Catholicism and American Freedom

The odd couple

Catholicism and American Freedom
A History, from Slavery to Abortion
by John T. McGreevy
W. W. Norton \& Company, $26.95, 407 pp.

There was a moment when American liberalism, our dominant intellectual culture, and Roman Catholicism embraced. John F. Kennedy had dispelled the long-lived fear that a Catholic president would take his ideas, his orders even, from Rome and never at heart be a pluralist. Young Catholic clergy and the graduates of Catholic colleges poured into the secular university graduate schools. Priests and nuns marched for Negro rights (and Southern Catholic bishops told recalcitrant parishes their choice was integration or excommunication). John XXIII, all benignity and charm, was our face. Vatican II. A philosophical defense, no less, of religious liberty coming from a Jesuit. Xavier Rynne’s astounding portrayal in the New Yorker of a Vatican that was not the austere, impenetrable Forbidden City of Pius XII, but a lively...democracy? Surely not. Yet didn’t the council have factions, and politics, and cloakrooms, and horse-trading, and climactic decisive votes on great questions? Came the war in Vietnam and there again were Catholic protesters, marching arm-in-arm with Jews, Unitarians, and Deweyans. Even the most suspicious old liberals-"I prefer my poison labeled," one had written of the Catholic democrat Jacques Maritain twenty years earlier-held their fire.

This moment of rapprochement had been a long time coming, and it did not last long. John McGreevy’s splendid book tells the story. Though Catholics had been...

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About the Author

Neil Coughlan, author of Young John Dewey, is a lawyer in Connecticut.