Fall 2019 at the Cushwa Center

Author: Philip Byers

Philip Byers revisits three Cushwa Center events featured at Notre Dame in fall 2019: September’s Seminar in American Religion and Hibernian Lecture as well as a public lecture in November by Brian Clites. Each of these events is available to view at the Cushwa Center’s YouTube channel.

Canonization and the evolution of American Catholicism

The biannual Seminar in American Religion convened on September 7, 2019, when more than 60 attendees gathered to discuss Cushwa Center director Kathleen Sprows Cummings’ most recent book, A Saint of Our Own: How the Quest for a Holy Hero Helped Catholics Become American (UNC Press, 2019). John McGreevy (Notre Dame) moderated the session. Complete with comments from Christine Leigh Heyrman (University of Delaware) and Kevin M. Schultz (University of Illinois at Chicago), the Saturday morning seminar grappled with both particular details of the account and its overarching implications. Participants concurred that the book offers fine-grained attention to the specific candidates for sainthood who periodically fired the imaginations of their U.S. Catholic advocates. But the book’s significance extends beyond its Catholic subjects, illuminating what its publisher aptly calls the “nexus of holiness and American history.” The selection of candidates for promotion often revealed more about the priorities of U.S. Catholic advocates than it did about the individual merits of a prospective saint, and those priorities tended to reflect the exigencies of the day. “New American moments,” as Cummings writes, “generated new models of holiness.”

A Saint of Our Own ranges from the first nominations by U.S. Catholics in the 1880s to Pope Francis’ naming of the 12th American saint in 2015, and seminar participants identified numerous virtues in the narrative that Cummings unfolds. Schultz commended Cummings for “making the turn” beyond the particular concerns of Catholic history and linking the narrative with the broader arc of American culture, while Heyrman celebrated a different type of boundary-crossing—the book’s truly transnational scope. Several seminar participants lauded the book for its analysis of gender and its treatment of the persistent challenges that Catholic women religious faced when relating to the institutional church. Kristy Nabhan-Warren (University of Iowa) highlighted the book’s attention to the “intersectionalities of gender, ethnicity, politics, and nationality” at play when Catholic women advocated their causes to a male hierarchy. Mary Beth Fraser Connolly (Purdue University Northwest) invoked the example of Sister Blandina Segale, noting how contemporary justifications for her case for sainthood foreground labor and immigration rather than her possible role as “the saint for women in the church.” Chicago historian Ellen Skerrett expanded upon Connolly’s comment, asking whether Catholic women religious are “writing themselves out of their own history” by rejecting the canonization process. Cummings affirmed these questions and synthesized them, acknowledging that canonization is “frustrating and tedious and long and expensive” but also permanent, a powerful means of enduring in Catholic memory. “Who gets to tell the story?” Cummings asked. “You have to be engaged to shape the story.”

Even as they celebrated the book’s achievements, some seminar participants expressed hopes for future research and questions about contemporary application. Thomas Kselman (Notre Dame), wondered if the topic of saint-seeking might benefit from additional attention to the laity. How might details about the devotional lives of saint-seekers, he wondered, enrich our understanding of change over time in the pursuit of canonization? Cummings agreed, referencing the deep sense of presence that saint-seekers described in their petitions on a prospective saint’s behalf: the Vatican’s decision to reject a potential favor or miracle as insufficient evidence of sainthood made it no less miraculous to the laypeople whose lives had been marked. “I know she’s a saint,” Cummings described the mindset of an emblematic U.S. Catholic advocate, “because she effected this transformation in my life.” Jonathan Riddle (Wheaton College) asked about saint-seeking in the context of 21st-century civic iconoclasm. As institutions reconsider the ways they memorialize long-dead figures with troubling pasts, what might “regret about whom we have valorized” mean for the future of saints? Cummings acknowledged the weight of the issue, one “felt all over Catholic dioceses,” she reflected, “as the names of bishops who were implicated in the sex abuse crisis are being scrubbed from buildings.” Among the many changes that Pope John Paul II made to the canonization process, Cummings questioned his shortening of the postmortem waiting period from 50 to five years. That temporal buffer, she suggested, had provided the perspective necessary to appreciate the full ramifications of candidates’ lives and ministries. 

At McGreevy’s suggestion, seminar participants concluded the morning by discussing A Saint of Our Own’s long-term legacy. Schultz suggested that the book would constitute a definitive account of “invented traditions” in U.S. Catholic life, a treatment of the paradoxical manner in which saints—by definition, “exemplars for the eternal church,” figures of unchanging significance and virtue—have “shape-shifted” according to the needs of the saint-seekers who promoted them. Heyrman predicted it would be a “watershed” in Catholic historiography for its depiction of women religious as historical actors in the canonization process. And Cummings wrapped up proceedings by expressing her wish that the book might provide momentum for the work of replacing the “Americanization” paradigm with an account that better reflects the diversity of the U.S. Catholic experience. The appreciative readers who gathered at the Morris Inn that morning made it clear that Cummings’ ambition is already well in-progress. A Saint of Our Own promises to inform an entire generation of scholars.

Irish-American women and a century of suffrage

Anniversaries provide fine occasions for reconsideration, and in that regard historian Tara McCarthy contends that the 2019–2020 academic year should prove fruitful. Many observers may recognize that 2020 will mark the centenary of the 19th Amendment, a century of guaranteed suffrage rights for all women in all American elections. Fewer may have been prepared in 2019 to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the founding of the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians. But McCarthy claims the timing of these anniversaries is more than just trivial—it is instructive, because it highlights a major shortcoming in the way scholars have narrated the history of suffrage activism. The significant contributions to that movement made by Irish-American women have received too little attention. 

McCarthy, professor of history at Central Michigan University, has begun to redress this issue with her recent book, Respectability and Reform: Irish American Women’s Activism, 1880–1920 (Syracuse, 2018). She advanced the cause further at the 2019 Hibernian Lecture delivered on Friday, September 20. Before a packed ballroom in the Morris Inn, McCarthy described how Irish-American suffragists at the turn of the 20th century fused a diverse set of priorities, from class politics and social reform to Irish nationalism and their Catholic faith. The Irish-born activist Margaret Hinchey, for example, published a 1917 article in the newspaper the Gaelic American that unfolded a three-part argument. In a time of war, with working-class men fighting in Europe, woman suffrage would protect the rights of laborers. The U.S. Constitution, she continued, also required amendment to match progress abroad, as the Easter Proclamation that marked the 1916 Rising had guaranteed “the suffrages of all [Ireland’s] men and women.” To class solidarity and Irish nationalist pride, Hinchey added religion: a federal amendment would be “true to the teachings of Christ and the Catholic Church.”

In McCarthy’s retelling, the quest for woman suffrage was never only political; issues of faith were never far from the surface. Some prominent American Catholics, like Cardinal James Gibbons, publicly opposed woman suffrage, but Irish-American women highlighted that the Church had no official position and that even opponents like Gibbons acknowledged leeway on the matter for individual conscience. The Chicago suffragist Margaret Haley took up the issue in 1912, arguing that “the Catholic Church does not oppose progress,” and other advocates turned the issue on its head: the New Yorker Sara McPike asserted in 1917 that with the vote Catholic women could exercise a “sacred obligation,” pursuing true social reform that would provide a hedge against radicalism and immorality. As much as this activism blurred lines between the “sacred” and “secular,” it also traversed the bounds of nation-states. Cross-pollination happened in numerous ways, with Irish women traveling to the United States, American women invoking Ireland, and numerous suffragists seeking training from their counterparts in Britain.

During a fascinating Q and A session, McCarthy acknowledged a challenge that faces any historian—the way that source availability drives narrative. Thus, cities (like Boston and New York) with major Irish-American newspapers appear most prominently in her research. If questions remain about the activities of Irish-American women in other cities and regions, McCarthy’s scholarship provides the essential basis for future exploration. 

Brian Clites on faith and reform after clerical sex abuse

Through searing, first-person accounts, Brian Clites (Case Western Reserve University) introduced a packed room to his research on the culture and politics of protest that have emerged among survivors of clerical sex abuse. On Monday afternoon, November 4, 2019, Notre Dame students, faculty, staff, and members of the local community convened at the Morris Inn to hear Clites describe what he has learned over a decade of dialogue with survivors and their allies. The phenomenon he studies, Clites argued, should not be termed a “crisis.” Some might resist that label out of a desire to dispute the situation’s present extent, but Clites rejects it because it connotes temporal limitation. No mere blip in American Catholic history, the travesty of clerical sex abuse has unfolded over decades, and Clites sketched for his listeners a 70-year arc as far-reaching as it is tragic.

While his lecture began with a focus on historical context, Clites’ signal contribution that evening was his rich description of the material culture that survivors and allies have developed in the course of their protests. Portraits and baby shoes, shrines and toys, music and artwork—these are among the many relics that Clites has witnessed at gatherings of survivors. His analysis of these artifacts drew from the concept of “soul murder.” Originating in the field of psychoanalytic theory, soul murder refers to the “devastating effects of childhood abuse and neglect, namely the loss of a victim’s sense of selfhood and the annihilation of a child’s core relationships.” The context of faith, Clites contended, amplifies the situation. If soul murder can result from many types of childhood trauma, abuse within the Church carries additional weight because it links intimately and directly to religious experiences and the sacraments.  One survivor, now in her 50s, showed Clites her First Communion portrait and proceeded to talk about her childhood self in the third person: “This is me at age eight. Bernadette died back then.”

From his extensive conversations with survivors, Clites has identified some of their priorities moving forward. Certain of these steps seem basic, including a simple acknowledgement on the Church’s part that abuse occurred and public recognition of the suffering it caused. Many survivors also seek public penance from bishops—not just apologies, but confessions of wrongdoing and some form of atonement. If such acts are prerequisites before some survivors could again consider making the Catholic Church their spiritual home, other survivors still seek a voice within it, in order to advocate for reforms that could prevent future abuse. Increasingly, survivors discuss legal accountability, as much for the bishops who mishandled accusations as for the individual clerics who abused them.

The early-November gathering exemplified the rich potential of dialogue between academy and Church. Uniquely among lectures that occur during the late-semester rush, attendees resisted the temptation to slip away early: the unmistakable gravity of the topic, the rigor of the research, and the quality of the presentation retained participant interest throughout an engaging Q and A. 

Philip Byers is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Notre Dame, where he also serves as a research fellow at the Cushwa Center. 

This article appears in the spring 2020 issue of the American Catholic Studies Newsletter