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Continental Ambitions:
Roman Catholics in North America

by kevin starr
ignatius, 675 pages, $34.95

In The Good Shepherd, the 2006 spy film, mobster Joseph Palmi asks CIA agent (and stereotypical WASP) Edward Wilson an insolent question: “We Italians, we got our families and we got the Church. The Irish, they have the homeland. The Jews, their traditions. Even the n——s, they got their music. What about you people . . . What do you have?” After a haughty pause, Wilson delivers the punchline: “The United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.”

The line reflects an immemorial perception, never quite overcome and lately resurgent, that the United States is basically an Anglo-Protestant affair. In his final book, Continental Ambitions: Roman Catholics in North America; The Colonial Experience, the late Kevin Starr set out to dispel this perception. Continental Ambitions tells the story of Catholic conquest, exploration, and settlement in North America (involving Norse, Spanish, French, and British Catholics), emphasizing the relevance of this story to understanding the present-day continental United States. “The history of Catholicism in America,” says Starr in his preface, “is not simply Catholic history. It is American history . . . part of the warp and woof, the very fabric and meaning, of American life.”

Best known as a historian of California, Starr was also a thoughtful and erudite Catholic layman in the mold of his friend John T. Noonan, the jurist and historian he predeceased by only four months. While Continental Ambitions is addressed to all, it is written from an explicitly and passionately Catholic point of view. And passion, as great and refreshing as it is, is the least of Continental Ambitions’s many strengths. Nicely tempered by a certain scholarly caution, the book is neither embarrassed nor bloodless.

First of all, there is the writing. Starr manages to be thoughtful and vivid throughout, and his style often escapes the gravity of his massive material to achieve elegance. He also lets the light of gentle wit into the thickets of names, dates, and events. For instance, he describes an eighteenth-century Jesuit procurator, professionally bound to perpetual fundraising, as a man “sensitive to net worth in this life as well as the next.”

Then there is the rich historical substance. Some of Starr’s narratives are simply gripping tales—like the nightmarish 1012 Viking expedition to Newfoundland under Leif Ericsson’s sister Freydís, a less sunny and delicate Lady Macbeth—while others are powerful and significant, true revelations.

One example of the latter category is the history of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and his companions. Survivors of a disastrous 1527 Spanish attempt to conquer and colonize what is now the American South, the travelers “sailed, trekked, rafted, suffered enslavement, escaped, and then trekked once more across two-thirds of the southern edge of the North American continent.” As later movingly related by Cabeza de Vaca, it was an epic full of moral and theological meaning. He recounts a journey of failure, horror, and radical dispossession as a prelude to a personal rebirth in which he discovers and communes with new lands and, especially, new peoples while rediscovering the power of the Spanish religion and Spanish civilization of which he is an involuntary ambassador. On the one hand, he is brought low. The proud hidalgo, tracing his lineage to heroes of the Reconquista and the annexation of the Canary Islands, becomes a slave. Materially inferior to and dependent on Indian captors, he comes to appreciate not just their basic humanity, but their frequently great intelligence and nobility—their worthiness as partners in civilizing the continent. On the other hand, his rudimentary knowledge of medicine, spirituality, and theology sustains him in adversity and eventually earns recognition and reverence from the Indians, who call the Spaniards “Children of the Sun”: healers, exorcists, vessels of a profoundly benevolent spiritual power.

Cabeza de Vaca returns to New Spain still committed to the Spanish empire in the New World, and still brimful of personal ambition. But he wants an imperial policy based on the truth that the greatest treasure of the New World is its men, whom it was essential to respect, protect, and enrich with Spanish religion and science. Cabeza de Vaca was able to apply his humanism as a governor in South America—he acquitted himself well, though local colonists opposed and frustrated him—but, tantalizingly, was denied his petition to govern the lands of his ordeal. It would have been very beautiful and very Christian had Catholic government first appeared to the Indians of North America in the person of Cabeza de Vaca, he who had once sojourned among them in the form of a slave.

Another revelation is the founding of Ville-Marie, now known as Montreal. On May 18, 1642, a group of roughly fifty Frenchmen heard Mass on an island at the confluence of the Ottawa and the St. Lawrence. They thus initiated an insane scheme to create an isolated missionary colony, devoted to Mary, in a river-island surrounded by ferociously hostile Iroquois. This improbable “Mary-Town” was founded, survived, and eventually flourished due to a remarkable convergence of aspirations, inspirations, and uncanny strokes of luck. The town sprang fully formed from the minds of the holy priest Jean-Jacques Olier (founder of the Sulpicians, Olier was mentored by St. Francis de Sales and by St. Vincent de Paul, Olier’s lifelong friend and admirer) and the rich layman Venerable Jérôme Royer de la Dauversière, who each independently received a vision directing them to found a missionary colony on the island of Montreal. The town survived thanks to the competence, discipline, and inexplicable devotion of Governor Paul de Chomedey, sieur de Maisonneuve, the sort of figure Cervantes’s Don Quixote had recently persuaded Europe could never exist. The town flourished as a true Christian commonwealth by the charitable, educational, and spiritual activity of women like St. Marguerite Bourgeoys and the freakishly capable Jeanne Mance.

Ville-Marie stands in interesting contrast with the nearby (and contemporary) Puritan settlements that loom so large in our national imagination. Like those settlements, Ville-Marie was conceived as a religious errand into the wilderness and marked by extreme corporate and individual rectitude. But unlike them, Ville-Marie was not founded by those who were most peripheral and discontented in the mother country. On the contrary, it was created by men and women of secure standing aided by lavish material and spiritual support from the cream of Paris. It was not an exodus, but a pure projection of Europe. Relatedly, while the Puritan project was neo-Israelite, with the perpetual danger of casting the Indians as Canaanites, Ville-Marie was essentially apostolic; outreach to Indians was the core objective. All North American Catholics should recognize that, despite the aggressive secularism that today stifles its true life, Montreal was inspired and built by an overflow of apostolic generosity that makes it nothing short of a holy city—like Rome, Częstochowa, or Villa de Guadalupe. 

Starr also brings out general issues in Catholic history, providing much matter for meditation. He is keenly aware, for instance, that as the Church works the hard clay of cultural, political, and economic reality, the resistance always generates contradictions and anomalies. How are Spanish Franciscans in the Southwest to create their Indian-Catholic utopia without the protection of the very Spanish soldiers whose criminality alienates and scandalizes the Indians? How to sustain the apostolate of Ville-Marie, meant to make the Indians sons of God, without selling them the guns and brandy that enthrall them to the devil? How can there be any Catholic freedom in Maryland without wealth from black slavery?

One general moral to be drawn from the history Starr relates is that intellectual clarity and practical competence are much more valuable in creating an authentic Christian society than is the mystical exuberance that is currently in fashion. This becomes clear when one compares the North American record of the Franciscans on one hand with that of the Jesuits and Dominicans on the other. Franciscans indulged extravagant theologies of Indians as the new chosen people, but it took cold Dominican pedantry to define and guard the Indians’ most basic rights as human persons. Franciscans let fly thunderous condemnations of the soldiers who abused their Indian charges, but it was the Jesuits, with their traditional insistence on (as Starr says) “polity, power, results,” who got Spanish soldiers on their payroll—that is, on a leash.

Despite the superb production quality of the book, there are a few apparent typos—Starr certainly does not think John of the Cross lived in the tenth century—and a few distortions suggesting that Starr is working outside his specialty, perhaps with garbled notes. For instance, nobody familiar with the circumstances of the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre would summarize it as the Catholic slaughter of Huguenots who had come to Paris “under a sign of truce to discuss peace.”

Somewhat more troubling, at least for the orthodox Catholic reader, is language in Starr’s preface suggesting that he dissents from, or at least regrets, Humanae Vitae. Reinforcing this concern is a thin thread of conniving remarks about sexual misbehavior by Indians, a hint that Starr is not altogether sold on the Church’s sexual ethics. Yet the hint remains merely a hint, and only the most inquisitorial readers will be put off. Indeed, some may be shocked by his downright “traditionalist” attack on postconciliar liturgy, preaching, and aesthetics. 

Perhaps the greatest deficiency in the book is that Starr does not clearly see and convey the full cultural potential of his work. He explicitly writes to serve the Church in America by uncovering a “usable” past. But what use does he have in mind? Based on his preface, it seems Starr wants to help American Catholics (especially recent arrivals from Latin America) claim their share of credit for the construction of American civilization, so that they will be seen, by themselves and by others, as authentically, even aboriginally, American. To that end, it seems, he would enhance Catholic representation on the American roll call of explorers, founders, dreamers, and heroes.

This is fine as far as it goes. It is good to realize that St. Junípero Serra, founder of California, and Eusebio Kino, S.J., founder of Arizona, were as energetic, intelligent, visionary, and creative as anyone on Mount Rushmore. It is good to remember that the Catholic Lords Baltimore, like the Quaker William Penn, instituted an important colonial experiment in religious toleration.

Nonetheless, I think Starr does not go quite far enough. He risks achieving little more than the tribal pride that marked the comfy Catholicism of the mid-twentieth century, when “we” had Grace Kelly and JFK.

Consider again Edward Wilson’s boast in The Good Shepherd. What does he really mean, and why, despite every qualification, does the boast still ring true? The WASP elite Wilson represents does not cherish the illusion that it is a numerical majority, or that it is politically omnipotent, or that it is the sole contributor to national life. But Wilson quite rightly believes that the U.S. is universally seen as the creation of his people, the Anglo-Protestants, and continues to reflect the worldview, values, and attitudes that constituted their ethnic habit of mind, now the spirit of a whole civilization. Members of other groups who want to be authentically American may have this or that to contribute, but to do so, they need to imaginatively identify with Wilson’s people and spiritually participate in the ethnic legend that begins with the Mayflower and culminates in the Revolution.

Now this identification with the Anglo-Protestants presents difficulties for many groups (notably for Indians and descendants of slaves), but it also creates—or should create—a special problem for Catholics. As a general rule, the men who made this country hated the Catholic Church. They hated the Church with the same intensity and, what is more significant, for many of the same reasons, as did Voltaire or Robespierre. They judged that the Church’s exaltation of authority over private judgment enslaves and debases the human mind, impeding progress and disposing men to every kind of tyranny. The Church must wane for science and liberty to wax.

The problem lies precisely in the trans-sectarian notions of natural reason and natural law where thoughtful American Catholics generally hope to find the solution. To read Jefferson or (especially) Adams, the natural reason underpinning this novus ordo seclorum is best defined as the action of the human mind liberated from “the monster,” as Adams once called the Church. Had Catholicism been a real force in colonial life—rather than an apparently absurd and private opinion of the otherwise clubbable Mr. Charles Carroll of Carrollton—the American Revolution might have been as anticlerical as the French. As it was, although the founding generation inherited an Anglophone world already liberated from Rome by nearly two centuries of penal laws, 1777 found men like John Jay still attempting to ban Catholic immigration. 

The point is not to denigrate the exceptionally intelligent and virtuous men who created the republic. It is, rather, to show that anti-Catholicism is a fully authentic American tradition. So much so that anti-Catholics can, without the least absurdity, think they alone are really keeping faith with the founders. Thus the widely read 1948 book by Paul Blanshard, American Freedom and Catholic Power.

The post-Protestant elites think, as did every right-thinking man in eighteenth-century Massachusetts, that orthodox Catholics surrender mind and conscience to an Italian priest, and thus cut themselves off from the democratic communion of natural reason. Time and again, these elites, having sagely deliberated together in Boston and New York, try to enrich and purify American civilization with some great reform. They advance plausible arguments couched in the vocabulary of our democratic life: liberty, equality, efficiency, practicality, progress. Time and again, they encounter disciplined Catholic resistance.

Catholics, like other men and perhaps more than other men, have a natural and healthy impulse toward civic piety. They want to identify revered ancestors whom they can honor. Therefore, despite the well-known attitudes of the founding generation, every wave of American Catholic intellectuals has contained brilliant minds bent on proving that anti-Catholic progressives are heretics to the national religion, some going so far as to find crypto-Catholicism on every honorable page of our history. Despite such efforts, it remains the case that just as Europe is a Catholic thing in which Protestants participate, America is a Protestant thing in which Catholics participate. And it is not easy to fully embrace a Protestant civilization without at least apparent disloyalty to the Church.

To many Europeans—and often enough to those who know us best—American Catholics are disturbingly comfortable in the American milieu, often to the point of embracing traditional Anglo-Protestant contempt for, and imperial velleities toward, the Catholic world. Perhaps the most extraordinary example of this attitude is the “Americanist” Catholic support for the Spanish-American War, expressed most colorfully in 1898 by Fr. Denis O’Connell, former rector of the North American College in Rome. In a private letter to Bishop John Ireland of Minnesota, O’Connell explained that if the conflict were merely a question of Cuban independence, he would be inclined to “let the ‘greasers’ eat one another up and save the lives of our dear boys.” But for him it was, rather, “a question of two civilizations. It is the question of all that is old and vile and rotten and cruel and false in Europe against all that is free and noble and open and true and humane in America. . . . And all continental Europe feels the war is against itself, and that is why they are against us, Rome more than all.” His loyalty is clear: “I am a partisan of the Anglo-American alliance . . . together they are invincible and they will impose a new civilization.”

But of course it is no solution for Catholics to reject or distance themselves from the United States. It is our duty to be patriotic—truly and heartily. This must go beyond a mere roll call of Catholics in the great American ethnic parade. Catholics must, then, find a way of seeing our country as basically Catholic in its origin and destiny, a way more plausible than treating The Federalist as a commentary on St. Thomas. An excellent tool for this purpose is Our Land and Our Lady, Daniel Sargent’s 1940 history of Marian devotion in America, an even bolder attempt than Starr’s to place Catholicism at the center of the American story.

Sargent, who died in 1987 at age ninety-six, was a bona fide Yankee. Born in Massachusetts and raised a Protestant, he was richly endowed with many of the gifts characteristic of the Brahmin breed: literary skill, keen wit, voluminous and varied learning, and long life. Perhaps because of this impeccably “establishment” background, Sargent (like Henry Adams, whom he greatly resembles) permits himself swipes at Yankee culture that would seem like ressentiment coming from an ethnic. For instance, he says the Yankees who first encountered Junípero Serra’s California “investigated it as if to find whether or not it were a mere mirage, and when they found that it was not and that they could trade with it, which meant that it was absolutely real, they were doubly fascinated.”

Such cracks aside, Our Land and Our Lady is an irenic and refreshing book. It reminds us that America, like many of its current residents, may have been raised Protestant, but it was baptized Catholic. Almost every region was first discovered, explored, and charted by ultra-Catholic Spaniards and Frenchmen. From the Bay of the Mother of God (the Chesapeake) to the River of the Immaculate Conception (the Mississippi) to the Bay of San Francisco, these Catholics christened the land with Catholic names. Far too often, these Catholics (especially the Spanish) went on to promptly profane the land with slaughter and slavery. But they also consecrated it with the blood of martyrdom—profusely in the Southwest, but also in Auriesville, New York, and by the Rappahannock, near Bull Run. Even British Catholics managed to play their part, discreetly devoting a Chesapeake colony to Mary, and there instituting a regime of tolerance based on Catholic humanism and prudence, not on the axioms of Locke. Even in the era of the Anglo-Protestant republic, the Church blessed our country with a true Enlightenment: heroic Catholic evangelization, such as Pierre-Jean De Smet’s work with the Indians of the Northwest, and the accessible Catholic education provided by vast armies of nuns. Finally, Catholics like the fathers of Maryknoll brought America to a sort of Catholic maturity when they harnessed its legendary wealth, energy, and goodwill for foreign missions, making it a spiritual center from which the Gospel is proclaimed to the ends of the earth.

The burden of Sargent’s book is to show that all this work was done, and often done explicitly, in service to the Virgin Mary, she whom the Spaniards called La Conquistadora. Sargent also demonstrates the specific importance, throughout our history, of the Immaculate Conception. Although not defined as dogma until 1854, the Immaculate Conception was the obsession of the conquering Spaniards—was not Columbus’s flagship La Santa María de la Inmaculada Concepción?—and of the Jesuits in New France. In 1760, King Charles III consecrated all his possessions (then including half of what is now the United States) to the Immaculate Conception. In 1846, just as Americans were taking much of that consecrated land from Mexico, the American bishops, convened at the Sixth Council of Baltimore, discreetly took the Marian baton on behalf of the United States, proclaiming our national patroness to be “the Blessed Virgin, conceived without sin.” More than a century later, in 1959, the bishops consummated the national devotion with the extraordinary Marian palace that is the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

More than “Catholicism,” more even than the Catholic Church, Mary Immaculate, Queen of Heaven and Earth, has entered our history and territory, claiming it for herself. Mostly without knowing it, we Americans live in a Catholic history and move in a Catholic geography.

If we are ever to realize this fact, it will be through pilgrimage to our domestic holy sites, and through observance of December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, as our preeminent feast. The status of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception as the national patron is currently a piece of Catholic trivia; Catholics can make it a public truth by the simple means of food, drink, song, and bunting.

Catholics will always and everywhere be wayfarers. Nonetheless, we are wayfarers in the land of promise. Like the sons of Israel, we sojourn in a land marked out for us, that we are instructed to possess, sanctify, and fill by anticipation with the corporate, public, and triumphant life of the City of God, with its living members on earth and in heaven. As Belloc put it, “Even in these our earthly miseries we always hear the distant something of an eternal music, and smell a native air. There is a standard set for us whereto our whole selves respond, which is that of an inherited and endless life, quite full, in our own country.” The true power of Starr’s book is that it can help American Catholics build a culture that makes this quintessentially Catholic experience available to all. 

Stefan McDaniel, a former assistant editor of First Things, writes from New York.