Democracy Meets Doctrine

Book cover
The Religious History of Americaby By Edwin Gaustad and Leigh SchmidtHarperSanFrancisco. 464p $29.95

Jay P. Dolan, professor emeritus of history at the University of Notre Dame and founding director of the Cushwa Center there, sets out in his new book to examine the interaction of American culture with Roman Catholicism “in the land of the free” under the heading of a “search for an American Catholicism.” It is an ambitious undertaking, and he starts out on sure ground dealing with the period 1780-1820, when democracy became a defining element of American culture. He has no difficulty pointing to certain notable Catholics, such as Mathew Carey and Bishop John England, who clearly wanted a rapprochement with the American spirit of democracy. Carey called for the election of bishops, while England set up a democratic diocesan assembly that would assist him in running the diocese. At the same time, the Catholics in Scott County, Ky., drew up a constitution for the local church. Dolan also cites the lay trustee movement. He points out that Catholic laymen were very much involved in the government of the parish as members of boards of trustees in the vast majority of the 124 Catholic parishes that existed in 1820.

But the experiment in church democracy proved no match for the authoritarian, Tridentine model, as upheld by such worthies as Bishop Benedict Flaget, the Rev. Stephen Badin and especially Baltimore’s Archbishop Ambrose Marechal. The latter had little love for democracy, which he had experienced in its worst form during the French Revolution. In the aftermath of a serious riot over lay trusteeism in Philadelphia, Marechal’s position was endorsed by the bishops at the first provincial council in 1829. The exclusively monarchical model of church government had triumphed over the visionaries.


This victory of the Tridentine model was sealed by the influx of Irish immigrants, both clergy and lay, who took readily to the ultramontane authoritarian style of Catholicism, with its parish missions and deep sense of sin. Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the badge of ultramontane piety, was preached with zest by the Irish-born clergy, and by no one with more fervor than Archbishop John Hughes. “Dagger John,” as he was called, never faced a battle he didn’t relish, and he proved to be the nemesis of Orestes Brownson, who had hesitantly called for a more American type of Catholicism.

The dream failed to die, however, and was given new life by Isaac Hecker, the convert who believed that the Catholic Church could transform American society. But that required its great faith tradition to be without compromise dressed in the values so prized by Americans: personal iniative, self-reliance, freedom of action and a positive attitude toward the world. But Hecker’s call more or less fell on deaf ears. The immigrant Irish and German Catholics actually wanted a less American Catholicism and a more Irish or more German Catholicism. When Archbishop John Ireland took up Hecker’s banner, his enemies tagged him with the dread word liberal, and he retired from the fray.

After the great war a less intellectual form of the search occurred as bishops saw the need to shake Catholics out of their comfortable ethnic ghettoes and Americanize them. But typically, Chicago’s George Mundelein found the going rough—especially with his Polish flock. It would take a few more decades of history to do the job for him and the other American bishops.

At this point in the story, however, I feel Dolan’s argument begins to lose some clarity as he moves into the era of what he calls public Catholicism. Launched during the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s, it was an effort not, as I understand it, to Americanize Catholicism, but to Catholicize America, or at least to save it from the decadence that threatened.

Dolan points to the number of leading Catholic intellectuals who came to the fore. Monsignor John A. Ryan articulated a vision of social justice rooted in papal teaching in what has been described by another writer as the “most forward-looking document ever to come from an official Catholic agency in the United States.” Monsignor Ryan and the bishops who issued his statement believed Catholic social teaching could bring peace to the violent scenes of current labor strife. And Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin weighed in with their powerful protest against the all-consuming fury of an irreligious capitalism and its accompanying evil spirits, secular humanism and materialism. Their Catholic Worker movement Dolan singles out as the most effective expression of Catholic action, with its personalism and down-to-earth ministry to the homeless and hungry.

Another voice of public Catholicism was the French neo-Thomist Jacques Maritain, who came from abroad to add luster to the neo-scholastic movement sweeping through Catholic academia. This philosophy provided the rationale for public Catholicism with its doctrine of a divinely established order reflected in a set of universally binding rational moral principles called natural law. In addition, Michael Williams and George Shuster, with Commonweal magazine, provided a forum for public Catholicism. The Jesuit labor schools proliferated and showed the practicality of the Catholic position on social justice. A Catholic literary revival already in progress for decades in Europe began to find its voice in the new world, stimulated by visitors like Maritain, the English historian Christopher Dawson and Frank Sheed.

But public Catholicism still lacked a voice that could address the scandal caused by the church’s official intolerance and its discordance with the sacred American principle of religious freedom. It was the scholarly Jesuit John Courtney Murray who took up the daunting task and covered himself with glory.

Dolan points out how the election of John F. Kennedy signaled the end of a Protestant America, while the dawning wild 60’s showed Catholics ready to be major players in the struggles of the era. But how this constituted another step toward Americanizing the Catholic Church I fail to see. Nor do I see how the emergence of a new type of American Catholic layman—educated, assertive and unintimidated by the clergy—fits into Dolan’s argument. In their effort to democratize the church they are, it seems to me, far more influenced by Vatican II’s definition of the church as the people of God than by American democracy.

Nevertheless, Jay Dolan has given us an interesting collage of outstanding American Catholics and the various ways they interacted with the American spirit of freedom and democracy. His not very sprightly long essay shows how the democratic impulse at times exerted some pressures (not very clearly defined) on the American Catholic community. But I would like to turn his thesis on its head and see a more significant lesson in the remarkable way the Catholic Church largely resisted these pressures and maintained its monarchical governance and distinctive traditions and identity in a country so enamored of individual freedom, so Protestant, so imbued with prejudice against the papacy and so contemptuous of tradition. In fact, the church not only maintained these features but was so successful that by the 1950’s a visitor might have believed the Catholic Church to be the established national church (pace Charles Morris).

This signal achievement of the Catholic Church is underscored by Edwin Gaustad’s standard work, The Religious History of America, now updated with Leigh Schmidt, a professor of religion at Princeton University. Gaustad, a professor emeritus of history and religious studies at the University of California, Riverside, originally published this text over a decade ago; the extensively revised edition is as masterful as the original; and with profuse illustrations, the price is right.

As the well-known story goes, following Sir Francis Drake and the other explorers, the settlers came pouring into America—Anglicans (not as happy with liberty as the others), Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, Lutherans, Scot-Irish Presbyterians and the long-suffering Dutch Reformed.

The first Mass was celebrated by Andrew White, S.J., in 1634 on St. Clement’s Island in the Chesapeake Bay. The small number of Catholics who eventually arrived were confined to Maryland and Pennsylvania. But the Catholic Church was fortunate to have among its forerunners such worthies as the Calverts and later the Carrolls. The Calverts were notable for their efforts on behalf of tolerance and open immigration, while the Carrolls gave Catholicism “a political and social visibility that enhanced its status especially during the revolutionary years and beyond.” Charles Carroll served as an adviser to the First Continental Congress and, as delegate to the second, became the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence. His cousin John, educated abroad, arrived back in 1774 and joined in the effort to keep Canada neutral. As the first bishop, he built well upon the foundations laid by the Jesuits and the Calverts.

The great American religious experiment had begun as its churches and synagogues engaged in a voluntary effort of unprecedented magnitude. “Voluntarism,” Gaustad observes, that is, action unaided by the state and undirected by any supreme ecclesiastical authority, came to be the distinguishing feature of religion in America. A novus ordo seclorum truly did come into existence. Voluntarism would make America the most religious country in the Western world.

But the “city on the hill” would also become a Babel of religious voices until we reach today’s “vast religious marketplace” with its “cornucopia of therapies, advice books, spiritual techniques, retreat centers, angels, Christian diets, and small groups...[that] now shapes religious identities in its own multiplicitous and ever-shifting image.”

If I were not in an ecumenical mood, I would say that amid this confusion the Catholic Church stands out like the Rock of Gibraltar.

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