The Catholic Historical Review 88.4 (2002) 806-807
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American Catholic Lay Groups and Transatlantic Social Reform in the Progressive Era. By Deirdre M. Moloney. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 2002. Pp. xvii, 267. $49.95 clothbound; $19.95 paperback.)
Though hardly catchy, the title exemplifies truth in advertising. After an introductory look at the Columbian Catholic Congress of 1893, Deirdre Moloney surveys the transnationally inflected activities of Catholic lay people in the temperance movement, in rural colonization and immigrant-aid projects, in the St. Vincent de Paul Society, in the Catholic settlement house movement, and in the more general involvement of Catholic women's groups in efforts to promote social betterment (concentrating, in the latter case, on the [German] Catholic Women's Union and Boston's League of Catholic Women).
Moloney links these activities to the emergence in the late nineteenth century of a Catholic middle class. She portrays the new middle-class reformers as acting from a variety of motives—emulation of Protestants; a drive for respectability; a desire to improve the image of the Church; a genuine concern for their needy co-religionists; and the aim of legitimating their own higher status. Moloney also detects underlying tensions between their upward mobility and desire for Protestant acceptance, on the one hand, and their determination to maintain a distinctive religious identity and resist Protestant efforts at proselytization, on the other. This is all quite plausible, but since class plays so central a role, one wishes that the author had systematically established the existence, extent, and occupational make-up of the new Catholic middle class, rather than simply extrapolating from the activities of selected individuals and groups.
Gender also figures prominently as an interpretive theme. Besides devoting a chapter to women's organizations, Moloney shows that while men dominated temperance work, colonization, and the St. Vincent de Paul Society, women played a significant auxiliary role in these areas, and she highlights Charlotte Grace O'Brien's importance in the field of immigrant aid. In keeping with the "maternalist" dimension of the Catholic gender ideology, women move front and center in the discussion of day care and settlement houses.
Race comes into the picture only in connection with African American participation in the Columbian Catholic Congress. Ethnicity figures more prominently, though Moloney notes that its presence was uneven and diminished over time. Thus Irish ethnic feeling had a clear impact on late nineteenth-century temperance and colonization efforts, but not on the activities of the League of Catholic Women (established in 1910), whose members were of Boston Irish [End Page 806] background. German ethnicity, by contrast, was still marked in the Catholic Women's Union (established in 1916). The fading of ethnicity coincided with the beginnings of consolidation and professionalization of Catholic social work, especially in the NCWC's assumption of responsibility for immigrant aid, and its creation of national councils to co-ordinate Catholic lay activities.
Ethnicity is closely linked to the interpretive theme featured in the title: the transatlantic dimension of lay Catholic reform activities. Moloney points, for example, to Father Mathew's legacy in the case of temperance; to the model supplied by Germany's Frauenbund for the Catholic Women's Union; and to the co-operative efforts of American, Irish, and German workers in the field of migrant care.
Moloney thus rings the changes on all the now obligatory analytic categories in surveying lay Catholic social reform from the 1880's to the 1920's. And if my review seems abstract and generalized, so also is the book. It is based on extensive research and contains interesting anecdotal material, but it lacks narrative momentum and is overburdened with interpretive commentary. Nor does the author explain why she by-passes the social reform activities of the German Catholic Central Verein, although it was the parent organization of the Catholic Women's Union, which receives lengthy treatment. Other lay organizations, such as the Knights of Columbus and the American Federation of Catholic Societies, are also overlooked, and the only place the labor...