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Can Catholics Be 'Real Americans'?"

Mark Brumley

Mortimer Adler once told the story of a Great Books seminar about Dante’s Paradiso in which Robert Hutchins described the saints in heaven as entranced by beatific vision. "Is that all they do all day long is just look at God?" a leader from the business world asked. "Yes," answered Hutchins, "that’s what they do." "I regard that as un-American," objected the business leader.

If that businessman were correct, then "American saint" would be a contradiction in terms. For saints–American or otherwise–are those who "see God face-to-face" in the beatific vision. If there’s a contradiction between that and "being Americans," then "being Americans" must have taken a back seat in the saints’ case. Then too the objection could be taken as a faint echo of the old anti-Catholic bromide that the Church of Rome, including its cult of the saints, is fundamentally and inherently contrary to the American way of life. "Rum, Romanism and Rebellion," on this view, extends to would-be "American" Catholic saints as much as to the not-so-saintly would-be "American" Catholics.

But "it ain’t so." Being a Catholic isn’t un-American, so being fully Catholic–being a saint–isn’t either. America is what her people make of her. American saints have both drawn from and added to the stock of American life. They have benefited from the noble American vision of fundamental human equality and opportunity for all, even as they have worked tirelessly to make that vision a reality in the lives of ordinary people and their institutions. In short, they were Real Americans.

There is–or should be–a give-and-take between lived Christianity and the culture in which it is lived. This is what theologians call inculturation, a greatly misunderstood term in the post-conciliar era, to be sure. Inculturation is a fancy way of saying that the Gospel both expresses itself through authentic human culture and draws unto itself elements of that culture so that the Church may carry on the mission of the Christ in history. Genuine inculturation avoids "selling out" to the culture (or the world) on the one hand and isolating one’s expression of Christianity from everything around it on the other. American saints are models of authentic inculturation, immersed in the American world, yet not of it.

The Saintly Contribution

An outstanding example of the authentic interplay between a saintly living of the Catholic faith and American culture is St. Katharine Drexel (1858-1955), sometimes called the "millionaire nun." Born into the family of a prominent Philadelphia banker, Francis Drexel, Katharine Drexel didn’t have to search for the American dream: she had only to inherit it. Yet unlike many wealthy Protestants, Katharine Drexel was not satisfied with philanthropy, as generous an expression of charity that that might have been. On a visit to Pope Leo XIII in 1883, she asked how Indians and "colored people" could be helped. "Why don’t you become a missionary?" was the Pope’s answer. In other words, not "Why don’t you give money to the missions?" (which she had already done), but "Why don’t you give yourself?"

Katharine Drexel did. She joined the Sisters of Mercy in Pittsburgh and a few years later founded her own order. Some $20 million of her father’s estate was used to establish missions to provide for the education of Indians and blacks in whose service St. Katharine established the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. She also founded some 49 convents and 62 schools. In 1915, she founded a co-educational high school in New Orleans for blacks. Ten years later, it became Xavier University, the only historically black Catholic college in the United States.

The Woman Who Always Prays

Then there is St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, who left her mark on America and the Church in America a few years before Katharine Drexel was born. Like Drexel, Duchesne was born into wealth and political influence. Unlike her Philadelphia-born sister in religion, Philippine Duchesne was an immigrant, as were most early Catholic leaders in America. Put bluntly, she and her sisters were convent, orphanage, and school-founding missionary machines.

Her story began in Grenoble, France, in 1769. An inquisitive child, she was intrigued by tales of the Indians told by Jesuit missionaries who visited her home. She also had an early passion for the poor, which would flower into vibrant love for those in need. Her mother was devout, but her father was something of a "freethinker," which accounts for why he wanted his pious daughter to marry and even selected a prospective husband to whom to betroth her. He staunchly opposed her decision to join the Visitation Order in 1788, but join she nevertheless did, refusing to leave the convent upon a visit. With the onslaught of the Revolution, the issue was moot; she couldn’t make her profession and had to return home.

She continued to live a religious life despite the outlawing of religious orders in France. She joined a movement of women religious called the Ladies of Mercy, who ministered to poor, sick and dying people. After the Revolution, she tried to reclaim the Visitation convent, but wound up turning it over to St. Madeleine Sophia Barat, foundress of the Society of the Sacred Heart. Philippine joined the order.

In stepped Bishop William Du Bourg of New Orleans, who needed nuns for his vast Louisiana diocese. Philippine Duchesne arrived in the United States in 1818 and was sent, with four of her nuns, to St. Charles, Missouri, just northwest of St. Louis. Immediately, she and the other sisters got down to business. They opened a school, built a convent in nearby Florissant, an orphanage, parish school, an Indian school, a boarding academy and, to keep a steady flow of young blood, a novitiate for the order. But she wasn’t content to let only St. Charles and Florissant reap the fruits of the sisters’ labors. For good measure, she also founded a convent, orphanage and parish school in St. Louis.

Often the story of the American founding is told in terms of frontiersmen and rags-to-riches industrialists, whose drive to succeed supposedly built the nation from the ground up. Yet, in her own way, Philippine Duchesne was similarly driven. Not for material success or empire-building; her passion was Jesus Christ and those for whom he died. The only empire she knew was the Kingdom of God, the seed of which she and other missionaries planted on the frontier of the burgeoning United States. Hers was a riches-to-rags story; her "industry," storing up treasure in heaven.

At age 72, Philippine Duchesne opened a school for the Potowatamu Indians in Sugar Creek, Kansas. She could hardly speak English when she thrust herself in a situation to learn a completely different tongue. She never did, but the impact of her saintly example penetrated the language barrier. The Indians she served called her "the woman who always prays." She moved back to St. Charles a year later due to the frailty of age. She died ten years later, in 1852, and today her body is enshrined in a marble tomb in there.

Catholics Without a Clue

To turn autobiographical for a moment, Philippine Duchesne reminds me of how so many Catholics are, to use the slang expression, clueless when it comes to the impact of the Catholic Church on what are often taken as things quintessentially American. Growing up in South St. Louis, Missouri, I often heard the name Duchesne–there was (and still is) a Catholic girls’ prep school named Villa Duchesne. As a young man, I knew nothing about the great woman after whom it was named. She might just as well have been George Washington’s French aunt, for all I knew. Perhaps I can be excused because I grew up as a non-Catholic. But what of Catholics? Many of my Catholic friends knew as little as I did about what we owed to so many Catholic missionaries, clergymen and saints.

A case in point. My wife Debbie, who is decidedly not a clueless Catholic, attended Bishop Du Bourg High School in St. Louis. We met at a prayer group formed by graduates and students of the high school. On one occasion, friends who had become Evangelical Protestants showed up to attack the emblems of their Catholic upbringing, including the school’s namesake, Bishop Du Bourg. My future wife gave the erstwhile Catholics what-for: "If it weren’t for great Catholic leaders such as Bishop Du Bourg, you wouldn’t even be here right now!" She was right, of course, but few present saw the point. They were living proof of Christopher Dawson’s observation that Christians ignorant of history are like amnesiacs. (Update that: they’re like spiritual Alzheimer’s disease sufferers; they’ve completely lost touch with their religious surroundings.)

Even so, in South St. Louis, you can’t avoid at least hearing of the monuments marking the profound Catholic contribution to America. Those Catholic names were everywhere. Marquette, Du Bourg, Rosati, Kenrick, Glennon-the city itself was named after a Catholic saint, Louis IX. (But don’t tell the ACLU; they’ll want to change it.) In fact, the city is so shaped by its Catholic history that it’s still common for realtors in South St. Louis, including non-Catholic ones, to identify neighborhoods by the Catholic parish in which they’re located.

The situation is similar elsewhere in the Midwest and on the East Coast. Catholicism is, well, ubiquitous there, even though many Catholics don’t notice it. Maybe it’s the fish-in-the-water phenomenon. In any case, few Catholics and almost no non-Catholics realize the influence the Catholic Church has had in shaping their experience of America. And the American saints had been the engines of that influence.

The American Contribution to the Saints

But America has also shaped her saints. Not in the sense of updating or correcting their faith as Catholics, as perhaps many Catholics today might want, but by bringing out emphases latent in the faith or providing opportunities that allowed and even pushed American saints to achieve great things. America has helped set her saints’ agenda. If the ancient Roman road system can be credited as an earthly instrument by which Providence aided the Church in spreading her message, the American society can in many ways be credited with providentially creating an environment for many of America’s saints’ work to prosper.

Consider the vast school system erected by religious-mostly women religious. People joke about Sister Mary Catechism wielding her knuckle-crushing ruler, but Catholic sisters have contributed far more to American education than raps across the knuckles. And that, in many ways, was a result of the American vision for education. Many of this nation’s founders envisioned universal education as a prerequisite for democratic republican participation in the commonweal. Seizing the opportunity such a fundamental value created, Catholic saints built grade schools and high schools for the poor and for ethnic minorities. Great colleges and universities were founded. Saint-educators such as Elizabeth Ann Seton lived the motto "No child shall be left behind" long before it was a campaign slogan. Of course the Church has always been, to a certain degree, in the education business. (The Catholic Church invented the university, you will recall.) But nowhere have Catholic educational institutions thrived as well as in America. Indeed, for many Americans, Catholic education is synonymous with excellence in schooling.

Similarly, the American emphasis on human equality helped channel Catholic energies to assist the poor and to work for social justice. To be sure, that peculiar institution of chattel slavery has left its mark. And Catholics contributed their share to it. But they have more than made up for it by their stalwart commitment to equality for all. Those much-touted Catholic schools were often schools for blacks and Indians, not to mention for immigrants. And in those institutions the American ideals of equality, fairness and opportunity for all have been upheld. It is no fluke that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is a graduate of Catholic schools.

Then there is the immigrant factor. Most of America’s canonized saints have been immigrants. That shouldn’t surprise us, given American Catholic history. But we should pause to consider how, in a certain respect, American Catholicism’s largely immigrant origins fit well with the American paradigm. The Jamestown and Plymouth stories are really variations on the Exodus theme, a point not lost on the original Puritan founders, who saw themselves as God’s people, putting down roots in a new Promised Land. Both the early Maryland Catholic settlers and the Catholic immigrants followed that same route. And their saints were spiritual pioneers, settling and spiritually taming the land, and setting up shop within it. These saints had a natural affinity for the immigrant outsider because, in many respects, they were immigrant outsiders themselves.

Another example of saintly figures influenced by America is Fulton J. Sheen, whose cause for canonization has recently been taken up. Sheen is considered elsewhere in this issue but he must also be mentioned here. One thing to note about him at the outset is the way his idea of evangelization was shaped by American technology. Sheen was one of early radio evangelists and later, one of the first televangelists. But he managed to avoid the bitter sectarianism and moral turpitude of some TV preachers who came after.

Sheen was a superb teacher and convert-maker. That his TV show was at one time more popular than his competition Milton Berle shouldn’t surprise us. Sheen was a master of the medium. In many respects, he was a one-man public relations campaign for the Catholic Church in America. He made it his business to use all the means at his disposal to show the real Catholic Church to Protestant and Jewish America. He once said that there weren’t a hundred people who hated the Catholic Church but that there were millions who hated what they mistakenly thought was the Catholic Church. For many of those millions, Sheen helped set the record straight.

He was a staunch proponent of democracy, properly understood; a militant anti-Communist but also an outspoken advocate of social justice, the cause of the poor and the rights of workers. Even so, his presentation of Catholic social teaching in no way detracted from other aspects of Catholicism. When Sheen was reaching millions through his television program, the vogue had not yet emerged among Catholics to pit the Second Great Commandment ("Love your neighbor as yourself") against the First Great Commandment ("Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength"). Years later, after it had, he denounced it fiercely as a false dichotomy.

He spent an hour a day in front of the Blessed Sacrament, which he regarded as the source of his eloquence. He taught lucidly about the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus, the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ, the sacramental life, the Last Things–the whole panoply of Catholic doctrine–to people who would otherwise not have had a clue. And he was just as articulate, even if not as passionate, about democracy, the evils of fascism, psychology and the mores of the day. There was for Sheen no separation between the Faith and daily life in this world–a division Vatican II denounced as one of the greatest evils of our time. Whether or not Archbishop Sheen will finally be canonized, he certainly manifested the marks of an American saint: a passion for holiness and an unstoppable drive to marshal the blessings of America in service to the Gospel.

Of course, when it comes to American saints, we’ve only skimmed the play list. We could also consider the multilingual St. John Neumann of Philadelphia (1811-1851), a Bohemian immigrant, who, among other things, founded the first national parish for Italians, set up the first diocesan schedule for perpetual Forty-Hours devotion, erected the first diocesan school system and, in general, set a high standard of sanctity and humility for American bishops. Visiting Germany, Bishop Neumann returned from an outing utterly drenched from the rain. His host asked if he would like to change his shoes, to which Bishop Neumann replied that the only way he could change shoes would be to put his left shoe on his right foot and right shoe on his left foot. "These are the only shoes I own," he admitted.

Nor have we considered American saints in the broader sense of those who brought Christianity to the Americas or American saints outside of North America or the United States. Junipero Serra, the man who founded California; St. Isaac Jogues; St. Rose of Lima; Kateri Tekakwitha and many more, all populate the greater roster of American saints.

The list is finite, of course, but still too long to exhaust here. The point is, veneration and admiration should lead imitation. It is not enough to know our Catholic heritage as Americans, as important as that is. Nor merely to stand, as Catholics, in awe of what the American saints accomplished, by God’s grace. The Church canonizes the saints not for their sake but for ours. Which raises a really important question. What shall we make of their examples?

The Real Point

Fifty years ago, the great American Catholic historian John Tracy Ellis complained about Catholic America’s intellectual ghetto. By which he meant, among other things, the lack of first-rate Catholic contributions to scholarship. Whether or not Ellis was correct about that at the time, nowadays there is no shortage of "scholarship," at least understood in the academic sense. Indeed, if the "scholarship" in "Catholic scholarship" was questionable half a century ago, today the question mark follows the word "Catholic." Postconciliar confusion has left many Catholics–including at least two popes–wondering about the extent to which Catholicism in America is more "of the world" than "in it." If the so-called Americanism of the late 19th century was a "phantom heresy," the Americanism of so many Catholic dissenters today is alive and well and living in a Catholic institution near you.

That’s why the challenge today isn’t scholarship so much as saintliness. The Church needs good scholars, to be sure, but Jesus never said, "You must be scholarly as your heavenly Father is scholarly," nor "Unless your scholarship surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven." Saintly Catholics and saintly Catholic families can provide the raw materials to make great scholars (among other things), but the reverse isn’t necessarily the case. Whatever may be the Church’s need for scholars, there is a greater, more immediate need that can’t be overlooked: the need for saints.

American Catholicism is a rich heritage, yet it is also a challenge to America’s future. What impact will Catholicism have on America of tomorrow? That depends on our answer to the call to holiness today. Will we be saints–American saints–and incarnate holiness in our culture? According to Cardinal Ratzinger, the main problem of our age is a crisis of saints. "Inculturate" his observation and we can say that the principle problem of America today is a crisis of American saints. How that crisis will be resolved depends, in large part, on how we respond to the call to holiness. The maxim that in the end the only tragedy is not to have been a saint applies as much to Americans as anyone else.

Mark Brumley is President of Ignatius Press, the author of How Not To Share Your Faith, and contributor to The Five Issues That Matter Most. He is a regular contributor to the InsightScoop web log.



Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved