Transition to a New Era
Transition to a New Era
We have already noted among the crosscurrents of the postwar decade assimilative tendencies that ran counter to a key impulse of the Catholic Revival— the drive to build a distinctive Catholic culture and thereby “to redeem all things in Christ.” Here we look more systematically at the most significant of those countervailing tendencies from the late 1940s, when they were still a minor theme, to the early 1960s when they merged with the forces unleashed by the Second Vatican Council. We begin with a development in American Catholic historical scholarship—research devoted to the Americanist controversy of the 1890s. The results of this research began to appear during the war; over the next fifteen years, books and articles on the subject assumed the proportions of a small flood. Taken as a whole, the new scholarship reinforced midcentury Catholic liberalism and helped prepare the way for the deeper changes of the 1960s. At bottom, the late nineteenth-century controversy arose from policy differences over how the Catholic church should respond to social and intellectual changes accompanying the onset of what we have been calling modernity. As pointed out in the Introduction, the Catholic University of America was a storm center of conflict; moreover, papal condemnations of Americanism in 1899 and of Modernism in 1907 played a crucial role in establishing the ideological framework within which Catholic higher education developed in the twentieth century. That framework involved a firm rejection of modernity, but the historical recovery of the Americanist episode indirectly nurtured a more positive attitude toward the modern world. The fact that Catholic historians of the generation immediately following the controversy studiously avoided investigating it shows how sensitive the issues remained for almost half a century. Theodore Maynard, who devoted a chapter to “The American Heresy” in his popular Story of American Catholicism (1941), observed that few Catholics had ever heard of such a thing and those who tried to learn more about it would soon find themselves at a dead end.
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