Review of McGreevy Book on American Catholicism

by Patrick J. Hayes

Ever since the founding of the republic, Catholics have steered a sometimes perilous course between ecclesial and ethnic loyalties and those liberties proclaimed by their adopted nation. John McGreevy, a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame , in “Catholicism and American Freedom” has now supplied the very best chronicle of this journey.p. He begins in Boston in 1859 with the story of the Eliot School rebellion. It was sparked by 10-year-old Thomas Whall, a Catholic lad who declined to recite the Ten Commandments from the King James Version of the Bible as prescribed for all students enrolled in Massachusetts public schools. Whall was whipped for his refusal, and Boston’s Know-Nothing party took the occasion to insist on Catholic compliance with the law. A suit was brought, and school officials were vindicated — much to the chagrin of the city’s Catholics.p. Whall’s story leads into McGreevy’s account of typical Catholic attitudes on education in the 19th century, as well as slavery and the Civil War. As the tale crosses over into the 20th century, McGreevy examines questions of the economic order brought on by Pope Leo XIII’s social encyclicals. He then provides further chapters on American Catholicism’s understanding of freedom as such, especially in light of Catholics’ own increasing political influence at home as well as the theological development of the concept in Europe. Concluding chapters focus on issues under the heading of personal liberties, including procreation, human rights and the consistent ethic of life.p. McGreevy’s clear prose is backed at every turn by thorough documentation from archives across the country, and should win the minds of lay readers and specialists alike. With this book, McGreevy has firmly lodged himself alongside the masters of American Catholic history: Peter Guilday, Thomas McAvoy, John Tracy Ellis, Philip Gleason and Jay Dolan.p. McGreevy’s star rose while teaching history at Harvard and in writing on black Catholics in the urban north. Racial uplift is also at the center of “Witnessing and Testifying: Black Women, Religion and Civil Rights,” a book of minibiographies of black women activists of the 19th and 20th centuries. The author, Rosetta E. Ross, a Methodist elder and ethics professor at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, portrays the lives of one Muslim and six Christian champions for civil rights. Descriptions of each woman’s upbringing and work are coupled with their witness and testimony to the power of God in their individual vocational pursuits.p. Some names will be familiar, such as Sojourner Truth (Isabella Baumfree) and Fannie Lou Hamer. Others are more obscure, but pivotal to the civil rights movement of the last century. These include Ella Baker, one of the principals in backing both the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee; grass-roots activist Victoria Way DeLee, a field officer for the NAACP in South Carolina during the 1950s and ‘60s; and Clara Muhammed, who, with her husband, Elijah Muhammed, were co-founders of the Nation of Islam. Two more women round out the biographies: Diane Nash, a Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee activist, and Septima Clark, a church worker who developed voter literacy programs that increased black voter registration throughout the South.p. A running theme throughout Ross’ biographical sketches is the quest for empowerment — not only in the personal standing of each of these women, but for all people. Their quest connects civic responsibility and the Gospel. This is more than a history of some pretty gutsy women of bygone days. They are models for today.p. p. Hayes is on the theology faculty at Quincy University in Quincy, Ill.
p. July 11,2003

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