Catholic Lives, Contemporary Americaby Thomas J. Ferraro
What does it mean to be—or to have been raised—Catholic in America today, now that formally nonpracticing Catholics outnumber the memberships of any other single denomination? Catholic Lives, Contemporary America is a collection of informed and spirited essays focusing on Catholic lay practices not commonly recognized or, at times, officially sanctioned. For the formidable array of scholars and writers gathered here, being Catholic is not simply a matter of going to confession or attending Mass, and Catholicism’s contributions to American cultural identity remain open to question.
Edited and with an introduction by Thomas J. Ferraro, Catholic Lives, Contemporary America offers a banquet of essays and interviews, at once subtle and accessible, treating American Catholic lives and legacies with compassion and flair.
Contributors. Patrick Allitt, Paul Crowley, Thomas J. Ferraro, James T. Fisher, Paul Giles, Mary Gordon, Stanley Hauerwas, Frank Lentricchia, Robert A. Orsi, Camille Paglia, David Plante, Richard Rodriguez, Kathy Rudy, Andrew Sullivan, Mary Jo Weaver
Non-Catholics interested in the effects of anti-Catholicism on American culture, and persons interested in the impact of postmodernity on religion, will find much to ponder. Readers interested in the 'turn to ethnography' will find excellent examples of the genre. . . . In the editor's words, the collection is 'conflicted, polysemic, and syncretic.' Therein lies both its aggravations and charms.
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Catholic Lives, Contemporary America
By Thomas J. Ferraro
Duke University PressCopyright © 1997 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
THOMAS J. FERRARO
In the film Big Night (1996), set largely in a restaurant in the early 1950s, there is not a crucifix or a medallion, not a plaster cast of the Blessed Virgin or a picture of Pius XII anywhere in sight—at least not in plain sight. Yet its evocation of "gustatory sacramentalism" speaks with unprecedented power and clarity to a complex of Catholic practices that I was raised with (among other forms) and continue to pursue (with difficulty but not alone). By gustatory sacramentalism I mean food prepared with fierce dedication and fiercer hope: a banquet table made open to those who have always been there and to those this day passing by, and a resplendent insistent conviviality that renews love while forcing the hand of integrity. "To eat well—good food, really good food—is to come closer to God," the traditionalist chef, Primo, sputters in halted and exasperated English: the one obvious reference to what the nineteenth century denominated religion—inserted, alas, to make sure the philistines (as Primo terms them) get it.
Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott, the directors, mean not just to preach at the audience, but, ultimately, to seduce it, by performing, not just intoning, Primo's creed. Big Night aspires to what is almost a missionary practice: tempting, indeed graced hospitality in cinematic form. Such a practice is rooted in a single ethnic tradition—not just excellence, but gastronomic excellence, and not just any gastronomic excellence, but the traditions of Naples, Rome, and especially Bologna —yet it constitutes a religious vision that even in today's world has the hubris to claim universal wisdom and the chutzpah to imagine for itself a form—the movie—that calls to others beyond its institutional boundaries into identity, into communion, however liminally. Not just Italians and not just Christians, evidently enough, come to eat at Primo and his brother's place, and we in the audience are supposed to, too.
This collection of essays is meant as a banquet like Primo's, in which the food being served is splendiferous conversation and debate, auto-ethnography to revisionist purpose especially; the myriad cooks are spirited virtuoso writers, within and along the borders of the academy, who have thought much about contemporary Catholicism, yet through diverse professional lenses and with regard to different phenomenological foci; the topic is how Catholics have gotten and should go from here to there (from fifties self-assurance to nineties self-challenge, from intellectual insularity to congress, and from second-class cultural citizenship to center stage); and the guests of honor are our readers, of whatever experience or persuasion, who seek stronger, more original "stuff"—probing or subtle or just plain forthright—than what either the mass media can afford or the academic establishment has heretofore seen fit to circulate. It is a party of the intellect and the word, I wish to suggest, a long time in the making.
It ought to be a commonplace that there has long been, and to a certain extent continues to be, a marked discrepancy between the hyper-salience of Catholic matters in public discourse (especially contemporary matters) and their relative absence in academic discourse other than that sponsored by the Church and its orders (medieval and colonial history notwithstanding). In October of 1996, for instance, when a Durham, North Carolina, parish with an African American mission announced it was discontinuing its Sunday afternoon Spanish mass, the resultant walkout, modeled of course on black civil rights praxis, made front page and prime time. What resulted was sustained (if not always accurate) coverage, coverage explicable in part by the perceived threat, both within and without the parish, of ethnic disenfranchisement— a new pastor lacking Spanish but seeking unity, an African American community's rich traditions and meager resources put at risk by the migrant influx from Mexico and Central America—but also, on a larger scale, by a general fear of Catholic inroads into what is statistically the most Protestant fundamentalist state in the nation: if the U.S. Catholic hierarchy is once again fumbling the ball of Latino renewal, can massive conversions to Evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity be far behind?
It would come as a surprise, then, given such intensity of local interest and activity (we support two synagogues, one mosque, and more churches than you could count), that during my first five years in this very town, 1988-1993, Duke University carried on its books only one religious studies course in "The Roman Catholic Tradition," at the introductory level, and without regular faculty qualified to teach its developments after the Reformation; and not even one course in history and the social sciences focused on the Catholic presence in the United States after the French and Spanish conquests. A fact sobering in itself; disturbing, perhaps, given university demographics. In 1990, upwards of 40 percent of the undergraduate population at the university had at least one Catholic parent, or so one well-placed sociologist at the time discreetly estimated; whatever their backgrounds, 23 percent of the entire student body did in fact identify themselves, officially, as Catholic; and a startling 11 percent of the total student body attended the Sunday night (9:30 pm) mass on campus each week. Hereabouts folks refer ruefully to the undergraduate program as the State College of New Jersey at Durham, North Carolina, not without reason. It is into the breach between the anxious talk of the public at large ("What is to be done?") and the anxious silence of the non-Catholic academy ("Hopefully nothing has to") that this collection is launched.
As an American studies major in college—at Amherst, in the late 1970s—the only version of twentieth-century U.S. Catholicism that made a lasting impression on me was that of Garry Wills: a hermetic, near-singular Catholicism put into crisis in the mid-1960s by the symbiosis of its own design and the national moment. In Bare Ruined Choirs, Wills paints a lucid picture of midcentury homogeneity, of intellectual enclosure, of a world taken for granted, with enough detail and texture that to reread it today is to be taken in once again: yes, it was—wasn't it?—that way. "The church was enclosed, perfected in circular inner logic, strength distributed through all its interlocking aspects; turned in on itself, giving a good account of itself to itself—but so vulnerable, so fragile, if one looked outward, away from it." For Wills, the Church offered the near-true and hence unpenetrated illusion of changelessness as its primary value. The sixties were a wake-up call to another sense, another idea, entirely: "it let out the dirty little secret. It forced upon Catholics, in the most startling symbolic way, the fact that the church changes."
The inspiration for this volume was the sense that coming on the scene was a coterie of writers raised largely if not entirely after Vatican II, whose work treated Catholic lives—and the life of Catholicism—in the recent and contemporary United States in wondrous new ways: work that on the one hand was tutored outside the Catholic academy by the paradigms of self-division, dissensus, and contestation entailing gender and sexuality, ethnicity if not race, and blue-collar alienation; and that on the other hand (re)turned to disparate Catholic materials to recover for critical interrogation less-official, often unsuspected, and at critical points unsanctioned forms of Catholic practice. In their writing to date and here, these scholars and essayists identify disjunctive forms of experience and even dissensus predating Vatican II—tensions and fissures held in check by uniform liturgy and a web of familiarity, "changes" already under way or roads not taken; and they trace the trajectories of such modalities across the putative sixties watershed and its related passages (secularization, ethnic assimilation)—countervailing continuities that continue to surprise, or revolutionary pushes not yet in effect.
The practices these writers bring forward include street festivals and Mardi Gras, devotions to Mary and the communion of saints, the sanctification of the cripple, and the martyring ethos of the hospital auxiliary; New Left and Brown Power civil disobedience, the conservative think tanks and organs of policy debate, and quietist communions centered on working-class bars and professional playing fields; the visual and performing arts, not only Flannery O'Connor and Going My Way, but the films of Frank Capra and Alfred Hitchcock, beat writing and postmodern art, the stadium rock of Madonna and Springsteen, and cops-and-robbers TV; as well as the revisionary responses, active and contemplative, to the "gender crisis" (make that crises) in the Church, the topical but no less insistent matters of reproductive responsibility, the ordination of women, gay personhood, and AIDS devastation. What has emerged is a remarkable constellation of writing, known but not quite well enough known—a constellation warranting the refocus and provocation that dissemination across disciplinary boundaries begets.
During the postwar era of "consensus," U.S. academics, as a group, found ethnicity (including the ethnicities of Catholic immigrants) easy to talk about, and religion (Puritanism excepted) difficult, except (this may be a tautology) in sociological terms. We can begin to account for this. In the mid-1950s what John Murray Cuddihy has called the "no offense" pact was struck, on a brilliantly Protestant foundation of compromise, entailing a separate peace between private matters of the spirit and the American civil religion of liberal individualism. Tensions between cultures of faith and national vision were to be kept quiet, voiced only at home if at all, in houses of worship set apart. By 1955, sociologist Will Herberg had given denominational pluralism its classic articulation as a tripartite melting pot: Protestant-Catholic-Jew. The Catholics, especially, demurred. "The orthodox have no need of consolation," Mary Gordon recalls, "and a closed world has no need of descriptions of itself."
A problem, then: if the U.S. legacy of Protestant exceptionalism incorporated Catholicism as a minority sect, one denomination among others, what was supposed to happen to its antisectarian ideals; its dissent from Enlightenment individualism, from ethnic factionalism, from European-style nationalism; its belief in common humanity, common condition, common cause? Had the Roman Catholic conscience on such matters disappeared, or somehow gone underground, become a family secret? U.S. Catholic historiography, which flourished during the postwar period (under the rapprochement of John Tracy Ellis), suggested that what was actually going on behind immigrant doors was assimilation: the rededication of paganish folk Christianity to "Truth, Justice, and the American Way." Notre Dame's Touchdown Jesus existed; his flock was becoming legion; was it not he who stood for Catholic modernity in America? In the early 1970s, with the popular renewal of ethnic self-consciousness and the concomitant rise of the new social history, most chroniclers of immigration weren't so sure. But however much they emphasized cultural continuity—immigrants and their descendants now figured as the transplanted, not the uprooted— the social historians still weren't themselves talking faith, at least not very much, and not very loudly.
It was in the early 1990s, during the final stages of finishing a book on immigrant literature, that I first noticed testings of the accommodationist waters from the Catholic side—testings nearly as tough-minded and provocative as the rise of Black Atlantic studies, which took the lead. One monograph in particular, from 1985, recognized the vexed nature of the ethnicity/Catholicism dialectic, and went after it. In The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950, Robert A. Orsi investigated the reciprocal shaping, through the female-centered "domus" of East Harlem, between Italian migration and uncertain mobility on the one hand and immigrant women's piety and popular devotions to Mary on the other. Awarded the John Gilmary Shea Prize of the American Catholic Historical Association (ACHA), The Madonna of 115th Street was hailed by Philip Gleason (a former ACHA president) as the first "comprehensive analysis of the place of religion in the life of an American ethnic group" since 1932 (the publication year of a volume on Lutheran Swedes). To the Orthodox, the coming of the Italians must have felt like a mixed blessing, as usual: in crediting Italian-American spirituality, Orsi not only foregrounded the home over the institutional church, and the Sunday family meal over the eucharist, but went on to demystify the Marian Catholicism that reigned there. For my part, however, I sensed that the maternal focus and sublime empathy of The Madonna of 115th Street harbored more of a residual Marianism than Orsi (an offspring of its world) let on; and I believed, more importantly, that it was his combination of testament and suspicion (love and irony) that made the work, whatever its wellspring, so persuasive to almost all who read it: a natural crossover study if ever there was one.
Yet I remained unsure whether Orsi's Madonna, as well as several superb case studies that soon followed (by Paula Kane on the Irish of Boston, Ana María Díaz-Stevens on Puerto Ricans in New York, and Ramón A. Gutiérrez on mestizos in New Mexico), would find a significant audience outside the subdiscipline, and if so whether they would be read as complicating the rule of multiculturalism in American studies, or simply confirming it. What I feared was the long-standing strategy of intellectual containment, in which the sociology rubric enabled attention to Catholicism while circumscribing its impact; what I wondered about was the potential of Catholic history for reconceiving U.S. culture writ large, and the potential of a Catholic sensibility for reimagining the subject of history.
Thus my surprise—and pleasure—when in the early nineties I also began hearing religious inflections in cultural history more broadly, in art and literary criticism, and in intellectual journalism. In The Catholic Counterculture in America, 1933-1962 (1989), for instance, James T. Fisher relied upon the usual coterie of twentieth-century converts—Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton—to identify a counterhegemonic American mysticism, only to give us, in stunning illumination, beat icon Jack Kerouac and jungle doc Tom Dooley. In Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1990), Camille Paglia, at the time of publication an unknown professor at the Philadelphia College of the Arts, deployed a vivid catechistic style to pay homage to the visual mystery of a canonical line, with an irreverence toward humankind (especially mankind) foreign to the optative mood of U.S. criticism. Richard Rodriguez, whose analysis of the impact of Vatican II in Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1981) went virtually unnoticed in the controversy surrounding its politics of race and language, was now writing on sanctity and mourning in gay San Francisco, and on the Murrietta cult that possesses Mexican California, including its Jesuit priesthood—a trajectory that soon culminated in Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father (1992). Increasingly I was intrigued: who were these folks, and what did these apparent convergences mean? How aware were they of one another? Had anyone else taken notice?
Rodriguez likes to kvetch that as a writer he still gets classified as ethnic, Chicano, or, as he sardonically puts it, pocho, so that the full force of what he is doing—in Days of Obligation, especially—doesn't register. Like other things worth objecting to, the problem is not just Rodriguez's, but reflects several decades of decorous attribution, in which acknowledging ethnic identity screens out fundamentally religious energies. The label Latino might be said to be doing Rodriguez a favor—it is meant to incorporate him under current dispensations, however reluctantly—yet the scope and quality of his inquiry requires that that which dare not speaketh its name "on the American campus" be addressed head-on.
Excerpted from Catholic Lives, Contemporary America by Thomas J. Ferraro. Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Thomas J. Ferraro is Associate Professor of English at Duke University.
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