Plot Twists

Catholics in the American Century

'Catholics in the American Century: Recasting Narratives of U.S. History'
Edited by R. Scott Appleby and Kathleen Sprows Cummings
Cornell University Press, $21.95, 218 pp

Historical narratives are important. They give meaning to both personal and public experience. Like everyone else, Catholics use such stories to make sense of their religious experience. For example, when some bishops questioned the University of Notre Dame’s Catholic integrity because it invited President Barack Obama to give the 2009 commencement address, a particular narrative about how Catholics have become too assimilated by secular American society was invoked. Notre Dame risked losing its Catholic soul, critics argued, in its quest for secular academic success.

That story of alleged moral decline and cultural surrender gives a new meaning not just to the present but to the past. Few Notre Dame graduates, or other middle-class descendants of earlier European Catholic immigrants, noticed that the attack on the university’s “secular” academic achievements and cultural prominence called into question their own fidelity to Catholicism. I would argue, however that Notre Dame Catholics like me lived by a different story about our personal and family history. That story is about family aspirations, dreams of economic, social, and educational advancement and access to the centers of American society and culture. Ours were experiences of freedom, even liberation, not a false accommodation to a pernicious larger culture. The economic and social freedom won by our families, thanks to the opportunities available in our country, has brought with...

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About the Author

David J. O'Brien, author of Isaac Hecker: An American Catholic, is Loyola Professor of Catholic Studies Emeritus, College of the Holy Cross, and Distinguished Professor at Large, University of Dayton.