The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America
by James M. O'Toole
Harvard University Press, 384 pages, $27.95
The ideological pretentiousness often found in the fever swamps of contemporary social history is easily dismissed as so much Marxist exhaust. A more modest approach to reading history from the bottom up can, however, illuminate the past by focusing on the loves, loyalties, and quotidian practices of ordinary folk. Done right, that kind of social history can even unravel seemingly settled schemes of “how things were.” A classic example is Eamon Duffy's 1992 The Stripping of the Altars, which, by demonstrating from parish records the remarkable tenacity of Catholic popular piety in Tudor England, fundamentally altered the study of the English Reformation.
James O'Toole's new volume, The Faithful, won't achieve anything nearly so grand in the field of Catholic history in America. Still, the book is an interesting supplement to the grand-sweep, classic Catholic historiography pioneered by Peter Guilday in the 1920s and continued in our time by John Tracy Ellis and James Hennesey. In fact, if someone were to marry an O'Toole-like exploration of the way in which American Catholics actually lived their faith to the classic Guilday–Ellis story line (which focuses on great episcopal leaders, Catholic institution-building, and the American Church's struggles with anti-Catholic bigotry and Roman incomprehension), the result would be something that has never existed: a comprehensive, engaging telling of the American Catholic story in all its many-splendored and much-tattered complexity.
O'Toole, the Clough Millennium Professor of History at Boston College, nearly ignores the prelate-centered, bricks-and-mortar institutional tale in order to reimagine the story of American Catholicism as the story of “the faithful.” He divides his study into six (sometimes overlapping) periods, each symbolized by a paradigmatic lay figure of that era. The first four of these explorations are full of fascinating and evocative detail. To those who know only the Church after Vatican II, a lot of that detail will seem not so much quaint as utterly foreign.
The Catholic Church of the colonial period and the early American Republic (O'Toole does not, alas, explore the older, Spanish-colonial Catholicism of the Southwest) was largely a “priestless Church” in which the faith was transmitted, generation after generation, through home worship, pious books, and family catechism study. It was a Church in which, given the dire lack of clergy and the difficulties of travel, “making a spiritual communion” was far more frequent than the reception of Holy Communion itself (which, for many Catholics, was a quarterly or even annual experience).
O'Toole's research suggests that this was more of a Bible-reading Church than the conventional storyline has it, but those Douay-Rheims Bibles were complemented by popular devotional manuals such as Bishop Richard Challoner's Garden of the Soul, likely one of the bestselling Catholic books in the history of English-language publishing. The priestless Church contended with the sometimes fierce anti-Catholic bigotry of Protestantism, especially Puritanism; yet, as O'Toole reminds us, even a sometime Catholic-mocker such as John Adams could, in the aftermath of the American Revolution, make the largest single personal donation to the building of a Catholic church in Boston, the experience of the revolution having seemingly changed Adams' mind about the compatibility of “grand-mother Church” (as he once called Catholicism) and democracy.
In his discussion of the Church in the antebellum republic, O'Toole focuses considerable attention on the Charleston experiment in Catholic constitutionalism. From 1823 until 1842, the Diocese of Charleston was governed by Bishop John England with the assistance of a “house of clergy” and “house of laity,” both of which met annually in a diocesan convention. The Charleston experiment was not replicated elsewhere, and in fact ended in South Carolina on the demise of Bishop England, an Irish emigré who also launched one of the first and most consequential Catholic newspapers in America, the United States Catholic Miscellany, which had a national audience. Bishop England's constitutional experiment provides O'Toole with the prism through which he reads the early nineteenth-century struggle over “trusteeism” in the American Church. Along the way, O'Toole fails, perhaps, to consider how the more ardent advocates of lay ownership of church property (a trusteeism that also entailed various degrees of lay control over local clergy appointments) were not, in other parts of the country, quite the gentlemen who made Bishop England's experiment work.
The trusteeship battle, which was eventually and inevitably won by the bishops, is something of a distraction from O'Toole's story line, which is far more interesting in its focus on the expansion and intensification of Catholic religious practice (as the available clergy increased considerably), the new Catholic interest in the papacy (reversing what O'Toole describes as a kind of Catholic apathy toward the Holy See prior to the period just before the Civil War), and the rise of violent anti-Catholic bigotry in such self-conscious centers of American progress as Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.
The political culmination of this bigotry was the Know Nothing movement, which gave birth to the American party and ran Millard Fillmore for president in 1856; its most intriguing artifact, however, was a piece of ecclesiastical porn by Maria Monk: the Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery in Montreal, which was published in 1836 and was the bestselling book in the pre–Civil War period, save for Uncle Tom's Cabin. (“Maria Monk” was, in fact, a team of evangelical ministers; the book featured lurid tales of priest–nun liaisons, murdered infants buried in convent basements, and other fictional debaucheries.)
In his third period, the time of the Immigrant Church, O'Toole hews closest to the classic American Catholic historiography of Guilday and Ellis. Here, from the end of the Civil War to the 1930s, the focus is on organizational expansion and a vast program of institution-building—most of it funded, O'Toole notes, through lots of small donations rather than through today's familiar campaigns and their “leadership gifts.” Vocations to the priesthood and religious life surged, parishes missions and novenas became popular, and magnificent churches were built. For the first time in American Catholic history, the multi-priest parish was the norm; many newly ordained priests could anticipate a quarter-century apprenticeship before being given the responsibilities of a pastorate.
Catholic piety in this period came perilously close, at points, to confirming various anti-Catholic stereotypes. “Unworthiness,” was, as O'Toole writes, “a persistent theme,” so that the reception of communion at Mass reached what was likely a historic low; in Boston in 1899, to take one example, “a priest in a large parish of Irish and German immigrants reported that about seven hundred people were at his 7:45 Mass one Sunday morning, and that exactly forty of them came to Communion.” Paraliturgical practices—though they were imagined to be ancient and enduring—in fact came into their own in this period; the two most prominent were the Stations of the Cross and eucharistic adoration followed by benediction of the Blessed Sacrament (rather clumsily described by O'Toole as “a ceremony in which the priest blessed the congregation using a piece of consecrated eucharistic bread”). Marian piety and devotion to ethnic patron saints (St. Wenceslaus for the Bohemians, St. Patrick for the Irish, and St. Stanislaus for the Poles) flourished, as Catholics began to live in a spiritual geography that encompassed a vast array of characters, to be invoked by name in popular litanies of prayer.
Above all, this was the period in which the Catholic Church became the greatest assimilator of immigrants in American history—the institution that, more than any other, turned foreigners into Americans. The numbers are simply staggering: 800,000 Irish in the 1840s, and 400,000 Germans in the same period. But that was a mere warm-up for the 1880s, in which 650,000 new Americans came from Ireland, along with 1.5 million from Germany, 300,000 from Italy, and another 300,000 from various bits of the Hapsburg realms, swelling the ranks of Catholics in the United States through one of the greatest population transfers in history.
The organizational growth of the Church followed suit. There were seventeen U.S. dioceses in 1840 but sixty by 1880. American Catholics, O'Toole reports, were served by fewer than five hundred priests in 1840; there were nine thousand priests a half century later. One striking example sums up the process: “In the time it took for a Catholic girl born in Detroit in the 1880s to grow to adulthood, the Church around her had increased more than fivefold.”
It was during this third period that Catholic urban politics and the long-lasting Catholic alliance with the Democratic party took shape, as more than a few immigrants worked their way into the American mainstream through the local police precinct and ward machine. Burghers of earlier stock began to complain of “cities held captive by Irishmen and their sons,” which included New York, Chicago, and Boston, but also Kansas City and Omaha; “even in Salt Lake City,” O'Toole writes (in one of those moments that make social history worthwhile), “the chief police detective was a man named Donovan.” All of this led, of course, to the occasionally picaresque. Frank Hague, the boss of Jersey City from 1917 until 1947, “was a conspicuously observant Catholic . . . a regular in his local parish church, at least when he was not at one of the houses that graft had bought him at the shore or in Palm Beach.”
Perhaps a story, untold by O'Toole, is not inappropriate here. In 1918, the city of Baltimore commissioned the Kirk–Stieff silversmiths to create, at public expense, a colossal silver service to be presented to James Cardinal Gibbons, the native son who was marking his golden jubilee. Each of the hundreds of pieces in the service bore the cardinal's monogram and coat of arms; the silversmiths also created a pattern that had never been used before (and has never been used since). The service was, presumably, gratefully received by the cardinal; for decades, it was prominently displayed in the dining room of the archbishop's house at 408 North Charles Street in downtown Baltimore.
Then, one morning in the 1950s, the rector of the old Baltimore cathedral came downstairs to find that the entire Gibbons silver service had been stolen. After absorbing the shock (and, perhaps, pondering the prospects of spending the rest of his clerical life in the extreme wilderness of western Maryland), the rector called the cops, who informed the mayor—then, as for some years previous, one Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr., son of an Italian immigrant family and a devout parishioner of St. Leo's. (D'Alesandro's daughter, Nancy, would later become speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives). Tommy, as everyone called him, took extreme offense at the theft, and put the word out on the street: “If that —ing silver isn't returned in forty-eight hours, somebody's back is gonna get broken.” The next morning, Our Lady of Fatima rectory in East Baltimore got an anonymous phone call: “Look in your trash cans.” There was the Gibbons silver, all of it, in shopping bags. Some might call that “efficient local government”; in any event, it nicely illustrates the ethnic politics of the Immigrant Church, in the days before the American Civil Liberties Union and the U.S. Supreme Court got into the church–state act.
O'Toole suggests that the “Church of Catholic Action,” symbolized by Dorothy Day, followed the Immigrant Church, even if the two overlapped at points. Yet the Catholic Worker movement which Dorothy Day helped launch was only one expression of an enormous flourishing of lay Catholic organizations in the early and mid-twentieth century. The Holy Name Society, the Knights of Columbus, the Knights of St. Peter Claver (for African-Americans, in that segregated era), the Daughters of Isabella, the Catholic Daughters of America, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, the Catholic Youth Organization, the Legion of Decency, and the Christian Family Movement—these and a myriad of other associations were essentially lay enterprises, and the rhythm of their activities was, for decades, the warp and woof of a distinctly Catholic civil society. (With the exception of the Knights of Columbus and one or two other examples, this rich associational life was rapidly destroyed by the liberal bureaucratization of the Catholic Church that began in the mid-1960s—a seemingly salient part of the lay Catholic story left unaddressed by O'Toole.)
Dorothy Day's radicalism went hand in glove with a deeply traditional piety; Dorothy, wearing a black mantilla while attending one of Fr. Daniel Berrigan's free-form liturgies in the 1960s, is an unforgettable image from that otherwise forgettable period. And in that sense, Dorothy Day was, despite her politics, a spiritual child of her Catholic era: a time of frequent confession, “visits to the Blessed Sacrament,” the Forty Hours devotion, the family rosary, Treasure Chest (a Catholic comic book with a circulation in the hundreds of thousands), pilgrimages to Rome, adulation of the then unassailable Pius XII, and better than 70 percent Sunday Mass attendance.
It was also the time when lay Catholics were prominent leaders of the American labor movement, even as the Catholic big-city bosses helped the Democratic party jettison Henry Wallace for Harry Truman in 1944 and then became an essential part of the liberal coalition that adopted a strong civil-rights plank at the 1948 Democratic convention (both points unexplored by O'Toole). Catholic anticommunism was at its
peak, symbolized by senators Joseph P. McCarthy and
John F. Kennedy. Illustrating this point, O'Toole offers an evocative vignette that seems to come not simply from another era but from another planet: “In September 1959, when Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, visited the United Nations, more than 20,000 Catholics in Boston stood around the Bunker Hill Monument, which commemorated a battle of the American Revolution, to pray the rosary, asking God to frustrate the Russian's wicked schemes.”
John F. Kennedy's rise to national prominence and his disentanglement of his politics from any tether to Catholic conviction (a point rightly noted by O'Toole) was a complex business, from which many hints about the future might have been read. Kennedy's election as president in 1960 marked, in one sense, the apogee of the Immigrant Church: As Joseph P. Kennedy was determined to prove through his sons, Catholics in the United States had finally made it. Yet Kennedy's aloofness from the Catholic associational universe also demonstrated the failure of the Church of Catholic Action to translate its reading of Catholic social doctrine into a practical political program that an attractive and knowledgeable Catholic politician could sell to the rest of America; Kennedy, who was far more the Harvard rationalist (and cynic) than the political by-product of Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno, helped make Catholics safe for America by “wearing his Catholicism lightly,” as one Kennedy aide quoted by O'Toole put it (and not only in matters of the Sixth Commandment).
That bifurcation of the theological and the spiritual from the mundane and the political, coupled with the Catholic migration to the suburbs and the disintegration of the urban Catholic cultures that had been such powerful transmitters of the faith, set the stage for many of the difficulties that would soon follow, in both ecclesial and public life.
The Faithful begins to flag, and finally to limp badly, when O'Toole comes into the sphere of living memory: Vatican II and the Church in the twenty-first century. The complex tale of Vatican II itself (which, admittedly, is not O'Toole's primary concern) is sketched as background in the familiar and dull categories of Catholic cowboys and Indians, with good liberals battling bad conservatives for the future of the Church. O'Toole paints a frank and depressing portrait of the collapse of Catholic liturgical and devotional practice in the years immediately following Vatican II. But he does not connect any dots between either the Council itself, or bodies of thought associated with the “spirit of Vatican II,” and that collapse.
On the liturgy, he rightly laments that a silly season of liturgical kitsch ensued, while giving the enthusiasts of change for change's sake their innings: “After so many years of staring at baroque altarpieces whose design could be ‘distracting,' one commentator concluded, ‘the shock of a plain table with its rigid lines may be a good antidote for us.'” Yet O'Toole does not ask the obvious next question—an antidote to what?—nor does he explore the reasons behind what he accurately describes as the implosion of the Catholic belief system that stood behind both the Immigrant Church and the Church of Catholic Action.
O'Toole's survey of the wreckage is fair and instructive. And yet, some conjecture as to why the collapse of the idea of sin—and the concomitant collapse of an experience of grace—swept through the Catholic world of 1960s America would have been helpful. The liberal Catholicism of the post–Vatican II period was a hollow shell from which religious passion had been largely emptied, and that could not have been pleasing to the older generation of radicals. Despite its political myopia about the likes of Fidel Castro, the Catholic radicalism of a Dorothy Day was far more Catholic in its sense of the drama of sin and grace than the vapid liberalism that dominated the post–Vatican II Church. In other words, William F. Buckley Jr. and the gang at Triumph magaine (both missing from O'Toole's account) weren't the only lay Catholics who thought that the immediate post–Vatican II Church was in serious trouble.
For with the collapse of distinctive Catholic practices (fish on Friday, the rosary, weekly Mass attendance, monthly confession) came a collapse of Catholic identity. And as the identity forged in the Immigrant Church and the Church of Social Action was being lost, the vacuum was intensified by a collapse of catechetics, such that by the mid-1980s, O'Toole notes, only one-third of Catholics in the United States could correctly name the four gospels of the New Testament.
There were, O'Toole notes, some counter-currents at work here—one of which was the wholly unexpected Catholic charismatic renewal, whose origins O'Toole traces to a 1967 Duquesne University meeting of veterans of the Cursillo experience (a retreat movement that had begun to flourish in the late 1950s and early 1960s). In retrospect, the Catholic charismatic renewal now seems the first sign of what would, under John Paul II, become a veritable tidal wave of renewal movements and new Church associations, including Communion and Liberation, Focolare, the Neocatechumenal Way, Opus Dei, and Regnum Christi.
It is unfortunate that, after noting the rise of the charismatics, O'Toole gives little or no attention to these lay-dominated movements that are now, among other things, the seedbed of many priestly and religious vocations. Parallel lay initiatives in Catholic higher education—the University of Dallas, Thomas Aquinas College, Christendom College, Thomas More College—are not mentioned, much less examined, in The Faithful, despite O'Toole's brief excursus on the postconciliar travail of Catholic higher education. He notes the expansion of “lay ministries” but without exploring the question of whether this has not amounted to a clericalization of the laity that is far removed from Vatican II's intention to ignite new forms of lay apostolate, evangelization, and mission in “the world.”
O'Toole notes one of the great crises in the history of the American Church—the turmoil set loose by the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae—but he does so in utterly conventional terms: Pat and Patty Crowley, the Chicago-based Christian Family Movement couple on Paul VI's birth-control commission, didn't get their way, and all hell broke loose as a result. This doesn't take us much beyond the conventional liberal story line written at the time by the National Catholic Reporter; nor does it address the points that can be made in defense of Humanae Vitae and its analysis of the deleterious effects of widespread contraceptive thinking and practice on society and culture (as detailed by Mary Eberstadt here in First Things, August/September 2008); nor does it notice the clerical bullying and liberal blackmailing that motored at least some of the dissent to the encyclical, as recently described in L'Osservatore Romano by Baltimore-born James Francis Cardinal Stafford, in a striking memoir of his personal experiences at one of the ground zeroes of dissent.
As for the political politics (as distinguished from ecclesiastical politics) of the post–Vatican II Church, The Faithful notes Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's “evolving position” on abortion, though O'Toole fails to explore what it meant that the Catholic layman who, above all others, could have led a national resistance movement to the abortion license imposed on the country by Roe v. Wade chose to do precisely the opposite. On the other side of the aisle, the most influential Catholic legislator of the last quarter of the twentieth century, Henry Hyde, is notable by his absence from O'Toole's account of the culture wars. According to The Faithful, Catholics became, in the 1980s, the “quintessential ‘swing voters.'” But there is no digging inside the numbers to find what was, in fact, the new truth about “the Catholic vote,” namely, that it was just like everybody else in that frequency of religious practice, not denominational self-identification, had become the key indicator of voting behavior in post– Roe v. Wade America.
O'Toole neatly and accurately sums up the post-conciliar decades by noting that “the clarity of the American Catholic world before Vatican II was replaced with both a new vitality and a new volatility.” Yet he misses at least some of the vitality, and his tale of the most volatile moment in recent history—the Long Lent of 2002—contains some problems.
He correctly notes that the crisis of clergy sexual abuse was also a crisis of episcopal irresponsibility and misgovernance, and he rightly argues that no monocausal explanation of the enormous spike in predatory clerical sexual misbehavior will work (a point made by those whom O'Toole criticizes for highlighting the effects of doctrinal and moral laxness on the epidemiology of the crisis).
But the story of that year of turmoil seems truncated in the book, perhaps because it is so Boston-focused and because it reveals O'Toole's evident sympathies for Voice of the Faithful, which is more accurately described as a gathering of veterans from the Revolution That Never Was than as a harbinger of a new lay Catholic responsibility and activism.
That said, O'Toole is certainly right to note that perhaps the most striking thing about the Long Lent of 2002 is that it didn't do more damage: Most Catholics, indeed the overwhelming majority of Catholics, made “the decision . . . not to abandon the Church in the aftermath of the scandal.” Yet O'Toole doesn't follow up on that insight by exploring why the opposite was true in Boston, which continues to reel from the aftershocks of 2002.
Another point that might well have received at least some attention in The Faithful is the fact that Catholic practice seems to have declined most precipitously in some of the former strongholds of progressive Catholicism. Chicago, for example, which was the seedbed of a lot of the associational Catholicism that O'Toole celebrates in his description of the Immigrant Church and the Church of Catholic Action. Similarly, much of the liturgical and social-action liberalism of the immediate preconciliar period took its lead from what one historian of the Archdiocese of Chicago dubbed “this confident Church.” Yet one would be hard put to describe Chicago Catholicism as a confident leader in the New Evangelization today.
Figuring out how this happened, and why, would seem to be an urgent task. But it won't get done as long as certain of the stereotypes that mar The Faithful and distort its portrait of the immediate past continue to persist. Surely it is long past time to cease and desist on the notion of “John Paul II bishops” who were “selected for their undeviating loyalty to Roman policy”—which is to say, in the conventional argot, their conservatism. Cardinal Bernardin? Archbishop Pilarczyk? Cardinal Mahony? Cardinal McCarrick? John Paul II appointees all, and, however else these men might be described, “conservative” does not seem the mot juste.
The same criticism applies to O'Toole's seeming acceptance of the stereotype of the “John Paul II priest” as a liturgical ninny who wants to reassert clerical authority in parishes while wearing a cassock and a biretta. Alas, this cartoon is of a piece with O'Toole's general misapprehension of John Paul II as more medium than message. That the late pope might have been enormously successful with the young precisely because he challenged them to live lives of moral heroism against the conventions of the age is not a possibility seriously considered in The Faithful. Moreover, in a book focused in such an interesting way on the lay side of the American Catholic story, why is there so little attention to the impact that John Paul II had on lay Catholics, not least through the renewal movements and new Catholic communities noted above?
James O'Toole concludes his survey of Catholics in America with some modest predictions. A Catholic born in the United States today, he notes, “will be born in an era when, for the first time in its history, the infrastructure of American Catholicism will be shrinking rather than expanding.” That same youngster will grow up in a Church in which the multipriest parish will be as much a vague memory as it was a pious aspiration in, say, 1820. The Church in America will be ever more richly textured ethnically, with Hispanic, African, and Asian strains adding new vitality to the mix. And, as white ethnic Catholics become more entrenched in the middle and upper classes of American society, these new Catholics will, at least for a time (and, in the case of the Asians, perhaps not so long a time) “reconnect the church to its roots among the poor and working class.”
One could have wished, in this context, for a more ample discussion of the debate over whether Hispanic Catholics should be rapidly assimilated into the mainstream (especially through the mastery of English); this is surely one of the great questions of the present on which the experience of the past can shed some light.
The Faithful, while fascinating in many respects, is also frustrating. There is a danger in aiming so low in retelling the story of American Catholicism through the methodological canons of social history—namely, that one misses the many intriguing lay Catholic figures who were men and women of genuine accomplishment. I have made no comprehensive survey of the dramatis personae here, but it strikes me that a book telling the story of “the faithful” in America without ever mentioning the following members of the cast of characters is somewhat diminished:
• Leonard Calvert, the early colonial governor who made religious freedom a reality in seventeenth-century Maryland
• Margaret Brent, another Maryland pioneer, a proto-campaigner for the legal and political rights of women and a stout Catholic who raised a company of volunteer soldiers to deflect an armed attempt by Virginia Puritans to take Maryland away from the Catholic Calverts
• John Barry, one of the founders of the U.S. Navy in the Revolutionary War
• Roger B. Taney, author of Dred Scott, one of the two worst Supreme Court decisions in history, and William J. Brennan Jr., who participated in the other, Roe v. Wade
• General Philip Sheridan, the leading federal cavalry officer during the Civil War
• the student volunteers of the North American College in Rome who, to a man, offered to take up arms in defense of Pius IX when the Garibaldini were closing in on Rome in 1870
• the labor leader George Meany and financier John J. Raskob
• urban Democratic bosses such as Chicago's Richard J. Daley and Pittsburgh's David Lawrence
• the authors Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy
• intellectuals such as Orestes Brownson, Mark Van Doren (a great influence on the young Thomas Merton), Gordon Zahn (the man perhaps most responsible for the recent beatification of the Austrian anti-Nazi martyr Franz Jaegerstaetter), and Michael Novak
• politicians such as Eugene McCarthy and Henry Hyde (both of whom, in their distinctive ways, embodied a distinctively Catholic ethos in American public life far more than the Kennedy clan managed in all its generations)
• Omer Westendorff, an enormous (if often baleful) influence on liturgical music
• Tom Monaghan, whose Legatus movement of Catholic entrepreneurs and professionals is one of the most successful twenty-first-century embodiments of the old associational instinct in American Catholicism.
Bringing people such as these into the story is essential, it seems to me, in marrying a social-history approach to the classic Guilday–Ellis story line and giving lay Catholics their due.
The fact that Catholics have made it in America—with the fact that “making it” remains something deeply problematic—is neatly illustrated by pondering a photograph of the platform at the U.S. Capitol on Inauguration Day in 2009. There is the Catholic vice president of the United States, the Catholic Speaker of the House of Representatives, and numerous Catholic cabinet officers; sprinkled throughout the inaugural crowd are numerous Catholic members of the Senate and House (who form, in fact, the largest single religious group in the Congress). Yet as one keen observer has noted, the Catholic Church's core agenda of social issues would more likely be advanced if these Catholics were to be replaced by a Mormon.
There is a school of thought called radical orthodoxy whose members would take this as confirmation of their claim that Catholicism and American democratic republicanism were never compatible—and proof that the United States is an ill-founded republic doomed from the start to decay into a dictatorship of relativism. That those who take this stance were AWOL from the fight of the 2008 campaign (as they were in the 2004 campaign and during the Long Lent of 2002) does not necessarily mean that their claim can simply be dismissed. Still, it does seem premature to declare defeat. The richness of the story told by James O'Toole, including its evocation of the struggles of the past, suggests that, while postmodern debonair nihilism may be an even more formidable foe than the bigotry of know-nothingism, Catholicism is not without its own strengths and its own capacity for resistance.
Indeed, the social doctrine of the Church, particularly as articulated by John Paul II, can give a more compelling account of the free and virtuous society than anything on offer in a standard Ivy League school's government department. And the attraction that many evangelical intellectuals feel for that social doctrine suggests that the story of religiously informed moral argument in American public life is not over, but is in fact heading into a new, more robust phase, in which classic Christianity versus neopaganism, rather than Catholic versus Protestant, is the crucial fault line.
That the Catholic Church in America is headed into a new time of testing ought not be in dispute. That the Church is in a weakened condition to confront this challenge, in terms of both the quality of its episcopal leadership and the depth of Catholic identity among the faithful, is not in doubt either. But as an old teacher of mine once said, rightly, “history is an antidote to despair.” And while I have a hunch that James O'Toole and I have rather different political views, his refreshing, if often frustrating, retelling of the American Catholic story—through the prism of Catholic life as lived by the people who are the Church—is an antidote to despair in a season of grave difficulty.
George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author, most recently, of Against the Grain: Christianity and Democracy, War and Peace.