Centuries in, the tension between Catholic ideals and the American experience remains taut and troubled
American Pilgrimage: A Historical Journey through Catholic Life in a New World by Christopher Shannon. Ignatius Press, 2022. 580 pp, $34.95
For much of American history Roman Catholicism has been on the sideline of the nation’s religious history. Although much of this status can be attributed to prejudice and failures of academic rigor (for starters), Roman Catholicism was truly alien to the Protestantism that dominated many American cultural institutions and informed the American psyche. Where Protestants had different denominations that perpetuated old world churches, Roman Catholics had a variety of religious orders that (to this day) mysteriously cooperate with bishops in carrying out a single church’s mission. Where Protestants produced ecumenical organizations for cooperative endeavors (that were also decidedly anti-Catholic), Roman Catholics leaned on a foreign institution (the Vatican) to coordinate church life in the United States and—not to be missed—the rest of the planet. Where the most influential Protestant groups hailed from the British Isles, Roman Catholics came from places either suspicious of England (Ireland and Germany at first) or far afield ethno-culturally (Italy and Poland).
All of these differences pale in comparison to the largest distinction: Where Protestants regarded the American Founding as an outworking of the Reformation, especially in the British Isles, Roman Catholics needed to be cautious about celebrating the political event that proved American greatness. Whether or not Roman Catholicism was formally opposed to the American political tradition of civil liberties, checks and balances, and representative government, Leo XIII’s condemnation of Americanism as a heresy did put a damper on the degree to which American Catholics could celebrate the nation. (Leo’s 1899 encyclical was actually mild and did little to change immigrants’ perception of their new home even if it did put bishops and priests on watch for undue allegiance to the United States.)
If these differences between American Protestants and American Catholics were not enough, Rome’s own ambivalence about national churches was another impediment to harmonizing America and the Church. For most of Rome’s history, Christendom was the ideal model for society. In this system of what today’s postliberals or traditionalists may call “integralism,” the church and state cooperated to encourage godliness in people and policy, with the Church (as God’s representative) delegating civil authority to kings, princes, and emperors. Within Europe’s religious and political order, Rome was the spiritual glue that held the various political entities together. Ideally, this meant that the church in France was the same as the church in England or Spain because all were under the papacy’s jurisdiction and followed Rome’s norms of doctrine and worship. When the Reformation came along and revealed Protestants’ dependence on civil magistrates to implement reform, the rise of national or urban churches (the Church of England or the churches of Geneva) dissolved the ideal of a single Christian society. Protestants themselves may have emulated a Christendom model at the local level within a specific kingdom, republic, or city-state, but these new communions abandoned Rome’s ideal of a transnational church.
Roman Catholic political theology raises challenges for any historian trying to tell the history of the Church within a particular nation-state. Most religious historians take the nation as a given in assessing Christianity in the modern era. Seldom does a book or article examine the history of a Christian communion or denomination on both sides of a national border. In the scholarly literature, American and Canadian Methodists do not mix. Nor do Presbyterians. Maybe such national isolation exists for good reasons. Either way, scholars defer to nations in defining their subjects. Historians of Roman Catholicism must follow suit even if the communion they study transcends national patterns and finds its coherence in an ancient city that used to be the capital of a vast empire.
Christopher Shannon wades carefully into these cross currents in American Pilgrimage, a survey of American Catholicism that draws upon the best historical scholarship while also reflecting the author’s own identity as a Roman Catholic. Despite being published by a press with a decidedly spiritual and catechetical mission (on the conservative side of post-Vatican II developments), Shannon does not tip his hand on debates in the church until, perhaps, the final chapters of the book. His purpose is mainly scholarly. He explains how Roman Catholicism came to the part of North America that became the United States, covers the church’s institutionalization, demographics, and growth, and brings the story down to the present. If any single theme drives Shannon’s story, it is that of the American church as an immigrant communion. If he had wanted to present the material in a way to call for greater reform in the church, or to call the bishops back to older and conservative positions the way other historians have in survey texts (Jay P. Dolan and Leslie Woodcock Tentler), Shannon could have done so. That he does not is a testimony to historical impartiality.
At the same time, the author’s apparent reluctance to editorialize leaves the history of the American church with a series of mixed messages. In fact, the one theme that usually accompanies the immigrant-church narrative is diversity. Shannon may not have gone out of his way to stress variety, but the range of experiences he includes and that the American hierarchy needed to incorporate is breathtaking.
It begins with the simple historical reality that Roman Catholicism was the first Christianity to show up in the New World: It did so even before Protestantism existed (note that 1492 is twenty-five years before 1517). Shannon documents well the network of Spanish explorers and missions from Florida to the California coast, as well as the presence of French traders and the priests who accompanied them in Canada, today’s upper-midwest, and down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. These European colonial enterprises existed well before the English began to settle the eastern seaboard and Maryland (1634) became a makeshift outpost for English Catholics. However, the triumph of England over the French and the subsequent decline of Spanish presence in North America meant that English Catholics set the agenda initially for the American Church more than any other European branch of the Church, even as those English believers labored as outsiders in both the old country and the colonies. Adapting to an Anglo-American environment was not labeled “Americanism” for a century, but it was in the DNA of the American church from the beginning of the United States.
Those English fingerprints of the American church’s initial leadership, however, soon disappeared in wave after wave of immigration between roughly 1820 and 1920. First came the Irish and then the Germans, which were trickles compared to the streams of Italians and Poles at the end of the nineteenth century. These immigrants created challenges for the hierarchy that led to national (read ethnic) parishes to accommodate the diversity of tongues (even though the Mass remained in Latin). These different immigrant groups also brought a devotional variety to the American church. Here Shannon excels in noticing the diversity of practices that immigrants maintained and that the bishops needed to accommodate even as they tried to maintain institutional coherence. The Irish brought with them, for instance, the mid-nineteenth-century Vatican attempts to implement the liturgical norms of Trent, which involved detaching piety from local customs and saints and ordering spiritual life around the Mass. German Catholics, in contrast, were often better off economically than the Irish, less prone to excess in drinking, and capable of vying for leadership within the hierarchy. Italian and Polish Catholics, however, brought a host of devotional practices that spilled out of the parish church into streets and festivals. As Shannon explains, balancing “the sacred and secular aspects of religious festivals” was always a struggle for Rome, but the American church faced it in unprecedented ways thanks to its polyglot and multi-ethnic character.
When Shannon hits the twentieth century the narrative switches from an immigrant church to a suburban one. The urban settings that loomed large in both the experience of ordinary church members and in the operations of powerful metropolitan archbishops dissipated after World War II. Roman Catholics participated as much in the social transformation of America as everyone else—movement into the middle class and professionalization through study at college and graduate school. In so doing, they proved again that Roman Catholicism was not inherently an obstacle to making it in America. This was also the period when John Courtney Murray emerged (though Shannon does not give as much attention to him as do other historians) as the spokesman for a neo-Americanism that claimed the Founders “built better than they knew” in drawing on natural law and medieval traditions for the American political system. Accompanying Murray’s argument for Roman Catholics’ legitimate place in American society was John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960, only to be followed in 1962 by the start of the Second Vatican Council where bishops “updated” the church for modern times. Since American clergy had labored under suspicion for harboring Americanism, many in the American church interpreted Vatican II as a vindication of American Catholics’ experience.
Only in Shannon’s coverage of the post-Vatican II era do his own religious sympathies emerge. As American Catholics moved to the suburbs and up the socio-economic ladder, they experienced the strain of following church teaching on contraception even as expectations for big families conflicted with middle-class life. As they also attended colleges and universities, administrators of Roman Catholic universities adjusted institutions designed chiefly for priests and the religious to ones that resembled the expectations of American higher education. Meanwhile, Roman Catholic activists in the 1960s and 1970s had opportunities for organizing and protesting in ways that previously belonged to the likes of Dorothy Day or Father Coughlin. Perhaps most dramatically, the opening to the modern world for which Vatican II called removed old distinctions between the sacred and secular that had previously inspired many vocations. After 1965, as Shannon shows, the number of priests and nuns declined precipitously, and the liturgical reforms for which the Council had called coincided with a drop in Sunday Mass attendance (from seventy-one percent in 1963 to fifty percent in 1974). Throw in the double-whammy of the Vatican’s prohibitions on contraception in Humanae vitae (1968) and the recent scandal of clerical sexual abuse, and the history of American Catholicism since 1950 reads like a text-book case of declension.
Shannon shows a measure of agreement with that assessment when he writes that “something has been lost in all the changes of the past seventy years of the life of the Church in America.” The social conditions of the United States are at least partly to blame. Shannon observes that mainstream American culture is “once again pagan” and America itself is once again “a nation of hunter-gatherers—high-tech, to be sure, chasing market trends rather than animal herds, but unsettled nonetheless.” He suggests (without developing it at length) that the path to renewal involves recovering a sense of place and peoplehood. At its best, even in the missions of California, Roman Catholicism thrived within the reinforcing bonds of parish, schoolroom, farm, and ranch. He could well have added the ethnic ghetto of progressive America’s big cities. But even as Shannon concludes by recalling these earlier periods of Roman Catholic vigor, his last word is a call to evangelism. Vatican II’s own evangelistic program was “hampered” by “the contemporary etiquette of religious pluralism and toleration.” For that reason Shannon gives the last word to Jesus, who called his obviously weak and unreliable disciples to evangelize the world. “He trusts us too” is the book’s last sentence.
What that hopeful conclusion does not address is whether the readers of Shannon’s book will be sufficiently strong and wise to evangelize America again. American Pilgrimage avoids blaming America for the American church’s woes. Shannon documents well the genius of a hierarchy that could accommodate so many immigrants and those same bishops’ folly in updating the Church for a modern, affluent society. Still, he leaves the impression that as old, coherent, and institutionally resourceful as Roman Catholicism is, the Church could not withstand the acids of individualism, consumerism, and democracy. Shannon’s book is another testimonial to the perennial struggle between Rome’s ideals and the American experience.
D. G. Hart teaches history at Hillsdale College and is the author most recently of Benjamin Franklin: Cultural Protestant (Oxford 2021).