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The Canadian Review of American Studies, Volume VIII, Number I, Spring 1977 Intellectualism, EducationalAchievement, and AmericanCatholicism: A Reconsideration of a Controversy, 1955-1975 R. L. Schnell and Patricia T. Rooke There is, however, the further fact that men frequently orient themsleves to groups other than their own in shaping their behaviour and evaluations, and it is the problem centered about this fact of orientation to non-membership groups that constitutes the distinctive concern of reference group theory. Robert K. Merton and Alice S. Rossie (/957) The controversy over the intellectual life of Catholic America was brought into the public arena by John Tracy Eilis's 1955 article in Thought. He asked why a rich and powerful national church with an extensive network of educational institutions had contributed so little to American intellectual life. 1 Subsequently, this public self-criticism was further elaborated by such prominent Catholic scholars as Thomas O'Dea, Gustave Weigel and Walter J. Ong. 2 The controversy was fired by studies that indicated that Catholics were not sharing in the general upward mobility or attending post-secondary institutions to the same degree as their fellow Americans, that Catholic schools and colleges were not comparing favorably as measured by awards and fellowships, and that few Catholics were to be found among American leaders in any field.3 Although admitting the liabilities suffered by Catholic Americans and their church, these new critics argued that discrimination, immigrant past, and poverty were no longer convincing explanations for the relative lack of social and economic progress. Large scale Catholic immigration had ended with the First World War. With virulent anti-Catholicism abated, continuing alienation was chiefly the result of a self-imposed ghetto mentality. The failure of Catholics to share proportionately in the American Dream could be attributed to a "lack of industry and the habits of work" (Ellis, p. 54). It is our thesis that the controversy can be best understood as a complex interaction of changing Catholic perceptions of themselves and their educational institutions, the attitudes and beliefs of other Americans as expressed in published research and social comment, and the increasing assimilation of 67 Catholic Americans. Rather than being a sign of estrangement, the debate was a symptom of major shifts both within the Catholic su~-culture and subcommunity and between American Catholicism and the larger society. ln turn, an understanding of the controversy enables us to perceive more adequately the reasons for the profound changes that overtook the Roman Catholic Church in the United States in the I960's and '70's. We will examine the nature of the controversy over the state of Catholic intellectual life in the United States, the conditions that gave it shape, and then will draw upon social science theory to provide an explanation for the rise of the controversy and its significance. Although intellectuals are not necessarily academics, scientists, and writers, and although academics, scientists, and writers are not necessarily intellectuals, there appeared to be enough overlap to encourage the critics to move from intellectuality to scholarship. ln fact because the discussion centered largely upon achievement in terms of degrees and diplomas, we will focus on that issue also rather than the more abstract one of intellectualism. Earlier Catholic commentators had attributed the lack of Catholic intellectuality or scholarship to an immigrant past, hostility and discrimination in American society, lower-class attitudes, lack of an intellectual tradition, clerical paternalism and hierarchical authoritarianism, and finally lack of achievement motivation. Attributing the failure of Catholics to become leaders to inadequate schooling , the necessity of "making it" into the lower levels of the middle class, intellectual sloth or any other character flaws is one thing, but when the argument shifted to the incompatibility of Catholicism itself and intellectualism and/ or educational achievement, then the nature of the debate changed radically. 4 From Ellis to O'Dea there is a subtle but significant shift in the reference group or "significant others" for Catholic intellectuals and academics. It is of some interest that the shift toward the idea of Catholic anti-intellectualism makes an appearance in the writings of a successful layman rather than those of a successful clerical scholar. O'Dea implied that Catholicism's stress...


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