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Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 3.4 (2000) 85-99



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The Catholic Church in American Public Life in the Twentieth Century

Philip Gleason


The topic I am to discuss--how Catholic identity and mission have interacted historically with American society and culture--is such a broad one that it requires limitation both chronologically and methodologically.

To keep the discussion to manageable proportions, we must confine ourselves to the twentieth century. The need for this chronological limitation is, I trust, sufficiently obvious that no further justification is required. However, two methodological points about the approach I will follow do require a word of explanation.

The first is that I intend to make assimilation the thematic focus of the discussion. I take this term and the concept it designates from the study of immigration and ethnicity, where it is conventionally contrasted to pluralism. 1 Though "assimilation" is not a term that occurs very frequently in Catholic discourse, it is appropriate to our interest here because it refers to how the members of an ethnic group, and the group itself, relate to the larger national society. And that, mutatis mutandis, is what we are talking about when we refer to the interaction of Catholic identity and mission with American society and culture. [End Page 85]

There is also an intimate connection between assimilation and identity because group identity is precisely what is threatened with dissolution by the process of assimilation. That is why American Jews have long regarded assimilation as a pressing problem. Hence, it is not surprising that a secular Jew, Horace M. Kallen, introduced the notion of cultural pluralism as an alternative to assimilation, and as a strategy for resisting it. Of course, terms that refer to broad social phenomena necessarily partake of the diffuseness of that which they designate. But "pluralism" is so generalized, ambiguous, and multivalent that unless it is used with great care, it confuses rather than clarifies discussion. Its use is especially problematic since "pluralism," like its recently popular cousin, "diversity," is overwhelmingly assumed to be a good thing, and the positive moral overtones of these terms tend to predetermine our response to anything described as "pluralistic" or "diverse."

I grant that assimilation is vague and generalized too, but it designates a real social process, and using it allows us to focus on a problem intrinsic to that process. The problem is this: As the persons who compose an ethnic or religious group are progressively assimilated (i.e., accept more and more of the norms and practices of the larger society), how can the institutions that give form and structure to the group accommodate to these changes without undermining the distinctive heritage that constitutes the group's unique identity? The dialectical perils are self-isolation and total absorption. If the group erects protective walls around itself--the ghetto option--it runs the risk of becoming irrelevant to the larger society and of alienating its more assimilated members. On the other hand, unqualified acceptance of the norms and practices of the larger society--the mainstream option--courts the opposite danger, namely, erosion of the group's unique identity. The challenge, obviously, is to find a way of being true to the group's distinctive heritage that permits positive participation in the larger society, but does not undermine the structures that make the group a group, rather than a mere social category (e.g., orphans). [End Page 86]

This understanding of what we might call the "assimilation problematic" derived originally from my study of a German Catholic immigrant organization, but I want to apply it here to the broader history of American Catholics in the twentieth century. 2

The second methodological point is that I am going to focus on just three large-scale events that were key landmarks in the participation of Catholics in American public life--and in the assimilation problematic. These events are World Wars I and II, and the cultural upheaval of the 1960s. Why these three? Because the intensity of "public life" is greatly...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-791X
Print ISSN
1091-6687
Pages
pp. 85-99
Launched on MUSE
2000-11-01
Open Access
No
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