I've been thinking--if obviously not writing--a lot lately about the future of Catholicism in America and what role we as Catholics can play during these times. With an overweening Caesar (oh, hai, NSA!) walking in tandem with atomistic individualism (the latter deluding himself that he's striking blows for freedom against Caesar, never noticing how the latter grows ever larger), we are in for a rough ride.
Being a lawyer and a history nerd, I naturally starting casting about for precedents, starting with the Catholic experience in America. It was at that point that it hit me, and I hung my head in shame: I know precisely bupkis about the American Catholic experience. Oh, sure--the Saints come to mind: Elizabeth Ann Seton, John Neumann, Katharine Drexel, saint material like local icon Solanus Casey...then it peters out. Sure, the Irish Potato Famine, and the K of C also leap to mind, partially formed, as emblems of the American Catholic experience. But...as a coherent whole, I'm embarrassingly at sea.
But wouldn't they have examples for dealing with a hostile and uncomprehending fellow citizenry? I knew enough, however vague, that it was far from a love feast when mackerel snappers arrived on these shores. But it was--and still is--vague.
I'm also acutely aware that current political debates between American Catholics have an embarrassingly short-sighted ring to them, largely agreeing that the world began in 1965, privileging continental European models as objects of discussion, and sounding as a whole disconnected--"Americanism!" "The Founders were Deists!" "Encyclical X/European Catholic philosopher Y settles your CINO hash!" Extremely unsatisfying-to-offputting, and sometimes with a flavor of bad scholasticism mixed with stale casuistry, all larded with a sense of detachment.
Aren't there faithful American examples to call on? Writers who spoke forcefully and clearly to the American experience without sounding like they just cleared customs on a flight from the Continent, here to deal with the half-barbarians?
Well, yes there is and are. As is my wont, I started digging through books (older, mostly, as they are divorced from the current toxic partisan environment) and am happy to offer them up.
Being a convert myself, I stumbled across In No Strange Land: Some American Catholic Converts, by fellow Methodist convert Katherine Burton. Focusing on 19th Century converts, I had heard of precisely two of the persons memorialized in this fine anthology: Orestes Brownson, and Fr. Isaac Hecker. None of the rest, and that's a shame. You'd have thought that the first Protestant bishop to convert to Catholicism since the Protestant Reformation would be worthy of note, but I'd never heard of Levi Silliman Ives. Nor any of the rest. But there is a fascinating common thread: they all converted to a faith that was regarded as an alien, irrational intruder, little more than an Italian mission in the New World catering to immigrants. And they had to deal with the hostility of their family and friends, along with clerics who were often none too deft, uncomprehending or unable to offer more than moral support--the Church was a poor institution Stateside. Still, they persevered and offer examples on how to persevere, with Ives being an icon of charity and humility, gladly working part-time jobs after losing his episcopate. It is definitely worth your time, and is available from reprint houses.
Philosopher Orestes Brownson towers over the 19th Century American Church, but if there was any justice, he'd tower over Emerson and Thoreau, having been a fellow Transcendentalist but a far more incisive writer and philosopher. If you want to talk productively about American politics from a Catholic perspective, get this post-haste: The American Republic: Its Constitution, Tendencies and Destiny. Insightful and incisive, Brownson speaks to the American experience (through the end of the Civil War) as a patriotic Catholic son, albeit one not shy about offering fair criticism. It's a salutary tonic for what ails Catholic political punditry in America.
But wait, there's more: Bradley Birzer's biography of the Catholic founder Charles Carroll, entitled American Cicero. Birzer deftly explains how the devoutly Catholic Carroll had no difficulties participating in what too many of my contemporary brethren deride as a misbegotten deist enterprise. Carroll's discomforts with the excesses of mass democracy are also explored, and appear prophetic. It's worth reading as a snapshot of the dismal state Catholics in Maryland had been reduced to by the eve of the Revolution, but fortunately Birzer has much more to offer.
Finally, the Rev. John Cronin's Catholic Social Principles, despite being more than 60 years old, still has a lot to offer discussion of American economic issues. If for nothing else, the extensive bibliography is a goldmine. But what is especially helpful about Father Cronin is that he takes care to faithfully explain Catholic social teaching in a way that is sensitive to how it will be heard by Americans--to ensure that it will be heard, and not waved away. It's a difficult balance, and one too often blown today by glib partisans given to slogans like "the Church condemns capitalism and communism/statism equally!" Well, no.
Anyway, that's the start, with more to come as I try to set my intellectual house in something resembling order.