In Search of an American Catholicism

Jay P. Dolan
Boston College

Date: October 22, 2002

Event Recap

On October 22nd, Jay Dolan, Professor of History at Notre Dame, gave a talk at the Boisi Center from his new book In Search of An American Catholicism: A History of Religion and Culture in Tension (Oxford, 2002). The talk offered a timely historical perspective at a time when grass roots movements calling for the greater empowerment of the laity are gathering momentum. Dolan’s book addresses the contemporary and historical conflict between American democratic values and the authoritarianism of the Catholic Church. In trying to understand how American Catholicism has been shaped by the cultural context of the United States, Dolan has written an “interpretive essay” focusing on the intersection of Catholicism and culture in five areas: democracy, religious liberty, devotion, national identity, and gender.

Dolan focused his talk at the Boisi Center on the theme of democracy and how it has impacted the Catholic experience in America over its history. Beginning with the story of how the first bishop in the US was actually elected by the clergy in the 18th century, Dolan traced the shift towards a more European model with the influx of Irish and Italian immigrants in the 19th century. An audience member also pointed out that the United States was long seen as a missionary church by the Vatican, and thus more directly under Papal authority than Catholic churches in other countries which had more autonomy. Yet Dolan feels that “democracy is bubbling up” in American Catholics again, citing the Voice of the Faithful as an example, and going on to speculate that this trend could continue and change the relationship between the Church and America.