This work is as an example of what might be called "Sixties history --the belief that in that decade there occurred major breakthroughs to a more enlightened and humane level of existence, with the concomitant rejection of much of what went before. Dr. Schmiesing is the first to examine in a systematic way the intellectual life of American Catholics between 1895 and 1955, and to approach that era in its own terms, not merely as a prelude to the changes of the 1960s. A common view of American Catholic history holds that two papal warnings against "Americanism" around 1900 had the effect of stifling real intellectual activity among American Catholics for six decades, until the liberating affects of the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65. This thesis is as an example of what might be called "Sixties history" - the belief that in that decade there occurred major breakthroughs to a more enlightened and humane level of existence, with the concomitant rejection of much of what went before.
Kevin Schmiesing is the first scholar to examine in a systematic way the intellectual life of American Catholics between 1895 and 1955, and to approach that era in its own terms, not merely as a prelude to the changes of the 1960s. There was, in fact, vigorous intellectual activity among Catholics during the first half of the twentieth century, particularly in the philosophical studies coming down from medieval thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas. It was, however, an intellectuality far out of step with what was then prevalent in secular circles. (Schmiesing has deliberately excluded theology, in a formal sense, from his study, although perhaps the lion's share of Catholic intellectual energy was invested precisely there.) Hence the subject of the book is the "dilemma of dual identities," American and Catholic, how it was possible to be an American and at the same time espouse ideas that were seen by some as distinctly un-American. Catholics both had to show themselves relevant to the culture and avoid the trap of merely accommodating themselves to that culture.
Catholic intellectuals, drawing on their Thomistic principles, made a clear distinction between things that could only be accepted by faith and things that could be known by human reason - their bold claim being that Thomism represented a higher and deeper development of reason than was found, for example, in the reigning pragmatism. At times it appeared that the claim was succeeding; there was a steady stream of intellectual converts to the Church, along with secular thinkers (Mortimer Adler, Robert Maynard Hutchins) who extolled the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition as the soundest approach to perennial truths. In fact, prior to the 1960s there were not many specific public issues that divided Catholics from non-Catholics. Morally, there existed a broad consensus, the Catholic rejection of contraception perhaps the only significant difference. Thus the major focus was on church-state relationships. By standard accounts this was finally resolved by the Second Vatican Council, especially through the work of the American Jesuit John Courtney Murray, whereby the Church for the first time officially proclaimed its commitment to religious liberty as a matter of principle.
Schmiesing traces the various ways in which Catholic thinkers approached this conundrum prior to the Council, an exercise that both shows why some Americans were legitimately suspicious of the Church as incompatible with democracy and why at the same time much of that suspicion was mere bigotry. The book deals with the Catholic experience only, and it is useful to recall that the Catholic dilemma was in a sense the dilemma of every serious religious believer, since most religions teach that God's law takes precedence over human laws and that culture and society are judged by religion, not vice versa. Conservative Protestants during the same era were facing many of the same questions. As Schmiesing points out, the ultimate resolution of this dilemma, for Catholics as well as for others, was the recognition that there is no fixed definition of "America" to which all citizens must conform, that such a definition would, in a sense, be itself a denial of the American proposition.
During the period he charts, Catholics tended to abandon earlier claims that the foundations of democracy were rooted in medieval thinkers, making the Declaration of Independence, in effect, a Catholic document, and instead began entering into the struggle to define the nation's character, a true pluralism in which all beliefs have a right to be heard. Those involved in that on-going effort will find this book an indispensable source.