The Mission Church at San Xavier del Bac

Americans do not generally think of themselves in historical terms. This is perhaps especially true of Catholic Americans, given that the pieties of the imperfectly received national narrative center on Protestant heroes. What Catholic figure can rival the principal Founding Fathers in conservative esteem, or the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Susan B. Anthony for progressives? Innocence of history confers certain advantages on a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional society; imported tribal feuds fade in the space of a generation, as any historian of immigration can tell you, and even the religiously orthodox embrace ecumenism in practice if not in theory. But innocence of history also impoverishes, depriving individuals of an arguably necessary sense of rootedness, meaning, and purpose. Thus the late Kevin Starr, at the outset of his wide-ranging and vividly detailed narrative: “As they seek renewal, American Catholics need to regain their sense of being a historical people.” 

Starr intended Continental Ambitions to be the first in a multi-volume history of American Catholicism, one aimed at a literate popular audience as well as a scholarly one. Like nearly every historian of American Catholicism in recent decades, he wanted to demonstrate the centrality of Catholics to the American historical narrative—to show that the Catholic experience was “part of the warp and woof, the very fabric and meaning, of American life.” The earliest centuries of European presence on the North American continent provide an especially congenial setting for his purposes, since virtually all the European actors were at least nominally Catholic. Starr opens with the Vikings, visitors in the eleventh century to what are now the Canadian Maritime provinces. Leif Ericsson, who led the first of these expeditions, was apparently a recent convert to what Starr calls “Catholic Christianity,” though what passed for Catholicism in Ericsson’s native Greenland would be more or less unrecognizable today. (As in some other parts of eleventh-century Europe, Clerical celibacy was widely ignored, bishop’s sons often succeeded them, plural marriage and concubinage were tolerated of necessity.) Still, by Starr’s lights Ericsson was indisputably Catholic and he indisputably visited American soil long before any Protestants did—indeed, long before there were any Protestants.

The lion’s share of Starr’s book is given over to Spanish and French exploration and attempted settlement in what is now the United States and Canada. His vigorous style is well suited to tracing these epic feats of travel and discovery. Spaniards were the first Europeans to visit present-day Florida and its adjacent Gulf Coast, which they did as early as the 1520s; Spaniards also engaged in extensive exploration of the states now bordering Mexico, where they eventually established missions, military installations, and civilian settlements. Even before the Puritans landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, the Spanish mission system in New Mexico was expanding rapidly—a precursor to Spanish missionary activity in present-day Texas, Arizona, and California. French Catholics founded Quebec City in 1608 and were pioneer explorers of the Great Lakes region and long stretches of the Mississippi. (French was the language of my native Detroit even at the opening of the nineteenth century.) Starr’s message is clear and indisputable: Catholics got here first. Reflecting on the possibility—the surviving historical record is silent—that a Franciscan priest who accompanied a Spanish probe into present-day Kansas in 1540 may have said Mass at this remote location, Starr asserts its symbolic value for Catholic historians: such a Mass “turns into a statement about the priority of Catholicism in the unfolding history of Christianity in what later became Canada and the United States.”  

Asserting Catholic priority is not the same thing as writing pious history.

Asserting Catholic priority, however, is not—at least in Starr’s hands—the same thing as writing pious history. Pious Catholics might in fact be troubled by aspects of Starr’s narrative. He is frank and sometimes graphic when it comes to Catholic brutality toward the indigenous people of the Americas and frank as well about the all-too-frequent moral failings of Catholic missionaries, who often blessed military mayhem by their silence and were themselves advocates of physical punishment for erring neophytes in their missions. He takes the Franciscans to task for what might be called their ill-considered holy impatience: the principal order engaging in missionary activity in North America’s Spanish colonies, the Franciscans regarded indigenous religions as literally diabolical and were horrified by polygamy and tolerance of homosexuality, both frequent features of Indian societies. Their insistence on rapid eradication of Indian culture and religion resulted, as Starr sees it, in at best a superficial conformity to Catholicism among Indian converts, often coupled with the secret practice of prohibited rituals. Starr prefers the Jesuits, disposed by their training to seek elements of “natural religion” in Indian cosmologies and religious practice and genuinely curious about Indian cultures as the products of brutally harsh environments. But even the Jesuits’ relative sophistication did not make for enduring mission success. The North American Indian missions, as Starr tells it, must for all practical purposes be considered failures.  

Starr closes his narrative with colonial Maryland and Pennsylvania, the only British colonies with any significant Catholic population. Here, as elsewhere, he links North American developments to Great Power rivalries in Europe. Continental Ambitions, as the title suggests, is more a political history than a history of religious sensibilities. Starr seems especially at home in this section of the book, perhaps preferring the austerity of English Catholicism to the baroque flavors of Spain and France or simply grateful for the chance to link his story to indelibly American values and events. The longest and most affectionate of the many splendid mini-biographies featured in the book appears in this section. The subject is Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a Jesuit-educated member of Maryland’s most prominent Catholic family, not himself terribly devout, who was the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence. Carroll had decidedly unorthodox literary tastes for a Catholic, being especially fond of Montesquieu and Voltaire, both of whose works had been placed on the Index of Forbidden Books. “As an American, Charley Carroll had to learn to think for himself if he was ever to be able to think for his country.” 

For all the breadth of his narrative, Starr pays surprisingly little attention to life in the Indian missions, particularly those in California, presumably on the assumption that European settlers were the true founders of the Catholic Church in the United States. But the Indian missions were hardly unimportant. Those missions and their purported successes—which were real, if often short-lived—fueled missionary fervor in Europe and largely explain the willingness of so many priests and religious to come to the New World. Even those men and women who spent their American careers ministering to their fellow Europeans often embarked on those careers as would-be Indian missionaries. Nearly every missionary, moreover, was changed by his contact with the wholly alien cultures of the New World, some of them profoundly. How to translate the Christian message into tongues lacking words that seemed capable of conveying fundamental Christian concepts? What concessions could be made to indigenous cultures when it came to iconography, spiritual practice, and standards of personal conduct? Even the most obdurate Franciscan could not escape such dilemmas or the need to live with imperfect solutions. 

The Indian missions also enjoyed a kind of enduring success in the New World evolution of “mixed peoples”—a development Starr rightly celebrates and quite possibly the greatest gift Catholicism has bequeathed to the Americas. European women were in such short supply in the New World colonies of France and Spain that marriage across racial lines was essential to colonial success and actively encouraged by the church. Thus the “Spaniards” who colonized California were descended not just from Spanish progenitors but indigenous Americans and sometimes Africans, as well. For indigenous women, however, conversion to Catholicism was a necessary precursor to marrying a man of even partial European origin, which might help to explain—though only in part—why French and Spanish missionaries nearly always converted more women than men. Even after the Indian missions were abandoned, then—and this happened just about everywhere—they lived on in the often flourishing parishes that came to characterize the territory once colonized by Spain and France, and in the “mixed peoples” who more and more characterized the experiment we call the United States. 


Continental Ambitions
Roman Catholics in North America, the Colonial Experience

Kevin Starr
Ignatius Press, $34.95, 675 pp. 

Leslie Tentler, emeritus professor of history at the Catholic University of America, is the author of Catholics and Contraception.

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Published in the May 5, 2017 issue: View Contents
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