Issue Date: October 8, 2004
Reviewed by JEFFREY MARLETT
Americanism dominates the study of Roman Catholicism in the United States. In this perspective, American Catholics strive to create a uniquely American Catholic identity while simultaneously (and gradually) convincing newer immigrants to jettison their burdensome ethnicity. Undergraduates still recognize this as a variation of the American melting pot. The term itself describes a label created by conservative Vatican officials or anybody who favors uniquely American characteristics over the churchs centralized authority. A wide array of scholars employ this perspective, as do probably many books reviewed in NCR.
Peter DAgostinos Rome in America overturns this entire enterprise. DAgostino examines the relationship between papal Rome and the American Catholic church from the 1840s to the 1930s. In that time Italian nationalists literally made modern Italy. To do so, they annexed the Papal States, capped by the 1870 occupation of Rome itself (just after Vatican I accorded Pius IX powers of infallibility). DAgostino makes a simple argument: During those years the Catholic church in the United States sought to advance the papacys cause in a modern and increasingly secular (and hostile) Europe. Far from severing its connections with Europe, the American church aggressively sought to strengthen its bonds and vilify the perceived despoilers of papal Rome. In other words, the Americanist interpretation of American Catholic history mistakenly deemphasizes the very core of Catholic identity: its ties to Rome.
DAgostino describes the Roman Question as a transnational ideology. Its creators hailed from a neoguelph mentality wherein the papacy retained only its spiritual, not temporal, power in a fully modernized and unified Italy. Italian nationalists were themselves Catholic and wanted the Vatican to retain everything except temporal power. The non-Catholic American press at first celebrated Pope Pius IX (1846-78) as a liberal nationalist, only to excoriate the pope for his reactionary about-face in 1848. Tensions did not ease in either Leo XIIIs pontificate (1878-1903), or St. Pius Xs (1903-14). Previously, American Catholic history posited a dichotomy between liberal Americanists and conservative immigrant Catholics. DAgostino demonstrates that actually the two perspectives united to defend papal intransigence. Both sides claimed that American democratic liberalism differed noticeably from the secular liberalism that had annexed the papacys temporal power. Papal loyalties repeatedly set Catholic Americans at odds with their American neighbors such as Chicagos social reformer Jane Addams, who enthusiastically endorsed liberal (and secular) Italy. World War Is aftermath offered American Catholics a chance to assist the Vatican directly in its attempts to resolve the Roman Question. Catholics, led by Commonweal and America magazines, celebrated Mussolinis anticommunism and restorative authority while Protestants viewed him as the providential heir of the Risorgimento. The resolution of the Roman Question -- the 1929 Lateran Pacts -- likewise appeared to American Catholics as a reassertion of divine right, but evangelical Protestants feared Mussolini might be the anti-Christ.
The impressive scope of DAgostinos work enables him to address events in Rome as well as reactions -- among Protestants as well as Catholics -- in America. Therefore, he successfully transcends the tricky loyalty conflicts Catholics face between American identity and Roman identity. DAgostinos broader view enables him to confront two consequences of American Catholics embracing the Roman Question: anti-Semitism and approval of Mussolinis fascism. American Catholics supported these now discredited movements because of their overarching devotion to Catholic, not secular, Rome. The Jesuit weekly America and several diocesan newspapers espoused an aggressive anti-Semitism in response to Romes Jewish mayor, Ernesto Nathan. Few American Catholics questioned the Vaticans pro-fascist stance.
DAgostinos analysis of the Roman Question ideology thus also provides a new perspective on anti-Catholicism. Recent studies by Philip Jenkins and Jesuit Fr. Mark Massa attend to the American expressions; DAgostino addresses the transatlantic bonds that influenced Catholics and non-Catholics alike. DAgostinos discussion of Americanisms theoretical shortcomings markedly increases the books worthiness. He pointedly comments that American Catholic scholarship is frustratingly internalist, and thus ignores the transnational dimension of Catholic identity in America. DAgostinos attention to the entire swath of this issue -- its intellectual foundations, its political and social legacies, its ethnic and ecumenical dimensions -- make Rome in America a provocative, perhaps unavoidable, contribution to American Catholic history.
Jeffrey Marlett teaches religious studies at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, N.Y. He is the author of Saving the Heartland.
National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 2004
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