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In Search of an American Catholicism: A History of Religion and Culture in Tension

by Jay P. Dolan

Buy the book: Jay P. Dolan. In Search of an American Catholicism: A History of Religion and Culture in Tension

Release Date: October, 2003

Edition: Paperback

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Buy the book: Jay P. Dolan. In Search of an American Catholicism: A History of Religion and Culture in Tension


This has happened before....

Jay Dolan's history of the church in America makes one overwhelming point--that the crisis in the church today is part of a long struggle lasting over 200 years by the American church to define itself as part of and in opposition to both Rome and America at the same time. Dolan examines the collision between the traditional, European, immigrant, authoritarian church and the modern, American, democratic society in which it found itself from several perspectives. The issue of local control of churches has been a long-standing one, and indeed the early church in the US experimented with lay trusteeship of parishes. Immigrants coming to the US with a thirst for freedom also struggled to retain local control over the parishes they built and supported. Sometimes these arguments erupted among immigrant groups, sometimes with Rome.

Devotional practices for Catholics were also very different from those of their Protestant neighbors, used to more austere practices, who were likely to regard Catholics as superstitious and of the Old World. For a long time, a debate raged over whether one could be both Catholic and American; much anti-Catholic sentiment arose from Catholics' efforts to distinguish themselves from their neighbors. These slowly changed in the 20th century of course in response to Vatican II, but also as Americans moved away from Old World traditions. The emergence of women as important players in American society, at the same time as women argued for equality in England, also put pressures on the church still being felt to this day to an extent much greater than some more traditional Catholic countries.

Perhaps the greatest argument is a philosophical one--is the church part of or apart from society; should the church embrace or reject modernity; should the church respond to the times or remain unchanged for all time? These arguments went on at the very beginnings of the US 200 years ago and are still being argued today as the church fights off the biggest crisis in its history in this country. Perhaps these issues are more intense in a country that considers itself among the most democratic, the most open, the most modern in the world.

Dolan's work is a bit slow-going at times, and maybe a little too scholarly for the casual reader. But the points are valid, and caution against expecting an easy, prompt resolution of the current crisis. As ties to Western Europe weaken, and fewer and fewer Americans identify themselves as having two nationalities, obedience to a foreign, Roman hierarchy, which seems not to understand American culture and society, feels more and more alien. How it will be resolved remains to be seen.

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