Reflections on American Catholic History: Part I—Community Expectations
by David J. O’Brien

We are pleased to present this first of a three-part reflection on the recent history of American Catholicism by professor emeritus David J. O’Brien of the College of the Holy Cross. The reflection is a lightly revised version of the Monsignor Hugh Crean Distinguished Memorial Lecture delivered by Professor O’Brien at Our Lady of the Elms College, Chicopee, Massachusetts, on April 20, 2021, with additional background information provided by the author—Ed.

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

     – Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude

I was honored to offer the annual Rev. Hugh Crean lecture at Our Lady of the Elms College in 2021. The college, on whose board of trustees I have served, was founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph, who educated me through high school.

When college president Dr. Harry Dumay invited me to offer the lecture, he pointed out that our Catholic Church had dedicated the year of 2021 to St. Joseph. So I tried to offer some thoughts about our American Catholic history, past, present and future, informed at least a little by reflection on St. Joseph—reflection assisted by Pope Francis’s remarkable apostolic letter announcing the year. Francis acknowledged his own long-standing devotion to St. Joseph as protective father in the Holy Family and as patron of workers. And Francis also refers to the flight into—and unknown stay in—Egypt, linking St. Joseph to today’s families of refugees and asylum seekers.

More broadly, Francis refers to St. Joseph’s remarkably steadfast faith and trust when everything in his world turned upside down. His beloved bride-to-be becomes pregnant by the Holy Spirit. The child, he is told, will fulfill God’s promises to his people, Israel, but is then targeted for death by the civil authorities. Born in circumstances far from the centers of power, Joseph must have known that his son, Jesus, would make religious authorities uneasy. There was danger everywhere, institutions were destabilized, taken-for-granted expectations of all the Jewish parties were being shattered, and the future must have seemed scary, except for Joseph’s faith and trust in God. Amid this near total displacement, Joseph showed what Francis calls “creative courage,” responding to God’s invitation in dreams and life circumstances in a spirit that Francis says would later be called “Christian realism.”

If Joseph’s decision to stand with Mary suggests our need to trust the ones we love, and his family flight to Egypt suggests making a place in our hearts and homelands for people in flight from oppression, recalling earlier migrants like my grandparents and many of yours, then perhaps his experience of crumbling political and religious establishments and disappointed community expectations suggests our context in the Catholic Church in the United States and my home diocese, and Hugh Crean’s, of Springfield, Massachusetts. That diocese has suffered more than most, with multiple victims of abuse by priests and two bishops. As in much of New England, there is a mood of declension in the Catholic community.

Amid disappointments and anxieties, Pope Francis suggests we might follow in the way of St. Joseph’s faith-filled realism, trusting God and one another, and looking for God’s invitation in our prayer, in our Christian movement, in our encounters with others, especially the poor and the victims of abuse and neglect, and in the always moving providential story of God’s family—which of course means everybody, everywhere. In that spirit, I offer here some thoughts on the recent history of American Catholicism.

The Golden Age

The late Hugh Crean and I were born and raised in what seemed to be the Golden Age of American Catholicism.[1] He graduated from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1958. I grew up further west, in Pittsfield, and was slated for Holy Cross (to become a priest like my uncles) but instead went to Notre Dame, graduating in 1960. That year one of our own, John Kennedy, was running for president. President Eisenhower was our commencement speaker, the baccalaureate Mass was celebrated by Cardinal Montini of Milan, who a few years later became Pope Paul VI, and our hearts were with the critically ill honorary degree recipient, Dr. Tom Dooley, whose medical service in Indochina had earned him the title “Doctor America.” Over the door of Notre Dame basilica are the words “God, Country, Notre Dame.” They fit together and we loved all three, our own Holy Trinity.

Since then, few if any of us have had messages from angels, as St. Joseph did, but like him we have experienced what philosopher Charles Taylor calls the “unbundling” of our once integrated religious and national faith.[2] In 1960 I set out to study American political history as a possible way of making a contribution to the American history being made around me. God turned my haphazard career choice into a vocation in ways I had not expected. I took a room with a couple who turned out to be Catholic Workers and they drew me to Catholic ideas I had not encountered at Notre Dame and to our own American Catholic history. The University of Rochester in New York, a generous foundation, and, later, patient college employers actually paid me to study American Catholic history while observing—and with my wife Joanne occasionally joining—projects for Catholic and American renewal and reform.[3]

Like other Vatican II–era Catholics, we had a few tastes of St. Joseph’s disrupting experience in the decade after I left Notre Dame. There was racism I had little noticed earlier. Then came wars, which I had always supported, and assassinations of heroes I had come to admire, public events and personal encounters that shook taken-for-granted institutions and what had earlier seemed self-evident ideas. There were liberating moments, many of them, to be sure, but also emerging divisions and explosions of senseless violence. Idealistic friends joined the Peace Corps, and we sent other young men, some equally idealistic, abroad to kill, and too often die, for us.

But, like St. Joseph, many of us had the sense that while all this disruption was happening—seen with at least a little of Pope Francis’s “Christian realism”—something new was being born. There was “creative courage” in the historic decisions made at the Vatican Council, in the words and witness of Dorothy Day and her friends across the country, in the suggestive contemplation and commentaries of Thomas Merton in his hermitage, in the witness of Philip and Daniel Berrigan led smiling to jail, in Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta in California vineyards and fields, and in the Sisters of St. Joseph exploring new ways of living the joy of the Gospel in Western Massachusetts.

Vatican II priests like Fr. Crean, my own mentor and friend Msgr. John Egan of Chicago, and so many others helped us find hope in the council, the civil rights movement, the Christian peace movement, and the amazing work across the world of our church, newly committed it seemed to human rights, peacemaking, and social justice. Catholicism and Americanism no longer quite fit together as they once did at Notre Dame and Holy Cross, but we thought we could join movements to help fix both and bring them closer together in work for a better world.

I am confident that Hugh Crean shared my excitement about Catholic renewal and reform. He dug deeply into the challenge of renewal in his doctoral work, exploring the way faith and doubt were not opponents but companions in our encounter with God and the “signs” of our particular and troubled times. And with so many priests of his generation, he committed himself to pastoral ministry with his people, sharing responsibility with the bishops, his fellow priests, deacons, and lay ministers, and the people of God for the life and work of the church in central Massachusetts. I knew many priests like that across the United States.

But for many of us history did not work out quite as we expected. In 1970 and ’71, 10 years after I had met those Catholic Workers in Rochester, some generous Protestant philanthropists awarded me a fellowship to take a year off from my brand new job at Holy Cross to study theology at Harvard Divinity School and the Weston Jesuits School of Theology. During that year I thought about what was going on in my community of American Catholics, in our civil religion as well as our church, during the 10 years since I had graduated from Notre Dame. In a book I wrote that year, The Renewal of American Catholicism, and in many talks later, I tried to help our communities understand the shared history we were experiencing, and the history we were making, during those 10 years—years even a mild-mannered historian like my friend Philip Gleason spoke of as the “disintegration” of American Catholicism as we had known it.

“Everything Was Changing All at Once”

My central idea was that we were living through the end of the remarkably successful subculture American Catholics had constructed over two centuries. The decade was intense because three intersecting explosions made it seem as if everything was changing all at once.

First of all, we were changing. Our families and communities had constructed parishes and schools, social services agencies and hospitals, trade unions and political machines, all while holding fast to their religious heritage. As one historian put it, “folk memories brought to bear on new aspirations” enabled the formation of immigrant, working class communities and in turn led my aunt to the Sisters of St. Joseph, my uncle with Maryknoll to Korea, Hugh Crean to Louvain, and myself to Notre Dame. Now our immigrant, working class, Euro-American Catholic families were moving up, out, and in: up social and economic ladders, out of tight urban parishes and neighborhoods, and into automobile suburbs, professional practices, management jobs, and even boardrooms. I saw the process as Americanization, its spirit fueled by our own versions of Americanism, ideas that made that movement up, out, and in not only OK but providential, allowing us at last to take a full share of responsibility for our church and our country.

While all this was happening, so was Vatican II. Our church had finally caught up with America by affirming religious liberty and the separation of church and state. Boundaries between Catholics and Protestants, between Christians and Jews, between “the men and women of this age” and “the followers of Christ,” all became permeable. Mass was now celebrated in our own language, altars turned around; we were told the people of God came first, before clergy and hierarchy; and on the issue of greatest interest to my generation, birth control, we made much of new references to conscience. Almost everybody welcomed these changes, and the journals I read seemed to say that, like us, the church was becoming more and more American. Theologian Karl Rahner stated that in the future faith would become “a matter of personal decision, constantly renewed, amid perilous surroundings.”[4] That seemed fine to us, although another theologian, John Courtney Murray, worried about what might happen when Catholics began to explore their religious freedom and formation of conscience in their own relations with the church and the state.

And while all this was going on, it was also “the sixties,” and I was not alone in learning more than I had expected about race and class and gender, about the dark sides of my civil religion. In 1965, as the council closed, it waffled a bit on conscience and birth control. But while reaffirming just war teaching, the council fathers said for the first time that a Catholic could refuse military service. At that very moment, in early 1965, President Lyndon Johnson sent our troops into conflict in Vietnam. Before long there would be a half a million men in the fight. The American Church had long supported the government of South Vietnam, but now, as troubling questions arose and just-war teaching suggested caution, prominent leaders spoke of Christian nonviolence and conscience, and in Worcester the bishop joined Protestant and Jewish leaders to launch an interfaith draft-counseling center.

With all that happened throughout the sixties, and with Vatican II’s unexpected reforms, we ourselves were changing, recognizing ourselves as agents of our own history, sometimes not appreciating that our parents had been as well. And we had the help of priests and religious men and women, and even a few bishops, who loved the church as we did and shared our hope that a bold new era of creative, engaged Catholicism in our communities would enrich our global church and help change the world. ♦


[1] For information on Fr. Crean’s life and work, and some of his talks and homilies, see Along the Way: The Life, Lessons and Legacy of Father Hugh F. Crean, edited by Father Mark Stelzer (Andrews McMeel, 2022), in which this lecture appears.

[2] References to Charles Taylor come from his The Secular Age and from lectures available from many sources, including the Berkeley Center at Georgetown University. The Mustard Seed image, along with references to the role of doubt, the need for pastoral accompaniment, and interfaith encounter are best set forth in an informal talk delivered by Taylor at the Vatican.

[3] In both cases I had the blessing of friends. The Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism drew together the growing number of scholars interested in American Catholic history, while the Catholic Committee on Urban Ministry invited me to work with projects in social ministry across the country.

[4] The Karl Rahner quote I find so helpful is from The Christian Commitment (Sheed and Ward, 1963).


David J. O’Brien is professor emeritus, Loyola Professor of Roman Catholic Studies, at the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. He is the author, among other books, of Public Catholicism and Isaac Hecker: An American Catholic.

Image: Reverend Theodore M. Hesburgh (right), president of the University of Notre Dame, delivers remarks at the presentation of the Laetare Medal for 1961 from the University of Notre Dame to President John F. Kennedy. Father Edmund P. Joyce, vice president of the University of Notre Dame, looks on. Oval Office, White House, Washington, D.C., November 22, 1961.
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