Friday, June 28, 2013

Signposts for uncertain times.

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. 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.


  1. I had been vaguely aware of Brownson, but got really interested in him after reading Russell Shaw's latest book as mentioned before. I was pretty blown away by the book of his you referenced (which is on Project Gutenberg for those with e-readers). While not all of his ideas regarding how things would play out, many of them were quite insightful and have born out.

    I will definitely have to get a copy of Cronin's book.

  2. Another American I became interested in because of both Shaw and Douthat's books is John Cuthbert Ford, S.J. Considering that he wrote the minority report regarding the contraception commission that we certainly be enough. But he also early on was one of the few to condemn the use of nuclear weapons in Japan.

  3. Ford is great--they aren't cheap, but his two "Contemporary Moral Theology" books, co-authored with Gerald Kelly, are well worth the price. They were projected to be a multi-volume series covering all aspects of moral theology, but the silly season cut them short after the first two volumes.

  4. Lunch. Soon. While it's still legal to do so.

  5. Might also try reading "Fire & Roses: The Burning of the Charleston Convent, 1834" by Nancy Schultz, for a glimpse into how ugly American anti-Catholicism can become.
    Sheryl D.

  6. I don't know if this is precisely what you were looking for, but you might want to check this book out:

    It's a memoir by Bp. John Joseph Hogan, the first bishop of KC-St Joe, of his years serving remote rural MO missions just before and during the Civil War.

    There are several reasons why I would recommend this book:

    1. It provides a first-person glimpse into Catholic life "on the ground" in the mid-19th century, in a closely divided border slave state where which side you took was, or could be, literally a matter of life or death. (I can't help but feel we're headed in a similar direction today over issues other than slavery.)

    2. The chapter dealing with the "Missouri Test Oath" crisis after the war, show how religious freedom issues such as the Church is facing now are nothing new.

    3. There's lots of interesting incidents, descriptions and actions in the book, such as Fr. Hogan exorcising a haunted house and barely escaping an attack by bushwhackers.

    Just my 2 cents.



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