Five questions with postdoctoral fellow Peter Cajka

Author: Shane Ulbrich

Cajka HeadshotPeter Cajka

Peter Cajka is completing his second year as a postdoctoral research associate with the Cushwa Center. In August, he will join Notre Dame’s Department of American Studies as a visiting assistant professor, while also continuing to contribute to programming and special projects at the Cushwa Center. We recently checked in about projects, teaching, and writing of the past two years, as well as what he’s looking forward to in the year ahead.


Shane Ulbrich: It’s been a busy two years for you here at the Cushwa Center. You’ve been a key contributor to a lot of the center’s work—especially our April 2019 conference, Global History and Catholicism. Can you share some personal highlights?


Peter Cajka: As I look back on all the projects we’ve worked on over the past two years, I am really overwhelmed with gratitude that I have spent two years here at the Cushwa Center. Like so many participants in the field of Catholic history, I have long admired Cushwa. This center is an amazing hub of scholarship, collegiality, and fun!


My favorite thing about Cushwa is having the chance to interact with scholars, administrators, and thinkers from around the world. It was an honor to invite Matthew Cressler of the College of Charleston here to lecture on his research about race and American Catholicism. I had never really “invited” a scholar to do a talk, and I was thrilled to have Matthew come to Notre Dame. I also had a very memorable time interviewing Rev. Bob Pelton, C.S.C., who chaired Notre Dame’s Theology Department in the 1960s, attended Vatican II as an attaché, and became an important player in bringing liberation theology to Notre Dame after being sent to Chile. It was an honor to write a short institutional and intellectual biography about him for the spring 2018 American Catholic Studies Newsletter. I always enjoy hosting our various lecturers and having conversations with grant winners who come to Notre Dame to do research at the Hesburgh Libraries and the Notre Dame Archives. It is also a treat every Wednesday to attend the Colloquium on Religion in American History (CORAH). The research and collegiality of that group has been central to my formation as a scholar.


Global History and Catholicism was a fantastic time. Not only did I help plan the event, I also gave a paper on the global history of conscience rights. I loved seeing scholars from around the world come together to discuss “The Catholic Global”—a particular approach that draws upon Catholic theology and Catholic institutions to imagine the world in spiritual terms. We heard papers on Mexico, Peru, China, Russia, Italy, France, Germany, Uruguay, the Netherlands, Ireland, Canada, Cameroon, and Haiti. The keynotes and plenary sessions connected all the dots. I think everyone walked away feeling energized about new directions in their research. It was very gratifying to see all of our planning pay off.


I really enjoyed working with Kathleen Cummings and John McGreevy in planning the event, and also working with you, MaDonna Noak, and Kristin Garvin-Podell.



SU: You’ve also been working on a book project. Tell us about it.


PC: I recently completed a rough draft of my book manuscript, which I have tentatively titled Follow Your Conscience: The Catholic Church and the Spirit of the Sixties. After I finished my dissertation at Boston College in 2017, I added a few new chapters and substantially revised the existing ones. Cushwa has been a welcoming space to analyze new documents and integrate them into the narrative. Folks at Notre Dame have pushed me to expand and improve the project in ways I would never have considered. I am so thankful. The manuscript is now under review at a university press.


My manuscript attempts to answer a question I developed while preparing for my comprehensive exams in 2012: Why did American Catholics invoke conscience frequently in the 1960s and 1970s?


Conscience pamphletA 1973 pamphlet titled "How Conscience Can Be Your Guide." Throughout the 20th century, Catholic priests produced many similar guides addressed to laypeople. 

In various sources, I found a sudden profusion of conscience language in Catholic discourse on ethics over the course of the 1960s and ’70s, a phenomenon well-documented in important studies such as John McGreevy’s Catholicism and American Freedom and Leslie Tentler’s Catholics and Contraception. In letters, briefs, homilies, legal documents, and speeches, Catholics were discussing “the formation of conscience” or their “sacred rights to follow conscience,” and insisting that “conscience should never be handed over to an authority figure” in the church or the state. Such language became commonplace in debates about sexuality, conscription, psychology, human rights, and reproductive rights in the 1970s.  My chapters take up those themes in my attempt to solve the riddle of why this occurred.


In the broader field of American history, I am trying to show that debates about sexuality and war—which are often treated separately—are in fact deeply connected. Both sex and war forced Americans and American Catholics to consider their subjective moral guide of conscience against laws from an authority in the state or church. This created a lot of unexpected alliances and divergences. Catholic priests invoked notions of conscience, learned in seminary training, against the Church itself in the debates on contraception, arguing that individual Catholics have a right to follow conscience on the matter of artificial birth control. The Catholic left fought for conscience rights in debates over war and their language was then appropriated in the 1970s by nurses and doctors who invoked rights of conscience against institutional authorities that may have forced them into performing services like abortion. Conscience clauses, so crucial in healthcare debates at the moment, find their roots in debates over conscription during the Vietnam War.


My time here has helped me to clarify the stakes of my argument and to see that I am writing about the long run of the American 20th century, and even the broader story about religious modernity. I explore how a range of modern Catholic subjects—priests, bishops, laypeople, and activists—develop Catholic thought with a deep concern for individual subjectivity. Historians usually attribute this to Protestants or secular moderns. Re-writing my dissertation as a book has been a long learning process, and I still have a long way to go. 



SU: You taught two American history courses this year, and guided your students in independent archival research. What did you have them do, and what are some highlights from these courses?


PC: I had the wonderful opportunity this year to teach two undergraduate courses for the Department of American Studies here at Notre Dame. In the fall I taught a course called “The Vietnam War and American Catholics” and this spring I offered “Witnessing the Sixties” to upper-level undergraduates.


In the 1950s and early ’60s, Catholics are among the most politically consequential supporters of the war, giving the American government an ideological support to increase its troop presence in Vietnam. At the beginning of the Vietnam War, American Catholics were vigorously anti-communist “cold warriors.” By the mid-to-late 1960s, though, they had become the war’s most vocal critics. By the end of the decade, Catholics are on the front lines of the draft resistance movement, openly contesting state policy in various political bodies, including the Supreme Court. My course on the Vietnam War and American Catholics is meant to show how and why that happened.


Dooley Statue at ND GrottoThe first assignment in Cajka’s course on American Catholics and the Vietnam War asked students to visit Notre Dame’s Grotto to analyze the statue of Tom Dooley and accompanying plaque displaying an abridged version of a letter Dooley sent to Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., in 1960. A famous humanitarian, Dooley fed the CIA information about Vietnam and promoted its pro-war message.

Students read about Ngo Dinh Diem, whom John Foster Dulles and Eisenhower put in charge of South Vietnam from 1955 to 1963, and the Catholic physician Tom Dooley, a handsome humanitarian whose books about Vietnam were laced with racism and arguments in favor of “civilizing” the Vietnamese. I had students visit the Grotto to read the letter Dooley sent Father Hesburgh in 1963. We also spent considerable time studying the philosophical, cultural, political, and supernatural sources of Catholic anti-Communism. Then we shifted to studying Dorothy Day, the Berrigan Brothers, and the peace activists in the Catholic Peace Fellowship. My students found that religion supported both war and peace. I love teaching John Ford’s classic 1944 Theological Studies article which condemned saturation bombing during the Second World War.


The students conducted original primary source research on how the war shaped life here at Notre Dame. They tracked down articles from The Observer and Scholastic to get a sense of how students were affected by the war. They visited the archives to find original sources and wrote papers on graduates who fought in the war, Catholics who performed devotions to Dooley, protests against Dow Chemical, an incident where the ROTC building was set on fire, and protests at the graduation ceremonies. One paper explored how students at Saint Mary’s College participated in the local anti-war movement. Local history really makes a course come alive and helps students see themselves in larger historical dramas.


I am excited to teach this course again in the fall. My course has received the “Catholicism Across the Disciplines” designation, which asks faculty members to integrate questions about Catholic teaching into their courses. We will investigate the long history of the just war teaching from Augustine and Aquinas through early modern thinkers like Francisco de Vitoria, up to Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars.


About my other course, “Witnessing the Sixties,” I've written three blog posts at Teaching United States History: “Teaching ‘The Sixties,’” “Writing Assignments: Depth and Breadth,” and “How Will I Teach This Course Next Time?”



SU: That brings up another topic: since before you arrived at Cushwa, you’ve been very active on social media and blogs for American Catholic studies and American religious history. What do you think are the benefits of engaging on social media, and of producing digestible book reviews and other pieces for a wider readership online?


PC: Social media is really important for promoting new work and having a conversation about the field’s key ideas. It will never overtake or replace the importance of books or good scholarly articles—but blogs, Twitter, and Facebook can serve as crucial supplements for these more traditional sources. I have been writing for Teaching United States History, Religion in American History, and Righting America. I hope to write something soon for the blog of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History. I think social media can put one’s name on the map—but one also has to publish books and articles. On one level, I like writing for blogs because it means working up the courage to write for an audience (whether real or imagined). Writing for a digital outlet is great motivation to get words on the page and craft them into a coherent piece. I enjoy the writing process, so I try to write as much as possible. It’s really that simple for me. Cushwa has also given me the opportunity to contribute book reviews and a larger piece to our newsletter. Those have been meaningful writing experiences for me. I also feel strongly about selectively live-tweeting at events, which I have done for our Seminar in American Religion as well as Global History and Catholicism.


SU: At the end of this summer you’ll join Notre Dame’s Department of American Studies as a visiting assistant professor. What are you most looking forward to in the year ahead?


PC: I am most looking forward to working with students and colleagues. I love teaching in American Studies—the classes are on illuminating topics and the students are very fun to work with. Classroom discussions are exhilarating and I really enjoy the questions students ask in response to lectures. I feel lucky to be working with such a wonderful interdisciplinary team of scholars and educators. They have been, like Cushwa, very supportive and encouraging. Next year I will teach “The Vietnam War and American Catholics” again, as well as “Witnessing the Sixties.” I will also teach a course called “The Ideas that Made America,” which interprets American history as a clash of ideas. I am also looking forward to staying connected with the Cushwa Center, planning events and hosting speakers. I am happy to embark on this new journey but I am forever grateful for the scholarship and friendships developed at Cushwa.