In review: Fall 2020 at the Cushwa Center

Author: Philip Byers and Stephen M. Koeth, C.S.C.

In fall 2020, coronavirus pandemic restrictions compelled the Cushwa Center to postpone its Seminar in American Religion and to host the semester’s three October events as webinars, each now available to view on the center’s YouTube channel

Leslie Woodcock Tentler on writing American Catholic history

On the evening of October 6, Leslie Woodcock Tentler joined Cushwa director Kathleen Sprows Cummings for the 2020 Cushwa Center Lecture, a virtual gathering in which two leading historians discussed the past, present, and future of American Catholic historiography. Tentler, professor emerita at the Catholic University of America, recently published American Catholics: A History (Yale, 2020), and the conversation revolved around the narrative and interpretive choices she applied to that project.

Cummings and Tentler began by discussing how a writer’s own context often frames a story. Whereas former Cushwa Center director Jay Dolan’s 1985 survey, The American Catholic Experience, had reflected the optimism of postconciliar Catholicism, Tentler composed her account during a time in which the once apparent triumph of Vatican II had given way to “anger, despair, and very real doubt” sown especially by revelations regarding clerical sex abuse. With alarming numbers of Catholics leaving the Church or, at the very least, feeling alienated from its leadership, Tentler’s narrative conveys a more apprehensive mood than some books composed in decades past.

Next, Cummings asked Tentler to reflect on the book’s structure, especially the decision to open each section with a biographical capsule. Tentler adopted that tactic after years in the classroom, which had taught her how individual lives can cut through to even the most uninterested students or readers. The short biographies allowed Tentler to highlight traits unique to each historical period while also demonstrating that present-day readers share certain things in common with figures from the past. Attention to Samuel Mazzuchelli, O.P., shows that for all the influence Catholics have exerted on American cities, they were present on frontiers as well, with American Catholicism always being shaped by its environment, whether urban or rural. Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini most reminds Tentler of a “modern day corporate CEO” whose empire traded in faith rather than capital, challenging any readers who believe globalization is a feature unique to the 21st century. John C. Cort and Patricia Caron Crowley reinforce the increasing prominence of the laity during the 20th century, and the two likewise emblemize vital social trends: Cort through his leading role in the labor movement, and Crowley for her part in one of the “most consequential developments of the postconciliar years,” the struggle over birth control.

The final third of the conversation incorporated audience questions, including several submitted by doctoral students and junior scholars eager to engage one of their field’s most esteemed academics. Responding to a question from Gabrielle Guillerm (Northwestern University) about future directions in U.S. Catholic historiography, Tentler reflected upon how writing a new survey had ironically refreshed her appreciation for older synthetic works which, though often dismissed as hagiographic, still stand as repositories of insightful research. According to Tentler, the joy of history as a discipline is that the fairly static nature of the methodology permits historical work to build on itself over generations. “The field is alive,” Tentler assured younger scholars—“keep contributing to it.” Cushwa Center postdoctoral fellow Rev. Stephen M. Koeth, C.S.C., and historian William Cossen both commended how Tentler depicts American Catholics’ relationship to the broader body politic, as her book avoids overplaying common themes like anti-Catholicism and Catholic exceptionalism. Even while Tentler agreed with those comments, she could understand why past historians have often stressed distinctiveness, describing the Catholic “institutional world…[as] an extraordinary achievement,” especially given its construction by “a people so desperately poor.” A final batch of questions asked Tentler to reflect on how this book would influence her own future scholarship: Might she work on a history of American Catholic women or a study of U.S. Catholicism in comparative context? Tentler outlined her longstanding interest in writing a history of diocesan clergy, but more than anything expressed her desire to return to archives. She said that American Catholics, which drew on much secondary scholarship, was “the hardest book I’ve ever written.” 

Whatever pains went into its composition, Leslie Woodcock Tentler’s new survey has made an invaluable contribution. For a rising generation of scholars, it will serve as a definitive synthetic account of a field that is very much alive.

Colin Barr on Greater Ireland

Every country has expatriates—what, then, can explain the persistent intensity of Irish identity across national boundaries, oceans, and even generations? Historian Colin Barr (University of Aberdeen) proposed an answer on October 9, when he delivered via Zoom the annual Hibernian Lecture on the topic “The Idea of Greater Ireland.” Following a brief word of welcome from Patrick Griffin, the Madden-Hennebry Professor of History and director of the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies, and a formal introduction from Cushwa Center director Kathleen Sprows Cummings, Barr launched into his argument: in the globalized 21st century, “Greater Ireland” provides the most historically faithful and presently useful framework for understanding the worldwide Irish population.

Far from being an academic neologism, the notion dates back centuries, with Barr identifying phrases in both old Norse literature and medieval Latin manuscripts that invoked a “Greater Ireland” long before the onset of the familiar migrations of the 19th century. By the turn of the 20th century, the concept had spread sufficiently to find expression in James Joyce’s Ulysses, in which The Citizen alludes to “our greater Ireland beyond the sea.” While numerous factors helped to create this sense of a global Irish community, Barr pointed especially toward the vital role of the Roman—or, in his words, the “Hiberno-Roman”—Catholic Church. In nearly any migrant community, the Church controlled those few institutions that afforded any degree of structure to civic life: schools, fraternal societies, parish associations, and even social institutions such as marriage. Through the work of ambitious prelates, the Irish frequently captured those structures, such that “church control” in a community became de facto Irish control, until “the world [became] greener, and greener, and greener.” Church-based publications reinforced Greater Ireland’s worldwide reach, facilitating conversations not just within individual migrant communities, nor merely projecting voices from the North Atlantic, but instead incorporating Irish views “laterally,” from all points around the globe. Barr admitted that the Church’s role in Greater Ireland’s spread highlights one of the concept’s potential “pitfalls or challenges,” namely how to account for the experiences of Protestant-majority Irish migrants in locales such as New Zealand; likewise, it remains an open question whether an Appalachia-dwelling descendant of Irish Protestants might ever fully identify with Greater Ireland. Yet the spread of secularization, he surmised, might yet provide a “pathway” to the realization of Wolfe Tone’s idealistic ambition to “substitute the common name of ‘Irishman’ for Catholic, Protestant, and Dissenter.”

Greater Ireland also provides a useful contrast to an oft-favored term: “diaspora.” In Barr’s telling, diaspora has the benefit of conceptual familiarity, a function of its longstanding and broad usage across numerous instances and cultures. For all the term’s popularity, Barr queried its applicability to “today’s global Irish,” a critique built upon his astonishingly far-ranging and tireless archival research. The notion of diaspora, he acknowledged, might make sense from the vantage point of the United States, where many current Irish-Americans can trace their ancestry to the years immediately following the Great Famine. But with visits to 104 archives in 12 countries across 5 continents, Barr learned anew that the Irish American narrative is not always representative. Irish stories from New Zealand, South Africa, Newfoundland, and Argentina, for example, emphasize different themes. More importantly, diaspora sometimes connotes settled-ness, with migrants departing one location before taking root in another. In contrast, Barr’s extensive legwork underscored a sense of the “Irish-in-motion,” tracking migrant flows from Ireland to Grass Valley, California, to Victoria, Australia, to Otago and Greymouth, New Zealand. Without rejecting the usage of diaspora, Barr recommended Greater Ireland as a conceptual complement, one able to highlight themes less conducive to diasporic framing.

Over the program’s final 20 minutes, Cummings moderated diverse questions submitted by virtual participants from around the world. Cushwa fellow Rev. Stephen M. Koeth, C.S.C., asked how the lecture material connects to Barr’s research on Fr. Paul Cullen: Is Cullen’s life an argument in favor of Ireland’s unique influence in global Catholicism? As they spread across the Anglosphere, Barr explained, Cullen’s protégés not only carried a particular idea about what it meant to be Irish and Catholic but also the ambition to “replicate” Cullen’s style of hierarchical leadership; Cullen was “able to create an infrastructure that was self-replicating,” such that “Hiberno-Roman Catholicism” became received as normative. Joan Redmond (King’s College London) asked how earlier centuries of migration influence Greater Ireland—who gets included? Barr distinguished between pre- and post-Famine migration, in which earlier migrants moved constantly but in fairly small numbers, often concentrated among the most elite. From his position in Philadelphia as archivist for the Redemptorists of the Baltimore Province, Patrick Hayes wondered what role religious archives play in the reconstruction of Greater Ireland. This question excited Barr: archival material, he argued, is “the connective tissue” revealing the links among the global Irish. Especially in a moment of economic stress precipitated by COVID-19, Barr implored the virtual audience to work to save religious archives, particularly those pertaining to Irish women and women religious, whose underappreciated contributions are overwhelmingly reposited in religious archives. At the conclusion of the audience Q&A, Marilyn Madigan of the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians commended Barr for his stimulating lecture.

Heath Carter and Kathryn Gin Lum on religious biography

Heath W. Carter, associate professor of American Christianity at Princeton Theological Seminary, and Kathryn Gin Lum, associate professor in the Religious Studies Department at Stanford University, serve as co-editors with Mark A. Noll of The Library of Religious Biography, a series published since the early 1990s by The William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. On October 29, Carter and Gin Lum joined Cushwa Center postdoctoral research associate Philip Byers for a Q&A webinar on religious biography.

Byers began by noting that although biographies are popular with the general public, historians often question the ethics and methodology of biography, asserting that biographers are guilty of voyeurism and that the genre too often devolves into “great man history.” He asked what the weaknesses of the genre are, how they can be avoided, and whether the series is an intervention in scholarly circles or an attempt to reach more popular audiences.

Carter agreed that biography can devolve into voyeurism but that at its best biography shows how examining a single life illuminates much broader issues in society. Gin Lum concurred and, citing Jill Lepore’s 2001 article in the Journal of American History, argued that biography is akin to microhistory and avoids voyeurism and “great man history” when it pays attention to context and to the fact that subjects are shaped by events as much as they are shapers of the world around them.

Both Carter and Gin Lum acknowledged their appreciation for biography’s ability to reflect work in the historical field while also engaging a wide audience through a strong narrative arc, something that is often lacking in monographs. They emphasized that this makes biographies highly useful in undergraduate teaching. Gin Lum further suggested that incorporating elements of biography in monographs—by beginning sections with illustrative biographical sketches, for example—is a way of engaging general readers.

Summarizing several questions submitted by webinar participants, Byers asked what was religious about religious biography. Given that people are inconsistently religious, how do the editors define who and what counts as religious? Carter answered that the series was open to various approaches to religiosity. In the 1990s, he said, religious history was more marginalized, but now that it is being centered, the series is freer to focus on more diverse subjects and more complex understandings of religion. Forthcoming biographies, for example, include not only religious leaders like Oral Roberts, but female activists like Sojourner Truth and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, political figures including Andrew Jackson, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Winston Churchill, and John Foster Dulles, as well as authors and entertainers like Laura Ingalls Wilder, Aretha Franklin, and Tina Turner. Gin Lum suggested that by focusing on a subject’s context, a biographer can avoid having to adjudicate who is and who is not sufficiently religious. Examining why people ask about, or try to deny, a subject’s religiosity helps explain why that person matters and what that person tells us about a particular time and place.

Reminding listeners of Eerdmans’ roots in the Dutch Reformed tradition, Byers asked about the series’ foundations and how the editors envisioned the series evolving. Carter said that the series’ earliest entries were dominated by white, American, male, Protestant, and clerical subjects. But the editors believe that the series can reflect the evolving mainstream of the historical field, as well as the name of the series itself, by exploring subjects from diverse religions, genders, races, classes, and nations of origin. Gin Lum stressed their desire to balance between biographies of lesser-known but important figures and household names.

The conversation concluded with Carter and Gin Lum offering advice for authors interested in contributing to the series. Although the coronavirus pandemic has kept them from interacting with scholars at conferences, both Carter and Gin Lum stressed that authors should not hesitate to reach out to them by email or through Twitter to brainstorm ideas and to get advice on submitting proposals. Gin Lum warned that the pitfall for proposals is that authors love their subject too much, which risks turning biography into hagiography. The key, she offered, is for authors to ascertain why their subject matters and to state this clearly, not merely to assume that readers will care as much as they do. Most of all, Carter said, the editors were interested in quality writing and in books that appeal to a range of readers from academic historians to undergraduate students and a general audience.


Philip Byers and Stephen M. Koeth, C.S.C., are postdoctoral fellows at the University of Notre Dame's Cushwa Center.