Saturday, December 03, 2016


Catholics in America: Religious Identity and Cultural Assimilation from John Carroll to Flannery O'Connor.  By Russell Shaw, Ignatius Press, 2016.


Champion of Women and the Unborn: Horatio Robinson Storer, M.D.  By Frederick N. Dyer, Science History Publications, 1999.



What should the role of Catholicism in the public sphere be?  How should Catholics live their faith and try to shape the broader American culture?  In Catholics in America and Champion of Women and the Unborn, Russell Shaw and Frederick N. Dyer profile sixteen Catholics who had a distinct impact on America, though in very different ways.  


Shaw is very concerned about American political culture, and worries that American Catholics are inclined to dilute or even repudiate aspects of their faith in order to better fit into the general stream of American popular opinion.  He opens his book with an observation of the conditions of church and state in the U.S.


“In my parish church, as also, I suppose, in many another Catholic church in the United States, two flags are prominently displayed.  One is the Stars and Stripes.  The other, unfamiliar to most Americans, including many Catholics, is the gold and white flag of Vatican City, with the papal coat of arms– the keys of Peter and the papal tiara– imposed upon the vertical white band.  In many churches, the two flags flank the sanctuary as if to salute the sacred ritual celebrated there.  In mine, they hang from the choir loft at the back of the church, where they seem to be maintaining a benign surveillance of the congregation.


In all my years of visiting Catholic churches, I’ve never heard anyone, priest of layperson, say a word about the symbolism of the two flags, perhaps because it’s so obvious that it doesn’t need explaining.  Their message plainly is twofold: first, that Catholics have a dual loyalty– to the Church and to the United States; second, that there is no conflict here.  On the contrary, their reply to the ancient question, “Can you be a good Catholic and a good American?” appears to be an implied, “Who says I can’t?””


Many Catholic pundits have noted that Americanism is considered a heresy, by which it is generally meant that American politics and social attitudes should not be given precedence over the teachings of the Church.  (It might be fair to inquire whether comparable criticism has ever been given to “Europeanism.”)    Shaw is concerned that secular and even anti-Catholic forces are affecting all aspects of American Catholic cultural life, and suggests that Catholics should play a more active role in determining the directions that America takes.  This attitude reflects the Chesterton quote, “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.”  Shaw muses,


“For the most part, that [the idea of Americanization] has remained conventional wisdom to this day.  Now, though, this may be changing.  In recent years, it’s become increasingly clear that the Church needs to rethink the old project of unconditional assimilation into American secular culture.  Yes, assimilation has been the preferred strategy of Catholic leadership since John Carroll.  But should it always be?  A persuasive argument can be made that it needn’t and shouldn’t.  For the cost of assimilation to the Church has grown unacceptably high as the secular culture has become ever more inhospitable to Catholic beliefs and values, a process now observable on issues from abortion and same-sex marriage to the creeping economic strangulation of parochial schools.  Currently the question has particular urgency in light of the presence in the United States of yet another large body of mainly Catholic newcomers: the Hispanics.”


In order to explain the influences that Catholics have played in American history, and how they inspired other Catholics to play more public roles in their culture, increasingly, major political figures have argued that people have the right to worship as they see fit, but they ought not to allow their personal beliefs to interfere with the dictates of the state.  There are widespread arguments that some cultural debates need to be settled, and Catholics should not try to influence or shake up the decreed consensus.  Shaw argues that this is nonsense, and Catholics have a moral obligation to keep involved and to shake up the current political, intellectual, and cultural state of affairs.  He asks,


“Can we still be fully Catholic while also being fully American in American secular terms?  The response of many Catholics today is simply more assimilation into the values and behavior patterns of the society that surrounds them.  But for a remnant of believing, practicing Catholics, it’s a different story.  These people find themselves increasingly alienated from the secular society and deeply concerned to know what to do about it.  Perhaps they will find some help in what follows.


Several themes are at work here, exemplified by the following fifteen influential American Catholics: Archbishop Carroll and Cardinal Gibbons– the assimilation option as it has been accepted and promoted by leaders of the Church in the United States; Saint Elizabeth Seton, Father McGivney, and Al Smith– anti-Catholicism and the Catholic response; Archbishop Hughes and Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini– the immigrant experience; Cardinal Spellman– hyperpatriotism as an assimilation mode; Dorothy Day, Archbishop Sheen, Flannery O’Connor– the ambiguities of American culture; Orestes Brownson and Isaac Hecker– the feasibility of evangelization; John Kennedy and John Courtney Murray– resolving the tension between church and state.


Let me reply at the start to a possible objection: this is not an unpatriotic book.  “My country, right or wrong” – words associated with the early nineteenth-century American naval hero Stephen Decatur and later repeated, with disastrous results, but Cardinal Spellman– expresses an unassailably correct sentiment, provided the sentiment is understood to be, “No matter how foolishly or unjustly my country may act, it’s still my country.”  But this fundamental acknowledgement of national filiation does not excuse patriotic citizens from criticizing their country when it acts foolishly or unjustly, and trying their best to get the country to stop doing that.  These things, too, are expressions of patriotism, indeed arguably more useful than blind acquiescence.”


Dyer, our second author, takes a very different approach to outlining the public role played by Horation Robinson Storer, a physician who Dyer believes saved so many lives that most Americans wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for his innovations in women’s medicine.  Dyer’s website includes the following description of Storer’s career:


“The Boston surgeon, Horatio Robinson Storer, M.D. (1830-1922), is known for his key role in creating the specialty of gynecology[and for being the first surgeon to remove a pregnant uterus.[ The diseases peculiar to women were little understood and poorly treated when Storer began medical practice in 1853.  Medical specialization of any kind was unacceptable to physicians at that time and a physician who paid attention to the female genitals was particularly suspect, given that there were “quacks” who pandered to women's non-medical needs.  Horatio faced strong resistance to his campaign to promote gynecology, particularly from powerful Boston physicians and surgeons who also were upset because Horatio advocated chloroform, the anesthetic discovered by his Scottish mentor, Dr. (later Sir) James Young Simp­son.  Ether was worshipped in Boston where it was the anesthetic used when anesthetic surgery was first demonstrated to the world in 1846.  Chloroform, ether's most serious competitor, was hated by these “Etherites.”” (


Storer was instrumental in saving lives through passing laws against abortion (the crude procedures of which led to the deaths of countless women during the nineteenth century), pioneers safer anesthesia, and fought the medical establishment tooth and nail to institute innovations that would save many lives.  Though some of his beliefs about women might be considered sexist today, they were common for the time, and in any case, over the course of his career Storer launched so many life-saving initiatives that millions– perhaps tens of millions– of Americans owe him a very great debt.  Storer converted to Catholicism later in life after marrying a Catholic woman, and his life is certainly what Shaw would consider an exemplary case of a Catholic shaping the public sphere.


Shaw and Dyer have created profiles of people who have changed America in very different ways, and these biographical sketches serve as an excellent way to inspire Catholics to live their faith and “be the change that they want to see in the world.”




–Chris Chan