- Transatlantic Anti-Catholicism: France and the United States in the Nineteenth Century
Since the 1990s the study of anti-Catholicism has seen something of a revival of scholarly interest. In addition to historians of religion, students in fields like literary and cultural studies began to deconstruct the discourse of anti-Catholicism for what it reveals about identity formation and other questions. This greater attention reflects in part from the application of two academic trends to the study of the past: postmodernism and, more recently, transnationalism. In Transatlantic Anti-Catholicism, Timothy Verhoeven, who teaches Modern American History at Monash University in Australia, draws insights from both approaches in delivering a fresh examination of his subject. As suggested by his subtitle, Verhoeven finds common cultural themes in the anti-Catholic writings emanating from both France and the United States in the decades 1840–1870. He focuses on these years because they witnessed an intensified international criticism of the Catholic Church during the reactionary papacy of Pius IX up to the meeting of the First Vatican Council. [End Page 94]
In this well-written study based on extensive research into nineteenth-century anti-Catholic literature, Verhoeven argues that for both countries “transnational discourses operated under the cover of nationalism. The perceived need to defend the homeland was at the heart of opposition to Catholicism” (10). At a time of heightened nationalism, the very international sweep of the Roman Catholic Church and the spiritual (perhaps temporal) allegiance of its members appeared to compete with emerging national identities. Moreover, in both countries “gender issues were at the heart of the campaign against Catholicism” (16). Such Catholic practices and institutions as the vow of celibacy, the confessional, and the female convent were attacked for challenging in various ways accepted gender norms, and thereby undermining the family unit, and thus imperiling the larger social order and the very fate of each nation. Several recent scholars have discovered similar gender themes in anti-Catholic rhetoric published in both countries, but Verhoeven is the first to compare systematically the similarities and differences in the discourse found in Catholic-majority France with that in Protestant-majority America.
Rather than attempt a comprehensive history of anti-Catholicism in either France or the United States, Verhoeven organizes his slim volume topically. He analyzes in depth a few notorious cases representing his larger themes of gender and domesticity – Father Hyacinthe, an apostate French monk who married an American widow; Sister Barbara Ubryk, a “captive” Carmelite nun “liberated” from a convent in Poland; Edgardo Mortara, a Jewish boy converted to Catholicism and abducted from his family by Italian authorities at the behest of the Vatican – each of which became a cause célèbre of transnational anti-Catholicism. Verhoeven convincingly outlines the important exchange of ideas between French and American anti-Catholics about each episode. In another chapter, the author details the shared but conflicted image of the androgynous Jesuit priest. Perhaps Verhoeven’s most original contribution is his chapter on medical views of Catholic celibacy. Here he cogently documents how a new “scientific” anti-Catholic discourse, usually promoted by secular commentators, came to supplement more traditional religious and political arguments. No example better shows the malleable nature of the target that the Catholic “Other” represented for its various opponents.
Transatlantic Anti-Catholicism reveals some of the strengths and limitations of the transnational approach to historical writing. Just as adjusting the lens on a microscope can bring one facet of an object into sharp relief but at the cost of obscuring others, so too may the transnational approach illuminate certain features of a subject while [End Page 95] sacrificing depth of analysis in others. On the one hand, Verhoeven’s sensitive and imaginative cultural analysis highlights previously overlooked commonalities in trans-Atlantic anti-Catholicism. On the other hand, for all his exalted claims for the transnational approach, Verhoeven focuses principally on the French context of events and his mastery of the relevant secondary sources of United States historiography shows some curious gaps. One glaring omission...