A history of Catholic influence on American thought

by Rich Barlow

Book Reviewp. ‘’How many divisions does the pope have?’’ Stalin reportedly scoffed when told that the Vatican should have a say in Europe’s future. In this country, however, the pope hasn’t needed armies to frighten liberal intellectuals, who since the 19th century have considered him armed and dangerous, at least metaphorically.

Five years after the Civil War, cartoonist Thomas Nast imagined the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter for Harper’s Weekly. In Nast’s rendition, priests and bishops fired cannons at public education. Catholic schools had long been the pea under non-Catholics’ mattress, disturbing their sleep with visions of students mesmerized by authoritarian religious instruction that poisoned secular democracy.p. Today, with their core curricula and tight budgets, parochial schools often outperform public ones in educating disadvantaged kids. Professor John McGreevy, who teaches history at Notre Dame, has written a comprehensive survey of this liberal-friendly Catholicism’s role in American thought — and I mean comprehensive. He bolsters his points by citing seemingly every church thinker who had ever addressed them; more Catholics appear in these pages than attended my first Communion. The prose is soberly academic.p. But McGreevy tells an important story. The Catholic Church, he writes, runs more welfare agencies and hospitals than anyone else in America and more private schools than anyone in the world. That vast system operates according to an intellectual and moral tradition that at times has summoned Americans to their highest nature and that at others has been hostile to human decency.p. Catholicism’s principled commitment to a consistent ethic of life alternately pleases liberals (opposition to capital punishment) and angers them (opposition to abortion). That ethic led the church to condemn eugenics, which some Progressive Era activists had thought might hold a key to eliminating human want by eliminating supposedly inferior humans. It took the Nazis’ mad genetic experiments to teach them that the church had been right.p. Yet there were moments when Catholicism offered its critics ample ammunition. In the 19th century, the church largely sat out the fight to abolish slavery, the anticlerical bent of European revolutionaries having seared a mania for social order into the Catholic psyche. In the 20th century, too many Catholics sympathized with Francisco Franco and Benito Mussolini. And the radio rantings of the Rev. Charles Coughlin perpetuated the Catholic anti-Semitism for which Pope John Paul II would apologize decades later.p. Fortunately for the church, it possessed the ability to admit error. In the 1940s and ‘50s, Catholic thinkers like John Courtney Murray and Jacques Maritain urged the church to open its stained-glass windows and let modernity in — to get over the crush on dictators, to embrace democracy, and to support religious tolerance. Murray, Maritain, and their camps had anticipated Vatican II, a triumph for modernist Catholics as well as a public relations coup for the church.p. ’’The polarities are stark: On the one hand, an institution enrolling more active members than any other in American society,‘’ McGreevy says. ’’The same institution is important to the Latino community now taking center stage in American public life, and offers more social services . . . than any organization besides the federal government. On the other hand, a wounded, fractious church, ripped apart by disputes over sex, gender, and ministry, and incapable of sustaining the loyalty of many of its communicants.‘’p. Or, as the wise priest who married my wife and me once said: Nobody’s perfect, not even the church.p. Catholicism and American Freedom: A Historyp. By John T. McGreevey p. Norton, 431 pp., illustrated, $26.95

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