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Reimagining the “America” in American Catholicism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 November 2017

William L. Portier*
University of Dayton


Your faces bring back memories of thirty-six previous CTS convention banquets. The first was in 1979. It was held at Trinity College in Washington. I was a graduate student. Bill Cenkner was president. I'm here tonight, warts and all, where Bill stood in 1979. I think of Gerry Sloyan, Vera Chester, Dolores Greeley, Mary Lea Schneider, and the rest. To a much younger me they loomed larger than life. Tonight I want to thank you for the honor of serving briefly with them in the long line of our society's presidents. And a special thanks to my family, who made the trip to Newport to be here with us tonight.

College Theology Society Presidential Address
Horizons , Volume 44 , Issue 2 , December 2017 , pp. 448 - 455
Copyright © College Theology Society 2017 

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1 The following is the presidential address delivered at the 2017 College Theology Society convention banquet on Saturday evening, June 3, 2017, the vigil of Pentecost, at Salve Regina University, Newport, Rhode Island.

2 Thanks to the students from the Fall 2016 seminar on Americanism, especially for their moving reflections on what it might mean to love America, and to Annie Huey, my research assistant, for their contributions to this talk.

3 Matovina, Timothy, Latino Catholicism: Transformation in America's Largest Church (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012)Google Scholar, especially chap. 1, and pp. 6, 36–41, which offer a “hemispheric perspective” as an alternative to a “unilateral Americanization paradigm.”

4 Davis, Cyprian, The History of Black Catholics in the United States (New York: Crossroad, 1991), 82Google Scholar; and Massingale, Bryan N., “Has the Silence Been Broken? Catholic Theological Ethics and Racial Justice,” Theological Studies 75, no. 1 (2014): 133–55CrossRefGoogle Scholar, especially the remarks on idolatry at 151–52.

5 Thelen, David, “The Nation and Beyond: Transnational Perspectives on United States History,” Journal of American History 86, no. 3 (December 1999): 967Google Scholar. This lead article is part of a special issue of the journal of the same title.

6 On Pope John Paul II, On the Encounter with the Living Christ: The Way to Conversion, Communion, and Solidarity in America (Ecclesia in America), 1999, and its significance, see Portier, William L., “Americanism and Inculturation: 1899–1999,” Communio: International Catholic Review 27, no. 1 (Spring 2000): 139–60Google Scholar.

7 President Obama invoked it, borrowing from President Ronald Reagan, as recently as the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. See Eugene Robinson, “Obama's Reinvention of the ‘City on a Hill,’” Washington Post, July 29, 2016, commenting on Obama's speech of Wednesday, July 27.

8 John L. O'Sullivan, New York Morning News, December 27, 1845. On “manifest destiny,” see Pinheiro, John C., Missionaries of Republicanism: A Religious History of the Mexican-American War (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 Jennings, Willie James, The Christian Imagination, Theology, and the Origins of Race (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010)Google Scholar. “Gentile forgetfulness” and its deforming effects on the Christian imagination are a central theme of this work.

10 E. J. Dionne, “We Don't Call It Nationalists’ Day,” Washington Post, April 17, 2017.

11 Greg Jaffe, “Which Obama Speech Is the One for the History Books?” Washington Post, July 24, 2016, B1, B4, at B4.

12 Leonard Pitts, “Fervent Hope of My Elders Poses Difficult Challenge,” Dayton Daily News, December 11, 2016, A23.

13 The Essential Bruce Springsteen, Columbia, 2003.

14 Pope Francis, as quoted in James Carroll, “Pope Francis Proposes a Cure for Populism,” The New Yorker, March 28, 2017,

15 On the three “styles” of contemporary public Catholicism, see O'Brien, David, Public Catholicism (New York: Macmillan, 1989), 242–52Google Scholar, “republican” style at 249–51.

16 On “civil religion,” see Robert Bellah's classic essay, Civil Religion in America,” Daedalus 96, no. 1 (Winter 1967): 121 Google Scholar; Bellah's The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in a Time of Trial (New York: Seabury Press, 1973)Google Scholar; and his 1978 “Afterword,” which appears in the 1993 University of Chicago Press edition of The Broken Covenant.

17 “Address of His Holiness Pope Francis,” Joint Session of the Congress of the United States, September 24, 2015, Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from Pope Francis’ US addresses are from this source. On April 4, 2017, the forty-ninth anniversary of King's assassination, Pope Francis sent a personal letter to Chicago's Cardinal Blase Cupich and the young people of Chicago: “I urge all people, especially young men and women, to respond to Dr. King's prophetic words and know that a culture of nonviolence is not an unattainable dream, but a path that has produced decisive results. The consistent practice of nonviolence has broken barriers, bound wounds, healed nations—and it can heal Chicago.”

18 Austen Ivereigh, as quoted in Griff Witte and Anthony Faioloa, “Pope to Issue Moral Call to Europe on Migrants,” Washington Post, April 16, 2016, A8.

19 “Remarks of His Holiness Pope Francis at Arrival Ceremony,” The White House, September 23, 2015.

20 “Address of His Holiness Pope Francis,” Joint Session of the Congress of the United States, September 24, 2015.

21 “Speech of Pope Francis to the Bishops of the United States,” St. Matthew's Cathedral, Washington, DC, September 23, 2015.

22 Una Cadegan, “Catholic Immigrants Didn't Make It on Their Own. They Shouldn't Expect Others To,” Washington Post, April 18, 2017,

23 O'Brien, David, “Literacy, Faith, and Church: An American Religious Perspective,” in Foundations of Religious Literacy, ed. Apczynski, John V. (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1983), 329 Google Scholar.

24 Ibid., 17.

25 Ibid., 24.

26 Ibid.

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