Accommodation and Americanism, Yesterday and Today

Reflections on Russell Shaw’s book, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America

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, certainly—but 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 practical—which is not to say unimportant—of 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 role.

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 decision—one 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 journey—decisions 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.

This contingency 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.

Shaw understands 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.

A telling 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 compromises—though, arguably, on nothing of essential importance—and 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.

Wyszynski and 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 accomplishments—when subjected to close examination—display 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 authority—which 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 easy—and inaccurate—to 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 irony—the stuff of history, as Russell Shaw’s provocative book highlights so well.

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About Kevin Schmiesing 11 Articles
Kevin Schmiesing is director of research at the Freedom & Virtue Institute, co-host of the Catholic History Trek podcast, and the author of many books and articles in the field of Church history, including his most recent: A Catholic Pilgrimage through American History: People and Places that Shaped the Church in the United States.