The San Xavier Mission in Tucson, Arizona, pictured in 2017, was founded by Jesuit missionary Bro. Eusèbe Kino. Leslie Woodcook Tentler’s “American Catholics: A History” begins with a sketch of Kino, the great Jesuit missionary from the Southwest. (CNS / Nancy Wiechec)
Leslie Woodcook Tentler’s American Catholics: A History sails between the Scylla of overgeneralization and the Charybdis of perpetually getting lost in the midst of minor themes. Tentler admirably attributes the people and events she recounts to their proper meaning, which is much more difficult to do than a non-historian might assume.
Tentler also indicates in the title that she intends to focus not only on the institution of Catholicism, but on the people who populate that institution, sprinkling her thematic chapters with short biographical profiles of Catholics who embody the themes. The book begins with a sketch of the Jesuit Brother Eusebio Kino, the great Jesuit missionary from the Southwest. A reader might pass on a dry recitation of the religio-cultural atmosphere on the borderline of the Counter-Reformation Church, but in Kino we see the increased concern for discipline and clergy education bearing fruit in a vigorous and selfless missionary work.
Tentler then details the main lines of the Spanish and French Catholic settlements in what will become the United States before turning to the arrival of Catholics in the British colonies. Of the three experiences, the British were the most hostile to the native populations and the French the least. Tentler writes, “in their capacity to live among the Indians, to speak their language and in many tribal ways, the French Jesuits came closer than other colonials to a true transcultural encounter, which gave rise not only to respect for the other, but has a richer sense of Christian universalism. “It is interesting to imagine how the development of Catholicism would have been different if the Battle of the Plains of Abraham of 1759 in Quebec had resulted in a British defeat in place of a British victory.
The Spanish and French heritage would live on in scattered place names and in a few exquisite mission churches in the southwest and along the California coast. But it was the culture of the English colonies that would dominate future American culture, and religion was no exception. “Colonial Protestants, like their co-religionists in England, viewed Catholics as opposed to personal freedom and loyal to a hostile foreign power, by which they meant the Pope,” she wrote. Tentler adds that in Calvinist New England, “anti-Catholicism functioned with special power as a source of identity and social cohesion.”
I regret that she did not quote the work of historian Patricia Bonomi on the role of anti-Catholicism in the constitution of revolutionary ideology at the end of the 18th century, offering a new branch of the tree anti-Catholic prejudices in the young republic. Maybe when you study anti-Catholicism, you don’t study Catholics anymore. Yet when the Puritan intellectual edifice collapsed in the 19th century, anti-Catholicism did not die with it, largely because writers like John Wilkes in Britain and John Jay and John Adams in America had translated religious bigotry into political prejudice. .
Where Tentler is great is seeing how the Maryland experience was anomalous compared to the mainstream history that followed. Maryland’s Catholic gentry were rural and wealthy, while the dominant narrative of Catholics in the United States is said to be written by desperately poor immigrants who mostly lived in urban enclaves. Maryland was served almost exclusively by Jesuits and ex-Jesuits. She notes that out of 54 priests from the lower nobility of Maryland between 1759 and 1773, 49 became Jesuits. Unlike the nations of Latin America, where the religious clergy would be on par or dominant over the diocesan clergy, in the United States, the diocesan clergy would predominate. This is in part due to the introduction of Sulpician spirituality, which emphasizes the priestly life of the parish, by the employment of the priests of this society at the young nation’s first seminary, St. Mary’s in Baltimore. .
Tentler is mistaken when she writes of America’s first bishop, John Carroll, that:
Carroll’s brand of Enlightenment Catholicism was doomed by more than what quickly emerged as a trend towards centralizing ecclesial control in Rome. Heavy immigration to the United States in the 1840s and beyond brought masses of impoverished Catholics whose lives had barely prepared them to share Carroll’s assumptions and worldview.
The duck on “Enlightenment Catholicism,” shared by other historians before Tentler, has been resolutely debunked by the Jesuit father. Charles Edward O’Neil in an essay he published in the book American Preaching and Piety in the Time of John Carroll. The difference between Carroll’s Maryland tradition and what followed was striking, but it had little to do with the Enlightenment. The piety of the poor who came later beat firmly in the heart of the one who dedicated his cathedral to Mary under the title of the Assumption.
Residents and staff of the Home for Irish Immigrant Girls in New York pose for a photo circa 1908. The home served as a mission for young women who immigrated to the United States from Ireland from 1883 to 1954. (CNS / With courtesy of the Irish Mission at Watson House)
These introductory chapters are typical of the rest of the volume: Tentler is comprehensive, thoughtful, and tells a good story. Stories like these never turn the pages, but his prose is never boring. We can quibble over a few minor details, but overall this is an excellent book. The section on Frontier Catholicism was particularly informative for those of us who grew up along the East Coast: and a shared sense of social obligation.
At the border as in the urban strongholds that have emerged, the rigor of Jansenist tendencies is evident, a curse that came first with the French clergy and later with the Irish. It would be comical to read Tentler’s account of the strict moral regime demanded by Fr. Stephen Badin, the first ordained priest in the United States, as he warned the youth of Ohio, Kentucky, and the ‘Indiana against dancing and kissing – if that rigorous madness had gone to the grave with him. Unfortunately, the Jansenist itch is still a problem in the American Church.
The other thing that came up with the Irish – and most immigrants – was abject poverty. Ethnic Catholics know the successes of their ancestors but, of course, hundreds of thousands of immigrants have died of the diseases that accompany urban poverty, alcohol or abusive relationships. Their stories cannot be forgotten, and Tentler does a great job of explaining how to care for the immigrant herds has absorbed all the attention of church leaders, both religious and religious. The Catholic ghetto they built achieved its own excellences with the emergence of schools, hospitals and charities. Catholic bishops could be conservative or they could be more open to new ideas, but they all had to be builders.
Tentler takes its history back to the 20th century and ably examines the assimilation of Catholics which had been the dominant motif of Catholic religious experience in the last century. It was only with the arrival of wealth that the bonds of faith began to weaken and then to break. In the post-war suburbs, the church you attended didn’t matter anymore. It’s the kind of car you were driving that caught your neighbor’s attention.
Unfortunately, Tentler takes the story too far, in the post-conciliar era. (She uses the “post-Council” neologism which I find awkward and unfortunate.) There is still so much we don’t know, even about Vatican II. After conclusively demonstrating just how deep the Romanization of the American hierarchy has become, how do you rate the bishops of the late 1950s and later, as the records of the papacy of John XXIII and all the popes are not yet open to researchers?
The late Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin is pictured with children in an undated photo. Over a two-year period, in 1991 and 1992, the cardinal drew up a comprehensive plan to tackle clergy sexual abuse and shared the plan with his fellow bishops, said Cardinal Blase Cupich, the current Cardinal Archbishop. Chicago, April 9, 2021, speech for an international symposium on clergy sexual abuse. (CNS / Courtesy of John H. White)
We have all glimpsed the complexity of the Vatican Curia and the importance of personal relationships from reading the McCarrick Report, but we do not know what the archives of Rome contain about, say, the reaction to Humanae Vitae in 1968? Cardinal Joseph Bernardin is the subject of a beautiful biography, that of Steven Millies Joseph Bernardin: in search of common ground, but complex leaders need several biographers before they can attempt a general history of their time. Barry Hudock’s excellent book on Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, published just six years ago, does a lot to understand this complex figure, but we need better stories of his adversaries before we can adequately assess the great debate on religious freedom. Cardinal Bernard Law has yet to be the subject of a biography: How do you view the crisis of clergy sexual abuse without consulting such a volume?
In short, it is the journalists who write the first draft of the story, then the specialists in questions and people. Historians who write a generalized history are ill advised to come so close to their time. It was hard not to notice the increasing incidence of adverbs like “almost” and “probable” in the last section of the book.
That said, Tentler’s book is a major achievement. Every 10 years or so we need a general history of the Catholic Church in this country, as new questions emerge from our own experiences, causing us to look at our ancestors differently. With a comprehensive understanding of its subject matter, a knack for separating the meaningful from the trivial, and an elegant writing style, this book sets a high standard for future historians.