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In his America essay Bishop Thomas J. Curry of Los Angeles opines: "The dominant academic interpretation of American Catholic history, one that portrays the role for Catholic laity as 'pray, pay and obey,' is itself a recycling of the anti-Catholic interpretation that prevailed in the 19th and 20th centuries. The insularity of Catholic commentators renders them largely incapable of locating Catholicism, past or present, within the larger American context."

When I entered graduate school in U.S. History at a public university and expressed an interest in American Catholicism I was urged to discover on my own the "dominant academic interpretations" in the field. I was soon immersed in works that treated the contributions of Catholic thought to New Deal-era reform movements; the 'evangelical' dimension of parish missions; the role of Catholicism in shaping American notions of ethnic identity; and many, many others by scholars whose integrity and intellectual honesty was a source of my vocation. None recycled an "anti-Catholic interpretation;" they were anything but insular in their outlook and they inspired me and many others to continue seeking ways to locate Catholicism "within the larger American context." So how can we take seriously an essay that is grounded in such an ideologically-driven misreading of U.S. Catholic historiography?


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Hi Jim -- we haven't met or corresponded for quite a while. Hope you and your family are doing well. As a fellow contributor to the scholarly study of American Catholicism, I can only answer your question briefly. We can't take Curry seriously, because he's so clearly unfamiliar with the literature he criticizes. It's also clear that he doesn't understand what historical interpretation involves. I can't comprehend how locating Catholicism within the broader outlines of American history is an act of hostility or apostasy, as he seems to imply. One would think that Curry himself would welcome a historical approach, if only to answer, in his own terms, the question of what he considers "anti-Catholicism" is so rife among Catholic intellectuals. Does he think they -- or we -- just woke up one morning and decided to be contrary?

Obviously academics dont appreciate outsiders commenting on historiography, especially if they are Bishops. Below is a view from inside the guild. It comes from Wilfred McClay, an award-winning historian. Hes an Evangelical Protestant and political conservative. "But there are many people who do have legitimate complaints, particularly younger scholars of my acquaintance who are shocked at the arrogant closedness of the academy when they encounter it, and are terrified of the job market, the tenuring process, and all the rest. The two categories, conservatism and Christianity, have to be dealt with separately, but each is toxic in its own way, and the combination of the two can be lethal to one's career prospects. "The moral dilemmas faced by these young people are considerable. I have numerous younger friends who are in graduate school at leading graduate institutions, and who feel the intense pressures of professional deformation from very early on. They come to me for advice about how to balance their concerns. There is a lot of talk in such discussions about "what hill you want to die on," but I encourage them to think more positively about the challenges they are facing, to think of them as opportunities. But they need good solid advice about how to negotiate these waters, about where to think like serpents and where to think like doves. I don't think that their churches, or the people they've looked to as spiritual leaders, are much help, alas. "Just as an empirical matter, I think politics generally trumps religion in the academy, by which I mean that Christians who make it very clear that they are not politically conservative but who are outspoken about their faith may fare a little better than, say, outspoken conservatives who are committed secularists. But only a little. In fact, you could populate a small college faculty with all the brilliant younger scholars who are on the left politically, but who have gone unemployed or underemployed for years because they are "too religious." Such people may make it clear that they aren't conservatives, but in the end it makes little difference. In general, all it takes is for them to hint that they might be opposed to unrestricted abortion rights, and they are in trouble. Though they may never hear about it in any direct way."

Before allowing Mr. Molloy to derail the conversation into the subject of liberal bias in the academy, first take note of his sweeping claim that "obviously academics don't appreciate outsiders commenting on historiography, especially if they are bishops," which is just about as unsupportable a claim as one can make on the basis of Jim's and Gene's posts.

I quoted McClay, not to derail the conversation into the subject of liberal bias, as Gallicho seems to think was my intent, but to point out that some knowledgeable observers contend that there might, just might, be traces of religious bias in the academy, even in history workshops. If Ive again exceeded the bounds of propriety Im sure Ill be properly chastened.

Anti-religious bias in the academy? Wow, stop the presses. Thanks, Molloy, for reminding us of the obvious.I know Bill McClay. (I'd contest Molloy's characterization of him as an "evangelical," and I don't think that "conservative" captures his politics, either.) He's been very helpful in my own career, which does indeed exemplify much of what he says about the difficulties faced by religious scholars. He's right -- since I'm politically left-wing, I've had an easier time of it than other openly religious historians. But I also have to say that my stating my opposition to abortion didn't lose me any friends, either. (I won't make any broader claims for that personal experience; I'll only note that it contradicts McClay's assertion.) I've also been blessed to teach at a Catholic university where the sight of students carrying around Bibles, or taking theological issues seriously, isn't taken as evidence of cretinism. In any case, Bill's comments have nothing whatsoever to do with the point that Jim Fisher was making. One of the oldest conservative tricks is to characterize their opponents as "insulated" from Catholic masses whose doctrinal conservatism is assumed. It's the old wine-and-cheese-limousine-liberal-who-looks-down-his-nose-at-the-regular-people routine. Boring.

Zowie - If I'm not derailing things I'm using well-known conservative tricks, all within three seemingly innocent lines. It could be pointed out that to compound my perfidy it I failed to mention that McClay is on the editorial board of, heavens forfend, First Things. Perhaps another fiendishly clever trick to lure innocents into saying something positive about people holding another point of view?I thought I was simply suggesting that McClay's point of view shows that there's more to the Bishop's complaint than is thus far allowed on this site.

Patrick,You would not understand. You are uninitiated in the discipline of 'cultural history.' I mean, you didn't even quote Gramsci.

Lame attempt at hipness, mlj. Quoting Gramsci went out a while ago. By the way, will you ever have the courage or even the courtesy to give us even a first name? Typing three small-case letters is, as Bill Mazzella pointed out a while ago, like addressing a corporation.

I might add that two important theoretical influences on cultural history have been anthropologists Victor Turner and Mary Douglas -- both practicing Catholics whose interest in the meanings of objects and social practices was spurred, in part, by a sacramental sense of reality. So enough of the red-baiting, please.

First, I wonder if he is not confusing anti-Catholicism with anti-clericalism? He may well not like what someone like Garry Wills, for example, is writing, but it's hard to see it as anti-Catholic. Presumably Bishop Curry would agree that clericalism and the clericalist mind-set are unfortunate (if not perhaps heretical) aspects of the Church as it exists in the world. But from where does the mind-set spring? Is is it only academic interpreters of American Catholic history who speak of the role of the laity as to "pray, pay, and obey?" Can he think of no examples of bishops or priests speaking and acting this way? Or does he, perhaps, have rather loose guidelines for what is, and is not, anti-Catholic? If one were to suggest (as seems to me obvious) that there might be a relationship between the forms of ecclesiastical governance and administration, and the appalling sexual scandal of recent years, would he consider the very raising of the question as somehow "anti-Catholic?" Would those bishops who engaged in cover-ups, or who tried to pay off victims to keep them quiet, have felt quite so free to act in such un-Christian (anti-Catholic?) ways, if they had considered themselves accountable to those over whom they seek to exercise authority, as well as to the Vatican above them? And if we conclude that they would not have, should we consider ways of reforming our structures of governance -- which are, after all, nothing more than the creations of fallible human beings, in order to prevent such scandals (of any sort) from doing us such great damage again? Just as it is mistaken to assume that all criticism of Israeli policies must be anti-Semitic, so it is mistaken to assume that all criticsm of various aspects of the Church is anti-Catholic.

It was Bishop Curry's use of the hoary "pay, pray and obey" motif that initially drew my attention. I've been reading U.S. Catholic history for nearly 30 years and don't recall a reputable book published during that time reflecting the views the Bishop ascribed to our field. His statement seemed a caricature of a pre-existing and already bizarre caricature and as such must be intended to serve some ideological purpose. It's great to have bishops interested in U.S. Catholic history but we need to find some 'common ground' in reading practices before we can advance the discussion.

I marvel at mljs red-baiting skills. That was one trick I failed to use. Apparently using a single word, Gramsci, is enough to sound the alarms. No doubt congressional hearings and denunciations have been scheduled, along with the obligatory street rioting. Now that I see how easy it is to practice this trick I have no excuse to avoid it in the future.But I am troubled to learn that Gramsci is no longer au courant. Even worse, I learn that cultural theory may be subject to a certain trendiness. Who would have suspected? To many this will comes as devastating news and to others it will be simply unbearable. May the holy saints preserve us and, more importantly, may they preserve cultural theory.Long ago I missed an opportunity to take a course offered by Victor Turner at the U of Chicago. To compensate for my sin Ive been following Mary Douglass work for some time and, as it happens, am currently reading a book about her work. There I learn that her book Natural Symbols indicted the gulf between intellectually motivated Catholic reformers and the beliefs of their flock. Richard Fardon, Mary Douglas: An Intellectual Biography, p. 43. I immediately recognize this as a conservative trick on the part of Mary Douglas. To use the technical term supplied by McCarraher it is the old wine-and-cheese-limousine-liberal-who-looks-down-his-nose-at-the-regular-people routine. She further identifies herself as an anthropologist descended from the Bog Irish. Of course to find Mary Douglas using these tricks only confirms me in my wickedness and to learn that her thought reflects a sacramental sense of reality places me further in her debt. In truth, though, conservatives are so corrupt and so devious, even without the help of Mary Douglas, the true extent of our trickery may never by fathomed, even by the most cynical of our foes.Now I perform another conservative trick, perfected in the conservative laboratories. Its called derailing the derailing and is meant to return the discussion to Bishop Currys complaint. The allegedly benighted Bishop cited the neglect of Philip Hamburgers work in Catholic academia. I searched for any Commonweal review or discussion of the book. I couldnt find one. I may have missed it but if not I suggest is as an excellent topic for our professional historians to showcase their skills.

Patrick,You are beginning to understand the talismanic power of cultural theory!