- Catholics in the American Century: Recasting Narratives of U.S. History ed. by R. Scott Appleby and Kathleen Sprows Cummings
Back in the mid-1990s, the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism inaugurated a collaborative research project on American Catholics in the twentieth century. It had two principal goals, the first of which was to underwrite new research on various aspects of Catholic life in the relatively recent past. Success on this front has been impressive. The Cushwa project has to date resulted in at least ten monographs on subjects ranging from devotional life to the Catholic role in urban politics, and has helped to shape the research agenda of the rising scholarly generation. The project’s [End Page 809] second goal, which was the fuller integration of Catholics into the mainstream historical narrative of the American twentieth century, has by contrast been exceedingly slow to bear fruit. Catholics qua Catholics are still conspicuously absent from most accounts of the American past, whether we look to standard textbooks or to the scholarly monographs on which they are based. Even anti-Catholicism, perhaps the most powerful shaper of all when it comes to American national identity, is increasingly downplayed as other sources of social division have come to seem more important.
Catholics in the American Century, the most recent volume to appear in the Cushwa twentieth-century series, addresses the problem of Catholic omission head-on. Five of its six essays are by prominent American historians who seek to reimagine their particular areas of expertise once the Catholic presence is taken seriously. Lizabeth Cohen, who, like her fellow essayists, confesses to past sins of omission in her own work, provides a knowledgeable overview of political history, broadly defined, since the reign of consensus scholarship in the 1950s. She then turns to her current research on the urban renewal crusades of the 1950s and 1960s, where Catholics have emerged as major players. Exploring the Catholic world of 1950s Boston, Cohen came to appreciate its transnational complexities; Catholic responses to urban renewal, she discovered, were shaped not just by developments at the local Chancery and in the parishes but also by developments in Rome. Historians of Catholicism, she has come to see, are well positioned to write history that is simultaneously transnational and attentive to local particulars—to function, in short, as models for the historical profession as a whole.
Cohen’s essay is followed by equally thoughtful analyses of the 1960s (Thomas Sugrue), the historiography of gender and sexuality (R. Marie Griffith), and recent developments in the subfield of Chicano/Mexicano history (David Gutierrez). Sugrue, who rightly notes that few accounts of the turbulent 1960s make more than passing reference to religion, states a powerful case for incorporating Catholics into the political history of the decades since 1945, in which context the 1960s are best understood. Griffith points out that Catholics are largely missing from historical narratives of gender and sexuality in the United States, save for recurrent appearances as militant opponents of reform, and suggests some fruitful ways to open up the standard narrative. Gutierrez, too, comments on Catholic absence—rather surprisingly, given his subject—by explaining the origins of his subfield in the Chicano liberation movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. Avowedly secularist scholars in more recent decades, he notes, have begun to appreciate the need to take religion and spiritual practices seriously in order to understand the experience of the poor and unlettered. Wilfrid McClay closes the volume with a nuanced analysis of “The Catholic Moment in American Social Thought,” which, despite its focus on recent decades, ranges knowledgeably over the full course of American intellectual history.
In closing, a brief mention of the Robert Orsi essay that precedes those just described is appropriate. Orsi, widely known for his creative work on...