Catholicism in *Anti-Intellectualism in American Life*
March 15, 2005 11:23 AM   Subscribe

As a non-Catholic, I have a (very long) question about the depiction of American Catholicism in Richard Hofstadter's book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.

I’ve been reading Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (which I ended up purchasing because of a post in this thread: thanks to spock for mentioning the book). I’m about 150 pages in, and Hofstadter seems to be making a fairly complex argument that links the rise of a certain "anti-intellectualist" attitude in American culture of the 1950s and 1960s to tendencies of thought in Protestant fundamentalism and evangelicalism. Hofstadter is very careful to distinguish between evangelicalism and other strains of Christianity that place a greater value on theology and Biblical scholarship; he is also very careful to distinguish between fundamentalism and evangelicalism. His opinions are generally objective, though he leans toward liberalism.

At the end of the section of the book that is most concerned with religion, there is “A Note on American Catholicism.” It’s a pretty damning indictment, especially considering what I perceive to be the fairly even-handed tone of the rest of the book. Some quotes follow, but you should not consider these quotes to be sufficiently representative of the entire text. The best answers to this question are likely to come from those who look at the primary text, on pages 136-141 of the book. These pages can be viewed online with Amazon’s Search Inside the Book feature. The phrase “Catholicism was, moreover, the religion of the immigrant” will bring up pages 136-140, and the phrase “to me one Bishop, Archbishop, or Cardinal” will bring up pages 137-141.

Here are two sample quotes.

“In these pages I have been mainly concerned with the relationship between Protestant evangelicalism and American anti-intellectualism simply because America has been a Protestant country, molded by Protestant institutions. It would be a mistake, however, to fail to note the distinctive ethos of American Catholicism, which has contributed in a forceful and decisive way to our anti-intellectualism. [...] One might have expected Catholicism to add a distinctive leaven to the intellectual dialogue in America, bringing as it did a different sense of the past and of the world, a different awareness of the human condition and of the imperatives of institutions. In fact, it has done nothing of the kind, for it has failed to develop an intellectual tradition in America or to produce its own class of intellectuals capable either of exercising authority among Catholics or of mediating between the Catholic mind and the secular or Protestant mind."

“Indeed, one of the most striking developments of our time has been the emergence of a kind of union, or at least a capacity for cooperation, between Protestant and Catholic fundamentalists, who share a common puritanism and a common mindless militancy on what they imagine to be political issues, which unite them in opposition to what they repetitively call Godless Communism. [...] After more than a century of persecution, it must feel luxurious for Catholics to find their Americanism at last unquestioned, and to be able to join with their former persecutors in common pursuit of a new international, conspiratorial, un-American enemy with a basically foreign allegiance--this time not in Rome but in Moscow. The pursuit is itself so gratifying that it does not much matter that the menacing domestic Communist has become a phantom. These Catholics will not thank anyone, not even thinkers of their own faith, for interrupting them with such irrelevances at a time when they feel as though they have Cromwell’s men themselves on the run.”

I’m not a Catholic (though I know enough about Catholicism to be able to read James Joyce or Flannery O'Connor). So I have the following questions. All of these responses will necessarily be subjective, and you may not be able to answer all of them. Personal anecdotes are welcome. General condemnations of Catholic doctrine are unlikely to answer my question.

1. In your opinion, is the intellectual tradition in the American Catholic Church as it is represented here--that is, is it represented by an insufficiently vocal minority?

2. In your opinion, has there been a change in the character of the intellectual tradition of the American Catholic Church between 1963 (the publication date of Hofstadter’s book) and the present day?

3. Are there passages in Hofstadter’s description of American Catholicism that strike you as surprisingly accurate, or surprisingly inaccurate? If so, why?
posted by Prospero to Religion & Philosophy (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
#2 exposes the most important way that Hofstatder is dated-- after 1963, American Catholics were at the forefront of a series of movements which were, if anything, excessively tolerant of Marxism -- the anti-Vietnam War movement in the late 60s and early 70s and the liberation theology movement of the mid to late 70s and early 1980s which tolerated, and at some extremes embraced, openly Marxist revolutionary movements throughought Latin America and, to a lesser extent, in Africa.

By the mid-1980s, three factors -- the appeal of Ronald Reagan, the staunch anti-Marxism of John Paul II, and the complete commitment of balance of the left to abortion on demand -- more or less curbed the leftist tendency in the American Church.
posted by MattD at 12:00 PM on March 15, 2005

Oy. What a question. I used to be Catholic, if you find that disclosure necessary.

1. Perhaps what he means. Catholicism historically changes very slowly over time and is very unreflective of the past as well as fearful of what may contradict its teachings. One thing that fundamental Catholics pride themselves on is that their religion hasn't changed much at all since its inception (obviously Vatican II was a tectonic shift in the religion). Something that a person can conclude from this is that a person who is Catholic is thusly, unreflective, not willing to challenge beliefs, and undesirous of change. This is obviously an opinion.

2. Vatican II in the mid-60s was a huge change. It liberalized the church's teachings and numerous ways and helped the Catholic church enter the 20th century in many respects. I suggest looking it up on Wiki for a broad overview.

3. I'm hard pressed to think of really any great religious American thinkers or intellectuals of the 20th century. There are those that used religion for social purposes, Martin Luther King for example, but I would reckon that having a core set of beliefs either liberal or conservative doesn't make a person any less capable of complex or inspiring thought.
posted by Arch Stanton at 12:01 PM on March 15, 2005

As an ex-Catholic, I'd also say that there is a intellectual American Catholic tradition (most often associated with the Jesuits), but that it's been largely channeled into the academic sphere rather than the public one. More recently, liberation theology has also been associated with the Jesuits, but primarily in Latin America.
posted by scody at 12:42 PM on March 15, 2005

Yeah; anything written on American Catholicism in 1963 is bound to be out-of-date in a dire way. Vatican II (1962-1965) wrought massive changes.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:45 PM on March 15, 2005

My credentials: Raised as an Italian Catholic and have gone to Catholic school from birth to now (college junior). I no longer go to church but attend a Jesuit university -- so I'm pretty up on Catholic teachings. Also I should mention I went from wealthy suburb Catholic school to urban core Jesuit university -- so I have a pretty broad range of Catholicism experiences.

This is a pretty complex topic as you clearly realize. I have several Catholic theology books that I'm basically summarizing here. I hope I'm answering your question and not delving into tangents, so I apologize in advance for my ramblings...

First, many Catholics might not realize this and may even be irate about it, but you can dissent from many Catholic teachings and still be considered Catholic. Abortion, divorce, and birth control are by no means open and shut cases. There is serious dissent by Roman Catholic bishops, cardinals and especially the Greek Orthodox Church. Aside, they are considered part of the Catholic church, they could listen in and debate in Vatican II but not vote -- the pope has also made significant steps to reunite the two churches as much as possible, including destroying the papal bull against the Greek church. Most of the hot button topics would be the exact opposite of what we would expect them to be if the pope had not intervened on several occassions and said "nope" to the various councils. This is especially true when the pope stuffed a council full of conservatives on birth control and they ultimately decided for birth control until the pope intervened. If you'd like to read more about intellectual debates within the church check out "Why you can disagree and still remain a good Catholic", it's an easy read.

From my personal experience however, the Catholic Church is woefully human. From a pre-Jesuit college perspective I was given a very conservative "no debate, God says so" teaching in high school and grade school. This was more to do with a few conservative parents pressuring the schools and parishes. For the most part parish priests are very well educated and understand that decrees from Pope John II aren't set in stone (nothing is, unless it's Ex Cathedra -- and that's only happened two or three times). Of course the few conservative members who believe abortion is equal to the holocaust are usually those who tythe the most to the church and are most involved, they are understandly more likely to cater to these. Probably as a reflection of our country as a whole, there are Catholics who find strength in ultra-conservatism and will do anything to keep things from changing and there is the rest of the majority who just roll their eyes.

That being said, when I entered college I was even surprised by even Jesuits who were very, very liberal. Intellectualism is not only encouraged it's pretty much mandatory. The general feeling I get is that the Pope is somewhat outdated and no one wants to pin any anti-intellectualism on him, instead they just tear apart his ideas. I'm exagerrating slightly, Jesuits are definitely very faithful but their faith does not rely on the highly legalistic church doctrines but on scholarly research (Greek and Hebrew interpretations of the Bible, modern philosophy and logic). That's pretty much the definition of intellectual.

Perhaps some of the notions of anti-intellectualism comes from Catholics (Jesuits including) reverency of the church. They aren't going to come out and say "free condoms!" in face of the church, but will demonstrate that the possibility to disagree exists. I hope that makes sense.
posted by geoff. at 1:28 PM on March 15, 2005

My experience is somewhat similar to geoff.'s, but I don't know that I can group my thoughts on the matter as cohesively. A few things that occurred to me:

1. Hofstadter's right to call Catholocism an immigrant's religion. As such, I don't understand why he would be suprised by it being subsumed into the general culture rather than standing out.

2. I think whatever strain of Catholic intellectualism exists in this country is well hidden inside the separate educational system. I went to Catholic school for Grades 1-12 and the education was not "conservative". High school was an adjunct of a Benedictine monastery which contained all sorts of different thinkers. The public face of that monastery is currently someone who gets arrested at abortion protests, but I can promise you any number of his "brothers" think he's an ass and disagree strongly with his ideas.

3. The reason (as I see it) why the scholastic tradition described in #2 doesn't lead to a (useful) public intellectual stance is because, as George Carlin said about his elementary school, they're so liberal in what they allow you to think, "they made non-believers out of us". If there is a great intellectual achievement in Catholic thought in this country, it's the number of people (here and IRL) who describe themselves as lapsed Catholics. There are people who vociferously declare themselves no longer Catholic, as though they passed a psychic knife between the Now them and the Then them, but my experience (skewed by the fact I grew up in a heavily Catholic state in a Catholic family) is that most people just don't think of themselves as part of the gang anymore, mainly because they don't attend services. And I can't complain about a "religious upbringing" whose end result is a large number of people who think for themselves.

I realize that's not everyone's experience and it doesn't apply to life previous to 1980 or so, but there you go.
posted by yerfatma at 2:05 PM on March 15, 2005

Thanks for all your comments, posters--if I don't mark a "best answer", it's because they're all good, and the sum total of responses is more informative than each individual one. (If anyone else has something to say, feel free--the more data points, the better.)

What's interesting to me is that, though Hofstadter's remarks concerning American Catholicism are clearly dated, most of the remarks made in the thread seem to be in line with a few of his general theses--that liberal and intellectualist factions of religious groups tend to become ascendant during periods when the general public is in a state of protest, for example (see MattD's comment). geoff.'s fourth and fifth paragraphs also touch on things that Hofstadter says or implies regarding relationships between liberalism, religion, and education (though since I've written enough already in my first post, I won't go into that here).
posted by Prospero at 2:47 PM on March 15, 2005

Hofstadter was thinking of the anti-Communist element in American Catholicism represented by people like the radio broadcaster Father Coghlan, Senator Joseph McCarthy and, above all, Cardinal Spellman (1889-1967), the most powerful American Catholic prelate of his day and still a major public figure at the time Hofstadter was writing. (The FBI website includes some fascinating declassified documents which tell you all you need to know about Spellman's political sympathies; he was a rabid anti-Communist and a good friend of J. Edgar Hoover.)

If you are interested in the intellectual climate of American Catholicism in the 1950s and 1960s, you should look at the novels and short stories of J.F. Powers. As well as being beautifully written, they are fascinating social documents which shed light on the intellectual complacency of postwar American Catholicism in a way that tends to bear out Hofstadter's indictment. One of his best stories, 'The Forks', is about the conflict between two priests living in the same clergy-house; the younger priest is a liberal who reads The Catholic Worker, the older priest is a rigid conservative who is constantly denouncing 'atheistic communism'. Father Eudex, the young priest, represents the liberal wind of change blowing through American Catholicism, but his superior, 'Monsignor' (we never learn his full name), is a ruthless authoritarian who refuses to tolerate any expression of dissent. Read the whole thing.

But Vatican II changed everything; and the Catholicism of the Spellman era now seems unimaginably remote. Read Andrew Greeley or Garry Wills if you want the flavour of intellectual life in American Catholicism today. Even John Paul II, conservative though he undoubtedly is, has been greatly influenced by post-Vatican II intellectual movements; and I would describe him as a neo-conservative Catholic rather than a palaeo-conservative like Spellman.
posted by verstegan at 2:47 PM on March 15, 2005

Some of the most intellectually curious, critically thoughtful people I have ever known have been Catholic priests (and they were not in an academic setting). I have also met some incredibly close-minded, doctrine-spewing Catholic clergy.

While they may be in a minority, I think there are a good number of priests who are attempting to provide the "distinctive leaven to the intellectual dialogue" that Hofstadter mentions.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:00 PM on March 15, 2005

A couple of data points:

Paul Elie's "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" includes an interesting perspective on the rise of public Catholic intellectuals in the 20th Century, paralleling the lives of four prominent Catholic writers (Merton, Percy, O'Connor and Day) [three of whom converts, IIRC] and the changing landscape of the 20th Century.

Vatican II definitely made a major impact on the public face of Catholicism, as Robert Giroux points out in the introduction to a recent re-issue of Merton's "The Seven Storey Mountain", where he takes Merton to task for the rigidity of some of his anti-Protestant statements (Merton a former Protestant). Giroux notes the changing climate afforded by Vatican II and supposes that Merton would probably have changed his tone, but that the book is a snapshot of Catholic life in the mid-1940s.
posted by sagwalla at 1:09 AM on March 16, 2005

Thanks for the additional comments. verstegan: I've never heard of J. F. Powers, but he seems like one of those highly talented but woefully neglected writers that America produces now and again. I'll put him on my reading list.

Also, those FBI documents might not be a bad thing to post in the blue.
posted by Prospero at 5:04 AM on March 16, 2005

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