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Catholicism and American Freedom: A History
Catholicism and American Freedom: A History
John T. McGreevy
W. W. Norton & Company, 2003
448 pp., $26.95

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by Allen Guelzo


Catholic + American = ?

How a communal body made its peace with liberal democracy.

I can't remember the details of my first encounter with the Roman Catholic Church. This is because it happened shortly after I was born, in a Yokohama army hospital, where the Catholic obstetrician in charge of my introduction to the world performed a convenience baptism on the spot. But I encountered it soon enough in more recognizable forms, since my grandfather was born Irish, Catholic, and South Philadelphian, and that translated into large networks of Catholic kin and frequent funeral masses for the elders.

Not that my grandfather was insistent on having me pay attention to Catholicism. He had left the Church decades before, a quiet, skeptical, good-humored paperhanger who bridled at the notion of submitting to the dictates of the parish priest. My grandmother was a fervent Protestant, raised a Methodist by an immigrant Swedish father, who himself had been converted under Dwight L. Moody. She was just as fervent an anti-Catholic, and by her dismissive reckoning, Catholics (with almost no exceptions) were loutish, drunken, conscienceless pigs. But attendance at the funerals could not be negotiated. At age eight, I was planted on a sofa in a funeral parlor while a room packed with black-draped mourners for my 100-year-old Irish great-grandmother tonelessly chanted Hail Marys and Our Fathers and Seven Sorrowful Mysteries. All of which fell on my stripling ears like so much gobbledygook, and after that, I was on my grandmother's side. Catholics were pigs.

It gave me one of the great shocks of my life, a decade later, when the girl I was then deeply enamored of—a Catholic—laughed out loud when I told her I thought Catholics must be liberals. After all, they drank, smoked, danced, fornicated, ran to the confessional to belch it all away, and then returned to their behavioral vomit for more. She told me I didn't know what I was talking about, that Catholics were the most ultra-conservative, strait-laced, buttoned-up people on the earth's wide face. They led lives of guilt ...

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