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  • Catholicism and American Freedom: A History
  • Leslie Woodcock Tentler
Catholicism and American Freedom: A History. By John T. McGreevy. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 2003. Pp. 431. $26.95.)

Is anti-Catholicism really the last acceptable prejudice of the intellectuals? John T. McGreevy's masterful Catholicism and American Freedom offers abundant evidence to this effect. But McGreevy also situates this faintly self-pitying saw in broad historical context, with generous references to parallel developments in Europe and the British Isles. This has the effect of mostly deflating Catholic claims to victim status. Liberal intellectuals in the United States and Europe may have been prone to the grossest stereotypes in their various battles against the Church. They were right, however, to see the Catholic world-view as resting on assumptions in fundamental opposition to their own. Catholics, moreover, often promoted their views in ways that were calculated to confirm the worst prejudices of the other side. Catholics were not so much victims of liberal bigotry as liberalism's sparring partners—vigorous co-participants in an on-going debate about the nature of the human person and of society. "This book sketches the interplay between Catholic and American ideas of freedom," as McGreevy explains. "The trick is to capture two traditions in motion, not one: to explore American ideas about Catholicism along with the predispositions (at times blinders) framing the mental landscape of American Catholics" (p. 15).

McGreevy's ambitious narrative opens with a pair of closely-related debates in the 1840's and '50's over slavery and education. Catholics in the United States, like those in Europe, were mostly opposed to emancipation, at least of the immediate variety. And in view of the overly Protestant content of the public school curriculum, many American Catholics—again, like those in Europe—championed public funding for religiously separate schools. What linked the two positions was a distinctively Catholic view of freedom. As Catholic intellectuals saw it, human freedom had moral meaning only in a relational context—a very different notion from the autonomous choice-maker posited by liberals. As McGreevy explains, "...Catholics saw moral choice and personal development as inseparable from virtues nurtured in families and churches" (p.36). Hence the almost obsessive Catholic fear of "liberal individualism and [End Page 357] social disorder" (p. 52) that characterized the Catholic revival in Europe and Catholic intellectual life in the United States. Nor did Catholic intellectuals see the mitigation of suffering as critical to human freedom, although nearly all liberals did. Suffering, in the Catholic view, was a means of spiritual purgation. It also underwrote communal bonds, as families and Church-sponsored institutions cared for those in distress. Catholic schools made eminent sense in such a world; slavery made a kind of tragic sense as well.

Not surprisingly, abolitionists both in the United States and Europe trafficked in anti-Catholicism and continued to do so even after the death of slavery. The 1864 publication of the Syllabus of Errors caused liberals on both sides of the Atlantic to regard Catholicism more than ever as a threat to the secular nation-state. American liberals—most of them with abolitionist pedigrees—praised Bismarck's Kulturkampf, the Italian Risorgimento, and the various anticlerical laws in France. The Republican-controlled Congress in 1876 came close to ratifying a constitutional amendment prohibiting public aid to religious schools, and toyed with levying taxes on church-owned properties—a policy that would have had disproportionate impact on Catholics. The proponents of such measures were convinced that Catholic separatism undermined national unity. Many Catholic intellectuals confirmed their fears by trumpeting the ultramontanism so spectacularly embodied in the 1870 declaration on papal infallibility.

Despite the polarization of the 1870's and '80's, a rapprochement of sorts took place in the early twentieth century. Catholic intellectuals and their liberal counterparts still saw the world through very different lenses. But Protestant and secular liberals had by this time abandoned their benign view of laissez-faire capitalism. So Catholics and liberals were increasingly able to make at least semi-common cause in support of social welfare measures and the regulatory state. The process reached its high-water mark during the first administration...


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