U.S. Catholics generally know little about the Church’s history in our country. But whether you’re trying to fill gaps in your knowledge or just looking for a good read, let me recommend a new book by Russell Shaw: Catholics in America: Religious Identity and Cultural Assimilation from John Carroll to Flannery O’Connor (Ignatius Press).
Its formidable subtitle notwithstanding, Russ Shaw’s new book is an easy-to-digest smorgasbord, a portrait gallery of fifteen important characters in the American Catholic story. Three of the heroes of my Baltimore boyhood get their just deserts: Archbishop John Carroll, first and arguably greatest of U.S. bishops; Cardinal James Gibbons, America’s most prominent Catholic for four decades; and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, “Wild Betty” as she once called herself, foundress of the Catholic school system that’s still the Church’s best anti-poverty program.
The politicos (Al Smith and JFK) and the intellectuals (combustible, cantankerous Orestes Brownson and the scholarly old-school Jesuit, John Courtney Murray) are neatly sketched, as are three women of consequence: St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, Dorothy Day, and Flannery O’Connor. A trio of New Yorkers (one born in Ireland, another in Massachusetts, and another in Peoria) take their turns on stage in the persons of Archbishop “Dagger John” Hughes, Cardinal Francis Spellman, and Spelly’s rival, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. Then there’s the remarkable Father Michael McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus and, I hope, America’s next beatus.
For contemporary purposes and debates, one of the most suggestive of Shaw’s portraits is that of Father Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulist Fathers and another candidate for beatification. Shortly after his death in 1888, Hecker became the subject of contention in Rome, when an ill-translated biography and some intra-Catholic brawling among U.S. hierarchs led to a papal warning against “Americanism”—a way-of-being-Catholic that Pope Leo XIII deemed excessively privatized, insufficiently contemplative, and dismissive of the Church’s magisterium. Ever since, U.S. Catholic historians have been arguing about whether “Americanism” was a phantom heresy.
There seem to be three contending parties in that debate. The canonical view of classic U.S. Catholic historians like John Tracy Ellis was that “Americanism” was indeed a phantasm of fevered Roman minds. Then, in the 1970s, came the revisionist view that Hecker, and bishops like John Ireland of St. Paul-Minneapolis, John Keane of Catholic University, and Cardinal Gibbons, were in fact exploring a new ecclesiology, a new way of thinking about the Church, that Vatican II would vindicate in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church and Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.
Now comes Russell Shaw, who, in his portrait of Hecker, continues to press an argument he first raised in 2013 in American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America (the man does have a way with subtitles). Reduced to essentials, Shaw’s contention is that Hecker and those of his “Americanist” cast of mind did represent an assimilationist current in U.S. Catholic thought—a tendency to bend over backwards to “fit into” American culture—that eventually made possible Ted Kennedy, Barbara Mikulski, Nancy Pelosi, and Joe Biden: cradle-Catholic politicians who support public policies that flatly contradict basic moral truths taught by the Church on the basis of reason and revelation, justify their votes in the name of “democracy” and “pluralism,” and are supported by a lot of fellow-Catholics in doing so.
To be sure, Shaw acknowledges that Hecker’s great goal was to convert America to Catholicism, not retrofit Catholicism to the dominant American culture of his day (which I think my friend misstates as “secular” rather than “Protestant”). Hecker’s failure, as I read Shaw, is that he didn’t grasp that there were corrosives built into American public culture that would eventually eat away at core Catholic convictions. And if that’s what Russ Shaw is arguing, then he’s implicitly adopting the “ill-founded Republic” optic on U.S. history advanced by such scholars as Patrick Deneen and David Schindler.
My own view is that the failure of Catholics to infuse American politics with Catholic social doctrine has had a lot more to do with creating Joe Biden & Co. than Isaac Hecker and the nineteenth-century “Americanists.” In any case, Shaw’s new book and its predecessor are good places to begin thinking about what went wrong here and why.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D. C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.
This article was originally published on George Weigel’s weekly column The Catholic Difference