American Catholic

t the installation of Philadelphia Archbishop Denis Dougherty in 1918, 150,000 Catholics jammed the route from the train station to the cathedral. Before the appearance of Dougherty’s open limousine, the crowd (organized into specific viewing stands by parish) waited out fifty brass bands. Reporters described elderly women rushing the police lines to kiss the new archbishop’s ring. When Dougherty finally entered Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral for the installation, the seminary choir greeted him with a rendition of Ecce Sacerdos Magnus, or “Behold the Great Priest.”

None of this, observes Charles Morris in his sparkling new history, American Catholic, was “a ritual to encourage humility.” And Dougherty’s episcopal style-salting archdiocesan payrolls with relatives, pressuring resigned priests to change their names, and ordering Philadelphia’s Catholics not to attend Hollywood films-never wavered from its triumphal first moments.

Among the many virtues of Morris’s account is his ability to place this particular Catholic style into a sweep extending from 1840s immigrants to the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s Common Ground Initiative. Dougherty, Morris argues, marks one stage in American Catholic development, but his imperium in imperio is bracketed on the one side by the furious nineteenth-century struggle to absorb Irish famine refugees and build Catholic institutions, and by contemporary attempts to develop a post-Vatican II church in a less obviously Catholic milieu.

The result is a compulsively readable narrative. Morris is incapable of writing a dull sentence, even in a footnote, and his account exudes a knowing savvy, especially as he disentangles the seamy side of clerical life (sexual scandals, mean-spirited accusations, financial chicanery). More important, Morris lucidly explains arcane, but vital, theological topics such as the ordinary magisterium, even as he leaps from Thomas Jefferson on natural law to the architecture of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. The tone is measured, the judgments consistently fair.

Unfortunately, Morris’s agility in sketching Catholic leaders-their achievements as well as their faults-produces an oddly lopsided historical narrative. Catholic response to the Spanish Civil War, for example, receives as much attention as women religious; a discussion of the Reverend Edward McGlynn’s travails in the 1880s overshadows consideration of nineteenth-century Catholic piety. Even the sketch of Cardinal Dougherty’s Philadelphia, a chapter based almost entirely on impressive original research, tends to view religious experience from the vantage point of the rectory.

Fortunately, the last section of American Catholic takes a wider view, since Morris roamed much of the country, chatting with parishioners, schoolteachers, and diocesan administrators. The good news, Morris argues, is that the church’s financial problems are slowly being resolved, at least in those dioceses willing to adopt modern budgeting procedures. Even better, roughly one-third of American Catholics are intensely committed to their parishes, and have generated a plethora of volunteer and catechetical programs that put the fabled faithful of the 1950s to shame. Catholics who self-consciously choose to be Catholic, in other words, now constitute the heart of the church.

The bad news is that only an intense, evangelistic effort will reach the rest of the self-identified Catholic population, let alone anyone else. And such an effort is unlikely until Catholic leaders reduce agonizing tensions in the intertwined areas of ministry, sexuality, and the role of women. Morris is not especially liberal in church terms-he rolls his eyes at mildly avant-garde liturgies, worries that Catholic theologians too quickly adopt the language of the academy, and terms discussions of gendered language “lingering spats.” But he convincingly argues that Catholic teaching on contraception, and increasingly on homosexuality and the role of women, is rejected by precisely the same Catholics who are energizing their parishes. For critics to label such heartfelt (and often theologically compelling) objections “cafeteria Catholicism” is, in the end, nothing more than a slur.

Commonweal readers have already read portions of the most compelling part of Morris’s concluding section (“A Tale of Two Dioceses,” June 6), an extended comparison of Catholic life in Lincoln, Nebraska, city upon a hill for Catholic conservatives, with the more liberal diocese of Saginaw, Michigan. Catholics in Lincoln, Morris finds, do not attend Mass with any more frequency than those in Saginaw; neither do they accept Humanae vitae with more enthusiasm. What Lincoln does possess is a growing number of vocations to the priesthood, a group that Morris describes as an impressive, talented group of men. (And a group rightly upset by insinuations that Lincoln seminarians resemble a paramilitary corps.) In Saginaw, by contrast, vocations to the priesthood are few, but women have been able to play more important roles in all aspects of church life, a development applauded by the vast majority of Catholic laity.

Morris emphasizes that both dioceses could learn from each other, and that both have been blessed with astute leadership in the recent past. This even-handed assessment seems overly sanguine, however, given the propensity of Lincoln’s current bishop, Fabian Bruskewitz, to exercise a sort of ecclesiastical first-strike capability. The conflict is direct: Bruskewitz has excommunicated members of Call to Action, a reform group advocating the ordination of women. One supporter of Call to Action is current Saginaw bishop, Kenneth Untener. Precisely these sorts of edicts, Morris concedes, heighten the risk that active Catholics will ignore papal teaching altogether, strengthening the congregationalism so deplored by conservatives.

The stakes, Morris stresses, are high. The American church remains one of the world’s most vibrant, especially when compared to France (where less than 3 percent of the population under twenty-five describe themselves as practicing Catholics), Latin America (where Protestant evangelicals have made enormous inroads), and in some ways even Poland. Disputes over women’s roles and sexuality, viewed in this sobering light, might seem relatively manageable. What Morris contributes is a compelling plea not to allow these discussions to precipitate a more fundamental fracturing, a tearing apart of an institution still capable of offering wisdom to both its own members and the universal church.

Published in the 1997-09-12 issue: 

John T. McGreevy is the Charles and Jill Fischer Provost at the University of Notre Dame.

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