"A more catholic American Catholic Historical Association," Part II: Recapping the Spring Meeting of the ACHA

[This month Cushwa welcomes Michael Skaggs (@maskaggs), who is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Notre Dame, to recap the recent ACHA Spring Meeting.]

Michael Skaggs
From March 26 to March 28, the University of Notre Dame hosted the American Catholic Historical Association’s 2015 Spring Meeting. The 2015 Spring Meeting was, to judge from the feedback of presenters and attendees, a great success. Just a few minutes spent mingling during the crucial coffee breaks between panels revealed an abundance of new connections, happy reunions, and fruitful discussion among conferees. In terms of both topic and timeframe, the meeting covered an extraordinary amount of ground. Junior scholars (yours truly included) greatly benefited from the feedback, critique, and support of experienced colleagues, proving that the ACHA is making great efforts to foster the next generation of scholarship. I’m grateful for Peter Cajka's preliminary report from April 5 on the Catholics in the American Century roundtable. Because Peter covered that highlight of the conference so well, I’ll offer only a few words, as a non-participant, on that panel below. I’ll conclude by offering a few thoughts on whether we succeeded in answering Peter’s call to become “more catholic” in our scholarship.

The spring meeting featured several keynotes and plenary sessions. Mark Noll opened the conference with a keynote on Catholic opinions toward Protestant responsibility for the Civil War. The Catholic position, Noll argued, stemmed essentially from questions of propriety and authority. Disaffection from political positions held by Protestants, such as abolitionism, followed naturally from the Catholic view that Protestantism was rebellious by nature. Furthermore, the alleged Protestant tendency toward sectarianism - and surely there was no worse sectarian threat than the split of the nation along sectional lines - pushed many Catholics to assigning blame for the war to their non-Catholic compatriots. As Noll pointed out, there were several strongly pro-Union Catholic publications that argued for an end to slavery. But in the large view, American Catholics preferred to avoid war altogether. Responsibility for brother-against-brother combat, many thought, could be lain squarely at Protestants’ feet. 

In his recap of the annual meeting in January, one of Peter Cajka’s recommendations for future meetings was a greater emphasis on historiography. His earlier RIAH post treated the panel on Catholics in the American Century in depth. While most other presenters at this meeting remained within the fold of Catholic Studies, a keynote address by emeritus professor Philip Gleason, “The Ellis-McAvoy Era: The Writing of American Catholic History Comes of Age at Mid-Century” offered a sweeping overview of American Catholic historiography and its enrichment over the course of the twentieth century. Gleason argued that between World War II and the Second Vatican Council,
the massive flow of veterans - many of them Catholic - to American universities on the GI Bill fostered a new level of education and specialization, planting the seeds for a generation of scholars. The struggle against Nazism prodded the United States, including its historiographical establishment, to a greater appreciation for democracy. These external factors combined with developments internal to Catholic historiography - including emphases on new areas of research like communities of women religious, anti-Catholicism, and mission efforts - to produce a highly professionalized cadre of Catholic historians. Standing behind much of this progress was John Courtney Murray, whose understanding of the early twentieth-century Americanist “crisis” led him to support greater affinity between Catholicism and American democracy and religious pluralism. Murray was silenced by Church authorities for his views, which were later vindicated by the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom. Thus, argued Gleason, was the stage set for the self-critical and revisionist histories of American Catholicism in the post-Vatican II era.

At the conference banquet following Gleason’s keynote, conferees had the opportunity to view excerpts from Chosen (Custody of the Eyes), a documentary-in-progress by Abbie Reese about the Corpus Christi Monastery in Rockford, Illinois. The Poor Clare Colettine nuns who are cloistered at Corpus Christi have worked with Reese to produce a documentary film following “Heather / Sister Amata”, who transitions from life on the outside world to that of a vowed woman religious. Reese's film will be the outcome of a ten-year collaboration between artist and sisters, and provided not only beautiful images, but grounds for an excellent conversation on methodology and the position of the historian.

The interreligious tensions noted by Professor Noll were reflected also in several panels. The Spring Meeting shone especially brightly in the area of Catholics as Americans, with both Catholics and non-Catholics over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries deciding who was and was not American. In a panel on “Making an American Catholic Century,” William Cossens argued that early twentieth-century Catholic support for immigration restrictions fostered racism among Catholics and even reinforced an anti-Catholic hegemony. Peter Cajka narrated the importance of “conscience” as a justification for belief and action at midcentury. Trevor Burrows revealed the involvement of Catholics in student activist movements, even as those movements eschewed religious overtones and targeted Protestants for recruitment. On another panel, “Catholics on the American Frontier,” Danae Jacobson told the strange tale of a typewriter on loan to -- or perhaps illicitly held by? -- a group of Sisters of Providence in the Washington territory. The foreign Sisters played a conflicted role in the American program of native assimilation, and their conflict with a federal agent over the modern technology of the sewing machine provides fertile ground for an investigation of power on the frontier. Samuel Jennings argued that French missionary work among the Comanches of what is now Oklahoma helped invigorate modern French Catholicism, which helped revitalize at least one religious order that had been suppressed earlier in France. A third panel, “Mission, Evangelization, and Propaganda,” investigated the nationalizing efforts of several Catholic and Christian organizations. Massimo di Giacchino drew out the similarities and differences in approach of Catholic Bishop Giovanni Scalabrini and Methodist Bishop William Burt as both helped Italian immigrants assimilate to American society. Beth Petitjean’s presentation on Antonio Zucchelli, an eighteenth-century missionary to the Kongo, argued that Zucchelli’s disillusionment with a mission society largely closed to his converting effort challenges the notion of the heroic, successful missionary establishing syncretic forms of Christianity around the globe. Charles Gallagher’s presentation, “A Nazi in Boston,” examined the continual efforts of Francis P. Moran, a local leader of the Christian Front, to pass on Nazi propaganda from German diplomat Herbert Scholz. The Christian Front, which was inspired by the anti-semitic and anti-communist ravings of Detroit’s Fr. Charles Coughlin, helps understand the complex historical  relationship between global Catholicism and its adherents in the United States.

Several panels also addressed the role of women in American Catholic history. Karen Park presented on Josef Slawinski’s “Peace Mural” in a panel on "Mary in Cold War America." The mural, commissioned for the altar at the Our Lady of Fatima National Shrine Basilica in Lewiston, New York, illustrates both the perils of nuclear annihilation and the promise of peace ushered in by space-age technology and science. Thus the mural helped Catholics in upstate New York navigate, in Park’s words, “the story of both their worst fears and their bravest hopes.” In a Catholic foreshadowing of the Seminar in American Religion’s treatment of Grant Wacker’s new book on Billy Graham, Kathleen Riley presented the Marian piety of Fulton J. Sheen, the Catholic Bishop known for his massive presence on radio and television over the twentieth century. Echoing the importance of devotion to Our Lady of Fatima, whom believers had appeared in Portugal in the early twentieth century and implored the faithful to pray for the conversion of Russia, Sheen’s Marian piety was a crucial component of his anticommunist exhortations in print and on his show Life Is Worth Living. Catherine Osborne’s presentation on “Our Lady of Space,” a 1958 painting by Sister Mary Augustine of the Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary, connected closely with Karen Park’s analysis of the Lewiston Fatima mural. “Our Lady of Space” helped Catholics internalize contemporary scientific explorations, including into space, as part and parcel of better understandings of God. The painting also typified the Catholic notion that Mary reigned over all of creation, a creation that might have come to an end in the insanity of the nuclear arms race. Another panel internationalized the historiography of women, taking the meeting beyond its generally American focus. Keith Egan’s paper on Teresa of Avila portrayed the saint as a prefigure par excellence for the theological schools validated by the Second Vatican Council, reading extensively in the Patristic tradition and introducing an element of mysticism into cloistered life lacking before the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Kenneth Hoyt’s presentation on Hrotsvit of Gandersheim and her writings on martyrdom interrogated the historical split between action and prayer by the martyrs. Finally, Robert Russo brought the panel back to American Catholicism by arguing for a definition of Dorothy Day as a Catholic mystic. Day’s writings on poverty, Russo argued, suggest that her vision was almost other-worldly and evinced “a surrender to the power of love.”

The Spring ACHA also made significant efforts to incorporate presentations and experiences that went beyond panels of papers. Abbie Reese's film, shown at the banquet, was followed by a roundtable on pedagogy, where panelists from a wide range of institutions spoke to central problems and questions of student identity and engagement with religion as a historical category; Kevin Cawley's demonstration of Notre Dame's digital resources and his later tour of the Notre Dame archives; and a tour of parishes which offered participants the chance to experience local history and architecture.

As I said above, I consider this meeting to have been a great success, filled with intriguing ideas and good fellowship. But, as a graduate student by now conditioned always to ask for more, I’d like to offer a few suggestions that we might consider in future meetings (and in our big-tent field in general). First, a trans- or international framework deserves even greater attention in the future: while several panels hosted excellent scholarship on connections between American and non-American Catholics or discrete people and events outside the United States, many others (including my own) were focused narrowly on American Catholic history. It is no betrayal of our purpose as American Catholic historians to look beyond our own borders for fuller histories; presentations by William Cossen, Douglas Slawson, and Massimo di Gioacchino, all of which dealt with immigration, provided useful suggestions in this direction.

Second, we might consider going beyond the Catholic-Protestant dichotomy that usually typifies relations between American Catholics and their non-Catholic compatriots (disclaimer: I am professionally invested in this suggestion.) Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and almost any number of other religious traditions have long histories in the United States. To be sure, plumbing those connections with Catholics will require searching out new sources in new repositories, and may require new methodologies, but this effort would help situate American Catholics within the global institution that is the Catholic Church.

Third, we might embrace even more closely one of the themes discussed at the Catholics in the American Century roundtable: the role of the Catholic historian, whether by subject matter or personal confession, in the American academy. Might a future meeting feature a discussion by several prominent historians who have differing perspectives on our status, self-identification, and conceptual placement within American historiography? Or perhaps one by new faculty from a variety of institutions, young scholars who have grappled with or are grappling with their role as Catholic historians, broadly defined? And, finally, could we invite even more contributions from professionals not in research-and-teaching roles to explore how training as a Catholic historian might be applied elsewhere (e.g., more archivists, women and men in pastoral roles, diocesan and religious order leaders, and so on)?

There were far too many excellent presentations to include in this brief recap, but I do hope I have conveyed some of the breadth and depth of this year’s spring meeting. I welcome your comments on how else we might improve our future conferences and how we, as Catholic historians and historians of Catholicism, might improve our scholarly community. To conclude, a word on one last suggestion Peter made in his report on the winter meeting: that the ACHA establish an institutional Twitter presence. Although that is an ongoing process, @CushwaCenter@petecajka@mbfconnolly, and @fracadeddu all tweeted some of the highlights of panels. To be sure, reluctance to engage with Twitter is understandable among historians: how in the world can we distill nuanced arguments into 140 characters or less? The challenge is real, but I think the participants at the spring meeting demonstrated the importance and potential of embracing this particular platform. For example, historians @Herbie_Miller and @carmenmangion, who were unable to attend the meeting, offered particularly enthusiastic feedback. Even if tweeting a conference is no substitute for engaging with scholars in-person, it has clear benefits for identifying interesting threads of research, new directions in scholarship, and fellow historians who might be helpful collaborators.


Robert Russo at: April 28, 2015 at 8:53 AM said...


Thank you for mentioning Dorothy Day and I in this article. She certainly is a great example in teaching American Catholics that we can follow the tenets that Christ left us in the Gospels (i.e. Matthew's "Rich Young Man", no matter how rigorous they may seem.

Regards & Blessings,

Robert P. Russo
Lourdes University

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