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Traces of ghetto trail Catholics into suburbs


By Charles R. Morris
Times Books, 511 pages, $27.50, hardcover

American Catholics may not know it, but they have a momentous anniversary coming up and a spectacular opportunity to celebrate whatever it is that makes them what they are. 1999 will be the 100th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII's letter Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae, a condemnation of "Americanism." The document roundly denounced a list of no-noes peculiar (or so Leo was fallibly informed) to the form of the faith that, tested on and adapted to the American frontier, had sprung up in the American Eden.

Leo especially rejected the notion that the so-called "active" virtues, like humanitarianism and democracy, were of greater value than the "passive," like humility and respect for authority. Never mind that this formulation was really a French spinoff of American ideas, rather than anything actually taught by American theologians -- Leo swatted it all away as "Americanism."

Whether or not the frontier soil actually nurtured heretical thoughts, Charles R. Morris in American Catholic argues that American Catholicism -- has had a paradoxical ethos all its own. It has wrapped itself in an institutional protective shield, the so-called "Catholic ghetto," to screen out the contaminating influence of American pluralism. At the same time, the church has prided itself on its patriotism, as if its twin loyalties to God and country could never come into conflict.

As Morris tells it, the 19th century struggle between the "Americanist" or assimilationist bishops and the more conservative bishops was a fight for the soul and the future of the American church. Among those on the Americanist side was John Ireland of St. Paul, Minn., who would cooperate with the public schools rather than herd Catholic children into a costly parallel system. Among the conservatives were Bernard McQuaid of Rochester, N.Y., and New York's John Corrigan, who wanted separate schools to protect the young from mixed marriages.

In the end, the conservatives -- or separatists -- won. Not only did Catholics create a "separate universe" that maintained the Baltimore Catechism's principles more or less intact, but at its triumphal height in the 1950s, Catholic culture dominated the American landscape. Catholic politicians governed virtually every urban center in the country, and through the entertainment industry, the church had an influence that reached beyond its confessional borders. For a whole generation of Americans, Bing Crosby in "The Bells of St. Mary's" was religion.

Above all, for better or worse, this was an Irish church, a reality Morris captures in his brilliant opening chapter on the 1879 dedication of the still unfinished, spireless and buttressless Saint Patrick's Cathedral in New York. Archbishop "Dagger John" Hughes delivered a typically defiant statement to the rest of New York and the world that not only were the Irish Catholics here to stay, but, as he said on another occasion, they were determined to convert all America -- indeed, the whole world -- to the Catholic faith.

Typical of Irish history and temperament, America's Catholic Irish have had to fight for their ascendancy, such as it is, almost all the way. In the 1830s and '40s, a decade that parallels in many ways the upheaval of the 1960s, Nativist mobs burned a convent school in Charleston, Mass., and ransacked a Catholic neighborhood in Philadelphia. Cartoonist Thomas Nast and New York upper-crust diarist John Templeton Strong depicted Irish immigrants as gorillas and bums. But the Irish gave as good as they got: Hughes threatened to turn New York into "another Moscow" (a reference to the 1812 burning of Moscow to thwart Napoleon's advance) if mobs touched a Catholic church. Predominantly Irish mobs roared through Manhattan for five days during the 1863 Draft Riots, in which 105 people died -- most killed by police and troops (many of whom were Irish) putting down the rebellion.

The pre-Vatican II 1950s American church was rich in both property and influence: It built 2,000 new schools, with their "Catholic League" football and basketball teams to take on the "Public League"; it had its Catholic Digest and radio's "Catholic Hour," and TV star Msgr. Fulton J. Sheen, who brilliantly spun out Catholic philosophy to 30 million viewers for 30 minutes every week without being dogmatic or threatening. Heroic "labor priests" trained union leaders to outwit communists in the labor movement and stood up to the mob on the Philadelphia and New York waterfronts.

What popped this wonderful balloon? Not Vatican II, meat on Friday or the turned-around altar, but postwar prosperity, the G.I. Bill that paid for college, Levittown, the automobile and the interstate highway system. Catholics drove their new cars out of the ethnic ghetto and into the suburban middle class -- leaving the nine First Fridays and Our Lady of Fatima behind. Thus the election of John F. Kennedy symbolized not Catholicism's final acceptance but its assimilation: Catholics were now just as secular as everyone else.

Morris tells a wonderful story, but not an edifying one. We can love the church Morris describes only the way we love self-centered, corrupt, crazy, power-hungry family and friends whom decency will not allow us to disown. Members of the hierarchy are, for the most part, a bunch of ambitious schemers, more political than pious. Peoria Bishop John Lancaster Spalding founded The Catholic University of America on money from his mistress. When John Ireland went bankrupt, he became the political water boy of the Republican plutocrats who bailed him out. Philadelphia's Cardinal Dennis Dougherty, though pious, was a petty tyrant who tolerated his diocese's racism. Boston's Cardinal William O'Connell was "an irreligious hypocrite, lacking in honesty and integrity, nakedly ambitious and endlessly self-aggrandizing, a kind of Gilded Age buccaneer of churchmen, who ran his diocese like a Cornelius Vanderbilt or Jay Gould."

Though the book has few heroes, some people look good: Dorothy Day, in a 1935 photograph that reminds us that she was a beautiful woman as well as the Catholic Worker founder; and Jesuit Fr. Michael Walsh, president of both Boston College and Fordham, one of the first to insist that Jesuits didn't need iron-fisted control of their universities to keep them Jesuit. I remember Mike about 27 years ago telling Fordham faculty they had to publish more -- and getting, from some, the predictable response: We can't do it and keep our student-friendly identity. But Mike didn't back off and the college's academic reputation rose as a result.

Carefully laying out the evidence on every side, Morris surveys both national and international controversies that involved the church -- such as racial integration, the Spanish Civil War, anti-communism, and anti-Semitism -- and comes to some tough judgments on current disputes.

Yes, Pius XII helped rescue individual Jews, but his overall policy of "enlightened reserve" in dealing with the Nazis, Morris says, was shameful. He grants that the church's teaching on contraception has little intellectual credibility, but writes that America needs the church's conservative teaching on sexuality to maintain the integrity of family life. His bottom line: The church is healthy at the grassroots, but its leadership fails.

Some critics, like Fr. Thomas Shelly, in Church, have correctly pointed out that Morris' Celtic emphasis overlooks the 100 years of history that precedes the potato famine and the impact of Irish immigration. The earlier Maryland tradition was formed in the colonial period, when the first archbishop, John Carroll, cousin of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, established the church as a friend of democracy. Morris might reply that, while Alexis de Tocqueville saw Catholicism as thriving in 1831, it was not until the immigrant waves arrived that the church really took off. It was, for good or ill, that project of establishing an alternate world, a "Catholic ghetto," that gave us today's church, which is in some ways taking on new life and in others crumbling before our eyes.

My problem with this book is different. Other writers mercifully pad their pages with a little fluff that allows the reviewer to turn pages swiftly in the enjoyment of a "good read." But the merciless Morris forces the critic to savor every word, take notes and relish both the small-print footnotes at the bottom of the page, like the history of "probabilism" in the abortion debate, and the end notes, where we hear of a priest preaching in St. Patrick's Cathedral who assures his parishioners that, in spite of the pope's recent condemnation of capital punishment, they are free to make up their own minds. A freedom, says Morris, St. Patrick sermons hardly extend to other questions.

A Fordham faculty colleague pointed out a subtler problem, for which Morris is not responsible. "Catholics don't read," the colleague said. Every Catholic -- every literate American -- should read this book, especially if we want to understand what it means to be an American believer today. We might also want to commemorate, in an intellectual way, the fuss and fizzle of the "Americanism" encyclical.

Unfortunately, the historical process Morris describes, the forging of American Catholicism's ethnic-religious identity, did not make Catholics -- unlike the Puritans and the Jews -- a "people of the book," in the broadest sense of that term. The skills that build cathedrals and schools -- even universities -- are not the same ones that fill libraries and nourish the intellectual life.

Under the sway of a spiritual ethos that stresses submission rather than initiative, we have, with some exceptions, been collectively a "good flock" -- faithful followers rather than prophets and leaders. As a result, the full impact of American Catholics on the nation's character and morals has been far less than John Hughes' extravagant dream.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is assistant dean of Fordham College.

National Catholic Reporter, October 10, 1997