- Catholicism & Historical Narrative: A Catholic Engagement with Historical Scholarship ed. by Kevin Schmiesing
It has been almost twenty years since George Marsden created a space for mainstream professional historians to consider seriously the relation between faith and historical scholarship. Kevin Schmiesing’s edited volume stands as one of the few efforts on the part of Catholic historians to address a similar set of issues. The title, and Schmiesing’s introduction, suggest a promising development beyond Marsden’s focus on the “background faith commitments” of scholars. The secular profession’s pride in empirical research often obscures the reality that “most historical debate occurs not around matters of fact but around matters of interpretation and emphasis.” Answers to some of the most contentious questions of history “cannot be stated definitively on the basis of a discrete set of facts alone” (vii). Schmiesing rightly insists “that much will depend on how the stories of . . . figures, ideas, and institutions are told” (viii). He then presents the essays of the collection as various attempts to present a Catholic alternative to the liberal modern narrative of progress that continues to structure most history writing.
The essays range in style from broad reflections on historical narrative to very focused studies of particular historical events, though all the contributors are Americanists – which would seem to limit the range of a purported treatment of the possibilities of Catholic history. Clement Anthony Mulloy’s essay on birth control, along with Keith Cassidy’s brilliant historiographical review, “A Convenient Untruth: The Pro-Choice Invention of an Era of Abortion Freedom,” [End Page 76] offer perhaps the strongest examples of an alternative Catholic narrative on one of the most controversial issues in Catholic history; together, they show how fidelity to church teaching can actually enable a historian to provide a fuller and more accurate account of a controversial moral issue. Most of the remaining essays, alas, reflect the persistent Americanism that plagues American Catholic historians of all political persuasions. John F. Quinn’s study of antebellum Newport, Adam Tate’s essay on Bishop John England, Marynita Anderson’s chronicle of women’s religious orders, and Thomas W. Jodziewicz’s account of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker all share a concern to integrate Catholics into an American narrative of religious freedom, rather than integrate America into some alternative Catholic narrative.
In this, they are perhaps too faithful to Paul Radzilowski’s opening theoretical essay, “Audience, Method, Subject, and Faith: Dilemmas of the Catholic Historian.” Radzilowski begins on a promising note, following Schmiesing in raising deeper issues of narrative, theology, and history. He quickly pulls back, however, conceding all the standard secular criticisms of confessional history and calling on Catholics to practice a much more modest religious history that would “make the contents of the Catholic worldview present, while still maintaining a form acceptable to many or most others, who would not be interested in a more overtly confessional history” (13). This is in fact what American Catholic historians have been doing for the last hundred years, with little impact on the broader profession. At the same time, liberal modernism, what Brad Gregory has called “the other confessional history,” continues to promote its deepest held beliefs through “objective” history. American Catholic historians could learn from Flannery O’Connor, who gained a wide audience precisely by challenging the secular liberal pieties of her time: “to the hard of hearing, you shout.” Despite some strong essays, this collection offers only a whisper.