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American Catholic: The Saints and Sinners Who Built America’s Most Powerful Church
by Charles R. Moris
Times Books, 511 pages, $27.50

Social historian and commentator Charles Morris’ new study of the development and current situation of the Catholic Church in America is an important, beautifully written, and finally very troubling book.

Most of it is historical, chronicling the Catholic Church’s travails in America from roughly the mid-nineteenth century (by which point the Irish-American clergy had assumed full command) to the end of the 1960s. Morris reviews the work and the competing visions of such major figures in American Catholicism as Archbishop John Hughes of New York, who steered the American Church away from assimilation, creating a powerful Irish Catholic subculture, and Bishop John Ireland, who pushed the opposite way, toward “Americanism.” By the early twentieth century, Morris notes, these positions had been synthesized into a uniquely American brand of Catholicism, fiercely patriotic yet culturally self-contained. This marked the beginning of a new self-confident period in American Catholicism, the “Going My Way” era that culminated in the 1950s with Bishop Sheen on television and Cardinal Spellman blessing the troops.

And yet, within ten years it all fell apart, and Morris ends his historical section by revisiting the tumultuous 1960s, when the American Catholic Church lost its élan, its unselfconscious unity, and a large portion of its clergy. In the last section of his book, he examines the state of the Church in America in our own post-1960s days. Relying heavily on his interviews with American Catholics and visits to parishes around the country, he finds good and bad news. He notes that the hemorrhage of vocations has been largely stanched and he finds vibrant religious life at the parish level even as “liberal” and “conservative” Catholic theologians continue to fight it out and, in his version of the situation, tensions with Rome increase.

Morris has a journalist’s flair for vivid description. He captures the great pomp and gaudiness of the 1879 dedication Mass at New York’s City’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, describing the procession into the Cathedral as starting with “a solemn line of altar boys in black cassocks and white surplices washed and bleached by their mothers to the brightness of snow, hair slicked down, eyes straight ahead,” and culminating in bishops and archbishops with glittering miters encrusted with precious stones and robes “so thickly embroidered with gold thread that they presented a solid field of gold to the spectator.”

Morris is also, at times, exasperating, though this is really the excess of a virtue, arising from the author’s evident determination to deal fairly with both sides of the debate between “liberal” and “conservative” Catholicism. It is clear that Morris, an admirer of Mario Cuomo and Andrew Greeley (reciprocated by both on the dust jacket), belongs in the liberal camp, yet he strives so hard for balance that he leaves the argument in a state of perfect equipoise. While rejecting the possibility of returning to the “carapaced” Catholicism of the past, he observes that it was precisely its “prickly apartness” that gave the Church its organizational strength in America. He endorses most of the liberal agenda, from women deacons (even women cardinals) to acceptance of homosexual behavior, divorce, and at least early abortions, yet he warns against following mainstream Protestantism down the slope of assimilationism. So where are we? “Carapaced” Catholicism won’t work, but it was essential to the Church’s survival in America. The Church should liberalize its doctrines, but look what happened to Protestantantism when it did just that. He ends with a series of unresolved dilemmas.

A more serious problem with this book is its relentlessly political treatment of the Catholic Church. Scattered through the book are expressions like “power jockeying” and “the fix was in.” Morris finds it “hard to believe” that Pius XII’s attempt to mediate peace between Germany and the Allies during World War II was not motivated by a desire to “increase his own, and the Vatican’s, stature,” and he presumes that today’s Vatican “has been hamstringing national and local ecclesiastical authority” because it is “jealous of its own powers.” As for the Catholic Church in this country, Morris savors a joke about its identity to Tammany Hall, compares the Chicago hierarchy in the 1950s with Mayor Daley’s political machine, and leaves the impression that the main reason Americans joined the Catholic clergy during most of our history was the prospect of power and prestige, or, in the case of nuns, economic security and psychological fulfillment.

Let us stipulate that the Church is a political institution. For the past two thousand years it has been providing governance for its members while negotiating the often perilous currents of the world. This is politics, requiring political skill and not a little wheeling and dealing. But Catholics”and Morris is apparently a practicing Catholic”also believe something else about their Church: that it is a divinely founded institution whose most authoritative pronouncements, however messily arrived at, bear the stamp of the divine. Perhaps it is a little awkward to say that to non-Catholics, and a Catholic-written book on Church history doesn’t have to. But doesn’t it need to leave some room for that perspective? One finds it nowhere in this book, which views the history of the Catholic Church in America through the single lens of power politics.

What it comes down to at last is a question of allegiance. Morris knows that he is communicating with a public that includes many non-Catholics, but a committed Catholic writer, in describing or chronicling his Church, has an obligation to write from within the Church and not merely gaze at it in detachment from the outside. Unmistakable in this book is its tone of light condescension, as if the author were an anthropologist describing these very interesting people who adhere to this very interesting religion. More than once priests are referred to as “shamans” and the Catholic Mass as “magic.”

The Church of the 1950s gets the fullest dose of condescension. We read about “the carapaced self-confidence so typical” of it, about its “stainless steel syllogisms” that “clicked out correct answers,” and about the difference between Jewish anticommunism, which opposed communism as a threat to freedom, and Catholic anticommunism, which opposed it as an “error.” As for today, Morris suggests that the Church needs America for its survival, since America is its chief source of money and vocations: Most of Latin America is un-churched while Europe is all but dead to Catholicism and the rise of vocations in Africa forces the author to “wonder how many are in search only of a decent meal.”

Even when Morris praises works of the Church, he seems to be playing to the non-Catholic galleries. He praises Catholic schools for producing reasonably educated and well-behaved young people, without mentioning their purpose of teaching the faith. He is excited by some of the new liturgies, but their final validation seems to depend upon good reviews from non-Catholics. He reports the comment of a Jewish friend who attended a Catholic charismatic Mass with him. “‘That was wonderful,’ she said when we were outside. ‘That really worked!’ It is hard to imagine what more could be asked from religion.” Yes, it is nice when a Mass “works,” but is that the final thing we ask of our religion? Indeed, do we “ask” things of our religion in the same way we ask them of, say, a legislature or a theatrical company? Morris indulges in American Catholic what proves at last a fearful reductionism. The Church is a res publica with bishops as politicians, priests as shamans, and vocations as careers. Religion is liturgy and good liturgy is good theater. Nowhere does this book tell us what makes the practice of Catholicism different from these other human endeavors.

From American Catholic I learned much about Catholics and America, but by the end of its 511 pages I had gained little insight into what it is that has inspired generations of Americans to sacrifice so much for their Church, and why it has been such a formative influence in their lives. There is something in the Church that has held us for so long, but to find it, I suppose, we have to turn from political studies of Catholicism to writings from quieter regions of our faith.

George McKenna is Professor of Political Science at City College of New York and author of The Drama of Democracy.