Any of us who spent time in Catholic faith formation—particularly in our youth—has enough experience such that the idea of reading “Catholic Literature” or “Catholic Books” for the joy of the art as much as the moral value is probably beyond imagination. But in this post, we are going to begin with prose from Bible itself, in a way you might find stunning.
FOR STARTERS, HOW DID IT ALL BEGIN?
There are two opening creation narratives from the Book of Genesis. One of the first breakthroughs in modern Bible Study was the understanding that the Bible was written in forms and units, and that different authors at different times composed their works in the circumstances in which they lived. A very good example is the presence of two creation stories in Genesis, side by side-- Genesis 1:1-2:3 and Genesis 2:4-4:16]. The first is noble poetry; the second is philosophy at its painful best.
The first creation account is the seven-day narrative, noteworthy for its organization and stateliness. There are many clues that the first account comes from the temple area in Jerusalem and a priestly hand—such as the observation that God observed the sabbath by resting on the seventh day. When and why was it written? Historians look to the time around 500 B.C. when Jews were returning home from the Babylonian captivity and there was considerable turmoil about rebuilding the temple and the observance of the Law on such matters as marriages to foreign pagan wives during the exile. This text from Genesis 1 serves as something of a sermon exhorting renewed observance of the temple law and worship, an encouragement that fidelity to the Lord—who had established order out of chaos at the beginning—would bring order again to the traumatized post-exile community of Jews.
THE SECOND CREATION NARRATIVE IS STUNNING
The dating of the second creation account—Adam and Eve, the snake, Cain and Abel, God’s curses—is hard to pinpoint. There is so much religious philosophy enfolded in this narrative that I must think we are looking at a text composed in the “Wisdom Era” of the Bible, closer to the time of Christ, possible after Alexander the Great [356-323 B.C.] and about the time that Israel would be influenced by Greek ideas and philosophy. What would have inspired this this Biblical composition? Possibly the same moral anguish that inspired the Book of Job. How does one explain injustice, the suffering of the innocent, the tangible presence of evil, the longings for what one cannot have? How to explain the backbreaking labor necessary to eat and survive, or the grueling and often lethal pains of childbirth? The Greeks wrestled with such questions in their famous tragedies. And so, it would seem, were the Jews in their sacred Scripture—and so we continue in our art and writing today, as we will see below.
The biggest difference between “Creation I” and “Creation II” is the subject. Genesis I is the seven-day story of God creating order out of chaos and establishing a place where humans could live, be fertile, and enjoy the earth. The work is utopian. God does the heavy lifting—all the lifting, really.
“Creation II,” our focus today, took shape because the world of “Creation 1” was not the world experienced by Israel, and later thoughtful Israelites pondered on the difficult lives they were living century after century. As Catholics, we have the consolation of life beyond the grave where our sufferings and injustices are blessed, healed, and rewarded. Life and consolation after death was not an Old Testament belief until just before Jesus; see 2 Maccabees 12:38-46. And in Jesus’ day only the Pharisaic Jews believed in the concept of life after death.
The second creation account is man oriented. Adam is created first, then is invited by God to name the animals as God created them. “To name” something was an idiom of power. God understands that Adam needs a helpmate,” and thus he creates Eve. The USCCB online bible points out that “the language suggests a profound affinity between the man and the woman and a relationship that is supportive and nurturing.” Eve is not subservient to Adam. By the end of chapter two, it is hard to imagine that the world thus created could or should go off the rails.
THE SEEDS OF DESTRUCTION
All of us little tots in Catholic school learned that bad things began to happen when a talking snake entered the Bible tale. We knew, of course, that the snake was really the devil in disguise, and we were totally untroubled by the fact that the Bible never says this. Genesis 3:1 flatly states: “Now the snake was the most cunning of all the wild animals that the Lord God had made.” We are forced to admit that “cunning” [evil] was part and parcel of the creation package. The snake’s assertion in 3:5 that “God knows well that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, who know good and evil” does not sound particularly terrible until one examines the fallout from the act. This is best done by examining the curses that God showers down upon the three actors.
To start with, a serpent was frequently invoked as a phallic symbol in much of the ancient world and consequently employed in public pagan fertility rites throughout the ancient world. Idolatry among the Hebrews was often a recourse to fertility gods and rites, as if the God of Abraham would not fulfill the need for human fertility. When the Israelites in the desert were plagued by poisonous snakes, Moses ordered the creation of a bronze serpent that the population must gaze upon for a deliverance from this affliction. In the apocalyptic outlook of Isaiah, a day would come when a small child could play next to the cobra’s den safely. Even Jesus, in Matthew 3:8, uses the term “brood of vipers” to castigate hostile opponents.
The snake, then, is the perfect foil for the crisis in the Garden of Eden, and the first readers of this text would see trouble on the horizon. This leads the author to the main points of its inclusion: what is this creature doing here, and why would God create such a “cunning” creature in the first place? The first question is easy enough to answer: the snake lives there, along with zebras and red-breasted robins. [One can easily imagine this tale set in my neighborhood in Central Florida where nonstop housing construction is pushing coral snakes—relatives of the cobra—onto my street.]
Commentaries on Genesis report that in earlier times snakes were believed to walk upright. In fact, the giant pythons migrating north nowadays into Central Florida have vestiges of feet if you know where to look. I stick to the photographs on that bit of biology. God’s curses on the snake—that he would slither and not walk, and that he was reduced to eating dirt—are fitting enough, but it would be wrong to brand the snake as the originator of sin. What the text does signify is the pervasive nature of evil and imperfection throughout nature, man, and beast. Those of you who pray Compline at home may recall St. Peter’s imagery of the devil as “a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” Or, for that matter, the microscopic monster called Covid. From creation, the world is set against itself. Why this is so is a massive mystery that has troubled the earliest philosophers and continues as we witness the conflict between Israel and Hamas.
MORE THAN JUST A SNAKE
But by observing the punishment of the snake, we get an insight into the nature of the sin of Adam and Eve and their subsequent curses. When Christopher Columbus landed in the New World in 1492 and discovered a population of generally happy and productive people, he reported to Ferdinand and Isabella that he had come upon what today would be called a “prelapsarian culture.” The term means “before the fall” or what the Garden of Eden was like, the operative indicator being naked. Nakedness was innocence, and for Columbus, a navigator and not a theologian, nakedness equated to a childlike purity that could be spoiled by “knowledge,” or what one might call “the real world.” This seemed to be the sentiment of the Creation 2 author. Columbus did not hold the innocence idea very long; when he returned in 1493 his remaining crew had been killed.
The serpent had told Eve that eating the fruit would “open her eyes” and that like the gods, she would know “what is good and what is bad.” Having eaten the fruit along with her husband, the first thing they realize is their nakedness, the end of their childhood purity, so to speak, and they scurry to put together loincloths and tunics from fig leaves. Is this an analogy to emotional and genital sexual awareness? It is hard to imagine that sexuality would come under fire as the primordial sin when the Israelite nation depended upon fertility for its very survival.
A better answer is found by looking at God’s interrogation of each party: Adam, Eve, and the snake. When God asks Adam “who told you that you are naked?” Adam replies, “the woman whom you put here with me.” This is a double whammy: it’s the fault of the woman and you who created her.” When God turns to Eve, she replies that the serpent “tricked me into it, so I ate it.” Every man/woman/snake for himself/herself/itself. No Kumbaya at the cobra’s den tonight.
What can we say? Creation is plagued with brokenness almost from the moment of its first existence. Why this brokenness in what is God’s crown jewel of creation remains both a mystery and a truth. Adam and Eve suddenly become sullen, betraying strangers. Eve’s curse is twofold: the pain and potential lethality of childbirth, and “yet your urge shall be for your husband….” Adam is cursed to pass from a nurturing life in the Garden to a daily life of thorns and thistles to produce his food. At the very least, Creation 2 is a philosophical-theological reflection which puts forward the curses of human existence. It tries to explain why the world is the way it is to people who are very weary of it.
The inability to live in harmony is bad enough. Human violence--physical and psychological—is a curse which visits us in Genesis Chapter 3 and in a remarkable novel [and later, movie] about brother versus brother, in a post entitled “Cain’s Mutiny” later this week on this stream.
Confession: I do play the Florida Lottery, not excessively but just enough to dream of what I might do with several mil in my declining years, which have already begun. Our state pot, as of yesterday morning at the Publix Grocery Store casino counter, is only $23.5 million. But still, an old man needs his dreams, and mine would be spending the winnings on the establishment of a regional Catholic library, study, and resource center near my house and the Publix grocery store where I buy my lottery tickets. New homes are going up faster than ever, much to the consternation of the locals who still remember when my town was the “indoor foliage capital of the world.”
One of the true oxymorons of American Catholic life is “parish library.” True Catholic libraries are nonexistent in most parishes, let’s face it. Yes, there are “Catholic bookstores” in some of the larger parishes which, along with religious articles like rosaries and Advent wreathes, carry a line of Bibles, liturgical books, and of course The Catechist of the Catholic Church. Has anyone ever actually bought a Catechism? Or curled up before a fireplace with brandy for an evening with the Catechism? The Catechism falls into the area we learned about years ago in high school economics, Gresham’s Law, that “bad money drives good money out of circulation.” If the Catholic flagship book for adult reading is marketed as the Catechism, we will destroy the last flicker of curiosity and interest among Catholic readers.
Pope John Paul II agreed. Interestingly, in his introduction to the Catechism in its U.S. original printing back in 1994, he indicates that he never intended the Catechism as a stand-alone book for cover-to-cover reading [pp. 3, 5, 6.] The pontiff speaks of it as a sourcebook for Catholic teaching texts and an outline for catechetical resources, a reference for teachers, students, etc. As literature, though, reading the Catechism is like reading Webster’s Dictionary. Both resources are correct…and that’s about it. This is not a criticism of parish bookstore vendors, or even of the Catechism, but how we misuse the book. I am puzzled that pastors and bishops, who lament the poverty of knowledge among the faithful—such as the recent survey on belief in the Real Presence in the Eucharist--have a very poor record talking up college level Catholic reading and adult learning resource material, particularly from the pulpit and the general information sources of a parish, such as bulletins and parish websites. Catholics in the “real world” are the most highly educated. Six of the nine Supreme Court justices are Catholic. What is wrong with this picture?
It often starts in the parish home. The priest who is not reading classic and new religious writings—scholarly, devotional, inspirational and/or artistic—as well as keeping a finger on the pulse of contemporary culture and working such material into sermons for the faithful--will eventually give his same stock sermon every week while ignoring the matters that cry to heaven for attention. Has anyone heard a thoughtful sermon about antisemitism or the Scripture teachings about aliens in the past eight weeks? Of course, the same rule applies to any church minister working with populations of any age. Wouldn’t it be appropriate to bring Anne Frank’s diary into youth faith formation during the wave of antisemitic demonstrations in the United States?
Why no imagination? Why no books? Why no lifelong faith formation? It is a long story going back many years. As early as the 1940’s American Catholicism came to be regarded as an intellectual graveyard in the international world of theological scholars. Denis W. Brogan, the Cambridge political scientist who was an expert on both modern French and American history, said in 1941 that "in no Western society is the intellectual prestige of Catholicism lower than in the country where, in such respects as wealth, numbers, and strength of organization, it is so powerful." But it was the eminent U.S Church historian Monsignor John Tracy Ellis who brought this issue into public awareness with his 1955 essay, "American Catholics and the Intellectual Life." An analysis published in America Magazine is well worth your time.
In his 1955 essay, Msgr. Ellis noted that there was a proliferation of Catholic colleges and seminaries in the U.S.—at least two hundred--in which the limited number of Catholic American scholars were spread too thin, and attendance ran below capacity. The author’s own career reflects the struggle in the U.S. to obtain a first-rate Catholic college and seminary education. St. Viator's College in Bourbonnais, Illinois, was founded in 1865 by the Viatorian Order and closed in 1937. It graduated Ellis, and Fulton Sheen some years before him, but its graduation classes by the 1930’s were in the range of 15 to twenty. As a young man, the future Monsignor Ellis sought to earn a doctorate in history, but finding Catholic University’s doctoral program inferior, he sought admission to the University of Illinois, a “Big Ten” state school.
Later, as a priest-historian-teacher-author, he served as an officer of the National Catholic Educators Association. In this capacity he visited many Catholic colleges and grew more despondent about their quality. It was no secret that the United States was represented by a distressingly low number of respected theological scholars during Vatican II. Interestingly, Cardinal Dolan of New York publicly observed just a few weeks ago that the U.S. bishops should reduce the number of seminaries today and focus on a few institutions of excellence. There were only 422 priestly ordinations across the country in 2022 and about 190 seminaries, which buttresses the Cardinal’s argument. But a diocesan seminary is one of the few institutions that a bishop genuinely controls anymore; downsizing is always a very bitter pill. My home diocese of Buffalo has put its seminary, Christ the King, on the market for $5 million, in the face of a $100 million diocesan bankruptcy settlement over sexual abuse. Buffalo now sends its seminarians out of the diocese for priestly education.
My own career was impacted by Monsignor Ellis’s work. In 1969 I began my “major seminary study” by entering the School of Philosophy at Catholic University and graduating in 1971. [I had an A.A. degree in Classical Latin and Greek before attending CU.] But I did not continue at CU after graduating with my B.A. In the late 1960’s my religious order, along with about a dozen others in Washington, formed a consortium graduate school, the Washington Theological Coalition. The orders had pooled their best scholars, many published, to teach graduate theology and award degrees, and by the time I showed up at the door of the school in 1971 the Coalition was accredited by the State of Maryland and the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools…meaning that my master’s degree from the Coalition was accepted when I applied to Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, for a masters in counseling. There is a fine history of the Washington Theological Coalition [its name later changed to Union] which explains the struggle of small seminaries to stay open. The Coalition/Union closed in 2012.
I am very jealous of dioceses that have either a seminary or a major Catholic university in their locale. Accredited colleges and seminaries must maintain first rate libraries, which hopefully would be open to non-matriculating Catholics in the area to at least sample the many various types of Catholic books and resources available, Of course, if you are a graduate of a Catholic college, I believe you can register to use the library, even to take out books, if you live close by, and you may be able to read books online from your alma mater’s holdings. I was pleasantly surprised to discover on-line that the University of Central Florida, a state school where I have taken graduate courses to update, has fifty different books by or on the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. But I recommend that if you find a book that intrigues you, buy it in paperback if possible so that you can highlight it and notate it as a permanent addition to your library.
But before we get too far afield on the logistics, let’s step back and ask this question—is Catholic study necessary to save your soul? You will get an argument from some people about this. Thomas a Kempis [1380-1471] wrote in his spiritual classic, The Imitation of Christ, that “I would rather feel compunction than know how to spell it.” In his day, the great medieval philosophy of Thomas Aquinas and others had run out of steam. Critics accused the Catholic scholars of wasting their time debating “how many angels can dance on the heard of a pin?” A century after Kempis, the Catholic Council of Trent mandated the establishment of diocesan seminaries for the education of priests to restore the long history of Catholic scholarship and to improve the health and holiness of parish life.
If you have read the Vatican II document Dei Verbum, or “The Word of God,” It is clear from the Church’s teaching that God’s Revelation to the world comes through the written word—the Gospels, the testimonies of the Apostolic witnesses, and the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament. The baptismal practice of adults in the first centuries of the church included a week of intensive teaching and instruction for the newly baptized during the time Easter, instructions referred to as mystagogia, or mystery. As baptized Christians we live a full life of probing more deeply into the Word of God, the rites of worship, the prayerful wisdom and advice of the saints [and the sinners]. In short, Catholicism has been a “writing Church” for its entire existence.
In the second post to follow in a week, we’ll look at how to enter the magnificent world of the printed word of our Faith—trust me, there are books out there for every taste.
Books on Catholic life and Culture [Non-Fiction, fiction below]
About 95% of these titles I reviewed on Amazon. Remember that you can catch some excellent sales under the “used book” links in Amazon’s dashboard.
Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone  by James Martin, SJ
[currently Amazon top 1%]
New Seeds of Contemplation  by Thomas Merton
A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus  by John P. Meier
Doors to the Sacred: A Historical Introduction to Sacraments in the Catholic Church [2014 edition] by Joseph Martos
Sin in the Sixties: Catholics and Confession 1955-1975  by Maria C. Morrow
A History of Catholic Theological Ethics  by James F. Keenan
The Story of Christianity Volume One: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation  by Justo L. Gonzalez
John XXIII: Pope of the Century  by Peter Hebblethwaite
Why Catholics Can’t Sing [2013 revised edition] by Thomas Day
Keys to the Council: Unlocking the Teaching of Vatican II  by Richard R. Gaillardetz and Catharine Clifford
A Family of His Own: A Life of Edwin O’Connor  by Charles F. Duffy
Dogs of God: Columbus, the Inquisition, and the Defeat of the Moors  by James Reston, Jr.
The Unquiet Englishman: A Life of Graham Greene  by Richard Greene
Being the Body of Christ in an Age of Management  by Lyndon Shakespeare [currently Amazon top 3%]
Light of Assisi: The Story of Saint Clare  by Sister Margaret Carney, OSF
The Truth at the Heart of the Lie: How the Catholic Church Lost Its Soul  by James Carroll [currently Amazon top 2%]
Longing for an Absent God: Faith and Doubt in Great American Fiction  by Nick Ripatrazone
Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church  by John W. O’Malley
Seminary: A Search  by Paul Hendrickson
The Age of Reform, 1250-1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe  by Steven Ozment
What Happened at Vatican II  by John W. O’Malley
Free and Faithful: My Life in the Catholic Church  by Father Bernard Haring
The Church and the Age of Reason [1648-1789] by Gerald R. Cragg
Vatican Council II  by Xavier Rynne [pseudo name]
Medieval History: A New History  by Kevin Madigan
Francis of Assisi: A New Biography  by Augustine Thompson
The Inner Life of Priests  by Gerald J. McGlone and Len Sperry
The Early Church  by Henry Chadwick
The Resurrection of the Messiah: A Narrative Commentary on the Resurrection Accounts in the Four Gospels  by Francis J. Moloney
Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages [1990 edition] by R.W. Southern]
Confirmation: How a Sacrament of God’s Grace Became All About Us  by Timothy R. Gabrielli
Trent: What Happened at the Council  by John W. O’Malley
Theology: The Basics 3rd Edition  by Alister McGrath
Vows; The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and their Son  by Peter Manseau
When the Sisters Said Farewell: The Transition of Leadership in Catholic Elementary Schools  by S.J. Michael Caruso
The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah  by Charles Fensham
Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics  by Margaret Farley
Modern Catholic Social Teaching: Commentaries and Interpretations  by Kenneth R. Himes, Editor
Robert Bellarmine: Saint and Scholar  by James Brodrick
Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics  by Ross Douthat
1,2 Chronicles  J.A. Thompson
A History of the Jews  by Paul Johnson [currently Amazon top 1%]
Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina  by Michael Casey
The College Student’s Introduction to Christology  by William P. Loewe
Calvin  by F. Bruce Gordon
How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower  by Adrian Goldsworthy
Vatican Secret Diplomacy: Joseph P. Hurley and Pope Pius XII  by Charles R. Gallagher
2 Kings Commentary  T.R. Hobbs
1 Kings Commentary  by Simon John Devries
The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel  by Robert Alter [currently Amazon top 2%]
An Introduction to Catholic Ethics  by Lucien Longtin
The Reformation: A History  by Diarmaid MacCulloch
Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture [since 1700]  by Jaroslav Pelikan
The Gospel of Matthew: Sacra Pagina Series  by Daniel J. Harrington
Jean Gerson and the Last Medieval Reformation  by Brian Patrick McGuire
Cure D’Ars Today: St. John Vianney  by Father George Rutler
Fiction by Catholic Authors about Catholic Life, Values, and Conversion
I have not reviewed every novel here but was captivated by them all. My favorite: Morte D’Urban. This colorful tale of an inept religious order in the Midwest going under for the count just before Vatican II was the best-selling novel in the U.S. in the early 1960’s.
The End of the Affair  by Graham Greene [currently Amazon top 1%]
The Quiet American  by Graham Greene [currently Amazon top 1%]
After This  by Alice McDermott
The Cloister: A Novel  by James Carroll
A History of Loneliness: A Novel  by John Boyne
The Edge of Sadness  by Edwin O’Connor
The Leisure Seeker  by Michael Zadoorian
The Malefactors  by Caroline Gordon
The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse  by Louise Edrich
Morte D’Urban  by J.F. Powers
Wheat that Springeth Green  by J.F. Powers
Souls and Bodies  by David Lodge
did napoleon start the road to vatican ii? maybe. see discussion [part 1] of "catholicism: a Global History from the French revolution to Pope francis" 
I spent this past weekend involved in two things: watching the U.S. Open Golf Tournament which was on TV here on the East Coast from suppertime till midnight for four straight nights, and during the afternoons reading my second killer history book this month, Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis  by John T. McGreevy. The golf tournament was exhilarating—an upset winner by one stroke—but the book is more discomfiting because [a] it is thinning my herd of sacred cows, and [b] the last third of the book covers my lifetime, a very troubling thing when you still feel young enough to be making history.
McGreevey’s book deserves a lot of attention and discussion. I review books for Amazon, which you may see posted from time to time, but I have a 1,000-word limit on those submissions. [My last review was my 190th with Amazon, dating to 2000.] But in many cases a book deserves a multi-faceted discussion, necessitating a brief Amazon summary for its book site and a longer treatment on the Café blogsite, which has no word limit beyond human compassion and exhaustion. Catholicism deserves a lot of thought and soul searching. I suppose the first question would be the relationship of the French Revolution and the Age of Napoleon to the era of Vatican II?
McGreevy is not the first historian to begin a modern church narrative with Napoleon. In his What Happened at Vatican II Father William O’Malley begins with a lengthy overview called “The Long Nineteenth Century” in which he essentially dates the moving forces for Vatican I and Vatican II from the era of the French Revolution, which is dated from 1789. The French Revolution—caused in part by French government bankruptcy incurred, ironically, assisting the American Revolution—created a chain of events in Western Europe that ended what is often called “the marriage of throne and altar,” or the interlocking of church and state. After the Napoleonic Wars there was a shift across Western Europe from the older absolute monarchy model toward representational or democratic government with an emphasis upon independence from churches, particularly Roman Catholicism. Coupled with this was the emergence of strong grassroots nationalism and newfound belief in the freedom and conscience of man independent of religious discipline, rooted in the modern philosophies from Descartes to John Locke. In shorthand, the modern secular era had arrived for good.
No two nations went through these processes precisely the same way, and McGreevy’s book discusses variants of the process, but across the board the changing face of the West in the nineteenth century created a major challenge to the power, influence, and authority of the Catholic Church. Recall that at the time of the French Revolution Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were Catholic monarchs surrounded by Catholic aristocrats. The immortal phrase “let them eat cake” came from a Catholic queen to an angry and hungry populace. When the French Revolution took its violent turn, the properties and riches of the Church were seized, and the new transitional government would eventually persecute and execute clergy and religious. Ever since the Roman Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, the Church had laid claim to secular as well as religious authority—consider, for example, that when Spain and Portugal began exploration and settlement of the Western Hemisphere after Columbus, Pope Alexander VI [conveniently, for Spain, a Spaniard] drew the famous “Line of Demarcation” to divide the claims of the two nations in the New World in 1493. [His line, incidentally, ultimately created Brazil as a Portuguese-speaking nation.]
What became very clear in the nineteenth century after the French Revolution was the decreasing influence of the papacy in the course of world events. While Napoleon was finally planted in permanent exile on St. Helena, the future of Europe was debated at the Congress of Vienna [1814-1815], which redrew the map of the old Holy Roman Empire through the workings of Metternich and Talleyrand, to cite two famous international diplomats of the day. Although represented in Vienna, the pope was not invited to draw maps as he had three centuries earlier, and few European leaders were disposed to ask him.
The post-French Revolution era was marked by the birth of a liberalism characterized by national identity and pride, greater democratic process, emphasis upon the rights of man, economic free enterprise, and freedom of governments from interference from organized religions, primarily the Roman Catholic Church. McGreevy provides examples of Western liberalization and distrust of a monarchical Catholic Church in such diverse nations as the United States, England, and Italy. By the terms of the founding documents written by the thirteen original colonies, the United States should have been a safe haven for Catholicism, and in many locales the practice of Catholicism was tolerated to a degree.
However, periodic flareups of anti-Catholicism were widespread and deadly. In her 1997 The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862, Carol Sheriff describes the animosity between residents of New York State and the Catholic Irish immigrants, hard fighting and hard drinking Irish Catholics who had come to America to dig the canal from Albany to Buffalo. It is no accident that the “Know Nothing Party,” a powerful third-party xenophobic force in American presidential politics, had deep roots in Western New York. The Wikipedia entry on the Know-Nothings has interesting overtones of recent American electoral politics:
Fearful that Catholics were flooding the polls with non-citizens, local activists threatened to stop them. On August 6, 1855, rioting broke out in Louisville, Kentucky, during a hotly contested race for the office of governor. Twenty-two were killed and many injured. This "Bloody Monday" riot was not the only violent riot between Know Nothings and Catholics in 1855. In Baltimore, the mayoral elections of 1856, 1857, and 1858 were all marred by violence and well-founded accusations of ballot-rigging. In the coastal town of Ellsworth, Maine, in 1854, Know Nothings were associated with the tarring and feathering of a Catholic priest, Jesuit Johannes Bapst. They also burned down a Catholic church in Bath, Maine.
As more Irish, German, and Italian Catholics poured into America throughout the nineteenth century, white Protestant Americans feared that these immigrants were, at heart, loyal to a foreign power, i.e., the pope in Rome, and if the opportunity arose, would take over the United States as a fiefdom of the Papal States. Catholic politicians in the U.S. were accused of representing the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion,” a charge that rumbled through American politics well into the twentieth century. And, if you listen close enough to monied American interests even today, you hear strains that Pope Francis is a socialist who wants to take our hard-earned money and redistribute it south of the equator. The more things change…
In England, the historical memory of Queens Elizabeth and “Bloody Mary” was enough to inflame similar violence against Roman Catholics throughout the post-Napoleonic nineteenth century. Fears—rational or not—of Roman Catholic takeover of the established Church of England were exacerbated by that nation’s own mistreatment of Ireland, highlighted by the Potato Famine, and resulting in protests and immigration.
But by far the most tempestuous impact of the post-Napoleonic era may have been the upheavals in Italy itself, the cradle of the Church. If you are a little rusty on your Italian history, the Wikipedia entry entitled “The Unification of Italy,” often referred to as the Risorgimento, chronicles the civil upheavals of the peninsula in the nineteenth century. Italy had not been a unified nation since the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 475 A.D. The papacy—with its hold on “the papal states”—lived in constant conflict with outside intruders dating back to the Goths in the 400’s to the newly minted nation states after the French Revolution. [The Church Council Vatican I was disbanded prematurely in 1870 amidst the canon fire of the Franco-Prussian War on the doorsteps of Rome.] The Risorgimento called for a unified Italy with a measure of self-determination, a direct challenge and threat to papal civil authority and land holdings. Recall that the status of the papal states and some reassure of Church independence in the new, unified Italy was not legally defined until the Church’s Concordat with Mussolini in 1929, an arrangement that deteriorated soon thereafter.
The French Revolution and its aftermath had two opposite effects upon the Church itself. On the one hand, a sizeable segment of Catholic intellectuals in the Western World began to assess a new understanding of Church life in the “modern era.” The nineteenth century may have been a period of international unrest and searches for new national identities, but it was also a time of intellectual and economic explosion. Consider that the century after the French Revolution would see the advent of modern industrialization, scientific expansion, historical and archaeological advances, democratic governments, medicine and psychology, and even the theories of air travel and nuclear power. Coupled with this were new philosophies and methods of understanding the world, from Hegel to Darwin to Marx.
Religions, including Catholicism, could not isolate themselves from the rapid developments of the times. The nineteenth century saw an explosion in religious scholarship in both Protestant and Catholic circles, and it was impossible for Catholic thinkers and leaders to ignore what was happening around them. Possibly no one better embodies the religious complexities of the time or thought more creatively about them than England’s John Henry Newman, the Anglican priest-scholar who converted to Catholicism in 1845.
Newman’s journey to Roman Catholicism was long and complicated. As an idealistic youth his evangelical faith caused him to regard the Catholic pope as the antichrist. In his college years he matured into the mainstream of Anglican faith and scholarship. But convinced that the Church of England stood in need of reform, he joined with other Oxford scholars in a spirited study of the early Church Fathers, which they published as papers or “tracts” that came to be known as the Tractarian Movement or the Oxford Movement. In his studies Newman and many of his confreres came to be believe that the Roman Catholic Church had best embodied the traditions of the Christian roots of the Fathers. He converted to Catholicism and would eventually become a Cardinal of the Church. Newman would become one of the greatest minds of modern Catholicism, and his thought forms the basis of many of Vatican II insights, including his writing on the development of doctrine. He was, in fact, canonized on October 13, 2019, by Pope Francis.
Newman appreciated better than most that Catholicism would need to make considerable accommodations to the scholarship and the spirit of the best of contemporary thought and practice to remain intellectually honest, but he appreciated—far ahead of his time—the challenges we face today as Catholics. In a famous essay on the nature of a university, Newman described the dilemma of the Catholic in the new world at hand:
[From Wikipedia]: Newman believed in a middle way between free thinking and moral authority—one that would respect the rights of knowledge as well as the rights of revelation. His purpose was to build a Catholic university, in a world where the major Catholic universities on the European continent had recently been secularized, and most universities in the English-speaking world were Protestant. For a university to claim legitimacy in the larger world, it would have to support research and publication free from church censorship; however, for a university to be a safe place for the education of Catholic youth, it would have to be a place in which the teachings of the Catholic church were respected and promoted.
Finding the balance of “being in the world but not of it” was one of the significant challenges of Vatican II, but that was still long in the future. For despite the insights of Newman and others, much of nineteenth century Catholicism was governed by two Popes, Pius IX, and Pius X, who saw the Church as the last bastion of a sacred history that must be preserved at all costs. Theirs was the predominant reaction of Catholics to the post-Napoleonic upheavals, the “Ultramontanism Era” [from “the other side of the Alps mountains,” a reference to Rome and the papal states.] In our next discussion of McGreevy’s book, we will immerse ourselves in the Ultramontanism revival, which many of us may recognize as the pre-Vatican II world we grew up with.
To READ CHURCH HISTORY IS TO DISCOVER YOURSELF: "THE STORY OF CHRISTIANITY" [Volume One] by JUSTO CONZALEZ
Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s those of us studying Church History depended upon the splendid Penguin History of the Church series for an orientation to the almost two-millennia sweep of Christianity. Now, a half-century later, it is intriguing to look at the story with the advantage of five decades of fresh research. Justo L Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation  is both a refresher for us Penguin champions now in our senior years as well as an excellent introduction to Christianity’s story for those whose religious education never progressed past sixth-grade Confirmation and the sixth commandment.
If you are conditioned to “hate history,” [perhaps from education’s tendency to “teach for the test”] then Gonzalez’s style and content might change your mind. than the captivating story of who we are and how we came to be. “The Story of Christianity” is the presentation of history best enjoyed on a quiet evening in a generous leather seat with a brandy or cigar at hand. History finely written is a pleasure to embrace, even when its narratives take us to unthinkable tragedies and outrages. Even details and numbers capture us: did the Black Plague really kill 1 of every 3 Europeans? How do you feed 120,000 Crusaders without starting a second war?
This volume [as well as its companion, from the Reformation in 1517 forward] is the story of the Christian experience from the ground up, in a narrative that is informative and rarely overwhelming. We discover, for example, that with a few notable exceptions such as St. Paul, the first centuries’ proliferation of Christianity depended less upon charismatic missionaries as true anonymous word of mouth believers, particularly in the lower echelons of Roman society. [“Nameless merchants and slaves” who transversed the empire, as the author puts it.] Christian fraternity and solidarity—particularly the custom of the agape or love meal—were the characteristics that won new admirers and perplexed many Romans, who tended to view Christians as “low life.” Except for the Emperor Diocletian’s broad persecution in the late third century, Roman harassment of Christians was sporadic, regionalized, and at times eccentric.
Gonzalez presents the development of Christian theology and creed in a manageable narrative as the Church defended itself from a variety of external and internal assaults upon its sacred treasury of belief, most notably the humanity and divinity of Jesus defined by the first Church council, Nicaea, in 325 A.D. The most enduring doctrinal crisis of the first millennium was “Arianism,” which, briefly put, denied that Jesus is “of the same substance” as the Father, i.e., that he is God. Arian thinking did not deny the unique mission of Jesus on earth, which is why this errant trend had a long shelf life, including among many of the “barbarian” settlers in the Western Roman Empire who were converted by Arian missionaries.
It is clear from this text, and other contemporary works, that historians have been very busy over the half century since I went to school. Gonzalez highlights the discoveries of the “desert mothers” who prayed, worked, and wrote as contemporaries of the “desert fathers,”—those who sought to escape the mediocrity and madness of the later Roman Empire from the fourth century. He continues to highlight the richness of later feminine monastic life parallel to the male orders, and on down to the grassroots independent mystical communities of the late medieval era that marked the democratization of religious experience and exasperated and threatened a male church governance fragmented and running on fumes by the 1300’s. It was this explosion of lay spirituality, known as the Via Moderna, which produced the classic text The Imitation of Christ.
Gonzalez provides a steady narrative of the major events of the Christian era, through the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the corresponding emergence of the East, the rise of Islam and the crusading response, the Eastern break from Roman hegemony, the development of the Holy Roman Empire with Charlemagne, the Hundred Years War, the Black Plague, the Avignon Papacy, and the Western Schism of three popes, to cite several. Each subject, of course, remains the object of ongoing study, and this volume will hopefully inspire newcomers to Church history to break off into specific readings on such compelling episodes as the Fourth Crusade or the rise of Ferdinand and Isabella.
The author, who has a three-volume history of Christian thought among his completed works, provides insightful descriptions of the medieval thinkers and the universities they raised. Anselm, Abelard [with Heloise, of course], Albert and Thomas Aquinas all get their due, though it is mildly amusing to see William of Ockham, of “Ockham’s Razor fame,” bringing up the medieval decline portion of the narrative. Overall, Gonzalez captures the early Renaissance shift in philosophy and anthropology from a systematic and other-worldly exercise to a subjective celebration of human experience and destiny. The bridge from Ockham to the modern era’s Descartes becomes intelligible.
Gonzalez concludes this volume with a lengthy narrative on the Spanish and Portuguese ventures to the East. Although commercial motivations were the initial driving force, the success of both nations in the Western Hemisphere and the Orient raised major ecclesiastical questions. Columbus, for example, originally wondered if he had stumbled into a primordial Eden when he landed in Hispaniola. Just as the Reformation in Europe was taking shape, the Church wrestled with the religious nature of indigenous peoples [did they have souls?], missionary outreach, national jurisdictions in the New World, and moral questions involving slavery and the destruction of existing cultures.
It goes without saying that the subject matter of this historical survey is organically connected to Christian/Catholic life today, in part because we are still looking for solutions to yesterday’s questions. But for a Christian, this work is a family history: we carry the religious genetic codes of this narrative in our individual and communal being. In studying Church history, we discover ourselves.
LUCKILY, THIS FELL INTO MY LAP….
With summer in the air, and hopefully a little more leisure in your lives, I want to make a pitch to anyone who follows the Café to take the plunge into some corner of academic theology where you think you’d feel most at home. As I posted a few days ago, I put together a “poor man’s reading list,” i.e., something I cobbled together myself from my own reading and teaching as a starter for any of you who want to make the jump from church pamphlet racks into the “hallowed halls” of theological discussion. Coincidentally, I was reminded of the importance of Catholic theological life in our churches in a curious way this weekend, listening to the sermon for the Feast of the Ascension.
Our parish deacon, who is also our overall director of faith formation, was preaching on the Ascension, and he quoted an appropriate commentary passage by name and source from a noted English Scripture scholar whose work I recognized and respect. I was delighted that he referenced a major scholar in his sermon! It occurred to me that over the thirty years or so I have attended Mass instead of leading it, it has been extremely rare to hear any extra-biblical source cited in a sermon. Even citations from the Bible are not habitual. Years and years ago our founding pastor used to quote the martyr Edith Stein in his sermons, as he had a significant devotion to her, but that has been it for decades. Generally, the parish sermon has never been a place to get one’s theological thirst quenched by a saint or a scholar, and that is sad on many levels. Years ago, one of my psychology professors at Rollins College referred to the generic church sermon as “the martini hour of the mind;” I was a working pastor and preacher at the time, so I gave him the stare, but truth be told, he wasn’t too far wrong.
Saturday was a valuable teaching moment for our parish for several reasons. First, our deacon modeled a critical aspect of the baptismal priesthood: we are all, ordained and lay, students of the Word, and there is a two-to-three-thousand-year history of organized Judeo-Christian Biblical thought that forms the backbone of what Catholics call “Tradition.” When a preacher cites a scholar, a saint, or a contemporary source, he is sharing valuable information with his hearers that they may in turn take a critical look at the Word in communion with those who have dedicated their lives intensely to the study of God’s Revelation, now and in our past. Collectively, we are all the students and eventually all teachers as well. This includes parents, “the first…and best teachers of their children” as the Infant Baptismal Rite proclaims.
Second, a preacher who brings proof of his homework into his message is modeling the kind of work that any of us who “do ministry,” however one defines that, needs to be doing constantly so that the Word is “ever fresh” in our hearts. In my lifetime I have heard preachers say, with a straight face, that they do not prepare a sermon but wait for the inspiration of the Spirit to gift them in the moment. That is bad on so many levels—I don’t think I need to spell them out—and, this is not our history, either.
Theology is a labor of love, but it is still a labor. Over the past weekend I was reading Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity , a truly fine introductory history of the Church from the Apostles till the eve of the Reformation in 1517. [The book is listed in the Café “Bookshop”]. I was surprised to discover, in the fourth and fifth centuries, how many of the theological Church Fathers [most of whom are saints] worked [and even lived] with the “Desert Fathers” and “Desert Mothers,” the austere hermits and primitive monks who had fled the corrupt lives of the Roman cities for solitude, prayer, study, and penance. The Church Father St. Athanasius, defender of the identity of Jesus as true God and true man, lived with the monks from time to time to study, pray, do penance, and hide from the Roman emperors. St. Jerome composed the Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, in a cave or primitive setting near Bethlehem. St. Augustine hoped to live out his days in the desert of North Africa until he was forced by the populace to assume episcopal leadership. Gonzalez’s point: the Church received its inner truth from the prolonged asceticism and sacrifice of its theologians and teachers.
I cite this piece of our history to emphasize the intimate interlocking of spirituality and theological study. There is no such thing as “cheap grace,” snappy answers, or shortcuts in pursuit of God’s truth. The pursuit of theological wisdom is impossible without a spiritual temperament, but by the same token that temperament is enriched by the theological corpus of the Church.
MAKING YOUR FIRST READING CHOICE, AS SUMMER APPROACHES:
I gave a lot of thought to what advice I would offer about selecting books that would whet your appetites. If you were entering major seminary or a graduate theology program, there is a well-defined progression of introductory texts and course outlines, and I am looking at some new ones right now for the book list. However, human nature being what it is, our whimsy is often our entry into new experiences, and it may be that a subject of your particular interest is what draws you into the bigger tent. So, I searched down some of the “colorful” or “intriguing” texts under the various headings as possible “summer starters for reading next to the pool.”
Scripture: Try Father Francis J. Moloney’s The Resurrection of the Messiah: A Narrative Commentary on the Resurrection Accounts of the Four Gospels  First, most readers are familiar with at least some of the Resurrection texts already, and we have just concluded the Easter Season in Church. Second, Moloney’s book provides a lot of surprises while explaining how scholars use the differences between Gospels to understand the vision of each author. It is a relatively easy introduction into the science of Biblical interpretation. My review is on the Amazon site. On Amazon Prime, $22 new and $18 used in paper, also in Kindle.
History: Believe it or not, The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople  by Jonathan Phillips is an intriguing look into medieval life, the papacy, and the religious motivations of the crusading foot soldiers against the backdrop of a crusade that went horribly wrong, so much so that Pope John Paul II apologized for this venture on its eight hundredth anniversary in 2004. My review is on the Amazon site. Amazon Prime has this work for about $15 new and much cheaper used.
Spirituality: The Trappist monk Thomas Merton was tragically killed in 1968 while still a relatively young man. His 1948 autobiographical story of his conversion to Catholicism and then to the monastic way of life, The Seven Storey Mountain, remains a centerpiece of contemporary spirituality. It was credited with encouraging a wave of new applicants to monasteries after World War II. His New Seeds of Contemplation  remains among Amazon’s best sellers. My Trappist reading circle just completed New Seeds a few months ago. These works are easily purchased in many markets and formats for very reasonable prices. If you prefer a biography of Merton, I found Michael Mott’s The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton  very good if a touch dated—Merton’s letters and diary are now available to the public for purchase as well.
Ecclesiology: Easily the best read in the study of the Church is What Happened at Vatican II  by Father John O’Malley, S.J. If you like O’Malley’s style, he has written similar works on the Councils of Trent [1545-1563] and Vatican I [1869-1870]. My review is on the Amazon site. Amazon Prime price is $26 paper, $18 used, and $6 Kindle as of this morning.
Sacraments: I was intrigued this year by Sin in the Sixties: Catholics and Confession 1955–1975  by Maria C. Morrow. I reviewed the book on its Amazon site. This is a fascinating introduction to the discipline of liturgical study, in this case focusing on the near disappearance of the practice of regular confession. Amazon Prime has this work at $34 new, $25 used.
Biographies: Francis of Assisi: A Revolutionary Life  by Adrian House is a fine general introduction to both the man and medieval spirituality. My review is posted at the Amazon site. Amazon Prime has the text at $24 new and starting at about $5 used. Equally good and very current is Light of Assisi: The Story of Saint Clare  by Sister Margaret Carney, OSF. My review is on the book’s Amazon site; current price is $14 new and about $9 used.
Morality: The best book on Catholic Morality at present, A History of Catholic Theological Ethics  by Father James F. Keenan, SJ, would be a very ambitious starter text, and it costs $50 on Amazon Prime [probably because it is becoming a college/graduate moral theology textbook, and rightfully so.] A simpler but intriguing book to introduce you to the controversies and stresses faced by Catholic moralists today is Turning Point: The Inside Story of the Papal Birth Control Commission, and How Humanae Vitae Changed the Life of Patty Crowley and the Future of the Church  by Robert McClory. I did not review it on Amazon because Jay Young’s review is quite good. I purchased my hardcover copy used [with McClory’s autograph, no less] for about $5 last year, and those prices are still current on the site.
I am still filling out other categories as we go on: Eschatology [“the last things”], Canon Law, Mariology [Mary], Social Justice, etc. will follow as soon as I can review some of the new introductory texts. I will post new reviews and acquisitions on the Café social media sites as they become available. Next week I will try to get you the links to the major Catholic publishers, and you can subscribe for free to receive catalogues, reviews, notices of new releases, etc.
So, this summer: Read, Read, Read! [There will be a test in September.]
“To Teach as Jesus Did” was released by the NCCB (now USCCB) in November, 1972; the document was the first effort of the American hierarchy to bring the attitudinal and pastoral dimensions of Vatican II into the United States Catholic educational schema. There are good intentions here, some strong endorsements, encouragement of creative ventures, occasional analyses of structural problems, recognition of changing times and escalating troubles. But as in most projects the devil is in the details, of which there are precious few in those particular areas of concern then and today: the increasing marginalization of religious belief and values from contemporary America.
I just happened to read “Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out of, and Gone from the Catholic Church” (2014) prior to reviewing this document. “Young Catholic America” is a magnificent research venture into the present day faith life of Catholic young adults (18-23); it is also one of most depressing glimpses of the failure of the Catholic formational effort, so much so that I got to wondering: could the bishops in 1972 have written (and more importantly, acted) in ways that might have averted or mitigated the estrangement of Catholic truth among the young, and their parents for that matter, who are also the product of the post-1972 era. In many, though not all instances, the answer is a qualified yes.
The opening of TTAJD expresses hope that all Catholic education will be judged on its success in bringing men (sic) to holiness. Its most famous paragraph is arguably 14, which establishes the three-legged stool of formation: (1) presentation of Christian truth (2) in a vibrant communal setting (3) toward an energetic life of service to the world. This formula survives to the present day as an organizational principle in Catholic education. The authors seem to understand the importance of parents in the formation of their children, and they discuss it at length. Remember that community and family-based programming was still on the formative drafting table: old timers will remember the seminal catechetical work of Christiane Brusselmans, for example. It is interesting that the bishops cite the initiation sacraments and Penance as important moments of parental contact with the process (para. 25) and return to adult education in paras. 45-50.
Once entering pastoral waters, the bishops cannot avoid addressing parochial division regarding what we called then “the new theology.” (paras. 53-59) Think Common Core for a parallel. Those “vibrant communities” of para. 14 were presently agonizing over monumental liturgical and theological change. Figurative hand to hand combat, even in rectories, was not uncommon. A historical argument could be made that the greatest educational project of the twentieth century Church, the implementation of Vatican II, was a challenge for which few in the hierarchy or anywhere else were equipped to negotiate smoothly. A unity of parish faith and practice could no longer be assumed.
The bishops turned to the call and challenges facing Catholics in colleges (Catholic, private, state, commuter, etc.) at several juncture. Regarding younger students, the bishops make it clear that Catholic elementary and secondary schools are the preferred formative experience (para. 84). But by 1972 the crest of the Catholic school explosion was well along the way of subsiding. And here, I believe, is the most critical strategic shortcoming of the document, an absence of critical analysis of the sociology and business of institutional education. Based upon this document, one can only assume that the hierarchy had made up its mind to accept the exodus from Catholic schools as inevitable, impossible to stem or reverse. Lest we forget, this is a major paradigm shift from the 1880’s Plenary Council of bishops in Baltimore.
This abdication put the bishops in the unenviable position of trumpeting the glories of CCD, which is one of the true “emperor’s new clothes” vignettes of contemporary American Catholic life. The bishops would logically have to argue that the formational professionalism of Catholic schools is matched successfully by after-school, weekend, or “released time” programs to justify their decision. (Even today the number of professionals who maintain this incredulous proposition continues to surprise me.) Thus, the reader is treated to the supposition in para. 88 that one of the untapped advantages of CCD programs is their voluntary nature. As any unpaid religious education will tell you today, the only things voluntary are the instructor’s time and labor, and the poor attendance pattern of students. In 1972 the bishops called for a number of reforms yet to be acknowledged: Connectedness of CCD to Catholic schools (para. 93) including a call for “common funding;” development of parish educational centers (para. 94); funding for in-service training of religious education personnel and appropriate salaries for administrative positions (para. 97). In many instances, this would amount to a “dual system,” so to speak, of staff and buildings, which might lead a consultant to ask in 1972, why not reinforce your system already in place rather than embark upon a costly bifurcation that stood little chance of success in the first place? In any event, the monies for both tracks were frequently woefully short of this call as forty years would show.
TTAJD is a testament to the influence of the unbridled hopes and creative enthusiasm of Catholic intellectuals of the left, some of whom were chronically disenchanted by the hegemony of the Catholic school systems. To a degree this includes religious teaching communities, and para. 146 questions why religious were leaving the teaching profession, specifically women religious! The document reports (concedes?) that most Catholic school education in the future would be conducted by the laity, and equally of note, that lay persons would eventually assume administrative positions (para. 147).
“To Teach as Jesus Did” and its multiple successors stand as an indispensable lesson for all pastoral documents: map the terrain and gather intelligence before announcing a battle plan. Piety, enthusiasm and hope are indispensable to the Church, but they are no excuse for the losses in “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”
I came across a true “period piece” in an online bookstore, “Catholic Bishops: A Memoir”  by Father John Tracy Ellis. This brief but captivating narrative of the American “episcopal giants” of the twentieth century reminds us that the office of bishop in the United States has evolved significantly throughout the history of this country. A U.S. Catholic bishop in the 1920’s exercised his power in different ways than his frontier predecessor of the 1820’s or than the pastoral coordinator of the 2020’s. Many of the bishops Ellis describes in this memoir are the big city bishops of the coasts and the Midwest, where immigration had fed city church rolls and made the urban bishop both a spiritual father and a metropolitan player, so to speak, in public affairs in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Chicago, Baltimore, and St. Louis.
Ellis [1905-1992] knew many of America’s bishops from his years of teaching history at the Catholic University of America in Washington. In his time the bishops, as chancellors of the nation’s only pontifical university, made frequent visits to the campus as its custodians, as well as conducting their annual meetings on the campus. The author found himself in close proximity to many and developed longstanding friendships with not a few. Many bishops would have been familiar with Ellis’s epic history of James Gibbons [1834-1921], the U.S.’s second cardinal, though some bishops complained that Ellis was less deferential and more candid in his treatment of this eminent churchman than they would have liked.
Ellis is not without his agenda in this work, and it should come as no surprise to those who recall that in 1955 this priest-historian excoriated the American Catholic Church for the poor academic quality of its colleges and seminaries in his essay “American Catholics and the Intellectual Life,” published in the journal Thought, a piece that desperately needs redistribution in seminaries and, yes, parishes today. He held a special respect for the rare bishop who was himself well educated or who supported quality education, but his regard for episcopal acumen was generally pessimistic. At a Catholic University banquet to welcome a foreign church dignitary, the school’s bishop-chancellor introduced Ellis to his guest: “He writes books.” Ellis frequented chanceries around the country to seek permission and access to the papers of deceased bishops, perhaps another reason for his modest expectations.
Ellis begins his walk down memory lane with Chicago’s George W. Mundelein [r. 1915-1939], a surprise candidate from Brooklyn known for “thinking big,” including an ambitious plan to merge his archdiocesan seminary with Loyola and De Paul Universities, a menage trois never consummated beyond a chaste kiss. His installation is remembered for, among other things, the poisoning of the soup at his evening banquet by an anarchist which sickened several hundred people.
Michael Curley [r. St. Augustine, Florida 1914–1921; Archdiocese of Baltimore, Maryland 1921–1939; first archbishop of the Archdiocese of Washington 1939–1947] was respected by the author for his tolerance of scholars and teachers with whom he disagreed. Curley, who opened the Baltimore-Washington archives to the author, made it clear he did not appreciate Ellis’s biographical treatment of Cardinal Gibbons. Yet the two men grew closer as Curley’s health deteriorated, and the last formal act of the archbishop on the last night of his life was signing Ellis’s incardination papers to join the Archdiocese of Washington.
A towering figure—in multiple senses—was William Cardinal O’Connell [r. Portland, Maine 1901-1906; Archdiocese of Boston 1906-1944], known in Massachusetts as “Number One” for his ecclesiastical and political clout in the Commonwealth. O’Connell is believed to be the inspiration for the character of the Cardinal opponent of Mayor Frank Skeffington in Edwin O’Connor’s novel “The Last Hurrah.” In Ellis’s assessment there is no telling how far O’Connell’s career might have progressed had it not been for the demotion of his Roman patron, the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Merry del Val, and a more personal setback at home.
O’Connell’s nephew, James, Chancellor of the archdiocese, “left the priesthood, married, and took a substantial sum of archdiocesan funds at his departure.” O’Connell made the mistake of denying these events in a face-to-face meeting with Pope Benedict XV, who immediately pulled out a copy of the civil marriage license from his desk. [p. 73] Coincidence or not, O’Connell was assigned the one auxiliary bishop he did not want, Francis Spellman. Of “Spelly,” O’Connell was supposed to have said, “Francis epitomizes what happens to a bookkeeper when you teach him how to read.”
Ellis writes of Spellman [r. Archbishop of New York 1939-1967] that at his death in 1967, two years after Vatican II, the end of the era of the episcopal giants was at hand, given the Council’s emphasis upon the collegiality of bishops and broader structures of participatory leadership. The author had multiple dealings with Spellman, who was pressing for a biography of New York’s Bishop “Dagger John” Hughes of the Civil War era. To treat of Spellman, of course, meant treating of Fulton Sheen, with whom Ellis had a long professional and personal relationship. The author, in his student days, had served as Sheen’s secretary, and later lived with him in Washington for a time. Ellis provides fascinating information, such as the bishop’s acquired wealth from television and other ventures. The famous feud between Spellman and Sheen, which led to the latter’s exile to Rochester, N.Y., in 1966 is noted but not elongated.
Ellis, a Catholic University graduate and professor, devotes a chapter to the bishop-rectors of the school. He notes that “the university was made to suffer from the interference and bungling of churchmen who were ill equipped to foster true university education. [p. 32] He provides insights into the lives of auxiliary bishops, of which the U.S. was awash, mostly men who had resigned themselves to careers on the “Confirmation circuit.” Many auxiliaries proved to be excellent sources for this intriguing introductory glance into the twentieth century American hierarchy by a true working historian.
This review may be found by following this link to the book's Amazon site.
For Folks Who Can't Read Everything