Early in the spring of 1986, Monsignor William Murphy, representing the Pontifical Commission Justice and Peace, wrote to Archbishop Rembert Weakland with observations about the second draft of the pastoral on economics of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. The Roman commentator called particular attention to the questions which the proposed pastoral letter raised on the relationship between one bishops' conference and another and between the multiple bishops' conferences and the Holy See. If the bishops released the pastoral on economics, could there not be "the possible confusion of their teaching authority with some prudential economic and social judgments?" Did not the teaching of the U.S. bishops "have direct and indirect real repercussions on the bishops in other countries and on the role of the Holy Father in the social domain"? Seen from a global perspective, Murphy asked,
Is it not important to maintain the principle that the bishops speak with one voice regarding values, principles and social teaching? In a world grown small does not a Church that is Catholic have all the more reason to protect itself in such a way that its social teaching is clear and clearly seen as consistent and coherent?1
Murphy's observations preceded in April 1986 a consultative meeting between selected U.S. bishops, their Latin American counterparts, and representatives from France and Germany. Just as the pastoral on war and peace had been discussed with the Europeans, so the Holy See requested that economic principles articulated in the northern hemisphere be discussed with those representing the southern hemisphere. The meeting took place under the vertical aegis of the Holy See and was comprised of the horizontal relationships existing between east and west, north and [End Page 1] south. It situated the Church in the United States within a global context and placed it squarely within the dynamics of international history. What happened in the United States and the approach that the American bishops took to the relationship between the Gospel and society carried "international repercussions" affecting the whole Church.2 The local realization of the Church in North America needed to be coordinated with other local realizations; both had to be structured so as to reflect Catholicism's universality.
This 1986 meeting, one among many convened during that decade, symbolized the culmination of a long process of transformation which had been occurring in the American Catholic community since the close of World War II. I would describe the development in its broadest terms as initially a process of internationalization—some might call it "globalization," others, "trans-nationalization," or still others, the "creation of a world culture."3 The phenomenon itself reflects two fundamentally connected trajectories: (1) The changing fortunes of the United States and its ascendancy to the status of a political, social, economic, and cultural superpower. American historians largely frame this development as a movement away from a history rooted in the nation-state towards a history shaped by the vast "networks of worldwide interconnectivity."4 (2) The corresponding development within our country and elsewhere of a "world Church."5 This latter development has since been referred to by theologians as the movement towards a polycentric Church whose unity is determined not only by creedal statements and authoritative vertical structures centered in Rome, but also [End Page 2] by pathways of reciprocity between local churches.6 What is important for the purposes of this essay is the fact that the American Catholic story is now situated within a global context and simultaneously attached to the multi-dimensional world outreach of the United States of America. Within American history the preoccupation with "exceptionalism" has lost some of its valiancy; within Catholic history, the predominantly immigrant and European-American axis of interpretation has passed. Interconnections, reciprocities, interchanges, intersections, the border lands of exchange, a global ecology of movements, ideas, and influences: these are the categories which more and more structure contemporary thinking, creating a new horizon for the historical imagination.
Whatever name we would want to give to it, this historical transformation of the last seventy years has placed the American Catholic community within a...