Accommodation and Americanism, Yesterday and Today

Reflections on Russell Shaw’s book, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America

As a trained historian, I am normally very suspicious of the mixture of history and contemporary affairs. The potential to distort history in order to promote a contemporary agenda is simply too great. Make arguments using reason and evidence, by all means; research and write about history, certainly-but don’t try to do both at the same time. The results are usually deplorable.

Yet I am forced to concede that it can be done well. When history is used to provide background, to illuminate current problems, to recount the choices that have been made so as to shed light on the choices before us today, then the lives, the failures, and successes of those who preceded us are paid due respect. In general, I am wary of mixing history and contemporary analysis, but in American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America (Ignatius, 2013), Russell Shaw does it superbly well.

Shaw exhibits his brilliance as an investigator of Church history and an observer of Church affairs in countless ways. There is, to begin, his selection of Cardinal James Gibbons to serve as the apotheosis of American Catholicism. In the Americanist debates of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Gibbons was seen as a moderate figure, of Americanist leaning. His theology was orthodox, to be sure, but neither theology nor doctrine was his central concern. When he exerted himself, it was for the most practical-which is not to say unimportant-of causes: intervening in Rome to head off condemnation of the Knights of Labor, a move that would have cost the American Church dearly among the majority of its adherents, who were decidedly working class.