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32Historically Speaking September/October 2004 Comments on Catholicism and American Freedom Christopher Shannon JohnMcGreevyis theJayDolan ofhis generation . I mean this not only in the sense of his being the leading practitioner ofAmerican Catholic history today, but also in his default capacity as ambassador from this subfield to the larger profession. Dolan burst on to the professional scene with his 1975 monograph The Immigrant Church. Scholars not particularly interested in church historywere drawn to the work as a study ofimmigrants, and Dolan's use of then cutting-edge techniques ofsocial historyplaced his book at the vanguard ofthe academic history ofits day. Twenty or so years later, McGreevy burst on to the scene with his Parish Boundaries (1996). Here the innovation was less in method than subject matter: the book examined the role of urban Catholics in the resistance to integrated housing during the civil rights era. Race, an issue relativelyneglected byDolan, had become the single mostburning passion ofAmerican historians following the end of the Cold War. Non-Catholic historians praised Parish Boundaries for its sensitivity to religion as a "factor" in race relations; Catholic historians praised itforbeingpraised by non-Catholics. Parish Boundaries appealed to those within the field as a model ofyet another "new" American Catholic history that would finally realize the long dreamed ofintegration into the mainstream ofthe profession —preciselythe hope for Dolan's Immigrant Church some twentyyears earlier. I raise these connections less out of concern for professional genealogies than as a symptom ofa logic ofrevisionthatafflicts the profession as a whole. For reasons that I believe are in the book itself, I doubt that Catholicism and American Freedom will succeed where Dolan's work failed. It does stand, however, as a ringing endorsement ofthe professional standards to which post-Dolan American Catholic historians still aspire. As we are at a meeting of a professional association forged in battles over the status ofthose standards, I think itis appropriate to evaluate the book at a level that can unfortunatelybest be identified as meta-history. Circumstances, alas, leave me little alternative . In purely professional terms, the book is a nearly flawless monograph. Any minor imperfections worth mentioning have been nigglingly hashed out in the numerous reviews and symposiums that have greeted the book in the scant year since its publication . In the context ofMcGreevy's career, moreover, the book arrives not simply as his latest contribution to scholarship, but also as an implicit statement about the nature ofhistorical scholarship in general. The years since Parish Boundaries saw McGreevy somewhat reluctantly drawn into the debate on "Christian scholarship," a particular manifestation of the broader postmodern challenge to modernist professional history writing, a challenge that in large part accounts for the existence ofthe Historical Society. In religious history circles McGreevy has been the leading defender ofthe liberal modernist center against the modestperspectivalism advanced by George Marsden. Hardly postmodern in the strong Nietzschean sense, Marsden has simply argued that a distinctly Christian approach to history deserves a seat at the table with Marxist, feminist, and other perspectives ; offering Christian scholarship as a kind ofGalbraithean countervailingpower to balance the secular bias in mainstream history writing, Marsden in no way questions the pseudo-scientific research techniques that provide the profession with its intellectual legitimacy. This modest proposal, however, has proved too extreme for McGreevy, who takes his stand with Thomas Haskell in defending conventional historical practice circa 1986, right before the linguistic turn appeared on the radar screen of the American Historical Review. At first glance, a reading of Catholicism andAmerican Freedom might suggest that even Haskell is too extreme forMcGreevy's professional sensibilities. In his best known defense of the profession Haskell has conceded that "objectivity is not neutrality," a formulation thatultimatelyboils down to the blunt—one might say rather Nietzschean—admission that "objective" professional history does serve power, albeit the power of a liberal social order dedicated to the advance of human freedom. I believe that McGreevy would be proud to say that he offers no such statement of political purpose in his book, but the lackofanysuch statementmightleave those unfamiliar with American Catholic historywonderingjustwhyhistorians should be concerned with the tension between Catholicism and American freedom. McGreevy notes that American Catholics make up roughly 25% ofthe...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6438
Print ISSN
1941-4188
Pages
pp. 32-34
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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