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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2160

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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’ entire lives with religion, it was yet the most formalistic, and in Protestant eyes the most unspiritual, of faiths. Committed to a sweeping program of immigrant uplift, it was yet politically conservative and fatalistic, a friend of mainstream labor unions but suspicious of grand schemes of social reform. In America, but decisively not of it, it was the most patriotic and nationalistic of churches.

On the decisive school question, the compromise was uncompromising in its distrust of American norms: “Promiscuous” mixing of Catholics with non-Catholics must always be avoided, for in it lay the seeds of impiety, impurity, intermarriage, and a loss of sacramentality in life.

The compromise was successful beyond anyone’s most fervid dreams. In part 2, “Triumph,” Morris provides powerful accounts of American Catholic life in the twentieth century. It was, in many ways, a schizophrenic existence—but one that worked wonderfully well. Catholics could not be outdone in their patriotism and eagerness to affirm the providential goodness of America. On the other hand, they were constantly rebuffed—in presidential politics (Al Smith’s disastrous campaign being the prime example), in cultural matters (especially the availability of sexually permissive books and movies), and in social interaction (“Protestant America” could exhibit spectacular ignorance of—and hostility toward—Catholic ways of being Christian). Catholics coped with this situation much as segregated African Americans dealt with their exclusion, developing their own unique social infrastructure so that “a separate universe” of organizational structures emerged.

Formed as parallels to their secular counterparts, there arose Catholic newspapers, radio programs, book clubs, bar associations, and medical societies. In Morris’s words:

The National Catholic Education Association, founded in 1904, was one of the oldest Catholic professional organizations; but by the 1930s, there was a Catholic Press Association, a Catholic Writers’ Guild of America, an American Catholic Philosophical Association, a Catholic Anthropological Association, a Catholic Poetry Society of America, a Catholic Economic Association, and a National Council of Catholic Nurses.

These organizations were not mere copies of worldly originals. Morris is impressed by the fact that many were concerned to cultivate “the distinctive Catholic worldview,” even in such once-alien fields as psychiatry and sociology. Thus, sociology, for Catholics, begins with the fact of the Mystical Body of Christ. Moreover, the discipline, clarity, and certainty that such affiliations produced in the lives of both working-class and professional Catholics can only be admired. At the time, it sheltered Catholics from the relativisms and uncertainties described in Joseph Wood Krutch’s The Modern Temper (1930), which despaired at the emergence of a scientific society that is skilled at devising means but knows no enduring ends.

Morris’s “Triumph” section is interestingly varied. He includes a long chapter titled “God’s Bricklayer,” on Cardinal Dougherty, who presided over the advancement of church interests in Philadelphia, where Morris’s mother attended West Catholic high school. Based on interviews and archival sources, the writing is both celebration and elegy for an imperial, all-embracing Catholic world. Attendance at Sunday Mass approached 90 percent; housing developments had the enormous complex of church and parochial school at their center; vigils, novenas, and retreats drew thousands of participants; and enrollment in public schools was rare. Hypermasculine priests, many of them from blue-collar backgrounds, were well educated and enjoyed great prestige, which was enhanced by the discipline required by celibacy. Seminaries overflowed, despite the rigorism of the experience. “Nuns were the system’s faceless heroes,” writes Morris, noting that the ratio of nuns to priests in the Philadelphia diocese was around five to one. Centering all life was worship. To outsiders, it might look like a play of clerical arrogance, incomprehensible (and manipulative) mystery, polytheism (those saints! the cult of Mary!), and money grubbing. Morris, however, knows better: “For a trembling moment every week, or every day if they chose, ordinary people reached out and touched the Divine.”

The “Triumphal” era was hardly without conflicts and tensions. Interethnic problems were very touchy: Irish, German, Italian, Polish, Bohemian, and Hispanic peoples were not blended into the same parishes. Morris acknowledges the extreme racism of many Catholics and the poor record of the Church in evangelizing African Americans. The Depression brought forth the radical Catholic Worker movement, led by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin; but Father Charles Coughlin, the “Radio Priest,” offered a homegrown brand of anti-Semitism and pro-Nazism. After World War II, the extreme anticommunism of world Catholicism led to the horrid abuses of Senator Joseph McCarthy, a Catholic who enjoyed the support of leaders of no less stature than Cardinal Spellman. Morris is not kind to his church on the subject of anti-Semitism, accepting as accurate many of the claims about Catholic indifference to the fate of the Jews under Adolf Hitler.

Part 3, “Crisis,” is a predictably troubling account, one that mostly eschews historical narrative, focusing instead on the sources of the present problems of the Church. At its moment of nearly total triumph, American Catholicism began to collapse. The presidential election of John F. Kennedy represented both that success and the dangers it entailed, for it signaled the fatal advent of assimilation and compromise with a society from which the Church had (wisely) kept aloof. The great compromise—be vehemently for America but not of it—collapsed. Whereas the old-line bishops “understood that strength lay in a prickly apartness from America’s great leveling engine,” new forces emerged that would make the separatist program impossible to sustain. Some of them were utterly mundane: postwar prosperity, the automobile, flight to the suburbs, and the rise of the sunbelt and decline of traditional northeastern centers of Catholic power. Others were more difficult: the hegemonic power of individualism and the culture of consumption; feminism and gay rights; mass participation in higher education, leading to a more assertive laity; dissent from papal teachings on birth control and other aspects of sexuality; and liberation theology, postmodernism, and deconstruction.

Of fundamental concern is that, at the very moment when American Catholicism (with fifty to sixty million members) most needs forceful leadership, that cadre is shrinking rapidly. From 1966 to 1985, almost seven thousand diocesan priests left their vocations. Seminaries once thronging are being shut down or merged. According to one researcher, “By about 2005, the ratio of active priests to Catholics will be about half of what it was in 1966.” Still worse, “the future of the female religious orders is probably hopeless.” The eighty-five thousand nuns in the United States are an aging population that is taking in almost no new members. Morris devotes an entire chapter, “The Struggle with Sexuality,” to detailing the agonizing problem of clerical sexual abuse and institutional demoralization. To his great credit, he wishes to see these matters in a theological light, discussing the academicization of Catholic theology and its various contending schools.

In order to complete the last part of American Catholic, Morris spent time with a variety of parishes. Though the book sustains a sense of general loss, Morris is deeply impressed by what he finds. Where priests once dominated, vibrant examples of lay leadership are now in evidence. The propensity of American Catholics to dissent from magisterial teaching does not lead, he found, to superficial “cafeteria Catholicism”; rather, great commitment is in evidence. The collapse of the public urban school system has provided the Church with important new educational opportunities, and these have been impressively seized. Liturgical creativity is in full force.

A reading of Morris’s book will not be of comfort to those who would bring back the pre-Vatican II church. Whether one likes it or not, American Catholics have “made it” in American society. Immigrant psychologies have faded, but what ethos will replace them is unclear. That some new form of separation must be negotiated is the one unambiguous imperative that Morris’s work suggests.

Sources for Further Study

America. CLXXVII, no. 16, November 22, 1997, p. 21.

Christianity Today. XLI, December 8, 1997, p. 50.

First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life. No. 77, November, 1997, p. 59.

Library Journal. CXXII, no. 9, May 15, 1997, p. 81.

The Nation. CCLXIII, no. 6, August 26, 1996, p. 29.

The New York Times Book Review. August 17, 1997, p. 20.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, no. 18, April 29, 1996, p. 56.