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Books Etcetera

by Edmund Campion

Catholicism and American Freedom, by John T McGreevy



One of the penalties of growing old is that your references and allusions are often lost on the next generation. This came home to me a few years ago in a seminar on Australian Catholic history, when half way through the semester I threw in a suggestion to the class (younger than me but not kids - mature age, some of them): 'I think we should have a session of this seminar on B A Santamaria' which evokes puzzlement. 'Santamaria? Who's he?' Long before this, I had schooled myself to stop calling the Second Vatican Council, 'the recent Vatican Council': many of my listeners hadn't even been born when it concluded, in 1965. Of course, this cuts the other way too: a younger generation miss out on their share of a richer cultural life because of their ignorance. A couple of years ago I read a life of Cardinal Ratzinger (now being brought up to date, I understand) by the National Catholic Reporter's man in Rome, John L Allen Jr, and was much taken by his frank self-portrait in the book's preface ('I am a child of Vatican II'). He admitted that when older friends broke into a Latin hymn such as Panis Angelicus - something I myself have known to happen towards the end of an evening - he had to remain mute, not knowing the words. At the Sydney Writers Festival this weekend I was telling this to an old publisher friend and he responded by saying how alarmed he had been recently by the ignorance of visitors to Russian art galleries: guides had to explain to Westerners simple, basic facts about the meaning of Christian paintings. Readers of this column may know a famous story: a woman standing before a classic painting of the dead Christ prepared for burial was heard to say, 'Poor young man, poor young man - what did he die of?'

There is a cure for such ignorance. It's called reading history. Lord Acton said a long time ago, that reading history allows you to choose your ancestors or, as we might say, your role models. (Lord Acton? Oh, look him up in a dictionary. No, he did not say, 'Power corrupts'; he said, 'Power tends to corrupt'; and then he went on to say, 'Great men are almost always bad men.' But that's another story.) Acton had a lofty view of history and historians as the hanging judges of the human story; he thought that in teaching historians we were creating an elevated priesthood above human frailty who would become moral teachers of the universe. I don't think it works like that, My Lord; I think we read history, not to judge the past, but to be judged by it ourselves. There's a good instance of this in the purest form of church history, the lives of the saints. Put another way, we might say that we read about the past in order to avoid the errors of the past.

Such thoughts are in my mind because I've been reading a stunning piece of American Catholic history, Catholicism and American Freedom (W W Norton, POA) by a Notre Dame historian, John T McGreevy. Its field of enquiry is the interaction between Catholicism and public life in the USA. By public life one means political campaigns, legislation, judicial decisions, press comment, ideas promoted by leading thinkers, and all the institutional engines that go to make up the public culture of a country. In exploring this, it may be useful to know that as a youth an influential judge was much influenced by notorious anti-Catholic tracts such as Maria Monk, or that another judge wrote encouraging private letters to an anti-Catholic controversialist like Paul Blanshard (now a forgotten figure but once a major source of the proposition that the RC church was anti-democratic and hence anti-American). McGreevy gets his material by reading all the books, court judgments, newspaper columns and magazine articles, but also by travelling to the archives and inspecting the private correspondence of those concerned. His book is a very thorough job of work. I counted 1472 endnotes, more than 100 pages of them - if that seems a lot, reflect that they enable you to follow up any single aspect of this story... if you can find this material in an Australian library.

But why bother with American Catholic history? The answer, I think, is that we can study there, on a big screen as it were, many of the problems encountered in Australia; it gives a valuable vantage point to inspect the Australian situation. There are important differences I grant you. For most of Australia's settler history one quarter of the population, at least, have been Catholic; whereas in l788 Catholics were only one percent of the US population and the church grew slowly to its present numerosity: as in Australia, today in the USA the RC church is the biggest Christian denomination. That's one difference but there are others. They had slaves and the moral problems consequent on that; we didn't. We didn't have a civil war either. We were founded as a transplanted Britain; they were a new model.

This last point is important because it underpins much of the anti-Catholicism that once infected American public life. The new model of public life in the USA was called democracy; negatively it was a rejection of the old world culture of deference, class, hierarchy and communal control; positively it promoted individual freedoms, dissent, experiment, republican virtues and good citizenship. How could people like the Catholics, whose whole culture came from the old world of communalism rather than individualism, that stressed deference, submission and obedience - how could they become genuine democrats or true Americans? That's what the opponents said. The Vatican seemed to agree, issuing a series of anti-democratic documents throughout the 19th century, culminating in the 1899 condemnation of what it called Americanism. (Curiously, this painful episode is missing from McGreevy's book, perhaps because he agrees with the on-point scholar of Americanism, Gerald P Fogarty, who wrote, 'The papal letter was a caricature of American thought'. I am reminded of recent Vatican blithering about Australian Catholics' detestable egalitarianism.)

The history of anti-Catholicism can overload and sink a column like this one; and the McGreevy book is rich in its references, such as his information that the Harvard Law School was once reluctant to admit graduates of Jesuit colleges. That instance must suffice. Behind such anti-Catholicism, as John Henry Newman observed 150 years ago, lay a psychology that went like this: they are different from us, so they are bad; they won't fit in, so don't let them in. The anti-Catholics thought that their values were the only ones that counted; they did not see that democracy should mean pluralism. So the public schools were brought into being, to promote the values of the numerically stronger culture: in Australia, the British Empire loyalists; in the USA, the 'democrats'. It's a working example of what Mill called the tyranny of the majority. In time, both majorities became effectively secularist, so Catholics were denied public money for their schools (still a fact in the USA). History, however, moves on. One day Catholic communalism would become a valuable counterweight to the individualism of mainstream American culture, as in the struggles over segregation. One day too, the USA would see a Catholic elected as its President, in l960. By then, it's worth noticing, already half the Prime Ministers of Australia had been Catholics.

The Work:

  • Catholicism and American Freedom W W Norton




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