Another Historiographical Heresy?: Catholic Distinctiveness in American Religious History

AHA Session 123
Friday, January 4, 2013: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Chamber Ballroom III (Roosevelt New Orleans)
Robert A. Orsi, Northwestern University
Jon Butler, Yale University and University of Minnesota Twin Cities

Session Abstract

In 1991, Jon Butler published the now-classic essay "Historiographical Heresy: Catholicism as a Model for American Religious History,” which challenged American historians to break away from the orthodoxy of Protestant-centered approaches and, instead, to think about our nation’s religious history from the vantage point of American Catholicism.  Over the past two decades, others have joined Butler in calling for a reexamination of the relationship between Catholics and the American nation, and this heightened scrutiny has produced additional questions and historiographic challenges.  For example, some scholars have taken a self-reflexive approach, challenging the “exceptionalism” of yesterday’s Catholic histories.  Another consequence has been the flourishing of Catholic Studies, which presumes Catholics to have been both producers and consumers of American culture.  Indeed, if a consensus model has emerged since Butler’s essay, it is that the relationship between Catholics and U.S. history is dialectical, wherein American culture has influenced American Catholicism, and vice versa.    Recent studies have drawn our attention to the tensions inherent to this dynamic, including the enormous analytical challenge that this dialectical model has created, which we refer to simply as the problem of “Catholic distinctiveness.”  This panel thus seeks to push Butler’s original proposal a bit further:  If we begin with the assumption that Catholics have been an integral part of American history and culture, then is it still possible to retain a sense of what has been distinctively Catholic about their contributions to that history?

Robert A. Orsi, one of the most influential theorists of American Catholicism, was the first historian to call attention to the issue of distinctiveness.  As Chair, Orsi will frame our conversation and offer commentary on the dilemma at hand.  Kelly Baker, our first panelist, will present her research on debates between the Ku Klux Klan and the Catholic periodical Our Sunday Visitor.  Baker thus approaches the challenge of distinctiveness by introducing the perspective of a group who understood Catholics as inimical to the American nation.  Our second panelist, Matthew J. Cressler, will ask whether there was something distinctively Catholic about Black Power politics in 1960s Chicago.  By presenting some of his primary research from diocesan archives, as well the oral histories that he has conducted with Black Catholic leaders, Cressler will ask the audience to reflect on the relationship between distinctiveness, power, and identity.  Brian J. Clites, our third panelist, will add an ethnohistorical viewpoint.  In his research on the Catholic sex abuse scandal, Clites has observed that Catholic communities believe that they have a special role to play in state and national efforts to decrease sexual abuse against children.   As commentator, Jon Butler will conclude the panel by offering feedback to the panelists, as well as his reflections on the state of his proposed “heresy.” In particular, Butler will challenge the audience to reconsider the benefits and risks of “mainstreaming” Catholics into American history.


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