Rome, the United States, and postwar liberal democratic culture: An interview with Susanna De Stradis

Author: Philip Byers

Headshot De Stradis
Susanna De Stradis

Susanna De Stradis is a Ph.D. candidate studying 20th-century Roman Catholicism in the Department of History at the University of Notre Dame. With the support of a Peter R. D’Agostino Research Travel Grant from the Cushwa Center, De Stradis spent fall 2020 in Rome pursuing research in the Vatican Apostolic Archive in support of her dissertation, “Making Democracy Safe for Catholicism: The Vatican and the ‘Nation Under God’ (1945–1965).” She is one of the first external researchers to engage newly available sources from the pontificate of Pius XII. Cushwa Center postdoctoral research associate Philip Byers corresponded with De Stradis for an update on her progress.


Philip Byers: Tell us a bit about your path to researching in Rome. You sought and received formal admission to the Apostolic Archive before you ever applied for the D’Agostino Research Travel Grant, but then a pandemic hit—how did that alter your preparations?

Susanna De Stradis: Until recently, I had been feeling pretty lucky that the pandemic only had a limited impact on my access to the Vatican Apostolic Archive (AAV). I had applied for and secured a spot in September 2019. When COVID-19 hit last March, the AAV closed until further notice and all reservations were canceled. But a partial reopening was announced in May and I made sure to be among the first to re-submit my request for admission. Thankfully, it was immediately granted. The situation was not quite the same as it would have been without the pandemic: I could occupy one of the 25 seats available daily in the AAV study room (which normally accommodates up to 90 people), and the archive was only open in the mornings, from 8:30 a.m. to 1:45 p.m., which further shrank the number of folders that could be requested for consultation every day (max 3). Still, I felt lucky compared to many of my colleagues whose work had been much more severely affected by the virus. The resurgence of the pandemic in Europe, however, led Vatican authorities to decide for a second closure, starting in mid-November. I’m now glad I got to complete at least eight weeks of research and hope the health situation will allow for a prompt lifting of restrictions soon.


PB: Describe your dissertation project for us. How did you develop your interest in the Vatican’s interaction with postwar liberal democracy?

SD: During my undergraduate and graduate studies in Italy I had the good fortune of working with Professor Daniele Menozzi, a renowned historian of the Catholic Church in the modern age. Learning about the long history of Catholic confrontation with liberalism cast a new light for me on my topic of first interest: the nature of the Cold War as an ostensibly Manichean conflict for or against “freedom.” I now wanted to explore the tensions between Catholicism and liberalism particularly in those contexts that made them strange bedfellows. Hence my decision to focus on the Catholic Church in the United States precisely as the site of a constant quest for synthesis between these two cultural traditions. This is what brought me to Notre Dame, where these are important, and always ongoing, conversations among so many distinguished scholars. The postwar period drew my special interest as a moment when the Catholic Church grappled anew with the question of religion’s role in liberal democracies—because of the Cold War fight against the Soviet Union, for sure, but also in light of changing constitutional regimes in Europe and beyond. It struck me that the American church-state story of the 1940s and 1950s had not been fully examined against this broader context, despite the fact that U.S. Catholics are acknowledged to have played important roles, for example, as proponents of such provisions as the insertion of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and as fierce litigants against too strict an interpretation of the Establishment Clause in the courts. This contextualization is what I hope to accomplish in my dissertation.


PB: One of your key contentions is that stories about a postwar American “consensus” obscure persistent and consequential variety. Describe for us the distinctive vision of public theology that Catholics proposed in the midst of debates regarding religion and politics.  

SD: At a most basic level, my key contention is that the mid-century Catholic Church in America was no less a foe of the “naked public square” than its counterparts elsewhere. While American religious pluralism certainly created all kinds of problems in determining what religious content—or how much or in what ways—ought to be sponsored by the government, this generation of U.S. Catholic leaders did not deem an entirely “hands-off” approach on the part of the civil powers to be preferable to the pluralistic confusion. This, despite the fact that Catholicism was still a minority faith in the country, and that ecumenism and interreligious dialogue per se were still very suspect to Catholic authorities. Scholars of mid-century America such as Wendy Wall and K. Healan Gaston have already noted that underneath the “consensus” façade, controversy was raging about the proper meaning to be attached to commonly shared American institutions and values. The Catholic Church entered the fray by vociferously arguing that the First Amendment called for a sort of equitably distributed, yet proactive, endorsement of religion, not for civil power’s indifference towards it. While specific to the American context, it was an argument with deep roots in Catholic thought.


PB: The late Peter D’Agostino famously challenged scholars of U.S. Catholicism to consider transatlantic influences on their subjects. What, for you, have been the benefits of consulting Vatican sources? How does Catholic history in the postwar United States look different when you incorporate Roman voices?  

SD: Consulting Vatican sources serves as a crucial corrective to historical narratives that posit environmental influences as the virtually exclusive determinant of the U.S. Church’s political behavior. No serious scholar would presume to deny outright that local conditions (e.g., the status of Catholicism as a minority faith in a given country) played a role in how the Church conceived of itself in relation to society. Yet, given the peculiar institutional structure of the Catholic Church, especially since the mid-19th century, no local “branch” could claim too much autonomy. Exceptionalisms were out of favor. At the very least, diocesan authorities needed to measure their decisions against Roman teaching and directives, which they were supposed to uphold, and endeavor to justify any departure from them through genuine intellectual engagement and serious argument. This did not apply, by and large, to the laity, whose range of options for social and political behavior was technically less constrained than that of clergymen actually invested with the responsibility of governing the Church. I find this distinction to be particularly useful in the study of American Catholicism because the literature is saturated with accounts that seek to explain change over time in the Church’s “political” stances (e.g., on interconfessional dialogue, on how to relate to the federal government, to the media, etc.) exclusively in terms of the changing social status, demographics, and wealth of the Catholics in the pews. As D’Agostino adeptly argued, this risks erasing Catholicism, with its intellectual tradition and transnational dimensions, as a variable in U.S. history. Incorporating Roman sources brings these ties to the fore, not to erase the obvious peculiarities of the American Catholic experience, but precisely to better gauge just how peculiar it was: what American Catholicism retained from Rome (translating it to the U.S. context), and what its original contributions were, via Rome, to the global Church.


PB: Tell us about an especially illuminating source that you have found in the Vatican Apostolic Archive thus far.

SD: Though I’m only at the beginning of my research, I have learned a lot about the willingness and ability of Monsignor Amleto Cicognani, the then-apostolic delegate who acted as liaison between the Vatican and the U.S. Church, to interpret the latter’s policies for Rome and advocate on its behalf. For example, he defended Catholic participation in President Truman’s inauguration ceremony, despite its interconfessional character, on the grounds that it constituted an “opportune, solemn reminder of the idea of religion, not just to the country, but to the whole world.” He argued that, far from raising any qualms, “one could only wish that such an example be followed and imitated elsewhere.” The sources indicate that Cicognani’s interlocutor, the Vatican secretary for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs, Monsignor Tardini, was thoroughly persuaded by this line of reasoning. Cicognani even advised Rome, in 1953, against engaging in any polemic with “a certain Bill Graham,” given that he refrained from any direct attacks on the Church and that his orations mostly consisted of “exhortations to return to the law of Christ.”


PB: How much longer will you be in Rome, and where do you see your project going next? 

SD: I will definitely stay in Rome through the spring. Besides my hope of resuming research at the AAV as soon as possible, there are so many other archives in the city that store potentially crucial sources. Each has a different admission process, and of course COVID-related policies and restrictions make access even more challenging. Managing all the logistics from abroad would only add to the difficulty. Before the project is completed, however, I will also need to do some more research in American archives. At the moment, I can foresee several different directions the project might take beyond the dissertation. For example, it could take a comparative form and measure the American case against other contexts where Catholicism was not in a situation of legal privilege.

Philip Byers is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Notre Dame’s Cushwa Center.