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Overview of American Catholic History;“American Catholics have persistently sought to adapt their faith to the religious environment they encountered in the United States, especially in light of the country’s emphasis on Enlightenment values such as individual religious choice, democratic idealism, individualism, and reason.”

ART, Spring 2019

Final Project Outline

  1. Introduction
    1. “Since the beginning of human history…” (Just kidding, do NOT do this)
    2. Thesis: “American Catholics have persistently sought to adapt their faith to the religious environment they encountered in the United States, especially in light of the country’s emphasis on Enlightenment values such as individual religious choice, democratic idealism, individualism, and reason.”
  2. Overview of American Catholic History
    1. Catholicism arrived in the United States with the arrival of Europeans. Often, these encounters took the form of religious coercion which was violent at worst and radically culturally insensitive at best.
      1. Sources such as those from Hennepin and Jean de Brebuf exemplify these dynamics
      2. The Catholic population which developed out of this encounter established roots in the southwest and California.
    2. With the establishment of British colonies, Catholics became a numerically small but culturally despised group, excepting in Maryland.
      1. Documents from Massachusetts and Maryland show laws relating to religious practice and religious freedom which were thought progressive at the time, but which seem draconian to us today.
    3. With massive European immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Catholics became much more numerically significant, especially in urban centers on the east coast and in the Midwest.
      1. Political cartoons illustrating the prominent view of American Catholics as subhuman, superstitious, threats to American democracy and Protestant culture, essentially subservient to the Pope.
      2. Video of a Catholic Latin Mass: Illustrates that Catholic worship prior to Vatican II often seemed to be something beautiful, but essentially alien. One might contrast the mass’ ornate outfits, golden chalices and candles, use of Latin, and its extremely ritualized formality with the timeless image of a Puritan meeting house, whose simple wooden architecture places the plain-spoken (and English speaking) preacher at the center of the service, whose role is to help the congregants understand deeply and personally the Word of God (the sacred scripture).
    4. Following World War II, the tight-knit urban immigrant communities which had structured Catholic life began to dissolve, as Catholics were able to move to the suburbs and obtain college education in greater numbers.
  • Catholic spirituality
    1. Dorothy Day provides evidence for how an American who was not raised as a Catholic found the Church to be an essential resource which helped her realize her dream of living with the poor and serving them, even as she had significant misgivings about the Catholic hierarchy’s acceptance of unjust social structures. Her negotiation and emphasis on specific elements of the Catholic tradition illustrates the American emphasis on crafting one’s own religious identity.
    2. Corita Kent’s writings illustrate how, amid the cultural upheaval of the 1960s, and coinciding with the Second Vatican Council, some American Catholics worked to integrate their traditional Catholic faith with mainstream American culture.
    3. The work of Martin Scorsese and Bruce Springsteen illustrate the way in which many American Catholics have felt disillusioned with their community, marked as it is by the tight connection between ethnic, civic, and religious identities. While these figures feel constrained, even smothered by their communities, sensing themselves “Born to Run,” they nonetheless recognize that these communities have shaped them and marked them with a particular sensibility which they may be unable to escape, and in which they find a deep source of meaning, even transcendence.
    4. Likewise, while the story of American Catholicism has often been told through the lens of European immigrants and their descendants, this overlooks an important group: LatinX Catholics, many of whom feel a similar tension of being “caught between” two different cultures, and who use/adapt their spirituality to help them make sense of a confusing and often-hostile world.
  1. Analysis
    1. Discussion of American Catholic inculturation
      1. Within their own tradition, Catholic consistently negotiate the question of “authenticity” as they work to make sense of or reconsider traditional Catholic spirituality and religious practice to meet their own spiritual needs as people living in the United States.
      2. As people living in the United States, the Catholic faith and those who practice it have often been portrayed as cultural outsiders, even threats, and we find many instances of Catholics adapting their faith to be more individualistic, more democratically-inclined, and to include fewer of the elements which have often been termed “superstitious.”
    2. Conclusion
      1. Brief restatement of argument in fresh terms.
      2. As the largest single religious group in the United States, understanding changes within the Catholic community offer an important window into the effect of the American religious environment on religious groups. In the present, when groups such as Muslims and Mormons appear to be integrating rapidly into the “mainstream” of American life, it is important to turn to more-established examples of religious groups who negotiated between their religious and national identities.

Notes to Myself:

-Do NOT use contractions or other informal language such as “nowadays.” Do not call a book a “novel” if it is not a novel.

-Be sure to cite sources according to an established style guide. I usually use Chicago-Turabian, but MLA, APA, or others can work as long as I am consistent throughout the paper and bibliography/works cited.

-PROOFREAD; Maybe I should even ask a trusted friend to look over my paper to catch sentences which I do not realize are very sloppy or which read confusingly.

Works Cited[1]


Butler, Jon, Grant Wacker, and Randall Balmer. Religion in American Life: A Short History, (New York: Oxford University Press), 2008.


Day, Dorothy. The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of the Legendary Catholic Social Activist, (New York: Harper One), 1952.


Griffith, R. Marie. American Religions: A Documentary History, (New York: Oxford University Press), 2008.


Kent, Corita. “Art and Beauty in the Life of the Sister,” in The Changing Sister, ed. Muckenhirm, Sister M. Charles Borromeo., (Notre Dame, IN: Fides Publishers), 1965.


Massa, Mark S. Catholics and American Culture: Fulton Sheen, Dorothy Day, and the Notre Dame Football Team. (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company), 2001).


Osborne, Catherine and Mark Massa, eds. American Catholic History, Second Edition: A Documentary Reader, (New York: NYU Press), 2017.


O’Toole, James. The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University), 2008.


“Solemn Mass of the Assumption, 2018,” YouTube video, 2:02:15, “Mater Ecclesiae Chapel,” September 23, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iUVKJypnAYg&t=5962s


[1] This is only partial what I used this semester, but to give you an idea.

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