An Interview with American Catholic Historical Association President Liam Brockey

[This month, the Cushwa Center welcomes an interview with Liam Brockey, Professor of early modern European history at Michigan State University as well as the incoming president of the American Catholic Historical Association. (He served as vice-president during 2015.) Since this blog has seen lively discussion recently on several posts by Elesha Coffman regarding the purpose and future of the American Society for Church History (see here, here, and here) we felt readership would be interested in Liam's thoughts on some of the issues raised in those previous posts. 

As always, please have a look at our upcoming events to see what's happening in South Bend. And if you haven't already, consider applying for a new grant opportunity: Theodore M. Hesburgh Research Travel Grants. These grants are available for travel to work in Hesburgh's archives, which cover many subjects of interest to 20th-century U.S. historians.]
Catherine R. Osborne

CO: What drew you to the ACHA executive board? What do you see as the greatest strengths of and challenges for the organization?

LB: I joined the executive board two years ago when I was elected to the office of vice-president of the ACHA. Prior to that moment, my service to the association came through my work as an advisory editor of the Catholic Historical Review (since 2009) and a jury member for the Shea Prize. I was eager to complement my experience in the promotion of scholarship with service in the administrative ranks of the ACHA. In the short span of my service I have learned how much the association depends on the active engagement of its members, and how the contributions of many members combine to ensure that the association meets its goals.

In my view, the greatest strengths of the ACHA are its long history, the diversity of its membership, and its commitment to a subject that is broad enough to continually attract new scholars. There is a sense among the members of the association that we can all contribute to the study of Catholicism regardless of our specific areas of expertise, and that this expansive view of our common theme permits conversations that might not otherwise occur if we only spoke to other scholars of our chronological periods. In this regard, the ACHA is a mirror of the American Historical Association, yet one that is more focused on the history of religion writ large. Of course, the breadth of the ACHA’s topic can be a shortcoming, too, since most smaller scholarly associations focus on more restricted themes. So I see our greatest challenge for the coming years in expanding our membership by convincing scholars, and especially younger ones, of the value of thinking beyond the narrowly-defined boundaries of their particular fields.

CO: What do you think is the purpose of a small, special-interest historical society today? Specifically, what purpose do you think the ACHA itself serves that would be lost through amalgamation? Do you expect more collaboration with the ASCH or other groups, and what might that look like, practically speaking?

LB: Although the ACHA is a small association, our members’ interests have global dimensions, and the association helps to facilitate conversations between scholars from disparate fields of historical inquiry. More important than this aspect, however, is the promotion of scholarship on Catholicism. The ACHA offers prizes for articles, dissertations, and monographs, and holds grant competitions to ensure that scholars can attend conferences and travel to conduct research. In today’s academic climate of increased pressure for scholarly production, fierce competition for grants, and tightened budgets, associations such as the ACHA that can offer financial assistance are crucial to the advancement of scholarship. I am thankful for the wise stewardship of preceding presidents and executive secretaries, as well as the generous donors, who have made it possible for the ACHA to maintain its prize and grant programs.

I am confident that the recent plans for coordination with the ASCH will benefit the ACHA. Over the past century, the types of subjects that are of interest to the membership of the ACHA have come to resemble those that appeal to members of other associations. Historians of religion, scholars of religious devotions, institutions, or religious culture can only gain sharing perspectives at joint meetings. Currently, our Spring meeting in 2017 will be held in conjunction with the ASCH, and I look forward to it. In a practical sense, I expect that collaboration between associations will enable all to thrive, especially in the face of pressures for conformity (and increased financial burdens) from the AHA. I also expect that the ACHA’s work with other associations will facilitate the expansion of scholarly networks among individuals interested in the history of religion. This field, to a large degree, remains countercultural, and it is useful for scholars to have a forum where their interests are welcomed and encouraged.

CO: What do you think the ACHA and its programs will look like in ten or twenty years?

LB: I am confident that the ACHA and its programs will further expand over the coming generation. The prize and grant programs that the association administers have grown in recent years, and the membership is eager to preserve and enhance them. In the past decade, we have seen the change to an updated form of association governance and administration. While recognizing the selfless contributions of past administrators for many decades, the members of the ACHA’s executive council are nevertheless cognizant of the changing nature of scholarly communication and financial administration. I am confident that the ACHA has made the necessary changes in recent years to reflect today’s academic environment and that our current model of administration is flexible enough to face tomorrow’s challenges and opportunities without sacrificing our commitment to the promotion of scholarship. So I expect that over the next generation the ACHA will grow as the nature of our interests and the diverse composition of our membership becomes more well known. Ours is not an exclusive organization—we are scholars of Catholicism as a historical phenomenon who come from many different backgrounds—and our forum for discussion is open to all who are interested in taking part in our historical inquiries.


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