Christopher Shannon is too modest. In his introduction to American Pilgrimage, he concedes that his telling of the American Catholic story is “selective” and that “many comprehensive histories of the material I cover already exist and remain worth reading for their own sake” (pp. 5–6). The implication is that those seeking a thorough survey of the history of the Catholic Church in the United States should go elsewhere.
I disagree. I’ve read the “comprehensive histories” he cites in the footnote to this statement, and if someone asked me today for the best, most current, and most complete single-volume treatment of this topic, I wouldn’t select any of them; I’d recommend Shannon’s American Pilgrimage: A Historical Journey through Catholic Life in a New World.
Of course, every history, including academic surveys and textbooks, is selective, and Shannon’s is no exception. But there’s nothing crucial missing, and there are a lot of marvelous stories that aren’t readily found elsewhere. The book is to some degree a tribute to the fertility of the field of American Catholic studies over the past few decades. Shannon draws extensively on journal articles, in particular original research that has appeared in the U.S. Catholic Historian. His conversance with current research enables the book to transcend older accounts of this subject, which naturally cover some of the same ground.
There is, for example, the fascinating story of Fr. Ivan Illich, an Austria-born priest who effectively ministered to Puerto Rican Catholics in New York in the 1950s. Shannon insightfully compares Illich’s tackling of the thorny problem of inculturation to the efforts of another New York pastor later in the 1960s. “Whereas Illich understood the Fiesta de San Juan as an intrinsically political act by virtue of its ability to embody and display traditional Puerto-Rican communal values, progressive-minded American priests (mis)understood the festival as a potential tool for consciousness raising” (498). The result, Shannon observes ruefully, is that the 1960s pastor was “completely in tune with the best liberal-progressive thinking of the day—and completely out of touch with the Puerto Ricans under his pastoral care” (499).
Shannon begins, as he should, in the Age of Discovery, tracing the story of Catholicism through its three main carriers to the New World: Spain, France, and England. In dealing with seventeenth- and eighteenth-century encounters between European and indigenous cultures, it’s important for contemporary Catholic historians to appreciate genuine insights provided by increased historical sensitivity to non-European perspectives while simultaneously avoiding the error of simplistically applying contemporary standards of speech and conduct to actors operating in dramatically different cultural contexts. Shannon strikes this balance perfectly, incorporating modern scholarship without descending to indiscriminate condemnation and cancellation. His treatment of St. Junípero Serra is exemplary. Not every word and action of Serra is soothing to contemporary sensibilities, but in the context of eighteenth-century New Spain, Serra and his fellow friars stood out as defenders of the natives against exploitation, which is exactly the way Shannon portrays them.
In New France, too, Shannon captures the complexity of the challenging cultural encounter. The familiar figures of Saints Isaac Jogues and Kateri Tekakwitha appear, as do two other characters, equally significant though perhaps less well-known to American readers. Saints Marie of the Incarnation and Francis de Laval, key players in the construction of the Church in Canada, were canonized together by Pope Francis in 2014. A mystic who had visions of Jesus, Marie was also an eminently practical woman. Inspired by the reports sent back to France by North American Jesuit missionaries, she traveled to Quebec to establish the Ursuline order there. Besides outreach to native girls, Marie “served as an advisor to lay and clerical leaders of New France, discussing matters with them through the cloister grille in the visitor’s parlor” (130). Laval was the first bishop of the region, laying the institutional groundwork for a province that would be a Catholic powerhouse for the next three hundred years. Like Serra, he was also a “defender of the Natives,” in particular “a strident critic of the liquor trade that was destroying Native society” (136).
The British colonies didn’t contain many Catholics, but they played an outsized role in the story of the Church, because it was the English who created the United States by winning independence from the British Empire. Shannon describes the founding of the Maryland colony amid a profoundly anti-Catholic culture. The ubiquitous Jesuits, including the Maryland colony’s chaplain Fr. Andrew White, are once again prominent. The account seamlessly shifts from the English colonial experience to early American Catholicism, led by the Maryland native and first American bishop, John Carroll. Yet, following the recalibration of the historical discipline over the past fifty years, Shannon’s focus extends far beyond the hierarchical leadership of the Church. Here and throughout the book, Shannon illustrates the major themes of American Catholic history—inculturation, trusteeism, anti-Catholicism, immigration, assimilation—with well-chosen stories of the experiences of a wide variety of Catholics. In his wide-ranging chapter 4, “Parishes,” he takes readers on a tour of the diversity of nineteenth-century American Catholicism: urban Irish; rural Germans; enclaves of southern and black Catholics; Indian missions in the West.
And many others. Shannon captures the unique flavor of each ingredient that went into the melting pot of American Catholicism. His discussion of Italian immigrant Catholicism again exhibits his judicious use of contemporary scholarship. He draws extensively on Robert Orsi’s important 1985 depiction of Italian devotion to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, The Madonna of 115th Street—though, as he explains in the reference note, “I do not share his Durkheimian, anthropological interpretation of Italian devotional practices” (244).
The story continues through the seeming heyday of Catholicism in the mid-twentieth century, when “the Catholic Church emerged from the experience of World War II with perhaps the most comprehensive, coherent, and credible public voice of any religious institution in the United States” (431). But the City of God should never be identified with the City of Man, as Shannon well recognizes, and there were troubling signs all along, including an undercurrent of anti-Catholicism, always threatening to rise to the surface. Its obverse was an eagerness on the part of Catholics to prove their patriotism, which led with few exceptions (e.g., Dorothy Day, given due attention here) to a full-throated endorsement of America’s wars by hierarchy and laity alike.
The markers of decline in the post-Vatican II period are undeniable, and Shannon doesn’t try to deny them. The assimilation of Catholics into American life, symbolized by the presidential election triumph of John F. Kennedy in 1960, corroded Catholic identity and distinctiveness. Mass attendance and consecrated religious numbers plummeted in the 1970s and 1980s. But Shannon’s analysis is never facile, and he doesn’t fall down here. There were weaknesses in the pre-Vatican II Church, and there are strengths in the contemporary Church. There was no single cause of for the malaise of the late-twentieth-century Church; neither American assimilation nor Vatican II can bear all the blame. Without compromising Church teaching on contraception, Shannon tells sympathetically the story of American Catholics’ abandonment en masse of that teaching in the late twentieth century, a complex interweaving of personal experience, social pressure, and theological confusion.
Shannon ends on a hopeful note and astutely draws lessons from the past he has recounted. “The Church today, as in the past,” he writes, “must assist immigrants in adjusting to their new country; nevertheless, it should be more than a way station on the road to assimilation.” The Church must instead “find a trajectory for material security more compatible with faith as a whole way of life than the current compulsory unsettling” (530). That is to say, the Church cannot acquiesce in its role as just one more private organization in the pluralistic American landscape, subservient to a vision of success and the good society that is dictated by secular American culture.
The Church must present a bracingly different vision—the gospel vision—across the entire array of culture-forming phenomena: marriage, sex, war, money, entertainment, technology. Yet, Shannon wisely counsels, this vision should be presented according to the model of evangelization exhibited by Christ himself. “He preached mostly of God’s merciful love for man, and man’s duty to love God and neighbor. He healed the sick and fed the hungry; he ate, drank, and simply talked with people he called his friends” (531).
My complaints are few and minor. Nearly half the book is devoted to the colonial period, which is justifiable on the basis of chronological math (the Spanish having landed in St. Augustine in 1565, more than two hundred years before America independence), but not as easily defensible in terms of demographic math: the Church grew exponentially beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, and the complexity of the American Catholic story increased concomitantly. So the vast majority of “American Catholics” in history existed after 1850.
Not surprisingly, most quibbles emerge in the post-Vatican II era, on which Catholic historians are as much at odds as the rest of the Catholic world. Even here, Shannon is generally sure-footed—including his deft handling of the hazardous topic of liturgical reform. On late twentieth-century politics, however, some of his formulations are inadequately precise. While he deals with the neuralgic issue of abortion admirably—his inclusion of the underappreciated Bernard Nathanson is notable—his treatment of Catholics in conservative politics elides some important distinctions. In the post-Roe era, he says, “Many pro-life Catholics began to conflate their conservative politics and their Catholic faith” (472). Fair enough. “In politics,” he goes on, “fidelity to the Church’s teaching on life too often meant abandonment of the Church’s teaching on nearly every other issue.” This is more doubtful, at least without further clarification. Yes, the Church’s “teaching on peace and economic life” is not “merely advisory,” but the issues of abortion and wage justice are fundamentally different by their nature, and therefore the process of applying the Church’s teaching in particular political contexts will be different. This section of the book would benefit from an engagement with the principles laid out briefly but carefully by the future Pope Benedict XVI in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 2004 Note to Cardinal McCarrick, “Worthiness to Receive Communion.”
Finally, a few notes on the book’s production. The almost universal contemporary practice of relegating notes to the end of chapters—or worse, the back of the book—is proof that not all change is progress. I am grateful to Ignatius Press for its countercultural courage in sticking to “old-school” footnotes at the bottom of each page. I also like the relatively small trim size (5.5×8), which makes the book easier to handle. The trade-off is that we get a thicker 580 pages, but it’s a trade worth making.
“The narrative I offer,” Shannon explains in the introduction, “draws on the best of modern scholarship while still trying to think with the Church” (6). What the introduction promises is exactly what the reader gets. American Pilgrimage is a laudable achievement, and it deserves to take its place among the most respected histories of American Catholicism ever produced.
• Related at CWR: “The roots, rise, and collapse of Catholicism in America: An interview with Christopher Shannon” (September 1, 2022) by Casey Chalk
American Pilgrimage: A Historical Journey through Catholic Life in a New World
By Christopher Shannon
Augustine Institute and Ignatius Press, 2022
Hardcover, 580 pages
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