American Conversations With(in) Catholicism

The jacket photo for John T. McGreevy’s Catholicism and American Freedom is striking. In the foreground, a young and vigorous Pope John Paul II, censer in hand, strides across an altar platform on the Mall in Washington, D.C. His attention is fixed off-camera, presumably at the altar he is about to reverence with incense. At the bottom of the picture, gathered around and below the platform, sits a grainy group of mitre-wearing bishops. Looming directly over the scene, in the background yet dominating the photograph, is the towering dome of the U.S. Capitol Building. This picture is worth many thousand words; it evokes and captures many of the events described, themes developed, and debates presented in this excellent book. The crowd of faceless bishops, lurking beneath the foundations of the Capitol, recalls the famous Thomas Nast cartoon depicting a mass of crawling crocodile-like prelates who, with toothy, gaping mitres, stalk Tammany-abandoned schoolchildren cowering in the ruins of the public schools and armed only with the Holy Bible. That the Church’s rituals are proceeding in our most public of public squares, in the shadow of the unmistakably churchlike seat of our national government, reminds us that our “separation of church and state” has long been anything but strict, and perhaps also that even our professedly secular state has at times demanded faithlike loyalty to its own political orthodoxies. That the Capitol dome so resembles that of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London highlights the tension between Catholicism and American’s Protestant origins, traditions, and premises. In the picture, the Pope occupies an in-between place, as Catholics in America often have: he appears both suspended and intent on mediating between the ancient, hierarchical Church he leads and the modern, democratic nation he is addressing. His posture is neither defensive nor defiant, but confident. It is as if his aim is not to impose a conclusion, but to propose a claim and to initiate a conversation.