of papal rule (1846-1878)—which made the intolerant confessional state normative for Catholic political theory—bolstered the Irish position. This is the context for the rise of rabid anti-Catholicism in the form of the Know-Nothing Party and the Ku Klux Klan. In his infamous 1864 “Syllabus of Errors,” Pius IX had condemned the proposition that “Catholics may approve of the system of educating youth unconnected with the Catholic faith and the power of the Church.” “Pio Nono” also rejected the idea that “the Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.” For the Protestant majority, these sorts of pronouncements could provoke the deepest sort of fear (brilliantly captured in Thomas Nast’s famous antipopery cartoons).
What sort of accommodation might Roman Catholicism be able to make with American culture? As the industrial era matured—and as millions of Italians, Polish, Irish, and other Catholic groups streamed in to provide necessary labor—few questions could have been more important. Irish fervor and Vatican policy seemed to suggest that Roman Catholics should accept the U.S. Constitution as only a provisional, interim good. Once they had become the overwhelming majority, the wall between church and state could come down and a Catholic state would be established. However, in view of the immense success of the Catholic cause, it might also be argued that American institutions embodied intrinsic values and could, therefore, be embraced without fundamental reservation.
Thus arose “The Americanist Controversies,” the subject of chapter 4. To Morris’s great credit, he recognizes that these late nineteenth century debates are far from a mere historical curiosity because the present crisis of American Catholicism (vividly presented in the third section of the book) has its roots in the way this argument got resolved. Within the American hierarchy, a strong movement for full acceptance of the U.S. version of democracy developed, led by the remarkable John Ireland, whose followers included Cardinal James Gibbons and John Keane (the first rector of Catholic University). Could Catholics join the Knights of Labor? Must the Church demand that all of its children be educated in parochial schools? Does Catholicism necessarily need to favor monarchical systems? Such were the practical foreground questions. In the background, however, lay the more profound issue of whether American religious liberty and social egalitarianism powerfully encourage secularism, skepticism, and “indifferentism” (the papal term for religious relativism). Ireland’s opponents were sure that it did.
The outcome of these debates is described by Morris as “the peculiarly Irish-American” Catholic compromise, and it charted the Church’s course for the next sixty years:
The Church that looked confidently forward to the new century was separatist, ethnically grounded, and hyperpatriotic all at the same time. Wrapping Catholics’...
(The entire section is 2160 words.)