The Catholic Thing

It’s Saturday morning in Indiana and I am at church. The occasion is my daughter’s first reconciliation.

Earlier that week, at the prodding of parish staff, the parents of the children preparing for the sacrament had gathered to reflect on their own experience of confession. In my small group, a handful of thirty- and forty-something parents described an event they remembered as bordering on the terrifying: the entrance from a dimly lit church into the darkened confessional during the school day, the fumbling to find the kneeler, and the wait for the priest to turn his attention to their side. When asked if they possessed any fond memories about their own first confession, no one volunteered a word.

This morning is different. At their orientation session, parents had listened to a thoughtful lecture describing sin as a broken relationship with God and reconciliation as healing that relationship. This uplifting sentiment carries through the service: solemn, but also joyous. After a brief opening prayer, parents line up with their children, presenting them to one of the waiting priests, seated not inside confessionals but on chairs scattered throughout the church. (Only after presenting the child to the priest do the parents retreat. The children, one of the teachers had warned parents, are “concerned that you might be able to hear them.”)

Earlier in the week, parents, too, had been asked to consider whether they wished to confess their sins. Or as a parish staff member wryly put it, “we hear rumors that few Catholic adults go to confession. We’re assuming that this means Catholics on the East Coast.” I had not intended on confessing my sins, and neither had my wife. So I am startled when she looks at me as we watch our daughter walk to one of the priests, and insists that “we should go” too. I nod, and with sweat beading upon my brow, hurriedly reflect upon my failings.

And even as I walk toward the priest I think: Am I having a Robert Orsi moment?

I ask the question because Orsi’s writing now so shapes our understanding of the chasm between our own time and the devotional world of mid- to late mid-twentieth-century Catholicism. Currently the Charles Warren Professor of American Religious History at Harvard Divinity School (an appointment that itself signals a changed religious world), Orsi has also recently served as president of the largest scholarly association devoted to the study of religion, the American Academy of Religion.

Orsi’s first book examined the world of Italian-American immigrants on the northern edge of Manhattan through a reading of the feste in honor of the Madonna of 115th Street; his second book studied devotees of St. Jude, patron saint of hopeless causes, on Chicago’s South Side. Both books are elegantly composed and have reached large audiences. Each book required considerable archival research, but much of the most compelling evidence came from long in-depth interviews. (For the St. Jude project, Orsi established an 800 number to facilitate these conversations.) At first, interviewing men and women about their deepest spiritual experiences gave Orsi a sense of “disorientation and anxiety.” “Were such interactions,” he wondered, “even appropriate for a historian?”

Well, yes. Between Heaven and Earth documents Orsi’s growing confidence in the belief that religion is less about formal ideas or morality than how it structures networks of relationships, most important the relationships between family members, loved ones, their saints, and Gods. (Orsi’s Italian-Catholic family in the Bronx plays an important role in these essays, and among the book’s pleasures is the sense that you are overhearing a set of passionate family conversations, or silences.) Even the tension between scholar-observer and believer plays a role, as Orsi details his own squeamishness when a woman he is speaking to about St. Jude demanded of him, “Have you ever prayed to St. Jude?”

The result is frequently dazzling. A piece on his Uncle Sal, a “cripple” in the terminology of the day, becomes a beautiful meditation on the ways in which a Catholic fascination with suffering, a fascination paradoxically bound to a new mid-twentieth-century Catholic affluence, simultaneously exalted and mocked his uncle’s disability. An equally engaging essay probes how the same Catholics understood children, with nuns demanding strict comportment at Mass and parents offering lush descriptions of guardian angels. What begins as a discussion of Catholic childhood changes in Orsi’s subtle hands into an analysis of how Catholic adults understood sacred presence, how they believed that children needed reminders of the presence of God, angels, and saints here on earth. (Catholic childhood is Orsi’s current research project, and he has been interviewing groups of adults about their religious experience as children.)

Cumulatively these essays (most already published, almost all reworked for this volume) illuminate Orsi’s preoccupations. The first is an admonition to scholars not to judge certain religious practices as good or bad, mature or infantile. Better to simply “understand particular religious ways of living and thinking.” Sensible advice, certainly, although Orsi’s own influence, and that of other anthropologists with whom he can claim a scholarly kinship, makes this less a bold strike against orthodoxy than a consolidation of academic power.

A second focus is more intriguing. Orsi urges students of modern Catholicism not to rely on handy narratives that portray Catholics as moving in the 1960s from an “infantile faith focused on bodies and things to a rational faith concerned above all else with justice.” Such narratives automatically devalue the rich, even baroque world of Catholic devotionalism, the cluttered landscape of nine-day novenas and scapulars that so marks Catholic memory, only to reappear in popular touring shows like Late Nite Catechism.

This is not nostalgia. Between Heaven and Earth clearly demonstrates that the Catholic culture of the 1940s and 1950s could be breathtakingly severe, even brutal. One priest instructed his readers in 1945 that even a toothache “may be due in justice for some sin of that very day.” Catholics with birth defects, even “shut-ins,” were “fortunate unfortunates” because of the opportunity to dedicate their suffering to some presumed moral good. What Orsi desires is not a re-creation of this Catholic world, shorn of its complexities and packaged for Mother Angelica. Instead he pleads for historians to recognize that the passage from that world to our own was “an intricate historical, social, psychological, and religious reality.”

Who could disagree? But missing from Between Heaven and Earth, and perhaps from Orsi’s remarkable body of work more generally, is a recognition that the reformers of the 1960s did not only traffic in mindless dictats. Arguably the least sympathetic figures in Orsi’s work, and perhaps more broadly in recent scholarship on American Catholic history, are bishops, priests, nuns, and lay leaders forced to judge which popular practices seem authentic, which best carry forward a particular religious tradition. Here Orsi’s admonition against simply viewing religious practices as either good or bad, superstitious or reasonable (useful advice for the scholar), diminishes his ability to convincingly describe religious leaders charged with precisely that task.

Indeed, the enthusiasm—by and large—with which the reforms of the Second Vatican Council were greeted, the burst of energy they unleashed among women religious, Catholic volunteers in Central America, leaders of Catholic colleges, and even Commonweal readers suggests something more complicated than unpopular revolution fomented at the top. Nothing unsettles Orsi more than the accusation that he makes the occasional theological claim, but his fascination with the devotional culture of the mid-twentieth century obscures the waning of that culture, in the years before the mid-1960s. Between Heaven and Earth includes the priest who disdains devotion to St. Jude, but not the priest (or congregation) sensitively (and enthusiastically) implementing the liturgical changes of the 1960s. “The old neighborhoods,” Orsi writes, “did not simply disappear.” Not simply, certainly, but in the end some old neighborhoods and some old devotions did.

Even these mild criticisms rest on what Orsi doesn’t say, not what he does. They also rest on his own compelling blend of personal narrative and scholarly inquiry, a scholarly project now dating a quarter century, and one that has produced remarkable fruits. Indeed, Between Heaven and Earth made me wish that the reconciliation service attended by my wife, my daughter, and me—torn like any such event by moments of tension, contradiction, and joy—had an Orsi of its own.

Published in the 2005-03-11 issue: 
Tags

John T. McGreevy is the I.A. O'Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.

Also by this author
Same Sex Marriage one day on

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Religion
Culture
Collections