Americans Are An Enquiring, Thinking, Reasoning People

Author: Christopher Dawson

Americans Are An Enquiring, Thinking, Reasoning People

By Christopher Dawson

(This is a review of ," edited by Msgr. John Tracy Ellis of Catholic University, published in 1957.)

The development of Catholicism in the United States during the last century and a half is one of the most remarkable chapters in the Church's history. Nowhere perhaps is the parable of the mustard seed more strikingly, illustrated than in the story of the expansion of the tiny Catholic community of 1785, which possessed no bishop and hardly 25 priests, into the mighty organization which we see today filled with life and energy and spreading its branches from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Yet the average English Catholic knows nothing of this remarkable story, nor can he be blamed, since he has had little opportunity to learn. As Msgr. Tracy Ellis himself has recently pointed out (in ), the American Church has not been a writing church, and there has been much in the circumstances of its development which have militated against the progress of scholarship and the growth of a reading public.

Moreover the best historical writing has taken the form of ecclesiastical biography, and the English reader does not possess sufficient knowledge of the American ecclesiastical and political scene to make such works interesting, even if they were accessible to him. For all these reasons Msgr. Tracy Ellis' new source book of American Church History is doubly valuable. It gives us a bird's eye view of the whole history of the Church in the United States through contemporary documents, or in the words of contemporary observers.

Yet it is not a mere text book compilation: the editor has woven the whole material together most skillfully by the introductory notes with which he prefaces each extract, so that the book has some of the qualities of a consecutive historical narrative.

The first two sections are devoted to the Spanish & French contributions to the conversion of North America, beginning with the original papal bulls conferring the dominion of the newly discovered lands on the Kings of Spain and Portugal, and the bull of Paul III in defense of the rights of the Indians.

Those introductory sections may be described as the Catholic prehistory of the United States, since they really belong to the history of the Mexican and the Canadian Church, although they are concerned with United States territory. But the reports of the Franciscan Fray Junipero Serra on the Californian missions and the great story of the Jesuit mission to the Hurons are among the most remarkable documents in the whole volume, and it is well that we should remember that St. Isaac Jogues, the greatest of the Canadian martyrs, is also an American martyr, since he suffered in what is now the State of New York, and the diocese of Albany.


After these heroic exploits, the origins of Catholicism in the English colonies seem tame and unadventurous. At the time of the Declaration of Independence, the Catholics in the States, as we see in the first report to Propaganda by John Carroll in 1785, were still a mere handful,most of them in Maryland and Pennsylvania, apart from the scattered French Canadians in the Mississippi valley who lived in an ecclesiastical no man's land without bishop or priests.

But during the next fifty or sixty years an extraordinary transformation took place, the history of which is all too little known. The documents of this period,the age of Carroll and Marechal and Flaget and England,are perhaps the most interesting in the whole volume, since they describe a world that is equally remote from Europe and from the modern American scene, a world without organization, without discipline, without material wealth, yet filled with a buoyant spirit of optimism and hope.

Archbishop Marechal, who had the high and austere ideals of the Sulpician tradition, and who was not blind to the defects of American Catholicism, could nevertheless write in 1818, "There is no region in the world where the Catholic religion can be propagated more quickly or more widely than in the United States of America . . . The Protestants who constitute the greatest part of the citizens, have almost completely rejected the prejudices under which they formerly laboured, and they look on the Catholic religion with a certain amount of veneration. There is also an immense number of Europeans who came hither early and among them there are many Catholics. It seems that this immigration will not be lessened for a number of years."

This optimism reaches its climax in Bishop England's account of his two hour discourse to Congress on the principles of the Catholic faith. "I love your countrymen more as I know them better . . . They must be instructed not abused. They must be expostulated with not quarrelled with. They are not obstinate heretics,they are an enquiring, thinking, reasoning, I will add a pious people,and God will bless and bring them to truth."

This climate of optimism endured until the '30s and seemed to be justified by the views of independent observers. De Tocqueville greatly over-estimated the number of American Catholics, and notes that while America is the most democratic country in the world, it is at the same time the country in which the Roman Catholic religion makes most progress.


In 1839 Captain Marryat declared that "all America West of the Alleghanies will eventually become a Catholic country." But at this very moment the situation underwent a drastic reaction. The progress of Catholicism in the West combined with the tension caused by the enormous influx of Irish immigrants in the cities of the Atlantic seaboard produced a wave of religious intolerance which continued to grow for twenty or thirty years.

From the burning of the Ursuline Convent at Charlestown outside Boston in 1834, down to the collapse of the Nativist or "Know Nothing" party a few years before the civil war, hardly a year passed without anti-Catholic disturbances, church-burnings and outrages like the attack on the Papal Legate, Msgr. Bedini, in 1853. This is one of the darkest chapters in American history, and it is not surprising that the present volume passes it over rather lightly.

Nevertheless it is of considerable historical importance, since it made a profound impression on the course of American development. It forced the Catholics back on themselves and turned their thoughts from the prospects of external expansion that had seemed so promising in the earlier part of the century to the need for self defense and internal organization.


Thus it was one of the factors that contributed to the centralized urban pattern of organization which became so characteristic of modern American Catholicism.

Throughout this dark period, the leading figure among American Catholics was Archbishop John Hughes of New York, a pugnacious Irishman who had no faith in soft answers and never turned the other cheek until his opponent had been knocked on the ropes.

Throughout his career this formidable prelate used all his influence to discourage the schemes for settling the Irish immigrants on the land, which were sponsored by some of their most far-sighted leaders, like Thomas D'Arcy McGee and in later times by Bishop John Spalding.

The unpublished document (No. 99) printed in the present volume, gives a very vivid impression alike of Hughes' uncompromising character and of the motives that inspired his opposition to the schemes of western settlement. There is no doubt that there was real statesmanship of a kind behind his desire to keep the Irish concentrated in the great cities where their numbers made them a force that the politician had to reckon with.

But from a wider point of view the wisdom of this policy is more questionable since it tended to create a kind of ghetto mentality which separated the Catholics from the rest of American society, a state of things which was especially regrettable in the 19th century when the roots of American culture were still predominantly rural.

The remaining part of the volume, which deals with the century from the Civil War to the present day, covers more familiar ground. It was the age of Cardinal Gibbons and Archbishop Ireland,a period of almost unbroken prosperity and progress, and one that is relatively familiar to modern Catholics.

During this period Catholicism finally became recognized as an established element in American society, and though occasional manifestations of intolerance still occurred, as in the revived Ku Klux Klan movement after the first World War, they were more of a nuisance than a serious danger.


On the other hand, American Catholicism was slow to shake off a sense of social and intellectual inferiority resulting from the ghetto-like conditions which characterized the life of the masses of unassimilated immigrants. In this respect there is no doubt that the closing down of European immigration after the first World War was beneficial to American Catholicism, since it removed the barrier between the Irish and the native American, and raised the economic and educational standards of the Catholic population.

Since the Second World War, above all, the consequences of this process are becoming increasingly evident. American Catholicism is becoming more aware of the importance of cultural values. The Catholic colleges which a hundred years ago were little more than high schools, are now sharing in the general expansion of American higher education, and are becoming Catholic universities in the traditional sense of the word.


Even more remarkable is the development of the contemplative life which was so lacking during the earlier period. Since the second World War eight Cistercian Monasteries and one Carthusian one have been founded, and there are now more than a thousand Cistercian monks in the U.S.A.! At the same time the development of the liturgical movement is carrying out an apostolate to the laity, based on the same spiritual principles.

All these developments are too recent to be dealt with at length in this volume, but no one is more conscious of their importance than Msgr. Tracy Ellis, who is particularly concerned with the need for Catholics to take a larger share in the intellectual life of the nation. It is true that the elite of Catholic scholars and writers, and still less of scientists and technologists, is not proportionate to their numbers.

But when one considers the fact that the great mass of Catholic immigrants to the U.S.A. in the last century were practically illiterate, and desperately poor, the creation of the nationwide system of Catholic education with its schools, its teaching orders and its universities is little less than a miracle.

In the course of a century and a half, in the face of every possible social and economic disadvantage, the Catholics have changed the religious landscape of America and have become the largest, the strongest and the most united religious body on the continent. In face of this achievement it is impossible not to be optimistic about the future.

Nevertheless the very strength of American Catholicism creates new problems. In the past America was a country of minorities, and the Catholic minority, especially the Irish part of it, throve in the atmosphere of conflict. But today the climate of American opinion and culture is changing. American Protestantism which once exploded in violent and often eccentric diversity has settled down to a mood of sober conformity, so that the Churches have become the loyal exponents of the American way of life.

Against this congealed mass of American Protestantism and secularism, the thirty million American Catholics stand out as the one great remaining minority which can never be completely assimilated because it forms part of an international and universal society.

This minority is far too large to be ignored, and it arouses opposition from two opposite directions. On the one hand there is the old tradition of liberal individualism, which sees the organization and discipline of the Catholic body as a danger to American freedom, and on the other hand there is the new tendency to social conformity which regards the spiritual authority and independence of the Catholic Church as a challenge to national solidarity and to the unity of American culture.


Yet these opposite points of view do not cancel each other out: for critics of Catholicism like Mr. Paul Blanshard somehow contrive to appeal to both of them simultaneously. The coming age will show how these problems will be met.

But the records contained in this volume are enough to show how little room there is for doubt or despondency. They show how the spiritual vitality of a religious minority can triumph over the most overwhelming odds. The seed that was sown among the briars of the American wilderness has borne fruit literally a thousand-fold: for the thirty thousand American Catholics of Bishop Carroll's time are today thirty millions.

And this miracle has been achieved not by the achievements of men of genius or by the favour of the temporal power: it is the fruit of faith and courage and hard work, and so long as these qualities persist, American Catholicism will continue to grow.

This article was taken from "The Dawson Newsletter," Summer 1995, P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702, $8.00 per year.