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David J. O'BrienMarch 07, 1987
In this weeks America, William Bole profiles Catholic historian David OBrien, who retires this year from his longtime teaching position at the College of the Holy Cross. In 1987, OBrien wrote about how the American democratic experiment shaped the role of the laity in the church.

John Carroll, the first bishop of the United States, once stated that the revolution in his nations religious affairs was even more remarkable than the revolution in is politics. What he meant was that Catholics faced an entirely new situation in the United States. Long subject to civil disabilities, they were now able to worship in freedom; disestablishment and free exercise had made the church a voluntary organization. Roman Catholics may have been heirs to a church almost 18 centuries old, but Western frontiers and the even more challenging frontiers of commercial--later industrial--cities, they had to create churches where none had previously existed.

At first it was a typical republican enterprise, marked by lay leadership, considerable non-Catholic support, careful accommodation of clergy to the egalitarian spirit of the age, a piety that stressed human responsibility and an apologetic aimed at making Catholicism intelligible to an enlightened public. But with the arrival of increasing numbers of immigrants, this republican interlude ended. The plain undemonstrative style of religion gave way to an emotion-packed religion distinguished by its emphasis on the practice of external rituals, communion with a host of heavenly relatives and devotion to a suffering Saviour, all mediated through a sacramental system controlled by the clergy, writes historian Jay P. Dolan. In the aftermath of conflicts over ownership of church property by lay trustees, clerical and lay roles were sharply distinguished, re- ligion was segregated from other areas of life and, within the realm of religion, the priest was supreme.

Yet it was a peoples church. Rasia Diners pioneering study of Irish immigrant women, Erins Daughters in America, reveals the extent of drunkenness, desertion, industrial accidents and schizophrenia in Irish neighborhoods--a portrait of cultural declension repeated among successive immigrant groups. In the midst of fragile communities, lay leaders appeared, usually people with intact families and steady employment. They began to organize, in part to enhance their own life-prospects by overcoming the stigma attached to their nationality, in part to preserve the continuity of their families and express national and religious traditions they valued. Migration to America, according to Timothy L. Smith, involved a redefinition of the boundaries of peoplehood as folk memories were brought to bear on new aspirations. In the ethnic Catholic parish, there was a sharp sense of the particularity of this group, but also a more expansive sense of Catholicity reflected in new devotions, the Roman ritual and the sometimes defensive insistence on the long history and universal reach of the Catholic Church. Based on persuasion and commitment, these parishes provided centers of order in a disordered environment and principles of authority in a world of conflicting voices and multiple temptations.

Conservative piety, with its relatively pessimistic understanding of human nature and its less than revolutionary approach to social conditions, was quite functional for the situation in which newcomers found themselves. Preachers stressed again and again that people were free to choose: The possibilities of freedom could be realized and its dangers to personal integrity and family life avoided, one pastor said, if people would place themselves willingly under obligation. They should join the church, contribute to its support, receive its sacraments, follow its moral teaching, turn away from drink and boisterous behavior, and fulfill their family responsibilities. To those still close to their preindustrial, peasant roots, it was no surprise to learn that people were sinful, the world a hard place and self-control the key to solving lifes problems. After generations of study on cultures of poverty, it should not be a shock to learn that conservative theology worked better than liberal, that order, authority, clear moral rules and family stability could help, not hinder, the process of liberation.

For all the determination to hold on to old-world ways, the immigrant Catholic experience of deliberately forming community around churches, schools and devotional and charitable societies was a uniquely modern adventure. Routines of religious practice instilled habits of order and restraint appropriate to the new industrial discipline, but at the same time the experience opened horizons of new possibility, evident in the obvious pride that marked the dedication of a new church or the opening of a new school, the arrival of the first sisters or the celebration of First Communion for long lines of scrubbed, well-dressed and very American children. The piety, at first glance world-denying, in practice was a kind of pastoral theology of liberation, for if it taught anything, it taught that what had been need be no longer, that age-old notions of deference and ascribed status could give way to a new life of personal responsibility and self-making. And evidence for these new ideas was right there, in the progress of this parish of which this person was a part.

Then, as now, the bottom-up process of church formation existed in some tension with the imperatives of the Catholic Church as an organization. To survive in the context of pluralism, the hierarchy had to make the immigrants practicing Catholics, eliminate or co-opt traditional family and communal devotions and draw people to the sacraments. They had to persuade people to offer personal and financial support, so they had to clarify the boundaries between the church and competing organizations. In time, the universalism of faith became focused exclusively on the church, pastoral strategies of maintenance gradually replaced those of community formation, missionary and evangelical responsibilities were rendered secondary to organizational considerations.

It is almost impossible to overemphasize the degree to which organizational priorities shaped the ideology of 20th-century American Catholicism. The teaching of Christ was not left to drift with the centuries, one bishop said. The Saviour promulgated a complete organization. At its center was the hierarchy, which had kept inviolable the direct revelation that God gave personally to it in the person of his first priests. A priest in that same diocese announced that the cross before which we kneel must not be a cross of our own making; rather, the cross before which we must kneel is the divinely established priesthood in its glorious hierarchy. The fact that Catholics were doing so, at least to the satisfaction of some of their leaders, was evident when that same bishop told a lay audience in 1925 that the church is the happiest and most peaceful, society that history records and the most perfect organization the world has ever known. Thirty years later, in 1955, the bishop of that diocese told an assembly that the parish, the church in miniature needed three things: a school, which was not the greatest privilege of the priest but his greatest responsibility, an altar, where the Mass could be celebrated by the priest, and, of course, the priest, the dispenser of the mercy of God [and] the grace of tbe redeemer. By then the people were not left out, but taken for granted.

Of course there had always been another voice. In the late 19th century Archbishop John Ireland and others had argued that the church should expand its agenda and engage the great problems of modern society. Paulist founder Isaac Hecker said it best. Although his age had its martyrs, recluses and monastic communities, Hecker thought these would not be its prevailing types of Christian perfection. Instead, our age lives in its busy marts, in counting houses, in workshops, in homes and in the varied relations that form human society....This is the field of conquest for the heroic Christian of our day. Out of the cares, toils and duties, afflictions and responsibilities of daily life are to be built the pillars of sanctity of our age. Archbishop Ireland put it more forcefully: Let there be no room among us for the lackadaisical piety which lazily awaits a zephyr from the sky, the bearer of efficacious grace, while Gods grace is at hand entreating to be made efficacious by our cooperation. Ireland thundered: We are certain of failure if we are on our knees when we should be fleet of foot, if we are in the sanctuary when we should be in the highways and the marketplaces.

Catholics continued to enter the highways and marketplaces, but their presence was not experienced as an occasion to make Gods grace efficacious. In America as in Europe, liberal Catholicism lost out. Pope Leo XIII told American Catholics to associate as much as possible with other Catholics, to avoid the suspicion that there were some among them who desired a church in America different from the church in the rest of the world, and to take steps to preserve in the multitude a submissive spirit. He worried that the so-called Americanists wished to introduce into the church a certain liberty so that limiting the exercise and vigilance of its powers, each one of the faithful might act more freely in pursuance of his own natural bent or capacity. Leo XIIIs idea was quite different: We ardently desire that this truth should sink day by day more deeply into the minds of Catholics: namely, that they can in no better way safeguard their own individual interests and the common good than by yielding a hearty and submissive obedience to the church.

Pope Leo XIIIs directives corresponded quite well with the perceived requirements of the church as an organization in pluralistic America. Gradually, with the help of parochial schools and an ever multiplying set of associations designed to segregate Catholics culturally and socially American church became a subculture, draining lay life of religious meaning. Bishops and priests took pride in the economic success, social advancement and localized political power of Catholics, but they could give no religious or spiritual meaning to the experience of social mobility. The poor could expect assistance, and working people who joined unions could expect at least moral support; but even liberal Catholics had little sense that economic betterment was the key to the independence and empowerment essential to a democratic society, much less that such mundane preoccupations had anything to do with the pursuit of sanctity. Nor did they think that work and civic involvement might be as important in forwarding the Kingdom of God as participation in the church. In politics, the immigrant church experience of mutual aid and self-help shaped a style of practical deliberate action aimed at achieving concrete objectives for a particular group.

The experience of ethnic community formation was similarly part of an adjustment to the American marketplace which rewards came to those with the organized power to participate in the give and take of pluralism. This ethos was reflected as well in Samuel Gomperss business unionism that Catholic skilled workers embraced so readily. The same hard-headed association of organization and economic stability with freedom and dignity informed as well the machine politics and bread-and-butter liberalism that attracted Catholic voters. But all this was activity apart from church, necessary, sometimes useful, but devoid of religious meaning, and in fact regarded with some suspicion as perhaps a bit selfish and materialistic by idealistic reformers and conservative churchmen alike.

The tradition associated with Hecker and Ireland continued in modified form in the work of liberal Catholics like John Burke, John A. Ryan, Michael Williams and George Shuster. They offered considerable ethical reflection on economics and politics, but for them it was a matter of philosophy and ethics, not of theology and grace. Father Philip Murnion put his finger on an old and deeply rooted problem when he commented recently that the disjunction between religion and secular life is only secondarily a question of ethics; it is primarily a question of meaning.

By the 1950s, American Catholicism had become one of the worlds great success stories. With the help of the GI Bill, the new unions and the general prosperity of the period, American Catholics began that accelerated movement into the middle and upper classes that Father Andrew Greeley has documented so well. By then, however, the self-understanding of the church had deprived that dramatic story of religious significance. Lay success did not enrich Catholic culture, and church teaching had little impact on the lay lives of the laity. Church leaders had confined the church to church, they had defined religion in terms of sacramental practice, organizational unity and group loyalty and settled for a subculture in which the highest responsibilities of church members were to attend Mass, to support the parish and school and to denounce the churchs enemies.

But, as the Catholic middle class grew in numbers and self-confidence, the long muffled liberal voice revived. Priests like Louis Putz, Reynold Hillenbrand and John LaFarge and lay leaders like John Cogley, Pat and Patty Crowley, Joseph and Sally Cunneen and Ed Marciniak saw in the evident progress of Catholics some Ireland-like possibilities. When they read Teilhard de Chardin, they glimpsed the possibility of a theology of work; in John Courtney Murray they found at least the beginnings of an American Catholic politics, and in the living rooms where couples from the Christian Family Movement gathered, there was hope for an understanding of sex, love and marriage that might overcome the impersonal character of modern bureaucratic life. Pushed in many places to the margins of parish and diocesan life, this new breed came into their own in the age of John Kennedy, John XXIII and Vatican II. In the language of the council they found a charter to give meaning to American Catholic history, which had produced a new generation capable of making a significant impact on American culture.

Things have not turned out as expected. Few explanations are satisfying; most are self-justifying. Loss of nerve at the top, wrenching conflicts in American society, lack of sophistication among the leaders of renewal, all were real factors. But far more important was the simple fact that the subculture Catholics had constructed for themselves, in the ultramontane movement in Europe and in the post-immigrant church in the United States, was incapable of addressing the kinds of problems the 1960s presented. Organizationally, sociologically and intellectually Catholicism had segregated church and world and had sharply distinguished laity and clergy; it had confined religion to church. Lacking a theological understanding of American experience or a spirituality connected to life outside church, Catholics had few resources to sustain their effort to be at once American and Catholic when it was the very meaning of the terms that became the issue.

A century earlier, Protestant theologian Philip Schaff had noted that Catholics were to be found at the top (through converts) and the bottom (through the immigrants) of the American social structure, but they had not as yet penetrated the middle class. When they did, Schaff predicted, they would come to resemble evangelical Protestants. He was right. Renewal experts thought they could change the church from the top down, social activists thought the hierarchy could lead the church into prophetic resistance to racism, injustice and war. Conservatives thought they could place limits on self-consciousness and restore the subculture of the immigrant church and Vatican I papacy. But the truth was far less dramatic. The Catholic Church, in Martin Martys phrase, had become mainline. Even if the bishops wished to listen to Catholics United for the Faith or to the Berrigans, there are limits to what they can do. What Schaff anticipated, Andrew Greeley describes as: do it yourself Catholicism. Human freedom, Gospel faith, voluntary community and personal responsibility are the marks of a free church and of an evangelical style of religious life. Whether such a church can also be Catholic is the question, a question as old as John Carroll.

Voluntary organizations require choices. And organizations, and the people who love them, usually want the choices to be for themselves. It is obvious that the immigrant church prospered by concentrating on religion, endowing church life alone with religious meaning and forming its people to a fundamental option (to use contemporary language) for the church. It is less obvious that people as different as James Hitchcock, Daniel Berrigan and Ralph Martin would lead Catholics back to church, however different their understandings of church might be. Nor is it surprising that each regards the story of American Catholicism as one of gradual incorporation into a sinful society at the cost of religious integrity. It is more surprising that even the American hierarchy at its best, in the pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace: Gods Promise and Our Response, could describe the United States as a nation increasingly estranged from Christian values, even, in earlier drafts, as a secularized, neo-pagan society, hardly noticing that Catholic separatism had made its contribution to the much lamented segmentation of modern culture.

Acceptance of such descriptions would seem to deny Catholic responsibility for what the nation has become and once again require lay people to detach themselves from daily life and center their attention exclusively on the community of disciples. Given such attitudes, the response is predictable: The emergence of well-schooled leaders argue that bishops and priests should stick to religion, avoid interference in secular subjects beyond their competence and assist their people in finding personal meaning, supportive community and clear Catholic identity in a private, not a public, church. In different ways, Catholics at odds with their country and those who regard it les critically agree that the church should be the church, which is to say it should locate itself apart from work, politics, secular culture, daily life.

The tendency for the church to place itself in sectarian fashion at the center of history and build community and enhance morale by announcing its separateness from and superiority to surrounding culture consistently frustrates its announced intention to take lay people seriously. The split between the faith which men [and women] profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the most serious errors of our age, Vatican II declared. Let there be no false opposition between professional and social activities on the one part and religious duties on the other. Fifteen years later, the synod of bishops argued that the Christians specific contribution to justice lies in the day-to-day life of the individual believer acting like a leaven in his or her family, work, social and civic life.

In the first draft of their pastoral letter on the U.S. economy, the bishops committee drew on Vatican II to argue that the universal call to holiness is expressed in the struggle to enhance human dignity in daily life: Men and women in business, on farms and in factories, in government, in scientific and educational institutions, and in every other field of labor can achieve true sanctity when they respond to the call of discipleship in the midst of their work. The church in its ministry has a responsibility to nurture and sustain this response. Yet, by the third draft, the Vatican II quotes had been eliminated. Three paragraphs on the lay vocation were reduced to two sentences, followed quickly by warnings about a throw-away society. New sections on family life said nothing of nurturing civic engagement or sustaining peacemaking and just work, but instead warned against self-gratification and urged witness to counter-cultural values.

Given the many violations of human dignity in modern history, all Christians are tempted to make the church a haven and a refuge, a sign of human possibility precisely because of its distance from ordinary life. Seeing the rest of the world filled with iniquity, the good person will be content to keep his own life on earth untainted with wickedness and impious actions, so that he may leave this world with a fair hope of the next, Thomas Merton once wrote, paraphrasing Plato. While it is true that sometimes individuals may be forced into this position, Merton continued, to view it as normal or to accept it as preferable to the risks and conflicts of daily life is an admission of defeat, an abdication of responsibility. Merton did not want to move the monastery to the edge of church and world, but to their center, there to engage the central issues of public life. We must judge and decide for ourselves not only as individuals, preserving the luxury of a clean conscience, but also as members of society, taking up a common burden and responsibility. The real choice is not between a faithful church and pagan world, but between responsibility and irresponsibility, between acknowledgement that people are worthwhile, that there is a goal for human history and a meaning to human existence, and the always demonic suggestion that the only meaning and value that exists lies in religion, in church, in our church.

The logic of church teaching and the requirements of human dignity demand that the church turn its pastoral attention to the laity as laity. Ministry in the church and ministry to the world are two sides of the same coin of a church that claims to be Christs presence in history. At the heart of Catholic Christianity is the claim that all men and women are destined for union with God, that all of Gods creation will be reconciled with its Creator, that the Kingdom will in fact come. Through no particular merit of their own, some have been called as Christians to cooperate consciously in forwarding the Kingdom; that is, to be the church. As a human creation, the church tends always to mistake itself for the Kingdom of God, but the promise of a single human family, living in love and friendship with one another, breaks through particularities, scatters subcultures and calls forth engagement with the whole movement of human history. The collapse of the American Catholic subculture has once again posed the temptation of self-constructed ghettos, but it has also opened up visions of larger and more inclusive identities, as Americans in an endangered global village, as Catholics in a world church.

If there is wisdom in the pastoral experience of the American church, it lies in those parishes, political machines, trade unions and community organizations whose leaders had little use for abstractions but considerable confidence in people as they found them. If real concrete historical man is the way of the church, as Pope John Paul II claims, then he and his fellow church leaders had best recover some of that confidence in people. From Pope John XXIIIs catalog of human rights through the 1981 synods discussion of the right to development, to the bishops call for a new experiment in economic democracy, Catholic teaching has contained a new and powerful emphasis on democratic themes; but a free, democratic church has yet to be built. In the policy sections of both pastoral letters , the one on peace as well as the one on the economy, the bishops bent over backward to avoid moralistic judgments; one almost weeps at the complex problems that confront Pentagon officials and corporate executives. Yet in the final sections of both letters, when the bishops arrive back in church to address their own people, the language becomes radical and scriptural, American society is denounced as sinful, materialistic, even capable of inflicting persecution and martyrdom. Presumably lay Catholics engaged in that society are in danger of corruption, and the history that brought Catholics into the heart of American life is a tragedy.

There is more to American Catholic history than that. This generations parents and grandparents worked hard for economic security and social status while they struggled to preserve their religious integrity. They were not pursuing false gods, unless their children make Pharaohs Egypt the destination by settling down in comfort, even a comfort surrounded by pious pretensions to discipleship. Whether that experience was one of authentic liberation or of surrender to a neo-pagan society depends on whether this generation lifts its eyes to a future filled with the promises of God. To do so, they will have to refresh a memory of poverty-stricken immigrants, crowded tenements and dark factories, parishes, schools, unions and clubhouses, the first home and car and college graduate, new freedoms and new choices, memories of liberation bearing meanings that turn them out of sanctuaries and into marketplaces where the fate of millions of people so like themselves is being determined. What others once did can now be done again; meaning can be given to memory by mission, by building a future fit for human habitation out there, in John Irelands highways and marketplaces. As Isaac Hecker put it while a young man: This is our destiny, to do the best and the greatest that is now to be done.

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