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Although it is four decades since the United States entered World War II, some aspects of the nation's wartime experience are still virtually unstudied. Military and diplomatic historians have labored productively for many years, but historians interested in American social and intellectual developments are just beginning to turn their attention to the wartime era. Recent general studies by Richard Polenberg and John M. Blum are especially welcome since, by drawing greater attention to the period, they should stimulate further research. There is much left to be done because the war affected practically every dimension of American life. The present essay deals with one of its less obvious effects —the way in which it shaped the thinking of a whole generation on the subject of American identity.
After World War II bitter controversy broke out in the United States between Catholics, on the one hand, and Protestants and liberals on the other. Although important issues were involved, these controversies have attracted almost no scholarly attention. Donald Crosby's book on Catholics and McCar-thyism is the only full-scale monograph dealing with any aspect of the controversies of which I am aware. My intention here is to draw attention to two additional aspects of the controversy which touch on matters that are still of interest and in need of much more study by historians. These are: (1) ambiguities in the concept of pluralism; and (2) a tendency that emerged in the critique of Catholic authoritarianism to treat democracy as a civil religion. But before taking up these issues we must look briefly at the development of “the Catholic issue” between the A1 Smith campaign of 1928 and the end of World War II.
John Carroll was disturbed about the future of Catholicism as he surveyed the scene in the aftermath of the American Revolution. As a supporter of the patriot movement he was pleased that the policy of religious toleration allowed Catholics to participate fully in the political life of the new nation. No doubt he also perceived that the wartime alliance with Catholic France had done much to improve the status of the church among his countrymen. But these positive features were outweighed by the disorganization of the church and the apathy of her ministers. There were only about two dozen priests in the new republic, several of whom were too old to be of any use. But even the younger ones seemed listless and demoralized.
Relatively little has been added in the past two or three years to the discussion of Catholic intellectual life in the United States which reached a climax following the publication of Msgr. John Tracy Ellis's essay on the subject in 1955. No doubt one reason is that the subject appeared to be very nearly exhausted—or at least the reader of Catholic journals was faced with exhaustion if he tried to keep abreast of the discussion. A volume of readings entitled American Catholicism and the Intellectual Ideal contains excerpts from forty-six books and articles published in the years 1955–1958 alone. Interest flagged somewhat in the early 1960's, but two recent developments may serve to quicken it: one is the publication of Richard Hofstadter's general study, Anti-intellectualism in American Life, which includes a brief treatment of the Catholic aspects of anti-intellectualism; the other is the publication by Reverend Andrew M. Greeley of the results of a survey of the academic experience and career plans of 35,000 college graduates of the class of 1961.
Areal cultural shift doesn't happen very often. Skepticism about whether one took place in the 1960's is quite natural, especially in view of the rapidity with which cultural fashions have come and gone in the past 15 years. The New Conservatism had hardly crested before it was succeeded by the End of Ideology, which was displaced with equal speed by the New Left. In the religious sphere, the revival of the early 50's gave way to the Death of God 10 years later. This proved even more ephemeral. With its companion, the Secular City, it was left behind in a welter of new movements—occultism, mysticism, and various forms of millenarian religious revolutionism. Paradoxically, the dizzying pace of change itself seemed to argue that nothing very profound was going on.
Many years ago John Higham identified a transition in American culture “from boundlessness to consolidation,” the beginnings of which could be traced to the 1850s. Among indications of a scaling back in the prevailing sense of unlimited openness were an incipient shift from romanticism to realism in the arts, and a movement toward tighter organization and centralization, often associated with the Civil War, which was already discernible in the prewar decade. In describing this shift, Higham said little about religion, observing only that the growth of professionalism reduced competition among Protestant denominations and “produced a more highly trained ministry, greater concern with the liturgical side of religion, and a decline of the crusading fervor of an earlier day.” Although he made no mention of American Catholicism, the concept of “boundlessness” seems sufficiently capacious to apply to the pioneering decades of Catholic development, and by midcentury a process of consolidation was definitely under way in that dimension of the national culture. My aim in this essay is to look more closely at boundlessness in one area of Catholic life and to call attention to a generational shift in outlook that accompanied the process of consolidation.
“Liberalism” has meant different things to different people at different times and places. Before saying anything about the historic relationship between Catholicism and liberalism in the United States we must therefore take a moment to indicate briefly how it will be understood in what follows. We begin by recalling a distinction made by the once-famous Catholic historian Carlton J. H. Hayes between “ecumenical liberalism” and “sectarian liberalism.”
Hayes introduced the distinction in his Generation of Materialism (1941), a work covering Europe as a whole in the late nineteenth century. By “ecumenical,” or “general,” liberalism, he meant the spirit animating developments from the Reformation through the French Revolution and its aftermath that sought to limit despotism and promote representative government, eliminate restrictions on commerce and industry, protect freedom of conscience in matters of religion, and in general champion the rights of the individual against the claims of traditional authority in church or state. This broad and diffuse liberalism included many subspecies – political, economic, intellectual; conservative, moderate, radical, atheistic, even Christian.
Of “ecumenical liberalism” thus understood, Hayes clearly approved. The sudden emergence of “sectarian liberalism” in the 1870s, however, struck him as “something like a calamity,” for the excesses of its adherents, who appropriated the name to themselves alone, went far toward discrediting the whole tradition. The new version was not, of course, unrelated to ecumenical liberalism; the Liberals with a capital “L” did indeed take over genuine elements of the tradition, such as concern for personal liberty, devotion to science and secular schooling, and a commitment to parliamentary government and laissez-faire economics as the master keys to material progress.