Jay P. Dolan — Master Historian of American Catholicism


Historians have been called “prophets of the past” in tribute to their talent for analyzing the bare facts of history, recognizing trends and providing insights that challenge the way we think and influence our future. The life work of Jay P. Dolan, professor emeritus of history at Notre Dame and founder of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, is a clear example of that notion.p. As a young Irish American graduate student at the prestigious University of Chicago in the 1960s, Dolan decided to bypass the traditional way of studying American Catholic history. Instead of placing a strong emphasis on important figures, events and places, he wanted to study the entire story “from the bottom up.”p. He wanted to find out what it was like to be a Catholic in America during the earliest days of struggle as citizens of a new nation. He wanted to know about the experience of an immigrant, newly arrived from Europe, who spoke no English. He wanted to learn about the men and women in the pews at the dawn of the 20th century.p. Most of all, he wanted to study how the faith experience of all of these people influenced the way America grew, and how America influenced their Catholic culture.p. In taking on this mission, Dolan helped inaugurate a new field of study. More importantly, his work has helped American Catholics understand the triumphs and conflicts that have brought us to our present status.p. From There to Here
Jay Dolan has been called “the master historian of Catholicism in America” andthe most influential Catholic historian of the Vatican II generation.Such accolades are not given lightly, so I was especially interested in discovering just how he got from there to here when I interviewed him for St. Anthony Messenger.p. It turns out that “there” was Fairfield, Connecticut, in the mid-1930s and “here” is South Bend, Indiana, where he lives with his wife Patricia McNeal.p. The years in-between offered outstanding educational opportunities, the most important of which was the chance to study with Martin Marty, the well-known Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Chicago.p. But Notre Dame is Dolan’s permanent academic home, the place where his ideas took shape and where he still teaches a class on the history of the Irish in America, a favorite subject that will be the focus of his next book.p. He is, of course, a writer. His book The American Catholic Experience: A History From Colonial Times to the Present (University of Notre Dame Press) was first published in 1985 and is still being used in colleges, universities and study groups today. His recently published book, In Search of an American Catholicism: A History of Religion and Culture in Tension (Oxford University Press), seems destined for a similar level of popularity. Reviewers have called it “a simply wonderful book” thatdeserves the widest possible attention from readers within and without the Catholic tradition."p. Life Outside the Classroom
During an appearance at the annual R. Wayne Kraft Memorial Lecture Series at DeSales University in Center Valley, Pennsylvania-one of several colleges and universities he visited on a recent book tour-Jay Dolan looked every inch the distinguished but kindly professor. But when the tall, broad-shouldered figure with silver hair stepped to the podium, it was easy to picture him as the energetic young man who played football for Fairfield Prep in the early ‘50s.p. Referring to that happy time in his life in a later telephone interview, Dolan credits the Jesuit education he received there as a decisive influence in his life.p. “It formed me in ways that are impossible to calculate,” he says. No doubt it also sparked his keen interest in the sport that transforms that atmosphere under the Golden Dome in Indiana each fall. These days, however, Dolan’s athletic talent is fully focused on golf.p. The Dolan household consists of two working historians. Patricia McNeal is on the faculty of the Women’s Studies Program at Indiana University at South Bend, and served as director for the last nine years. The Dolans are also the parents of two grown sons, Patrick and Mark.p. When I wonder aloud about the kind of dinner-table conversations their children might have experienced over the years, Dolan laughs, claiming that they were probably the same as any other family. “But,” he adds, “our boys grew up in a home where learning was appreciated and encouraged. We always fostered reading and, in fact, during the summer we posted charts so they could enter the titles of the books they read. We traveled together too, particularly to our great national parks. That was important part of their education.”p. Praising Influential Catholics
Dolan’s lifetime of teaching and writing about our history as American Catholics has given him insights he is eager to share with St. Anthony Messenger readers. Because he began his work in the mid-‘60s, just after the close of Vatican II, it is no surprise to learn that one of his heroes-the one at the top of his list-is Pope John XXIII.p. “He is a hero for what he tried to do, and because he was father, pastor and brother to us all,” Dolan says. He goes on to name three other people whose lives have helped shape our Church and our country-all Americans who were able toget it right."p. “Mathew Carey stands out,” he says. "He was an Irish immigrant who began to make his mark in Philadelphia within three months of his arrival. A bookseller, as well as a publisher, an one of the city’s leading citizens, he was heavily involved in the local Catholic community and became one of the most prominent Catholics in the United States.p. “In the late 1780s and ’90s Carey reconciled apparently incompatible doctrines such as faith and reason, nature and the supernatural, and felt comfortable doing so. He even wrote a paper on working women!”p. “John England, bishop of Charleston from 1830 to 1842, was another remarkable Irish immigrant,” Dolan points out. "He understood democracy and helped fashion a Catholicism in harmony with American culture.p. “Dorothy Day stands out as well. She was probably the person who has had the greatest influence on contemporary Catholicism,” he says. "She argued for a spiritual solution to society’s problems and founded the Catholic Worker Movement. This was a movement that urged people toward a more personal style of faith rooted in love for the distressed and a gospel of nonviolence.p. Church Contributions to American Society
Even though Dolans recent writings have focused on the influence of America on the Church, it seems important to ask him to point out the most important contributions that the Church has made to American society. Without hesitation, he names three things: the historical importance of the immigrant Church, the establishment of a system of Catholic education and the creation of a remarkable system of social services.p. “The Church opened its arms to them all-the Germans, the Polish, the Italians, the Irish,” Dolan says in reference to the many immigrants who came to America.They were able to worship and go to confession in their own language and, in doing that, found a home away from home.“p. He then cites the establishment of parochial schools, which paralleled the common or public school movement of the 1840s and’50s.The whole educational endeavor has made an important contribution to American society, from our parish schools through to our colleges and universities. And, of course, the Church led in the establishment of hospitals and orphanages in earlier years and leads today in providing every kind of vital social service.”p. “Budding movements today also give great promise and are making important contributions to the Church of this new millennium and to our national culture,” Dolan notes. “To find them, we look to the parish level for programs like Renew and to prayer groups. The Bible has become an important focus for gatherings of eight or 10 people who meet weekly or monthly. I believe that these groups signify that there is a new type of devotionalism which has enlivened peoples faith.”p. The Important Role of Hispanic Catholics
Dolan goes on to talk with enthusiasm about a movement of Hispanic Catholics who "in the late 1960s began to reevaluate their status in the Church and the nation.Cesar Chavez, the founder of the United Farm Workers of America, became a symbol for Spanish-speaking Catholics all over the country in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and the Church responded by establishing a new mission of Hispanic ministry. But the encuentro, which he describes in his recent book as “a national movement for equal rights in the American Church,” is, in his opinion, a model for the Church in our time. Through meetings on the local level and in major national assemblies, people discuss the Spanish-speaking community’s full range of needs.p. "Spanish-speaking Catholics have become politically savvy in a manner similar to the German Catholics of the late 19th century. In parishes in San Antonio, Los Angeles, the Pilsen area of Chicago and other places, Hispanics have formed a Church within a Church,he says with obvious admiration. “They are the new immigrants who are bringing richness and vitality to the many different cultures that make up the Catholic mosaic.”p. This term “mosaic” is an important one for Dolan because it symbolizes a change in the way the Church looks at immigrants. Each ethnic group is now seen as distinct, bringing its own gifts to our culture. When speaking about the impact that Hispanic immigrants are having on the Church, he cites the fact that they are now Americas largest minority group and that 70 to 75 percent of Hispanics are Catholic.p. The overwhelming majority of the people we call Hispanic come from Mexico. Most of them are poor and looking for opportunity. Therefore, Dolan believes their presence is also an opportunity for the Church.p. “This has given the Church the chance to overcome complacency and get back to our roots as an institution that can reach out and renew its commitment to the gospel. It’s an opportunity for truly heroic work,” he says. These new immigrants have tremendous energy and gave proven themselves to be an engaged community wanting to take an active part on the local level.p. “In a sense, Hispanics banged on the Church door in the ’70s,” he says. "Our bishops responded in 1978 with a national pastoral plan which would respect the ‘cultural values and religious traditions’ of Hispanic people. The major emphasis of this plan centered on issues of social justice, but its implementation has affected the formation programs of priests and lay ministers, our schools, our liturgies-the whole range of Church life.p. “We now have 25 Hispanic bishops, a number that symbolizes just how much the Church has been affected by the growth and activism of this minority group,” Dolan says. He points out, however that many Hispanic Catholics urge fuller implementation and funding for some aspects of the bishopsplan, acknowledging that there are still unmet needs, despite tremendous recognition and progress.p. Looking Ahead
Dolan’s emphasis on the historic importance of the parochial school system leads to an obvious question. Given the fact that this system is shrinking in size, what impact is that situation having on the Church? His initial reaction is in some ways unexpected, but on second thought really quite in keeping with his life as a teacher.p. “Students are coming to college with minimal knowledge of their faith and of its history in the United States,” he says. "In fact, they know little of history in general. However, I believe our Catholic schools are still very popular and powerful part of our community. My real concern is financial. Can average people afford a Catholic education?p. "I’m concerned about the turnover in teachers and about our ability to pay them well.Despite these problems, our schools are still in demand and in many places are a haven from the influences of society.‘p. Finally, Dolan talks about his hope for the future. “As an historian,” he says, “I take the long view.” Citing the sex-abuse crisis the Church has been facing, he says, "The Church will endure. We are certainly in a period of declining influence now, but we have faced serious problems in the past: the struggles with trusteeism in the late 1700s and early 1800s, controversies about modernism, serious problems with schools and other major bumps in the road.p. “Today we have a many-headed American Church because each bishop is independent, and this can be a liability. We need strong and convincing leadership. And we need laypeople who will speak out courageously for the Church they love. Finally, we need to look to the parishes. The hope of the future is in the parish,” he says.p. Dolan contends that the current crisis is unprecedented in American history and is of such magnitude that “it will take time and great effort to restore the hierarchys credibility. The Church needs better leaders who are more accountable to the people they serve,” he says.p. He believes that the painful examination of the deeper issues surrounding the scandal, particularly the critical and growing shortage of priests, “reveals a need for far-reaching change. Now more than ever before,” he says, “American Catholics want a Church open to the spirit of democracy where their views can make a difference.”p. America and Catholicism: Good for Each Other In both his writings and his speeches, Dolan has expressed the strong belief that a person can be at home within both the American and Catholic cultures. A lifetime study of the history of the Church in this country has led him to conclude that America has been good for Catholicism and Catholicism has been good for America. So how do Catholics move into the 21st century as both Catholics and Americans without compromising the values of either identity?p. He replies thoughtfully: "What Catholicism brings to this country is a social-justice dimension. Individualism was the spirit of early America. One of our earliest symbols was the cowboy in the Old West riding into the sunset. Today that individualism is combined with materialism. However, our faith teaches that we have a responsibility to care for others.p. "A major crisis in our country today is the gap between the rich and the poor. We have a mission to work on these problems and the Church can show the way. Its all there in Matthew 25: ‘Lord when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you? And the king will say to them in reply, ’Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brother s of mine, you did for me’"(37-40).p. As a prophet of the past, Jay Dolan is able to help us dip deeply into the vast well of our Catholic history. In learning our stories, we just might have the opportunity to revitalize our spirits and help renew our Church.p. THE CUSHWA CENTER
For the Study of American Catholicism
The Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism is nationally recognized as the leading center for the historical study of Roman Catholicism in the United States. The center sponsors conferences, seminars and research, provides media coverage of U.S. Catholicism and collaborates with Church ministers to enhance the vitality of Catholic life. In all of its work, the center seeks to achieve interdisciplinary and ecumenical cooperation.p. The center, which is currently directed by Timothy Matovina, was founded in 1975 by Jay Dolan, when he collaborated with his history department colleagues, received funding from the University of Notre Dame and published a newsletterthe first project of the new center.p. Six years later, Charles and Margaret Cushwa of Youngstown, Ohio, endowed the center. Since then, it has flourished as a base for promising younger scholars and the source for major books and other publications.p. Further information about the Cushwa Center is available online at www.nd.edu/~cushwa , or by calling (574)631-5441.p.

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