American and Catholic: David O'Brien, Catholic historian and social analyst, retires.
A few clicks into a Google search of “Professor David J. O’Brien,” someone not entirely in the know could wonder just how many contemporary American intellectuals there are by that name, surfacing in venues within and beyond the academic world. There is David J. O’Brien the Catholic Church historian, who has written relatively obscure works like a history of the Diocese of Syracuse, N.Y. There is David J. O’Brien the political commentator, who writes op-ed pieces for papers like The Boston Globe, and who plugged a candidate for lieutenant governor of Massachusetts in a column last summer. There is David J. O’Brien the liberal, who chides Democrats for acting like Republican clones, and there is one who assails “mindless liberal orthodoxies” on issues like abortion. And there is David J. O’Brien (the sociologist?), who turns up in connection with the founding of peace-studies institutes at several colleges and universities.
Behind these and other appearances in the public square, there is actually just one David J. O’Brien, a “simple American historian,” as he calls himself. Others call him one of the foremost American Catholic historians and social analysts of the past four decades, during which he has served as a professor of both history and Catholic studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. If his interests have taken him down sundry paths, it is not because he suffers from a scholarly form of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, although his friends speak of his youthful enthusiasm, and he seems generally unable to sit still. When O’Brien turns from one subject or concern to another, he usually winds back to questions he has asked throughout his career, having to do with how Catholics feel about this political community we call America.
In May, O’Brien taught the last of his classes (“American Social Gospel” and “American Themes: War and Conscience”) at the Jesuit-sponsored College of the Holy Cross, his academic home since 1969. It seems retirement, however, will only free up his time for the pursuit of scholarly projects (such as another diocesan history, of Richmond, Va.) and a particular conversation he has tried to stir up on a number of Catholic campuses around the United States. O’Brien has been telling his story of America and Catholicism, a story that has taken some turns with him over the years but has become more pointed and passionate since the atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001. He begins by speaking of penniless Catholic immigrants who came to share fully in the blessings of America and who, as a result, were granted responsibility with other Americans for their country’s future. That is a familiar tale, but O’Brien believes it is being supplanted today by a rueful narrative of how Catholics in this country came to share tragically in the moral corruptions of America.
O’Brien’s finger does not point in just one direction. He is referring to Catholics of differing stripes who style themselves as countercultural, distancing themselves from America (whether because of war, materialism, moral permissiveness or all of the above) and from “the American part of ourselves,” as he puts it. He quotes, as representative, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who speaks of an internal threat to the faith posed by “Catholics shaped by their culture more than by their faith.”
Lecturing at the University of Dayton in September 2005, O’Brien said: “I guess I would frame the argument, if I could, as one between those who care first for the integrity of the church, and want to emphasize what makes Catholics different, and those who, as Catholics, care passionately about America and its romantic promise, care most about its people, Catholics among them.” That particular frame could give the impression that O’Brien thinks there are two bustling sides of this debate over Catholic distinctiveness versus Catholic Americanism; he does not. He says the “Americanists”—a name usually reserved for 19th-century Catholic assimilationists—have been drubbed by the assorted ranks of “counter-cultural Catholic separatists.” When I caught up with him in a student pub at Holy Cross in April, O’Brien good-naturedly spoke of lectures like the one at Dayton as his “last Americanist” talks, referring namely to himself.
On the page, O’Brien can indeed sound at times like the last champion of a hopeful Catholic encounter with America. That could strike a separatist note of its own, maybe a pose of self-righteousness, and yet it is extremely unlikely that many students have filed out of O’Brien’s classroom with those impressions. Friendly and affable, he does not need to speak for long until an audience or an interlocutor gets a feeling that this is someone who really likes people and would no sooner set himself apart than he would set himself on fire.
At a recent symposium in his honor, O’Brien was variously saluted as a joiner, a community builder, an academic warrior, a Christian humanist and (with a bow to Yiddish speakers) a mensch for all seasons. The renowned Catholic historian Jay Dolan recalled, “Wherever you went, if you went to a conference, there would be O’Brien, talking to students, surrounded by students.” Another distinguished historian, Notre Dame’s John McGreevy, joked, “If you catch me praying at [this] conference, it’s because I’m praying that David O’Brien doesn’t ask me to join another committee.”
The mid-April gathering in Worcester, titled “Shaping American Catholicism: An Exploration of Major Themes in the Life and Work of David J. O’Brien,” drew a professionally diverse crowd of roughly 150 people and was co-sponsored by Notre Dame’s Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism and Holy Cross’s Center for Religion, Ethics and Culture, which O’Brien created in 2000 and led for four years. In just 15 minutes before the formal kickoff, I met a Worcester antiwar activist, an archivist from Washington, D.C., a theologian from Ohio and a youth minister from Chicago, along with O’Brien’s son-in-law, who is married to his nutrition-policy-analyst daughter. (O’Brien and his wife, Joanne, also have three sons, two of whom are involved in local Massachusetts politics and the other in business—along with four grandchildren.)
The theologian from Ohio was William Portier, of the University of Dayton, whom O’Brien has affably counted among the “counter-cultural Catholic separatists.” As a symposium speaker, Portier related those words in good humor, but he told me later that ever since the Dayton lecture nearly two years ago, he has been struggling with O’Brien’s call on Catholics to love America. Portier says that is not easy when he considers, among other tragic flaws, “the chronic systemic pattern” of war in American history.
O’Brien’s thoughts about the current war are as impassioned as they are inevitably ambiguous. “What I’m saying about Iraq is that it’s our war, not George Bush’s war,” he told me in the pub interview, during which he alternately waved his eyeglasses and his Dasani bottle to highlight points, frequently lifting his tall frame out of the banquette when his argument needed more room. Asked what he means by “our war,” he replied, “The kids over there are not fighting for George Bush. They’re fighting for us, for our freedom and security.”
Still, O’Brien is a peace activist, and a candid one. “I hold up the signs saying ‘Out Now,’ but I’m not sure if it’s the responsible thing to do,” he said of the calls for immediate withdrawal from Iraq, which he notes could conceivably bring greater instability to the region. Basically, O’Brien is saying all Americans share responsibility for getting us into and finding a way out of “our war.” Some would counter that the country was more or less dragged into this war by a driven administration, but O’Brien the historian is talking partly about the unilateralist tradition of American foreign policy, which, he says, habitually leaves us with few (political) choices in times of international crisis. Surely that is not just George W. Bush’s tradition.
Having grown up in western Massachusetts, at home in what he once called “kill-the-commies Catholicism,” O’Brien remained a happy liberal cold warrior through college at Notre Dame (class of 1960) and graduate school at the University of Rochester. But he became exposed to other notions as a young professor in Montreal between 1964 and 1969; and there came a time when war, racism and poverty made O’Brien groan like a subcultural resister. During the Vietnam era, when he wrote his book The Renewal of American Catholicism (1972), O’Brien lamented that the United States was no longer “fit for Christian inhabitation,” as he recalled in a 2005 retrospective of the book published in U.S. Catholic Historian (which, in April 2007, put out a superb issue dedicated to his life and work).
There were turning points along the way back to O’Brien’s stout belief in America, and more particularly the American people. He took a year’s leave of absence from Holy Cross to help the U.S. bishops mark America’s bicentennial in 1976 with a historic conference in Detroit, where hundreds of Catholic lay organizations resolved to take part in the renewal of American democracy. As a traveling board member of the now-defunct Catholic Committee on Urban Ministry during the 1970’s, O’Brien saw Catholics making good on such pledges in local communities. Scholarly work, too (notably his acclaimed 1992 biography Isaac Hecker: An American Catholic, about the founder of the Paulist Fathers), helped reground his Americanism.
More recently, while on the treadmill at Worcester’s Y.M.C.A., he read the heart-stirring portraits of 9/11’s victims by the brilliant New York Times writer Jim Dwyer. O’Brien says 9/11, with its illuminations of love, sacrifice and solidarity, convinced him that the much-scolded American individualism was a myth, and reminded him that he is an Americanist. On that day “the Americans, my people, were tested and...found worthy,” O’Brien reflected. After further reflection, the stories of 9/11 “left me determined to contest the ground against countercultural and sectarian Catholicism, a Catholicism that thinks we could define ourselves by our difference and distance from our country and our fellow Americans,” O’Brien explained this past March in a speech at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Tex. “Such views are sometimes challenging, but often hypocritical, and almost always irresponsible.”
The ‘Last Americanist’?
In the late 19th century, Americanists in the church were devoted to their country’s ideals of freedom and democracy, and they favored rapid assimilation of Catholic immigrants. Their days were more or less numbered in 1899, when Pope Leo XIII formally rebuked Americanism and what he saw as its undertones of ecclesiastical reform. Today the Americanist sensibility leads O’Brien to consort with organizations like Voice of the Faithful, which favors greater openness and transparency in the institutional church, and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, which counters a trend toward narrowing Catholic political engagement to abortion and related concerns. But O’Brien readily admits he has not “quite clarified the Americanist idea,” especially the breaking points between this idea or sensibility and a simple celebration of America. His assessment of countercultural Catholic separatism raises questions of its own, like where separatism breaks off from necessary Catholic identity, an issue O’Brien himself has explored in the context of Jesuit higher education.
And could there really be a “last Americanist,” even metaphorically speaking? Consciously or not, Catholics are regularly setting the dial between their Catholicism and their Americanism, and O’Brien would be among the first to say the signals could change with one turn of the generational frequency. In the shift he would like to see, Catholics would reflect more seriously on how this American culture that often repels us has also formed us in many profound, worthwhile, distressing, complicated and blessed ways, and how it is, altogether, our culture.