Reading "Catholics in the American Century" at the ACHA

Today's guest post from Peter Cajka recaps a panel held at the recent spring meeting of the American Catholic Historical Association. Peter is a PhD candidate at Boston College where he works on religion in modern American history. He is currently writing a dissertation that explores how and why ideas of conscience became central in American Democracy and Christian ethics between 1961 and 1985. A full report of the conference will follow in a few weeks, to be posted by Notre Dame PhD student Michael Skaggs.

Peter Cajka

In response to a call for more book panels and historiography at its conferences, the American Catholic Historical Association convened a session on Catholics in the American Century: Recasting Narratives of U.S. History. The book features essays by Robert Orsi, Lizabeth Cohen, Thomas Sugrue, R. Marie Griffith, David G. Gutierrez, and Wilfred McClay. It’s the product of a conference convened in 2008 by the Cushwa Center of the University of Notre Dame. Cushwa asked historians who normally write about other topics (labor, cities, Protestant women, the nineteenth century self, ethnicity) to write essays on American Catholicism. The general goal of the volume is to present a case for why studying Catholics will help us to understand American History more deeply. A second goal of the volume is to make a few suggestions about how this task might be accomplished. In this blog post I offer two quick snapshots from the collection itself before summarizing points made at the panel.

One case for “why study Catholics” emerges clearly on the pages of Catholics in the American Century: Catholics are involved in all the major trends of American history but approach them from, to quote Robert Orsi, an “angle askew.” [1]  Orsi’s essay explores, among other things, how Catholics have a sacred civic memory at an “angle askew” to dominant American culture. Orsi writes that, “to understand U.S. – not U.S. Catholic – society and politics, urban history, the politics of race and class in this country, popular culture, and the history of the arts, among other things, it is necessary to hold together in creative tension the fact that Catholics have and have not been like their fellow citizens before the American Century, amid its challenges, and possibilities, since.” [2] Recognizing that Catholics “have and have not been like their fellow citizens” can deepen our knowledge of US history.

Lizabeth Cohen – building on her current work on urban redevelopment in Boston – provided one idea of how historians can bring Catholics more fully into American history. She suggests historians use an approach she calls “broadband transnational history.” Cohen proposed that “historical analysis is not a zero-sum game, and that historians can – and should – move back and forth across registers of local, national, and international history.” [3] Cohen notes that broadband transnational history is well suited for the Catholic Church, as the Church has global, regional, diocesan, parish, and neighborhood levels. Taking the “broadband” approach to Catholic topics might help historians bridge the gaps between the new emphasis on transnational history and the lasting appeal of local social history.

The panelists at the spring meeting of the ACHA – Michelle Nickerson, Jane Dailey, Scott Appleby, Kathleen Sprows Cummings, and myself  – reflected on what Catholics in the American Century might mean for the future of American history.

Michelle Nickerson of the University of Loyola-Chicago explored Catholic political subjectivity. Drawing on Gutierrez’s essay on religious belief and Chicano/Mexicano history, Nickerson warned against romanticizing Catholic political history. She noted how Catholics are susceptible (like others) to a “cognitive dissonance” that allowed, for example, lay Catholic activists in the labor movement to advance a progressive agenda of economic rights in the same strides as a frank denial of gender equality.

Nickerson also cited and analyzed a passage from Catholics and the American Century that the panelists found particularly important. Nickerson called on the audience to think about R. Marie Griffith’s call to “cross the Catholic divide.” Griffith observed in her essay that:
It is not enough to try to induce guilt in Protestants and secular historians by foisting on them some sort of special obligation to incorporate Catholics just to be inclusive. Historians who mostly study secular or Protestant women in twentieth-century North America, for example, must have a clear rationale for going beyond their own meticulous archival research into unfamiliar territory. [4]
As Nickerson pointed out, Griffith’s advice for historians of Protestantism and secularism could be utilized by historians of Catholicism. The panel discussed how historians of Catholicism should “cross divides” and find genuinely new research topics – not just to be inclusive – but to transform their own internal narratives. An on-going task, perhaps, is for historians of Catholicism to develop a clear rationale for going beyond our archival research into unfamiliar territories.

Jane Dailey of the University of Chicago questioned why the volume lacked an essay on “America in the World,” – a field, she noted, currently booming. She found this absence curious, as she explained, because Henry Luce – a protagonist in Catholics in the American Century – pronounced the twentieth century the “American Century” as he looked out at the world.  She encouraged Catholic historians to integrate John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council more thoroughly with the history of the United Nations, human rights, and the concept of dignity.

I made a suggestion about how to bring Catholic particularities into the “historiographical mainstream” by way of finding new archives. I made the case that the future of Catholic history might be beyond the Catholic archive, and that perhaps we should consider visiting Protestant and secular reading rooms more often. In making this suggestion, I had in mind the story Michael Pasquier related about his research experience in a 2014 article for American Catholic Studies. Pasquier wrote:
Over a decade ago, I waded into the world of Catholic archival research in search of the history of Voodoo and came out with a book on Catholic priests. Not only did I find it easier to go where the available sources took me, but, in retrospect, I now realize that there is always a kind of investigatory determinism when stepping into the reading room of a Catholic archive. [5]

Perhaps historians of Catholicism could make it a goal to end this “investigatory determinism.” Then, drawing attention to Marie Griffith’s essay, I wondered if Catholic historians could develop clear rationales for going beyond their own “meticulous archival research” to find subjects that could truly transform our narratives.

Scott Appleby and Kathleen Sprows Cummings, both of the University of Notre Dame, wrapped up the panel. Appleby stressed the importance of Catholics coming to an understanding themselves at mid-century as global. He also asked historians to dwell on how Civil Rights constituted a genuinely Catholic approach to Human Rights. Cummings brought many of the panels themes together in her concluding remarks. She cautioned Catholic historians to recall that subfields in American history often lament their non-mainstream status. She also mentioned the important work of the late Peter D’Agostino (author of Rome in America) who would have called for more attention to be paid to the international and transatlantic dimensions of the American Catholic experience.

The book panel could serve as the start of a new tradition at ACHA spring and annual meetings. It will be up to the leaders and the rank-and-file members of the organization to see to it that such panels occur in the future. Perhaps we could experiment with roundtables, forums, and book discussions on specific monographs.

[1] Robert Orsi, “U.S. Catholics between Memory and Modernity: How Catholics are American,” in Catholics in the American Century: Recasting Narratives of American History edited by Scott Appleby and Kathleen Sprows Cummings (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012), 15.
[2] Ibid., 42.
[3] Lizabeth Cohen, “Re-viewing the Twentieth Century through an American Catholic Lens,” in Ibid., 53.
[4] R. Marie Griffith, “Crossing the Catholic Divide: Gender, Sexuality, and Historiography,” in Ibid., 87.
[5] Michael Pasquier, “The Invisibility of Voodoo, or, the end of Catholic Archives in America,” American Catholic Studies, 125 (Fall 2014), 13.


Tom Van Dyke said…
He also asked historians to dwell on how Civil Rights constituted a genuinely Catholic approach to Human Rights.

This may be the most promising avenue, parallel to Catholic support for early 20th-century [urban] progressivism.

At the moment it's hard to say that Jack Kennedy had much of a "Catholic" impact on American history beyond being nominally Catholic, although he does make for an arresting cover photo.

At the moment, the irony is that because the Catholic vote lurches almost evenly between right and left, as a murky middle ground between the evangelicals and the "nones" its most striking characteristic is perhaps its lack of one!