Erin Bartram

doomed to distraction

The planks in our own eyes

This is a post that’s been percolating in my brain, and in my academic writing, for a long time. The latest uproar – and the terms of the uproar – over leaked Clinton campaign emails with comments about Catholics has made it clear it’s as good a time as any to put these thoughts out there.

The criticism of these comments, which you can read about extensively in other places, hinges on the idea that Catholics will be offended by the characterization of their religion as “the most socially acceptable conservative religion,” espousing “severely backwards gender relations.” As Patty Miller points out in her recent RD piecemany American Catholics think their religion has severely backwards gender relations.  Much of the outrage is coming from non-Catholic Republicans, undoubtedly aware that Catholics are breaking for Clinton, and more significantly, against Trump. To argue that all Catholics would be offended by these comments is to be deliberately obtuse about the state of American Catholicism. Many historians commenting casually on Twitter have been able to easily compare this “offensive” language to the views of American Catholics, and see the complicated nature of that faith in this moment.

When it comes to our scholarship, though, historians of U.S. history are generally really bad at this. Really, really bad. Frankly, a lot of the work in American history reflects assumptions about Catholicism that are not the product of nuanced historical analysis.

In so many ways, the historical literature tacitly replicates Anglo-American arguments about the nature of Catholicism. The idea that Catholics, without the freedom of individual conscience, were incapable of being full participants in American democracy was an important one in 19th century America. That idea often shapes what voices from the past historians think they need to listen to, since it goes without saying that Catholics had to do what the Pope said and therefore we don’t really need to listen to what American clergy and laity thought. If we do, those thoughts are seen as the products of “bad” Catholics rather than a legitimate diversity of thought within the Church, shaped by local contexts but also by differing interpretations of doctrine. In a sense, many scholars seem to think there was a lack of diversity in Catholic thought (or that that diversity wasn’t allowed) till Vatican II.

Now, the literature on American Catholics and the relative diversity of their views is rather complicated, of course. Anyone who’s read the introduction to D’Agostino’s Rome in America knows what I’m talking about! We want to be able to say “American Catholics” felt this. And there is a reason for this impulse.

The problem is that specialists know that this requires nuance. There’s not even a clear “Vatican” position on anything; read about the history of the writing of the Syllabus of Errors, for Pete’s sake! Specialists also know that this is inherently transnational history – scholars of Catholicism were doing that before it was cool – but in American history, we have a lot of trouble doing that in a nuanced way.

The problem is that Catholicism and its structure are tacitly held up as a foil to American Protestantism – particularly evangelicalism – without a lot of attention to how Catholics themselves spoke and acted and understood their faith, because it’s easy to say “well they weren’t allowed to contradict Church teachings, so if they were, it still doesn’t tell us about ‘Catholicism.'” This circular argument, rooted in the contrast between Catholicism and Protestantism, shapes a lot of scholarship. I’m working on a piece right now on Catholic publishing in 19th century America, and much of the literature on evangelical publishing and its distinctiveness holds up Catholics as an example of unitary thought and self-censorship. These claims are rarely cited, but of course they don’t need to be. Everyone just “knows” what Catholicism is and what it stands for. The structure of the Church, and the political use of that structure in American culture, allows historians to ignore the complexity of historical American Catholicism, often without realizing it. When American Catholics disagree with European Catholics, or with other American Catholics, the tacit belief that disagreement is wrong and not tolerated within the Church shapes how those disagreements are analyzed. Since everyone “knows” there really isn’t liberty of conscience in the Church, those who disagree are bad Catholics, and their disagreements are not treated with the same legitimacy as disagreements among Protestants.

Everyone knows what Catholicism is, and so no one is really pressured to think critically about it. It’s why everyone thought they had the “answer” to my dissertation right away, or questioned the premise. I studied American converts to Catholicism in the 1850s, and the reactions usually fell along a few lines.

  1. Why would any rational American become a Catholic?
  2. Oh, they probably were anxious and wanted a religion that would control them/tell them what to do.
  3. Oh, this was women? Yeah, they were probably attracted to the aesthetics and music, right? [Obviously the misogyny in this answer deserves its own analysis, but let me tell you, it was not uncommon.]
http://williams-blood.tumblr.com/post/5335209978

While Moxy argues that we should be attentive to the demographic nuances within Catholicism (go read her whole thread; it’s great!), I’m arguing that we should also seriously reconsider how we study Catholicism, and in particular, how some deeply-embedded and problematic ideas about Catholicism shape our scholarship, even scholarship that is not explicitly about Catholicism. Especially that scholarship. The inherited ideas I’ve discussed here serve to perpetuate this idea of American Catholics as somehow separate from American culture, which means their view on a subject can be cordoned off or even ignored. Moreover, it means that everything American Catholics did in the past gets attributed to their transnational faith culture, rather than their local/national culture, further perpetuating this sense of them as slightly exotic. When we exclude the largest denomination in the United States from our analysis on this basis, we’re not writing the best histories. It also means some really amazing scholarship that’s being done gets ignored because it’s about Catholicism and therefore not enough about America.

You might be saying “receipts!” I haven’t cited much because I didn’t want to look like I was setting up authors as strawmen, but I’ve posted a PDF of the introduction to my dissertation in which I lay some of this out in more detail, with footnotes, in the About section. That being said, a lot of this is drawn from experience – conversations in my department, at conferences, online – as well as published secondary lit and popular culture. I am more than happy to entertain disagreement on the subject, and I’d love to hear what other scholars – especially junior ones like me – think about this.

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