American Catholics in the Protestant Imagination
Rethinking the Academic Study of Religion
Michael P. Carroll
Johns Hopkins University Press, $49.95, 240 pp.
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...