As a trained
historian, I am normally very suspicious of the mixture of history and
contemporary affairs. The potential to distort history in order to promote a
contemporary agenda is simply too great. Make arguments using reason and
evidence, by all means; research and write about history, certainlybut don’t
try to do both at the same time. The results are usually deplorable.
Yet I am forced to
concede that it can be done well. When history is used to provide background,
to illuminate current problems, to recount the choices that have been made so
as to shed light on the choices before us today, then the lives, the failures,
and successes of those who preceded us are paid due respect. In general, I am
wary of mixing history and contemporary analysis, but in American
Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism
in America (Ignatius, 2013), Russell Shaw does it superbly well.
Shaw exhibits his
brilliance as an investigator of Church history and an observer of Church
affairs in countless ways. There is, to begin, his selection of Cardinal James
Gibbons to serve as the apotheosis of American Catholicism. In the Americanist
debates of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Gibbons was seen as a
moderate figure, of Americanist leaning. His theology was orthodox, to be sure,
but neither theology nor doctrine was his central concern. When he exerted
himself, it was for the most practicalwhich is not to say unimportantof
causes: intervening in Rome to head off condemnation of the Knights of Labor, a
move that would have cost the American Church dearly among the majority of its
adherents, who were decidedly working class.
The choice of
Gibbons highlights, moreover, the exquisite historical sensibility that Shaw
brings to his story. Church history cannot be understood, in my estimation,
unless one appreciates two related features: contingency and irony. Shaw does
not always make these phenomena explicit, but he clearly understands their
By contingency, I
mean the fact that decisions made in a historical context must be understood
within the same context. Such decisions necessarily entail a set of trade-offs.
In most cases, there is no clearly right or wrong decisionone path sends
Catholic history off in one direction; a different path sends it in another.
There are various advantages and disadvantages along each path. Where the trail
leads depends on a number of other decisions made in the course of the
journeydecisions made not merely by one or a handful of actors but also by
multitudes of other actors whose choices lay outside our control. It is
difficult to sort out the implications of past actions with the benefit of
hindsight; it is impossible to predict all of the implications of one’s actions
in the present and yet, decisions must be made, for better or for worse.
To return to
Gibbons then. Shaw likes him, I think, or at least respects him. But he
recognizes the contingency of his choices. Gibbons chose to emphasize
acculturation to American society rather than Catholic distinctiveness. He
strove to prove to Protestant America that Catholics could be good Americans
and he pushed the predominantly immigrant Church of his day toward the
respectability that would support this claim. This is not a “good” choice or a
“bad” choice. It is simply one among the various choices, each with its own
advantages and liabilities.
can be a difficult thing for traditional Catholics to appreciate, because our
minds are trained in moral theology to distinguish between what is good and
what is bad. Killing an innocent person is bad, we avoid it; performing a work
of mercy is good, we pursue it. Yet, some of our actions, though morally
freighted as all human decisions are, do not reduce to a clear right or wrong.
Should a bishop in Chicago in 1900 permit the construction of a Polish-speaking
parish? Or should he insist that German and Polish ethnic Catholics worship
together in a single parish? There is not a right or a wrong answer, just
different responses that set the Church moving down different paths.
that Gibbons’ decision, in some ways, led to the difficulties the Catholic
Church now faces. Deference to American culture certainly facilitated the
assimilation of immigrants and their ascent up the socioeconomic ladder. This
is no small consideration for Irish Catholics fleeing starvation and arriving
penniless in a strange land. But the same thirst for accommodation also brought
about Catholic politicians and voters, schools and universities, charitable
organizations and charitable practices that are all but indistinguishable from
their secular counterparts.
Yet, who can say
that Gibbons was “wrong”? Shaw cites the Cassandra cries of Orestes Brownson.
Brownson’s warnings about accommodation do indeed appear to be prophetic from
the vantage point of 2013. But what if Brownson had been archbishop of
Baltimore? The history of the Church in the United States likely would have
been very different, but would it have been “better”? As an example of refusal
to accommodate in the face of an incompatible national state and culture, Shaw
cites Dietrich von Hildebrand’s fleeing Nazi Germany in 1933. It’s a good
example. But what if Hitler had for some reason, voluntary or involuntary, moderated
his views and the persecution of the Church had been mild, and the Holocaust
never happened? Von Hildebrand would appear to be an extremist who overreacted.
comparison of the different possible ecclesial approaches to a hostile national
culture/state is that between Poland and Hungary under Communism during the
Cold War era. Poland’s church, led by Cardinal Wyszynski, pursued a policy of
accommodation. It made certain compromisesthough, arguably, on nothing of
essential importanceand it survived. Hungary’s church, led by Cardinal
Mindszenty, assumed a stance of absolute opposition to the nation’s Communist
government. The church was decimated.
Mindszenty were both wise, holy men with outstanding leadership qualities. Was
one course right and the other wrong? What worked in Poland may not have worked
in Hungary. Who can say? This is contingency.
This leads us to
the second ubiquitous reality in Church history: irony. The full meaning of an
event or course of action is never exhausted by its superficial meaning.
Throughout Christianity’s past, the most glorious accomplishmentswhen
subjected to close examinationdisplay the weaknesses that will lead to their
demise; the most ignominious failures contain within themselves the seeds of
reform. The magnificent basilica that Pope Julius II built in Rome is an
aesthetic masterpiece that has enriched the spiritual lives of countless
Catholics and non-Catholics ever since. The money raised to pay for it came in
part from the selling of indulgences in Germany, which spurred a young friar
named Martin Luther to foment radical reform that would in time splinter the
Western Church into seemingly irreconcilable factions.
To take an example
closer to home: In the 1890s, in one episode of the Americanist controversy,
Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul promoted a scheme to provide Catholic
schoolchildren with a modicum of Catholic education at public expense.
Essentially, the local government would fund the schools managed by Catholic
administrators and teachers, which during the normal school day would provide
the usual public school education. Catholic students would receive their
religious instruction outside of normal school hours. It was admittedly an imperfect
arrangement. The bishops en masse rejected it. They had decided at the Third
Plenary Council of Baltimore that all parishes would erect a Catholic school,
which set in motion the formation of one of the proudest achievements of the
American Catholic Church, the world’s largest system of private education.
It appeared to be
the right move, at least until the 1970s. Low-cost Catholic sisters were
replaced by higher-cost lay teachers, expensive improvements in physical plant
and technology were demanded by upwardly mobile parishioners, and the economies
of scale produced by serving a bountiful target market of large Catholic
families began to decline as Catholic families shrank. In our own time, in
order to preserve at least some more attractive alternative to disastrous
public schools, bishops in some urban areas are transferring their financially
unviable Catholic schools to the management of charter schools. To me, it looks
a lot like the arrangement that Archbishop Ireland proposed. In other words, to
maintain some semblance of a Catholic presence in certain locales, bishops are
pursuing a course that was rejected in the 19th century because it was deemed
to compromise dangerously Catholic identity.
Another example is
the decline of prominent American dioceses. Shaw mentions the Archdiocese of
Boston and cites the incisive book by Philip Lawler on the subject; Lawler
describes the relevant history in more detail. It is clear from Lawler’s
account that the marvelous rise to wealth and influence of the city’s Catholic Church
was itself the catalyst in its subsequent crisis. Boston’s
cardinal-archbishops, resting on the laurels of past achievements, failed to
recognize that the respect granted the Church by the arbiters of secular
culture and politics was based squarely on the church’s electoral clout and
moral authoritywhich were in turn the function of a spiritually vibrant laity
and clergy. Take away the spiritual
vitality and the whole edifice crumbles.
Sorting the good
from the bad in such a history is extremely difficult. It is usually too
easyand inaccurateto identify individual actors as heroes or villains.
Instead, we need to allow that there is a wide avenue for prudential debate
about the right tactics, approaches, and attitudes when considering the
interaction between the Church as an institution and Catholicism as a way of
life, on one hand, and a more or less antithetical state and culture on the
other. Even so, it is possible to go astray by following erroneous ideas that
lead to real dead ends. Identifying those errors and warning against their
pursuit is what the pope did in his encyclical on Americanism in 1899, which
serves as the fulcrum of Shaw’s account. I would agree with the conventional
historiography that there were few if any serious Catholics in the United
States in 1899 who held the positions condemned as Americanism.
But, with Shaw, I would not
be nearly as confident in asserting the same thing about American Catholicism
in the late 20th and early 21st century. One might even argue, on the basis of
Shaw’s account and other such evidence, that “we’re all Americanists now.” In
sum, Leo’s 1899 encyclical was probably more relevant a hundred years later
than when it was issued. Contingency and ironythe stuff of history, as Russell
Shaw’s provocative book highlights so well.