Myth Buster

Last summer I was chatting with the old brother who serves as porter for the Jesuit house of biblical studies in Rome. I told him that I had heard a rumor that the cardinal prefect of one of the oldest basilicas in Rome had fathered a child. He paused for a moment, and then replied (without a trace of irony), “It should be true, but it’s not.”

Michael Carroll has written a lively—and often brilliant—book that launches a frontal assault on the received wisdom of how U.S. Catholics understand their history—a scholarly, readable, and often rollicking version of “it should be true, but it’s not.” Carroll reveals his agenda on the first page of the book:

the master puzzle in all this is why American scholars studying religion have accepted some claims about American Catholics when those claims have little or no empirical support, and why these same scholars have simultaneously ignored clues that point to interpretations of the American Catholic experience that allow for less passivity and more creativity than the interpretations that have prevailed?

His answer is that the Catholic story has largely been told from the standpoint of the “Protestant imagination”—even by Catholic scholars—and needs a radical retelling.

The book begins with the chapter “Why the Famine Irish Became Catholic in America.” Carroll assails the myth that the Irish in the Old Country had been strongly attached to the Catholic tradition for centuries, largely as a badge of identity against English oppression. There is no evidence for such an assertion in the Irish records, he argues. The “myth” of the deep attachment of “famine Irish” to Catholicism has been retold by generations of U.S. Catholic historians who have “felt no obligation to present any evidence in support of their contentions, because they regarded this as just something everyone knew to be true.” The fusion of Catholicism with Irish identity, Carroll argues, occurred during the “Devotional Revolution,” which swept Ireland in the second half of the nineteenth century—decades after the famine Irish had already arrived in the New World. Carroll notes that the U.S. church records from the 1840s and ’50s seem to show that the vast majority of famine Irish were anything but devout in an institutional sense, and were “made” good Catholics in the New World. In Carroll’s retelling, then, the roots of the devotion of (some) Irish Americans to the variant of Catholicism that shaped American Catholicism are not to be found in Ireland at all. Rather, they are found in the Irish experience in America. The story of the religious journey of the majority of Irish Americans—who are Protestant, not Catholic—remains to be told.

Carroll also revises the “standard story” of Italian-American Catholics. The standard story is that Italian “pagan Catholicism” crossed the Atlantic in the hearts of Italian immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century. This pagan Catholicism represented a folk religion of southern Italy, which was focused on the patron saints and Madonnas who had protected their home towns. This folk piety was manifested in exuberant outdoor processions and ostentatious “superstitious” displays. So, as the story goes, Italian immigrants made bad American-style Catholics because their imported folk piety had little in common with the Jansenist (rule-centered) Catholicism of the American church. But, Carroll asks, “Is the Standard Story true?”

Carroll argues that, according to the evidence, most of the festivals celebrated by Italian immigrants and their progeny in North America were centered not on localized patron saints and Madonnas of the immigrants’ native Italian towns but rather on a “pan-Italian” identity and piety that never existed in the Old World. And these festivals were first celebrated in the United States not in the decades immediately after Italians began arriving in the United States (1880–1910) but rather in the decades after World War I. If the purpose of such festae was to maintain a southern Italian identity in a new (hostile) environment, why did such piety not emerge until thirty years after immigration? Why was it centered on a new pantheon of saints? Again, Carroll argues that the “folk piety” associated with Italian-American Catholics has much more to do with their American experience than with their memories of Italy.

Carroll undertakes analogous retellings of the stories of Cajun Catholics in southern Louisiana and Latino Catholics throughout the United States. Here, too, Carroll observes that the standard stories should be true but aren’t.

Why have the standard American-Catholic stories been so wrong? Here Carroll offers a sophisticated theological rationale for his radical revisions. His argument builds on one advanced by David Tracy thirty years ago. Tracy argued that the differences between Catholic and Protestant Christians have much more to do with disparate “preconceptual imaginations” than with dogma, liturgy, or interpretation of Scripture. Carroll holds that the errors in the standard stories of American Catholicism finally derive “from a longstanding and continuing intellectual orientation that is ultimately Protestant in origin.” That is, the study of American religion in general, and of American Catholicism in particular, “is still very much in the grip of the Protestant imagination.”

Carroll uses “Protestant imagination” in the technical sense first defined by Tracy. Unlike the “analogical imagination” embraced by Catholicism—centered on a sacramental worldview that celebrates the material world as good, and a mediated understanding of God that is suspicious of religious individualism and untrammeled freedom—Protestant Christianity has mainly opted for what Tracy termed the dialectical imagination. This approach to Christianity celebrates the individual over the community, first-hand experience over communal piety, and freedom of conscience over the claims of tradition. Because the study of religion in North America began in Protestant divinity schools in the late nineteenth century, the stories of American religion “put Protestantism and its links to American democracy front and center in academic studies of American religion, and scholars writing under the influence of this model paid little attention to groups outside the Protestant mainstream.” This, in itself, is not very surprising. What is surprising, Carroll notes, is that scholars recounting the Catholic story bought into the same worldview.

According to the Protestant dialectical imagination, then, communal religion—like that found in Italian street festivals—was less “advanced” than individualistic religion, and had to originate somewhere other than North America, usually in benighted Europe. Likewise, a Christianity centered on obedience to ecclesial authority and a fierce defense of institutional protocols—like that found in Irish immigrant communities—was less “sophisticated” than a Christianity centered on the individual believer who was expected to question received tradition before buying into it. Carroll posits that many of the standard-story myths were rooted in a set of preconceptions about what makes religions “higher” or “lower” on an imaginary scale that was, finally, profoundly Protestant in orientation. Thus, a century after the standard story of religion in the United States was invented in Protestant institutions, American Catholics are still being studied as “other,” and the various Catholic tribes making up that story are rated as “American” to the extent that they conform to a Protestant standard.

There are some problems in Carroll’s rethinking of the Catholic standard story. There are places where, like some of the scholars he criticizes, he over-interprets data. And he seems to dismiss out of hand the possibility that the Irish devotional revolution in the Old Country (which did, in fact, forge a close ideological identity between “Irishness” and Catholicism in the face of British oppression) could have influenced the Irish immigrants in the New World in important ways, even as they negotiated being “other” in Protestant America. Likewise, in assailing the standard Italian story by examining the Italian immigrants of San Francisco, he does allow—in a caveat the size of Rhode Island—that “what happened in other Italian-American communities is more difficult to determine, because the standard story seems to have more credibility.” One wonders, after such asides, how much of the standard story might turn out to be true after all.

But even with such shortcomings, American Catholics in the Protestant Imagination is an important book. It is a great read, and it raises many questions about what we thought we all knew about the American Catholic past. As something of a contrarian myself, I’d call it contrary-ness at its best. Usually I don’t like to tell people to go out and buy a book. Go out and buy this book.

Published in the 2008-08-15 issue: 
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Mark S. Massa, SJ, has been Karl Rahner Professor of Theology and co-director of the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham University, and was recently named dean of the School of Theology and Ministry at Boston College.

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