Okay, quick trivia questions.
1. Which American bishop wanted a vernacular liturgy 176 years before Vatican II?
2. What was the name of the pious former Episcopalian woman canonized in 1975?
3. Which Catholic politician said he would make his policy decisions “without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates”?
4. Which American bishop was elected first by a synod of priests and then confirmed afterward by the Vatican?
Those tidbit questions and much weightier ones arise from reading of Russell Shaw’s Catholics in America: Religious Identity and Cultural Assimilation from John Carroll to Flannery O’Connor.
Shaw is a prolific and accessible writer. He shows up in Our Sunday Visitor, has many books to his name and, for 17 years, directed media relations for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Here he presents 15 biographical sketches — each all too brief — of Catholic leaders spanning the years 1735 to 1965. All in some way reflect on Shaw’s interest in examining Catholic assimilation to and in American culture.
It is a mixed bag, should you wonder. Each of these folks — native and immigrant — sought to relate being Catholic to America and America to being Catholic. In the case of a few, they perhaps slipped and sought a Catholicism that would be thoroughly Americanized.
Reading these 15 brief portraits will, as Archbishop Charles Chaput put it, help readers “in understanding the dilemmas and paradoxes of the Catholic Church in America.”
Yet it is one thing to be Catholic in an overwhelmingly Christian, though Protestant, culture. The language between Catholics and Protestants essentially is a shared one. But as the relentless secularization of American life proceeds and as mainline Protestantism more and more identifies with a secularist cultural agenda, the genuine oddness of being Catholic is becoming more and more apparent. There is, to Shaw’s concern, a growing secularist onslaught against Catholicism. As John Kennedy declared it, religion is private, politics is public. If there is a contest, public wins.
Trivia answers: 1 and 4: John Carroll. 2: Elizabeth Ann Seton. 3: John F. Kennedy