Catholic Church, St. Mary's
City, Maryland in the simple
American Recusant style
In my courses on the history of the Catholic Church in the United States I show the students that there has existed two distinct Catholic Churches in the American Republic for two hundred years now. One Catholic Church is represented by the colonial tradition brought by English Recusants to the Maryland colony with the Ark and the Dove in 1634. Led by Jesuit Father Andrew White the Catholic settlers in Maryland brought the discreet Catholicism of Stuart England. Due to the penal laws in England, it was a sober Catholicism where devotional life was centered in the family and devoid of the public spectacles of Continental Catholicism. Its spirituality, impregnated with the heritage of its Jesuit chaplains, was centered about the person and life of Jesus Christ and it was a faith of spiritual reading and meditative prayer. Its churches were simple and its liturgy plain in the recusant style. This was the Catholicism of John Carroll and Leonard Neale. It fit in well with the American Republic and its democratic traditions. It was glad to be rid of monarchy and monarchial style—the Catholics universally supporting the War of Independence and embracing the new Republic. Its new Cathedral in Baltimore, the Basilica of the Assumption designed in the neo-classic Federal Style by Benjamin Latrobe, was devoid of statues even of Christ and his Mother. Its clergy, including Archbishop Carroll, wore simple clothes in the lay style but in black or darker shades and without ornamentation. Its nuns—Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton’s Sisters of Charity, eschewed veils and wimples for the sober dress and bonnets characteristic of widows in the early nineteenth century.
With the waves of immigration that began coming after 1830, another Catholic Church took root in the United States. Initially predominately German, it was soon supplemented by Italians and later by Poles and refugees from what was the Hapsburg Empire. Here came the tradition of public processions in the streets and churches rich with stained glass and statuary. Here came devotion to myriad saints from long ago and faraway places. (The Irish—having lost their traditions after three centuries of English Persecution—mostly identified more with the old American/Recusant heritage.) This immigrant Catholicism and old American Catholicism barely recognized one another as sharing the same faith. At first the American bishops tried to suppress the European Continental Catholicism or at least confine it to ethnic parishes but it was not to be contained. After a period of time it divided along ethnic and more importantly along class lines with the older (and more upper-crust) American families preferring a more sober approach to their faith and the immigrant traditions and working classes liking the more colorful and distinctive expression of Catholicism. This is far more simplistic than I would like it to be but one can only do so much in a blog entry.
I think since the Second Vatican Council a second division has cut cross-wise through the American Church. Again we have two churches. We have a Church that looks to the past and cherishes the distinctiveness of Catholic identity with its rich ethnic heritage. There is a strong move to build churches again in the baroque style, filled with color and stained glass and statues. There is a desire for outdoor processions where priests show off their silk and brocade robes to our mundane world of jeans and sweatshirts. There is a desire to restore the pomp and power that characterized the Church of the first half of the twentieth century. I know I make relentless fun of Cardinal Burke and others for their long trains of silk and their fur wraps, but the desire is to hold on to the power that bishops and cardinals once had—and through them we as Church had—over politicians and newspapers for fear of alienating the masses of Catholics who were blindly loyal to their institutional leaders. We resent the loss of power and influence and even mistake this shift as “persecution” or impingements on religious freedom.
On the other hand there are Catholics today who look not to this past—glorious as it was—but to the future and see the vocation of the Church to be for service. Cardinal Dulles, in his book on the Catholicity of the Church, says that the first millennium of the Church was characterized by witness, the second by power and the third will be characterized by service. There are those in the Church who are ready to renounce the drive for power and to move into this third millennium and take up the vocation of service. They see the Church as here to be servant to the world and think that these signs of earthly power—the long robes, the kissing of hands and rings, the quasi-imperial edicts emitting from bishops like Fabian Bruskewitz, late of Lincoln, or Thomas Olmstead of Phoenix or Cardinal Burke, once of Saint Louis—are anachronisms that make the Church appear, well as the late Cardinal Martini said, 200 years out of date.
Those who look to the future tend to identify more with the old American tradition; those who relish the past identify more with the immigrant tradition. Both are Catholic. Both are American. But at times we look at one another and wonder how—and if—we are in the same Church at all.