Three histories of the Catholic Church in the United States have become available within a two-year period—books by James Hennesey, S.J., Martin Marty, and now Jay P. Dolan, the bitterest of the three. More remarkable than the mere number are the significant likenesses. Are they the result of the zeitgeist or an attempt to shape it? The specter of an American Catholic Church hangs over them; pluralism is the new god. Social issues and democratic polity are given a central place in the life of religion. In reading such revisionist studies of the past, George Orwell’s maxim comes to mind: “Who controls the past controls the future.”

For Dolan the turning point in the history of Catholicism in the United States was the Second Vatican Council. In its documents he finds a justification for Catholic pluralism. In his belief that the Council sanctioned the right to dissent, he asserts, “There are various ways of being Catholic and people are choosing the style that best suits them.”

The American heroes of the 18th and 19th centuries are those who wanted a “national American Church,” those who wanted to step boldly into the future and “fashion a church in tune with the republican spirit of a new nation.”

A good deal of selectivity must be employed to build Dolan’s unattested thesis that there have always been two equally important schools of thought regarding Catholicism in America: Enlightened Catholics wanted the pluralism that came with a national church in tune with the American way of life; the benighted “Europeanists” were the opposition. Those with prophetic foresight wanted a congregational model for the church, but they were defeated by a hierarchicalclerical church. The lay people “were left to pay, pray, and obey.” On the key issue of authority, in Dolan’s view, the right side lost, and the consequences proved to be devastating. Catholics were “taught to be docile and submissive.” The Catholic view of sin made guilt central and created “a culture of sin.” Ritual identified with the “feminine personality” became emotional and sentimental. Sisters were “the Catholic serfs.” The miraculous was reduced to folklore, magic, and charms. This church was dominated by the pastor who “ruled as lord and master of his parish,” while the “boss rule” of bishops became “the accepted norm.” This is caricature as history—political cartoons submitted as serious commentary.

The question comes to this: Is Dolan a historian or a politician? Wherein lies the central weight of his book? Clearly, I think, on the side of politics and the rhetoric of advocacy. One need only examine how he uses words like “new” and “old” and their variations. The ways of the past will no longer work. A new spirit is alive in American Catholicism, the spirit of the next century. The progressive heterodox have seized the future; they are the new. The traditional orthodox have buried themselves in the past; they are the old. Pope John Paul II is “calling Catholics back to the old church, and trying to restore uniformity and control. But it [will] no longer work.” Rhetorically, “new” is the operative word throughout the entire work.

For a historian, such a sensibility is a disaster. Such a mind has failed to obtain, by the necessarily arduous labor, the matter and significance of tradition. Such a sensibility is markedly deficient in the historical sense which, according to T.S. Eliot, “involves not only a perception of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.” Respect for the past compels such a man to write not only “with his own generation in his bones” but also with a feeling for the whole. What has been, is, and will be “has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.” Further, and perhaps most important, the historical sense is the perception of “the timeless and of the temporal together,” Without this sensibility, how could we dare to confront history? Only, I suggest, in a spirit of willful ignorance. The past does not bury its dead. They are a lively presence among us with the right to be fully engaged in our discourse. To patronize their living in the living they did is to profane memory.


[The American Catholic Experience: A History from Colonial Times to the Present, by Jay P. Dolan (New York: Doubleday) $19.95]