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Catholics in America have rarely taken the study of their history seriously. My own educational circumstances, which were hardly unique, may illustrate the point. In nineteen years (1956-75) of a generally excellent Catholic education in church-sponsored schools and seminaries, I never once was offered a formal course in the history of Catholicism in the United States. And while this educational gap was perhaps understandable in a church dominated until the very recent past by immigrants and their children, it is nonetheless a formidable problem today, for, in Cicero’s words, “Not to know what happened before one was born is always to be a child.”

Happily, there are signs as we enter the 1990s that this self-inflicted amnesia is ending. American Catholic history may not be so booming a discipline as biblical studies or medical ethics, but even the most cursory survey of the American Catholic Studies Newsletter (published by the Cushwa Center for the study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame, itself an institutional expression of the growth of the field) reveals an extraordinary breadth of research, ranging from classic institutional histories and biographies of key figures to the new social history, with its emphases on patterns of community, spirituality, family life, and education. Many Catholic dioceses are, at long last, taking their archival responsibilities seriously, and new lodes of information are being unearthed and mined. For example, the Archdiocese of Boston recently discovered and acquired twenty boxes of the personal and administrative papers of Cardinal Richard Cushing, once thought to have been destroyed at the cardinal’s death in 1970.

This new vitality of interest in the American Catholic story is surely to the good. It is good for the Church (both here and in Rome), good for the study of American religion, and good for a more comprehensive understanding of the complex interaction of religion and public life in the ongoing experiment of American democracy. But there are no unmixed blessings in the tides of intellectual interest and fashion, as the discovery of Clio’s charism among American Catholics illustrates. For parallel to (and in some cases generating) the explosion of historical knowledge about American Catholicism has come an effort to put that knowledge—better, a distinctive interpretation of that knowledge—to various partisan purposes in today’s struggles over the meaning of orthodoxy, authority, and ministry. Separating the wheat from that particular form of chaff is the business of this essay.


To say that American Catholics have rarely taken their history seriously is not to say that there have never been serious historians of American Catholicism. Although they are largely unknown outside the American Catholic community (and scarcely better known inside it, for that matter), John Gilmary Shea, Peter Guilday, Thomas T. McAvoy, and, preeminently, John Tracy Ellis were old-fashioned historians of genuine accomplishment who, in the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, created the classic story line of American Catholicism.

It was a story written under the long shadow of nativist (and, it must be said, largely Protestant) anti-“Romanism” and its recurring charge that Catholicism—as a body of doctrine, a matter of personal conviction, and an institution—was incompatible with American democratic republicanism. Msgr. Ellis has frequently quoted the remark made to him by Professor Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., that Schlesinger considered “the prejudice against your Church as the deepest bias in the history of the American people.” There is ample evidence even today to suggest, without getting into a bigotry sweepstakes, that Professor Schlesinger’s indictment was not a reckless one.

Classic American Catholic historians, as eager to challenge the nativist canard as other pre-conciliar Catholic intellectuals, adopted the “Catholicism/Americanism” tension as the principal theme of their story line. They sought to show how the Catholic people, and particularly their episcopal leaders, had worked tirelessly to demonstrate in practice what they affirmed in principle: that there was no inherent conflict in being both a convinced Catholic and a patriotic American. Thus historical classicists like Shea, Guilday, McAvoy, and Ellis tended to highlight those great accomplishments of the Church in the United States—the assimilation of some ten million immigrants between the early nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the massive institution-building which paralleled the assimilation—that graphically and empirically refuted the spirit (and the letter) of Know-Nothingism. The brick-and-mortar church of the urban neighborhoods thus became the main character in the American Catholic story.

Given their (wholly justifiable) concerns over problems of religious intolerance, the classic historians of American Catholicism, after a few ritual nods toward the Church of the Spanish and French explorers, liked to begin The Story of American Catholicism in 1634, with the founding of the proprietary colony of Maryland as, inter alia, a refuge for Catholics from Stuart England. These historians paid particular attention to the Maryland Act of Religious Toleration of 1649, which provided that no Christian in the province would “bee any wais troubled, molested, or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion nor in the free exercise thereof,” nor could any person be in “any way compelled to the beleife or exercise of any Religion against his or her consent.”

The story was then fast-forwarded to the time of the American Revolution. The thirty-five thousand Catholics in the thirteen colonies were less than one percent of the national population. But they were nonetheless blessed by great leaders, most prominent among them the Carroll cousins, Charles Carroll of Carrollton (longest surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence) and John Carroll, first archbishop of Baltimore and the first Catholic bishop in the United States. The “Carroll Church” was, in fact, the paradigm of American Catholicism most celebrated by the classic historians, and John Carroll himself was invariably presented as a model of leadership that his successors in the American episcopate would do well to emulate.

Archbishop Carroll’s patriotism and his optimism about the American experiment; his ecumenism and his commitment to the constitutional separation of church and state; his active role in civic life; his passion for Catholic education; his non-sycophantic loyalty to the Holy See—these qualities of the “Maryland Tradition” were regularly celebrated in the classic historiography of American Catholicism, for it was precisely these qualities that, according to the standard account, allowed American Catholicism to weather the nativist assault and to get on with the parallel tasks of church-building and nation-building. Great episcopal figures of the antebellum period—for example, the Irish liberal John England of Charleston, and the pugnacious John Hughes of New York—were “fitted” into the Carrollingian story line (if I may be pardoned the neologism) even as their distinctive styles and the accomplishments of their episcopates stretched the boundaries of the “Carroll Church.” That style of Catholicism proved its tensile strength during’ the national cataclysm of 1861-65. Its unity in and with Rome kept American Catholicism from fracturing during the Civil War, according to the standard account. But the Church’s (primarily Irish) ethnic concerns, and its nervousness about its position in the old Confederacy and the border states, conspired to keep it from seizing the great evangelical opportunity presented by black freedmen during Reconstruction.

The classic story line accelerated, and the central drama within it intensified, in the late nineteenth century. Here, the narrative was dominated by the struggle between the “Americanist” party (Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore, Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, Bishop John Keane of Catholic University, and their Roman agent, Msgr. Denis O’Connell) on the one hand, and the “conservatives” (led by Archbishop Michael Corrigan of New York and his suffragan, the redoubtable Bernard McQuaid of Rochester) on the other—and it was rather clearly understood that the Americanists were the good guys in the controversy. Things were, of course, more complicated than that. Bishop McQuaid, the curmudgeonly “conservative,” initially opposed the definition of papal infallibility at Vatican I. Archbishop Ireland, the quintessential “liberal,” ruthlessly drove Eastern-rite Catholic emigrants and their married clergy out of the archdiocese of St. Paul and indeed out of the Church (thus earning himself the ironic title, among some wags, of “father of Russian Orthodoxy in America”).

But where the two parties clearly divided was on the question of American democracy and its distinctive “answer” to the age-old problem of church and state. The Americanists supported, even celebrated, the American arrangement, while the conservatives (like most senior Roman officials of the day) found it tolerable at best. Charges of heresy flew back and forth.

Eventually, in 1899, the “Americanism” controversy was brought to a formal conclusion by Leo XIII’s apostolic letter, Testem Benevolentiae. The letter condemned certain “Americanist” propositions (about spirituality, ecclesiology, the Church and modernity, and church/state relations); but the pope also admitted his uncertainty that anyone of consequence in the American Church held to the proscribed notions. In the ensuing hermeneutic battle. Gibbons and his party argued that “Americanism” was a “phantom heresy” (a position adopted by the classic historians of American Catholicism), while Corrigan and his friends thanked Rome for having saved them from the clutches of irresponsible Gallican innovators and sweaty jingoists.

The Carroll/Gibbons tradition, according to the classic story line, went into a fallow period after the deaths of the giants, Ireland in 1918 and Gibbons in 1921. The end game of the Americanist struggle abutted the far more stringent Roman reaction to “Modernism” in the first and second decades of the twentieth century, and the “Maryland Tradition” of Carroll and Gibbons was superseded by the vigorous Romanita exemplified by Cardinal William O’Connell of Boston. But the great tradition was kept alive in the social liberalism of the “Right Reverend New Dealer,” Msgr. John A. Ryan, and was revived among the bishops in the late 1940s and 1950s under the episcopal leadership of men like Detroit’s Edward Mooney, Chicago’s Albert Meyer, and St. Louis’ Joseph Ritter. The Maryland Tradition reached a particularly sharp edge of intellectual development at the Jesuits’ Woodstock College outside of Baltimore, which housed the pioneer ecumenist Gustave Weigel and the great theologian of freedom, John Courtney Murray. The Second Vatican Council endorsed this revival, and indeed the tradition of the Carroll/ Gibbons Church, in its “Declaration on Religious Freedom” (of which Murray was, of course, an intellectual architect).

By the mid-1960s, then, the tension that had driven the classic story line in the history of American Catholicism seemed largely resolved. The election of John F. Kennedy to the presidency in 1960, and the Vatican Council’s endorsement of religious liberty as a fundamental human right, vindicated the confidence of Catholics in America and the American experience of Catholicism. Or so it seemed, until the ecclesiastical and political controversies of the post-conciliar and Vietnam periods began to chip away at The Story of American Catholicism as told by the classicists.


The classic story line held in the generation of scholars immediately following Msgr. Ellis. James Hennesey, Gerald Fogarty, and Marvin O’Connell are three distinguished historians who, with differences of emphasis and nuance, have generally worked within the standard account while correcting its simplifications and amplifying its range of interests and concerns. Hennesey’s 1981 volume American Catholics enriched the classic portrait of Catholic Americans by focusing on Catholicism as a community of distinctive human beings, and not simply as a religious institution. Fogarty’s study The Vatican and the American Hierarchy from 1870 to 1965 offered a detailed portrait of the (sometimes tawdry) ecclesiastical politics that shaped the Americanist controversy, but, again, from within the general framework of the standard account with its emphasis on the “normative” status of the Carroll/Gibbons view of the American Church. In a more recent work, American Catholic Biblical Scholarship: A History From the Early Republic to Vatican II, Fogarty offers, among other things, a useful antidote to the claims of some Catholic “restorationists” that the anti-Modernist excesses of the early twentieth century were the invention of fevered post-Vatican II liberal imaginations. Fogarty’s portrait of the persecution (there is no other word for it) of the Catholic University biblical scholar Henry Poels is a sobering reminder of how zeal for the Lord can, in the wrong hands, become mere zealotry. And Marvin O’Connell’s recent and splendid study, John Ireland and the American Catholic Church, has demonstrated that biography in the grand manner and within the classic story line is still possible even as contemporary research refines the standard account and our understanding of the major figures within it.

But Fathers Hennesey, Fogarty, and O’Connell may well be a diminishing minority among current scholars of American Catholic history, for they seem to accept, with various qualifications, the Shea/Guilday/McAvoy/Ellis historiography in its general outline of The Catholic Story in America. And it is precisely that account that is now being challenged by a revisionist school whose manifesto may be taken to be Jay P. Dolan’s 1983 work The American Catholic Experience.

The revisionists have brought new insights to the study of American Catholic history, particularly in terms of social history. Like Fernand Braudel and the Annalistes school in France, and in a manner not dissimilar to that of E. P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, and other Marxist historians in Britain, the revisionists are far less inclined, as a matter of principle, to investigate the doings of bishops and clergy, and far more interested in probing the daily lives and religious practices of American Catholics. This has, as I say, enriched our understanding of the American Catholic mosaic considerably.

But the revisionists’ real interest, intellectually and, so to speak, politically, is historiographic. And their strategy, as an intellectual party, includes two lines of attack: to uproot the Shea/Guilday/McAvoy/Ellis standard account, and to replace it with a telling of the tale more congenial to their own current ecclesiastical concerns, which involve the catalogue of “progressive” causes flogged weekly in the National Catholic Reporter—disentangling the American church from “Rome” (meaning, from the program of Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger), “women’s rights” in the Church, the “democratization” of Catholicism, and so forth.

If the classic story line stressed the essential continuity of the normative “Carroll Church” from the American Revolution to Vatican II (while taking account of the break in that trajectory occasioned by the Americanist and Modernist crises and the interwar “Romanization” of the American hierarchy), the revisionist story line stresses discontinuity: between the colonial period and the church of the Revolutionary period; between the first, “republican” years of Carroll’s episcopate and his later, “conservative” period; between the Carroll Church and the “immigrant Church” that followed; between, most importantly, the working-class “Catholic ghetto Church” of 1925-55 and the post-conciliar suburban Church of the 1960s and 1970s.

There was, to be sure, something a bit too neat about the standard account and its sense of American Catholic continuity, particularly in the scholarly generations running from Shea through the early Ellis. Yet what the revisionists propose is not to refine that account but to abandon it. The story line they would substitute is one whose thematic hallmarks are discontinuity across the generations from John Carroll to Joseph Bernardin and John O’Connor; the radical pluralism of Catholic experience; the mediocrity and xenophobia of the pre-conciliar ghetto Church; and a chronic, usually nasty, tension between the Church in America and the Holy See.

This revisionist strategy involves a root-and-branch retelling of the American Catholic story from its beginnings. In terms of the colonial period, the good news is that the new historians have probed far more deeply than their predecessors into the non-English Catholic roots of Catholicism in America, and have added to our store of knowledge about colonial French and Spanish Catholicism—the latter, of course, being of particular importance today, given the prominent (and increasing) Hispanic presence in the American Church. The bad news is that the revisionists pay little attention to the religious-liberty dimension of the Maryland founding, and undervalue its importance as a breakthrough in religious tolerance with implications for Catholic participation in the subsequent church/state debate in the independent United States.

Indeed, the revisionist rereading of the Maryland colonial experience is a striking example of the school’s tendency to turn what ought to be an amplification of our understanding of the past into an assault on the truth of the classic story line. The revisionists are surely right to remind us that the Calverts, founders of Maryland, were not plaster saints, but rather investors and proprietors who expected their colony to turn a profit. But why should such commercial concerns be thought to have precluded a commitment to religious liberty? Why couldn’t the early Calverts have been both proprietors and exponents of religious tolerance? Do we have here an instance of “progressive” American Catholicism’s skepticism toward capitalism distorting its historical perspective?

But the real target of the revisionist rereading of the American Catholic “founding” is the work and reputation of Archbishop John Carroll. In the recently published six-volume Bicentennial History of the Catholic Church in the United States, James Hennesey sums up, in contemporary form and with due regard for the archbishop’s flaws, the classic case for Carroll.

His church was that which antedated in Catholicism the neo-ultramontane movement. In secular politics, he was a Federalist, a conservative, an admirer of George Washington. The “furious democracy” of France’s revolution appalled him . . . . But he did not confuse [the] American and French revolutions, and he believed that the church in the United States should be open to new forms of being and functioning that responded to the new setting in which it found itself. His working out of this in practice was not always easy nor was it always successful. John Carroll’s “learning and abilities” were put fully to the test. On balance he met that test. His like has scarcely been known again in the history of American Catholicism.

Jay P. Dolan, on the other hand, will have none of this. In The American Catholic Experience, Dolan’s final judgment on John Carroll is little less than scathing, for Dolan regards Carroll as having committed a kind of treason. Carroll, who had the opportunity to lead the way, in fact betrayed the possibility of creating a distinctively “American Church” by his ultimate (and, in Dolan’s view, pusillanimous) acquiescence to Roman authority.

With the spirit of independence, so manifest in the 1780s, gone, Carroll became increasingly dependent on the Papacy. All throughout his career as a leader in the American Catholic community, he sought to maintain a balance between being a loyal American and a faithful Roman Catholic. It was a delicate balancing act; in his younger years, as a priest, he leaned toward the American spirit of independence; in his later years, as bishop, he moved closer to the stance of a Roman Catholic for whom the Papacy was the vital center of the Church. Though he still held firm to his belief that the authority of the Papacy was limited to “things purely spiritual,” he no longer supported the idea of an independent American Catholic Church (emphasis added).

This view is, of course, dependent on Dolan’s revisionist account of Carroll’s early ministry as Superior of the Catholic Mission in the United States and as first bishop of Baltimore. Then, Dolan argues, Carroll understood the importance of creating a “republican” form of Catholicism in which the Church would absorb the new national experiment in democracy into its own internal life. Lay ownership and control of church properties, the election of bishops, decentralized church authority, a vernacular liturgy, eschewal of a distinct Catholic educational system—in short. Catholic Congregationalism: this was the cause that, Dolan believes, Carroll should have espoused and would have led, had he not been spooked, as it were, by the excesses of Jacobinism in France and his own innate ecclesiastical conservatism.

Those who detect some affinity between Professor Dolan’s revisionist designs for the truly “republican” episcopate of John Carroll and the agenda of certain parties a gauche in American Catholicism today will not be far off the mark. For just as revisionist historiographers of the Cold War reread the history of the Truman administration through the lens of their own Vietnam passions, the new American Catholic revisionists view the episcopate of John Carroll—the paradigm in the classic story line—through the prism of their own agenda for Catholicism in the 1990s.

Despite a flurry of “independent” thinking during the Americanist controversy, the “republican” Catholicism that Archbishop Carroll allegedly betrayed lay essentially dormant, according to the revisionist story line, until the post-conciliar period. The 165 years between Carroll’s “turning” and the close of the Second Vatican Council were dominated by the construction of the “immigrant Church”—by which the revisionists mean (sometimes using the term itself, sometimes suggesting it by inference) the “ghetto Church.” Moreover, “ghetto” here takes on the dreariest possible coloration: xenophobic, anti-intellectual, racist, sexist, authoritarian, Jansenist. Thomas Spalding, author of The Premier See: A History of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, 1789-1989, sums up the revisionist indictment in these terms:

In an editorial entitled “Keeping Up with the Times,” the Baltimore Catholic Review told its readers in the summer of 1921 that the Church “sees beyond the present and prepares for other times when jazz and noise and vulgarity shall have sickened their votaries.” Her attitude toward the big questions “is the same today as yesterday.” As non-Catholic America entered a period of doubt and disillusionment following World War I, “Catholics set out as ‘providential hosts’ to defend the values and promises of American idealism which seemed threatened by various forms of irrationalism.” In their keeping innocence would survive. With a self-assurance that brooked no questioning, American Catholics would convince themselves that they were in the forefront of every important social, cultural, and intellectual movement in the country . . . Catholics would be daily reassured in the Catholic classroom. Catholic press, and Catholic pulpit that their Church had the answer to every question worth asking. Never would they think to look beyond these sources for confirmation.
“We were, thus, a chosen people—though chosen, it seemed, to be second rate,” recalled Garry Wills, a beneficiary of these reassurances and for several years a resident of Baltimore. The in-built inferiority of the ghetto church was carefully hidden by an apologetics ultimately rooted in neo-Thomism that would allow even literate Catholics to assume a God-given superiority. Upon this apologetical undergirding the Catholic ghetto of the twentieth century would be confidently constructed.

The classic story line, particularly in the hands of its more sophisticated practitioners, did not ignore the “immigrant Church”; indeed, it gave considerable attention to the assimilation controversies and other Irish/German tensions in the late nineteenth century. However, the classicists regarded the American Catholic immigrant saga as essentially a story of success. While the Church in Europe was losing the working class during the Industrial Revolution, American Catholicism, against the historical odds and in the face of vicious nativist opposition, brokered the passage of ten million immigrants into mainstream American society while retaining the religious loyalties of the overwhelming majority of these new citizens. Moreover, according to the standard account, that “success” was reconfirmed in the post-World War II period, when Catholicism was transformed from the working-class, urban-based Church into a middle and upper-middle-class Church demographically centered in the suburbs.

The revisionists, on the other hand, cannot seem to bring themselves to regard what they style the “ghetto Church” as the platform for any sort of success, religious, intellectual, or political. They accept, without much cavil, one of John Tracy Ellis’ more dubious claims, namely, that American Catholicism had no intellectual life to speak of in the mid-1950s. They ignore, perhaps because they hold in contempt, the political success of the urban Catholic Irish, Italians, Germans, and Poles. They have little to say, perhaps because the data ill fit their historiographic image, about the fact that American Catholicism during this “ghetto” period produced great pioneers of the liturgical and social-action movements like Virgil Michel. Nor do they account for the fact that the Thomism they dismissively deprecate (while failing to recognize the variant schools within the Thomist family) was taken seriously as an intellectual tradition by such respected secular scholars as Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mark Van Doren. Nor can they explain how converts like Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton were attracted to this Church whose public face is taken to have been that of a xenophobic, anti-intellectual, politically reactionary ghetto. According to Wills and Dolan, only in the 1960s, when American Catholicism, personified by Daniel and Philip Berrigan, broke definitively with the “ghetto Church” and its flag-waving patriotism, did it become possible to reclaim, again and at last, the “republican” heritage betrayed by John Carroll and (most of) his successors.

Here, yet again, the revisionists have leaped from a valid historical point to an invalid historiographical conclusion. Of course there were strains of xenophobia in the immigrant Church, and some of them perdured into the 1960s. No one who reads Cardinal Lawrence Shehan’s memoirs, in which he poignantly recalls being booed by masses of Catholic parishioners in 1966 when he testified before the Baltimore City Council in favor of an open-housing ordinance, can fail to realize that there were ugly elements in urban ethnic Catholicism. But, as Thomas Spalding himself demonstrates in The Premier See, the “ghetto Church” that produced racist parishioners also produced the priests and laity who were at the forefront of Baltimore’s integration movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

Moreover, the revisionist account scarcely does justice to the immense vitality of Catholic life in, say, the Baltimore of Archbishop Michael J. Curley (1921-1947) or the Chicago of Cardinal George Mundelein (1916-1939). Spalding, in The Premier See, seems simultaneously baffled, charmed, repelled, and deeply impressed by Archbishop Curley and the church he led. Curley, Spalding insists, had “little use for the values of mainstream America” (what those values are is left to the reader’s imagination), and deliberately eschewed the Carroll/Gibbons tradition for a church guided by “the myth of majestic changelessness.” On the other hand, Spalding notes that Curley, with his “boldness and vigor,” was “without doubt the most open, honest, and outspoken member of the American hierarchy” during the interwar period. What accounts for this curiously bifocal judgment? I suspect it may be due to the fact that Spalding, who has long and historic family connections in Baltimore, is somewhat less a revisionist on this matter of the “ghetto Church” than Dolan or Wills, and yet feels required to tip his historiographic hat at least modestly in that direction. Thus do intellectual fashions shape, posthumously, the reputations of great men.


The revisionist deprecation of John Carroll and the even more lurid revisionist portrait of the “ghetto Church” are not simply matters of intellectual fashion, however. They are interpretations deeply, even determinatively, influenced by contemporary church politics. To construct an historical foundation for the “progressive” Catholic agenda they champion today. Jay Dolan and others in the liberal Catholic opinion establishment have to make several moves. First, they must distinguish the “bad John Carroll” from the “good John Carroll.” Second, they must show that the “bad Carroll” skewed the growth of American Catholicism away from its “republican” roots and towards ultramontanism. (Gibbons and Ireland must be chuckling in heaven over the thought that they were closet ultramontanes, but revisionist historiography permits few calibrations to the right of Catholic Congregationalism.) Third, they must demonstrate that the net result of Carroll’s betrayal was the “Catholic Ghetto,” whose evils must be catalogued in grim detail. Finally, they have to present the Second Vatican Council exclusively as the Council of aggiornamento (“updating”), rather than as the Council of an aggiornamento rooted in ressourcement (a “return to the sources”)—including, it should be added, a return (in the Declaration on Religious Freedom) to the sources of authentic American Catholic liberalism in Carroll and Gibbons.

None of this, in its parts or as a whole, makes for an especially plausible or persuasive portrait of the American Catholic experience—unless one adopts what Frederick Crews has described as the “perpetually scandalized relation to the past” of “post-sixties conformism.” And that, alas, is a tough but accurate description of those revisionist Catholic historians who are working diligently to rewrite the American Catholic story line in order to prop up the sagging cause of “progressive” Catholicism today. These new historians of American Catholicism have, let it be freely admitted, opened some important windows of understanding. And doubtless some of their post-sixties conformism is less a matter of an ideological agenda than of unexamined assumptions. But what might be called, with due respect, the “Jay Dolan Project” in American Catholic history is of a different magnitude entirely. For it is an interpretation of history intellectually rooted in what Philip Gleason has aptly described as “more fundamental changes in theological outlook.” The Dolan Project, in other words, is much less a matter of new facts than of new interpretive filters, of “a tendency to endorse as theological liberalism what the old [historiography] endorsed as social and procedural liberalism.”

The proper analogy, again, is to the revisionist school of American historiography in the 1960s. As William Appleman Williams deliberately sought to reshape and radicalize U.S. foreign policy through a revisionist (and essentially Marxist) reading of the history of America’s encounter with the world, so Jay Dolan has, with energy and imagination, sought to buttress the “progressive” agenda in contemporary American Catholicism and the cause of an “independent American Catholic Church” by a radical retelling of the story. No doubt new light will be shed on the American Catholic experience as the Dolan school continues its work. But if the Williams analogy holds over the next decade. Professor Dolan and his colleagues may be in for an unwelcome surprise. For the net result of the revisionist/classicist battle over the origins of the Cold War was a strengthening of Harry Truman’s posthumous claim to historical greatness—precisely the “myth” that the revisionists were most eager to debunk. Might the same be the happy fate of John Carroll and the Carroll Church when the debate over the Dolan Project runs its course?


“History is an antidote to despair,” or so thought a college teacher of mine. Perhaps he would pardon my amending his mot to read, “History is an antidote to frivolity.”

American Catholicism suffers from an excess of frivolity in the opening years of its third century. A church that is the largest voluntary association in the country; a church whose universal pastor has, over the past decade, definitively answered Stalin’s cynical query about the pope’s divisions; a church that is, demographically, at its strongest historical point of leverage in American society—this is a church that would seem well positioned to seize what Richard John Neuhaus and others have seen as a possible “Catholic moment” in American history, pro Deo et patria.

Instead, the “Catholic moment” proposition has been subjected to the death of a thousand cuts from both opinion establishments, the liberal and the conservative, in the American Church. The left refuses to concede the possibility of a “Catholic moment” built around the postmodern ministry of Pope John Paul II. The right insists that the real “Catholic moment” was in the heyday of Archbishop Curley when the “myth of majestic changelessness” prevailed against all the Church’s enemies, foreign and domestic.

Simply paying more attention to The Story of Catholicism in America will not solve the problem of Catholic frivolity in the 1990s. Indeed, if the revisionists come to dominate the field, their scandalized relationship to the past (“I thank thee, O God, that I am not like my ancestors: racist, sexist, warmongering, environmentally insensitive, subservient to Rome,” etc., etc.) virtually guarantees more frivolity, now extended back across several generations.

On the other hand, a renewed and amplified classic story line could revivify the “Catholic moment” proposition in several ways. It could help distinguish what is authentically “American Catholic” from what is merely post-sixties conformism. It could suggest models (Carroll, Gibbons, Murray) for the interaction between the United States and Rome that mediate between Catholic Congregationalism and the tendency to see Catholicism in the United States as a mere branch office of Roman Catholic Church, Inc. It might put to rest one of the least plausible feminist claims about the pre-conciliar Church, i.e., that it was an institution in which women were “disempowered.” It would, in sum, usefully complexify the current Catholic debate, and thus create the possibility of moving that debate to a more adult level of discussion.

Whom you would change, taught Martin Luther King, Jr., you must first love. Whom you would love, you must first know, because love is an act of the intellect as well as of the emotions. The new historiography of American Catholicism teaches, sometimes subtly and sometimes overtly, a contempt for the Catholic past, and indeed for the American past—which seems a dubious base on which to build the American Catholicism of the future. But neither can an American Catholicism capable of seizing a possible “Catholic moment” be built on the receding sands of a forgotten past.

Any possible “Catholic moment” in American history will combine, as did the Second Vatican Council, a strategy of aggiornamento with a strategy of ressourcement. And that, it seems, is what the Carroll Church tried to do, at least in the standard account of The Story of Catholicism in America. Amplifying and refining that classic story line is thus an important intellectual exercise for the Church today. And it just might be, as well, both an antidote to despair and a source of good cheer about the future.

George Weigel is President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Tranquillitas Ordinis and Catholicism and the Renewal of American Democracy.