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Reviewed by:
  • Roman Catholicism in the United States: A Thematic History ed. by Margaret M. McGuinness, James T. Fisher
  • Peter Cajka
Roman Catholicism in the United States: A Thematic History. Edited by Margaret M. McGuinness and James T. Fisher. New York: Fordham University Press, 2019. 348 pp. $40.00.

For most of the twentieth century, ascertaining just how American a Catholic could become defined American Catholic History. This flowed from the reality that many of our research subjects were immigrants from Europe who brought an old faith—relics, saints, suffering, a hierarchy—to a modernizing Protestant nation. Historians became preoccupied with assimilation as a result of the Americanist Controversy, which seemed to set American values and Catholic sensibilities on opposite tracks. Whereas John Tracy Ellis’s famous biography of James Cardinal Gibbons suggested Catholics could embrace American values like religious freedom if given a free hand from Rome, William Halsey’s influential The Survival of American Innocence made the case that Catholic thinkers happily separated themselves from the acidic currents of American modernity by drawing upon the Thomism that emerged victorious from early twentieth century anathematizing of Americanism. Assimilation into America or separation from the national culture set the terms of the debate for decades. Can this history of our history be surpassed?

The editors and essayists of this stimulating volume exist within the old discourse but also point beyond it in exciting ways. In a brilliant introduction, Fisher and McGuinness identify three strands of post-Americanist Catholic historiography: (1) interdisciplinary studies of devotions, places, and material cultures; (2) examinations of prophetic Catholicism that sharply demarcate the faith (good) from nationalism (bad); and, finally, empirical, i.e., non-prescriptive, studies of natural law, authority, and moral order as real forces in the world. Readers of [End Page 75] American Catholic history, long in the field or new to the game, will find the introduction helpful, if hopeful, in proposing a coherent research agenda for the twenty-first century.

The volume is organized smartly into three sections that correspond roughly to the three strands of post-Americanist scholarship identified by the editors. The first division, “Beyond the Parish,” features essays by Timothy Matovina on Southwestern Catholicism and Jeffery Burns on “Left Coast Catholicism” that stretch the normal geography and chronology. A second compartment, “Engaging the World,” includes an essay by Robert Carbonneau on the “arm chair missionaries” who voraciously consumed literature on American Catholics in China and a wide-ranging piece by Una Cadegan on the deep roots of Catholic literary culture and its influence on the American canon. A final set of chapters, “Prophetic Catholicism,” holds a wonderful essay by Cecilia Moore exploring how Communists inspired American Catholic activists to challenge the church’s complicity with racism and an exciting article by James McCartin comparing and contrasting Catholic political activism in the arenas of civil rights, the Vietnam War, and abortion politics.

Themes can be threaded across the three sections: Patrick Allitt (American Protestant responses to Catholicism), Anthony Smith (Catholics and the movies), and Christopher Shannon (social thought) all demonstrate how Catholicism is integral to significant aspects of American thought and culture while Catholics simultaneously separate themselves from national life in unique ways to tout their differences as a badge of honor. Catholics, we are left to conclude as dots are connected, assimilate into American culture up to a certain point before sharply drawing a line and declaring a total absorption into national life off limits.

Any scholar currently writing books or articles on American Catholic history would do well to pick up this volume. It’s an impressive survey of American Catholic history by committee. This thematic history recalls significant events, unearths delicious ironies and contradictions, and pushes the field in new directions. But the volume does not shatter the field’s ties to its Americanist, or Americanizing, past. The extent to which Catholics can become American, or resist assimilation into American culture, are present throughout the volume. Are we really “post-Americanist?” No attempt to grapple with the staying power of the old inheritance is made herein. But the writers are generous to leave us with new and old questions to pursue. [End Page 76]

Peter Cajka


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