Reflections on American Catholic History: Part III—A New Epoch by David J. O’Brien
We are pleased to present this third and final reflection in a series 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. Part I, “Community Expectations,” is available here. part II, “Religious Pluralism,” is available here. For additional background, see Professor O’Brien’s remarks for the launch of Father Mark Stelzer’s book Along the Way: The Life, Lessons, and Legacy of Father Hugh Crean in 2022, available here—Ed.
The philosopher Charles Taylor suggests that we have entered what he calls “a new epoch.” We have gained new freedom and new responsibilities in an emerging world where the old boundaries between sacred and secular, and between settled religious traditions, have become permeable. Some of us see huge benefits that speak of the Holy Spirit at work: people we know—indeed, whole groups of people around us who used to accept their place and keep quiet—now walk with heads held high and eyes locked in on others, often with chips on their shoulder. A variety of spiritual and religious options affirm human dignity and nurture aspirations for personal authenticity, mutual respect, and some degree of justice and peace.
Christianity always nurtured human dignity and sustained personal and family aspirations, as it did for so many of our families as they experienced economic, social, and political liberation. But that liberation also brought with it that “unbundling”: some things were lost, and freedom brought new and sometimes burdensome responsibilities, personal and public. Faith and Christian discipleship have indeed become matters of personal decision amid perilous surroundings, surroundings that may now include the faith community itself. All religion, our religion, must now make its way through persuasion, not coercion; through attraction and authenticity, not power and control.
Robert Bellah, the great sociologist who helped us recognize our civil religion, said that America’s was a basically Protestant culture. Our country was enriched but sometimes crippled by individualism, and he thought it badly needed the help of Catholic teachings and practices of solidarity. He and others saw that solidarity in extended families and ethnic mobilizations, but also in sacramental and liturgical practices that united people across boundaries of ethnicity, class, and gender. We Catholics, at about the same time that Bellah was writing, said that our church and our community needed more of America’s personalism, what Vatican II finally celebrated as “the dignity of the human person.”
In a way, both wishes came true, but not as we expected. America got a full dose of Catholicism in the church’s persistent support for immigrants, economic justice, traditional “family values,” and restraint in national security policy, sometimes smothering those social values with denunciations of secular society for its changing sexual practices and perceived moral relativism. Indeed, organized participation by Catholics in the more sectarian wings of the anti-abortion crusade and its anti-gay and anti-feminist companions fractured solidarity within the Catholic community and contributed to ever-deepening divisions in the country. Catholicism, for its part, got its full dose of American personalism in liberated women and men, in new forms of prayer and contemplative spirituality, in ecumenical and interfaith encounters, and in voluntary efforts to reach out to people in need. But it also got individualism in its neoliberal clothing of limited government, low taxes, and deferral of moral issues to the market.
Amid all this, Taylor thought that Christians should resist restorationist impulses like my parish friend’s lamenting the loss of “Pittsfield in the ’50s.” Our yearning for Christendom—or more modest ethno-religious subcultures we once knew well—has always been a Catholic temptation. But Pope John XXIII and the bishops of Vatican II had come of age before or during the First World War. They had experienced the Depression, the rise of fascist nationalism and militant communism, another world war, the Holocaust and the atomic bomb, and the end of European imperialism. In all of this, they and their church had shared responsibility. They seemed to agree that one lesson was the need to separate piety and power. All across the world, Catholics did a lot of that, joining fights for human rights, social justice, and nonviolence, and trying hard to evangelize in ways that affirmed human dignity and solidarity without relying on power or privilege.
But at times it appears, in Taylor’s Quebec as well as our United States, that religious and moral differences have become highly politicized and power has swallowed both of our old pieties, American and Christian. Why? Perhaps a clue lies in the earlier idea that the American Catholic subculture that our forebears constructed arose from “folk memories” brought to bear on “new aspirations.” What happens when future aspirations, when shared American dreams and Pope John XXIII and Pope Francis visions of global solidarity fade into fantasy? If the future is treacherous and personal, and family and community hopes recede, then all we have are past and present. Perhaps, then, freedom from fear trumps freedom from want, history and memory become battlegrounds, and fewer and fewer of us search for a usable future. Some of us join the culture wars in battles for power, while far more of us, focused on the individual human person, simply decide to take care of ourselves and those we love, and carry out our personal and interpersonal responsibilities resigned to the public divisions and historic powerlessness around us.
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Hugh Crean and I, and many of you, were once gifted a usable future by our families and communities: stories of past and present that drew us together, in freedom, to try to assist others to experience liberation from fear and want and together build better world. The key to our shared history may be the presence then, and the relative absence for many of us now, of something other than personal aspirations.
For evidence of that possibility of public aspirations, we might pay attention to the last days and words of Martin Luther King, as he saw his people, all of us, poised between “chaos and community.” Dr. King, who always balanced human dignity and solidarity, changing hearts with his dream in 1963, was still holding fast to that dream of the “beloved community” on the night before he was murdered. That night, amid disruptions and disappointments Saint Joseph would have recognized, he reaffirmed his confidence that someday, somehow, we would reach that beloved kingdom at the center of his faith-filled imagination.
What of Pope Francis other icons for us Americans, Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day? Here again Taylor is a help. In an informal talk, he noted among the consequences for the Catholic community of disruption, displacement, and ever-multiplying diversities is the popularity of the image of life as a journey, where one moves forward, learning about God’s will while going along, making what history one can—Christians among us trying as best we can to build the kingdom. Vatican II had anticipated this image with its references to a “pilgrim church” moving through many epochs and many cultures, its encounters with people as they are always in tension with the ambitious claims of being “the one true church,” “certain and set apart,” “never in need of reform or development.”
Taylor also echoes a theme of Hugh Crean’s doctoral work that as we experience our disrupted epoch, doubt becomes re-understood as a companion of a robust faith. Taylor thinks the best image he can find of the church of the future is the mustard seed: planting seeds here and there, some taking fruit, others not, and when fruitful providing nesting places for passing birds. Merton shows one way, the inner way, alert to the world, falling in love with the people he was once glad to leave behind. He dove as deeply as anyone could into the much-heralded Catholic intellectual and spiritual tradition, and emerged not to rebuild Christendom but to seek God, and wisdom, everywhere, with everyone he met a potential companion on the journey. He’s been dead since 1968, and his words and witness still move people and perhaps point one way to renewal of our Christian and American aspirations.
And then Dorothy Day, gone for 40 years but perhaps better known today than ever. Her journey had its inner path, to be sure, but her vocation was not Merton’s plunge into solitude and beyond, but into the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. Who better expressed the qualities of creative courage and faith-filled realism than Dorothy Day?
When I was young, people thought of Day as at the radical edge of the church. In 1976 I was responsible for bringing her to a hearing held with two dozen American bishops. To my surprise, she was extremely nervous about facing the bishops in front of television cameras. What she did not know was that the bishops on the panel were even more nervous about facing Dorothy Day, worried not that she was on the radical edge but that she embodied the gospel they preached and might ask them what they might do for the poor and for peace.
When she died, I was asked to write a long obituary for Commonweal magazine. In part because of that experience, I wrote that she was not at the edge but at the center of our faith and our church, living amid chaotic change like Saint Joseph, doing God’s will and trusting in God’s ever-present love. Or, as Catholic Worker friends at the Mustard Seed Catholic Worker house in Worcester might say, she was “scattering seeds,” making space for whoever shows up, asking everyone to consider the possibilities of compassion and nonviolence, offering ideas about the common life—but even in the midst of small demonstrations and modest civil disobedience, often displaying the same faithful and serene trust one finds in so many of our retired Sisters of Saint Joseph.
Like King and Merton, Dorothy Day expected, someday, to be with us all in the kingdom of God. Pope Francis says that should generate “the joy of the Gospel.” Dorothy found that joy sometimes in community and prayer and literature and sacraments. But disruptions not unknown to Saint Joseph sometimes made joy a bit distant, an aspiration: she called it “the duty of delight.”
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What might we who worry about our country and our church be thinking about all this? Certainly Msgr. Crean, a genuine churchman, would ask us to keep thinking strategically about the important resources Catholicism can bring to American religion and American civil society. He was an ecumenist and might suggest we relocate our thoughts about American Catholicism within the wider Christian movement, and that movement within interfaith dialogues and dialogues about civil religion, and with those who tell us they are not religious. As a pastor he might suggest we make a preferential but not exclusive option for the laity. How often our Catholic assessments and reflections are misdirected by near exclusive attention to what we are now once again calling “the church,” and not meaning us. Instead, as with liberation theology, let us think about things in the first instance from the perspective of the laity—and then determine to walk together, with our eyes on the prize, the kingdom of God (which, we are pretty sure, will most likely not be a great big Catholic Church).
As for the American side of our religious experience, one lesson of our public history is that the American project of democratic self-government among people who disagree, sometimes over very serious matters, is profoundly endangered when its most liberated citizens no long love it and acknowledge a full share of responsibility for its common life. In the 1890s and again in the 1980s, church leaders and many theologians and scholars deliberately rejected what they called Americanism and neo-Americanism. One reason was resistance to very real American nationalism and exceptionalism, and crimes committed then and now in the country’s name. Another is America’s “original sin” of slavery and racism. But the greatest American critics of militarism and racism, from Frederick Douglass to and Martin Luther King, stood on solid American ground, living in light of what they saw as the promise of American life.
It seems abundantly clear that the challenge that confronted pastorally oriented leaders from Isaac Hecker to Hugh Crean was to provide a spirituality that would meet what Hecker called the “aspirations of nature” and answer “the questions of the soul” for honest and open seekers. For Hecker it was among the ambitious, partially assimilated children of immigrants and the restless young Americans he met in idealistic communes and popular lecture halls. For Crean and his generation, it was a much larger pool of now liberated middle class Americans, like his Holy Cross classmates and their children and grandchildren (and mine). Hecker knew that this required making spiritual and theological sense of America, a sense that would give meaning and direction to human work, to new opportunities for public service, and to shared responsibility for an ever more complex and interconnected common life.
Catholic social thought provides rich and often untapped resources for connecting faith with shared civic and social responsibilities. But genuine love for the world has been and remains a vital and missing link. America matters, and today, as it was for Lincoln and King, for Merton and Day, that means a love that is at best not eros but agape, love that opens hearts to everyone. Today more than ever, internationalism, a love for the whole human family, is a necessary component of genuine Americanism.
I started with Thomas Merton’s prayer that God be with us when we feel most lost. I close with another passage from Merton, the monk who became famous for leaving the world and its people behind yet experienced years later the kind of falling in love that may be the best ground for the renewal of our lives together in our common home. Whether it happens is a democratic rally for racial justice, a shared mourning for loss from pandemic or gun violence, or at Fenway Park at another World Series, may it happen for us:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . .
This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. . . . But this cannot be seen, only believed and “understood” by a peculiar gift. ♦
 I have often suggested reading Michael Honey’s Going Down Jericho Road (Norton, 2008) about King’s last days in Memphis, and King’s last book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (Beacon, 2010).
 See the final chapter of my Isaac Hecker: An American Catholic (Paulist Press, 1986).
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.
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