In review: Spring 2021 at the Cushwa Center

Author: Philip Byers

In spring 2021, the Cushwa Center hosted events online in keeping with ongoing pandemic restrictions. Each of the public events reviewed here is available to view on the center’s YouTube channel

The Biden presidency in historical context

On the eve of a new semester after an extended winter break, the Cushwa Center commenced its spring 2021 programming on Tuesday afternoon, February 2, with a webinar moderated by center director Kathleen Sprows Cummings and featuring a panel of historians. Sixty years after the election and inauguration of the first Catholic president of the United States, Cummings led a conversation that contextualized the nascent administration of the country’s second Catholic president, Joseph R. Biden. What historical factors, Cummings queried her colleagues, help explain the significance of Biden’s presidency?

Peter Cajka (Notre Dame) opened the proceedings by framing President Biden’s ascent as part of a long trend among U.S. liberal Catholics: a growing “refusal to impose” one’s personal religious beliefs. This “major program of liberal Catholicism” hinges on the compromise between a public rhetoric of democracy and a private piety. The strength of this tradition, in Cajka’s account, has been its pragmatism in a pluralistic polity, but its weakness has involved an inconsistency of moral witness. The willingness to live-and-let-live on certain moral issues pairs poorly with a prophetic voice on others, and Biden faces a challenge that Cajka called a “central question of American history”—determining whether Catholicism can be made “liberal.” 

Next, Theresa Keeley (University of Louisville) focused on continuity and change related to Catholicism and U.S. foreign policy. Where Cold War anxieties meant that most U.S. Catholics in 1960 were dependable anti-communists, developments in subsequent years created fissures in the Church. By the 1970s, some Catholic critics doubted whether communism was truly the greatest present threat to human dignity. The war in Vietnam helped to seed these divisions, while Reagan-era interventions in (predominantly Catholic) Central American countries and the rise of liberation theology in the 1980s both helped to exacerbate them. By 2021, then, the president’s Catholicism matters less than does the question of “what kind of Catholic Joe Biden is,” Keeley said. 

Rev. Stephen M. Koeth, C.S.C. (Notre Dame), began with attention to similarities between 1961 and 2021. Divisions within the bishops’ conference, for example, are not unique to recent months, as Cold War-era U.S. prelates disagreed vehemently regarding Kennedy’s anti-communist bona fides. Yet Koeth mainly drew upon his award-winning dissertation to explain how suburbanization helped to transform Catholic prospects—and their resulting politics. Over several decades, changes in socioeconomic status and residential patterns diminished the longstanding centrality of what Koeth called “the urban ethnic enclave” and heightened standard suburban concerns such as schooling and property taxes. Long before abortion entered national politics, the elevation of pocketbook issues had thus already begun to split Catholics. 

The afternoon’s final panelist, Cecilia Moore (University of Dayton), assessed continuity and change in Black Catholics’ reception of presidents Kennedy and Biden. In Moore’s recounting, Kennedy’s show of support for Martin Luther King Jr. in 1960 first persuaded many Black voters to back the Democratic challenger. Six decades later, Black Catholics have assumed positions of both executive and symbolic power in the new administration: the “heavily Catholic” cabinet, for example, includes lifelong Catholic Lloyd Austin, the first African American to serve as U.S. Secretary of Defense, and the poet Amanda Gorman’s Catholic convictions marked her much-lauded recitation of “The Hill We Climb” at President Biden’s inauguration. Moore made clear, however, that achievement must follow representation—“the wounds are deep and ancient,” she reflected, and Black Catholics hold high expectations for the Biden-Harris years. 

After their initial observations, panelists spent most of the hour engaging questions submitted by the more than 200 virtual participants. Many of the questions involved changes over the past 60 years. Edgar Guzmán (St. Paul Catholic Newman Center at CSU-Fresno) asked about evolution within the bishops’ conference. Koeth acknowledged substantial change over time in the bishops’ influence, stemming in part from their diminished public standing in the wake of the clergy sex abuse crisis but also because political polarization among U.S. Catholics has diminished the bishops’ capacity to speak as representatives of a cohesive voting bloc. Yet Koeth identified reasons for optimism, noting that despite the controversy surrounding a pre-inauguration USCCB statement penned by Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, the document included numerous areas of agreement with the incoming president. William Cossen (Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology) wondered whether anti-Catholicism still matters. Compared to the 1960s, is it a salient force in U.S. society? While several panelists agreed that anti-Catholicism has not been eradicated, they described its changing contours. Cajka contended that Biden’s election seemed less remarkable because Catholics in other prominent positions—such as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and numerous members of the Supreme Court—had all “anticipated” the election of another Catholic president.

Participants also sought the panelists’ insights regarding what Biden’s Catholicism might mean for the administration’s future. Thomas Kselman (Notre Dame) referenced Catholic identity on the Supreme Court while noting a wide variation in how these Catholics approach the faith. How might Biden handle that difference? Cajka acknowledged the real theological distinctions while still identifying fruitful possibilities: Biden and a Supreme Court Justice such as Amy Coney Barrett both possess “serious Catholic minds” that will coalesce and diverge at various points. Cummings channelled the many religious sisters who had joined the virtual gathering to ask the panelists how Biden’s Catholic schooling and his “relationship with American women religious” might influence his approaches to religion and politics. In response Keeley argued that observers should not underestimate Biden’s formation in a system that taught him to respect and obey nuns. His pre-existing relationship with Sister Simone Campbell, for example, may facilitate collaboration on a range of social justice issues and will likely afford him a “different perspective than he might typically get from the average government worker.” Keeley identified the prominence of women religious—their role standing in as representatives of the Church in 2021—as a major change from Kennedy’s era to Biden’s. 

On a hopeful note, Maura Jane Farrelly (Brandeis University) wondered whether Biden’s administration could offer onlookers hope: might the relatively “unremarkable” nature of this Catholic’s ascent to the nation’s highest office encourage others who are presently marginalized? Moore responded with both expectation and caution. While Kennedy’s administration had indeed inspired numerous Black supporters, recent years have placed a kernel of doubt in many minds. Will Biden be allowed to succeed, Moore asked, or will partisan opposition derail his policy agenda? Loath as historians generally are to project the future, the panel refrained from proffering a firm answer to that question. Their rich, contextualized reflections, however, had afforded all who joined the conversation with a greatly enhanced grasp of the path this Catholic president has taken to Pennsylvania Avenue.

God and black gold in modern America

The Cushwa Center hosted its semiannual Seminar in American Religion on Saturday, March 20, 2021, nearly a year after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic had delayed the original gathering. Participants from multiple continents joined a virtual session devoted to Anointed with Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America (Basic, 2019) by Darren Dochuk, the Andrew V. Tackes College Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.

Kathleen Cummings opened the proceedings with a welcome to all participants and brief introductions of the session’s two commentators, Andrew Preston (Clare College, University of Cambridge) and Melani McAlister (George Washington University). 

Preston began with a personal anecdote, describing how his own research into a major 20th-century fundamentalist preacher had required him to visit the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Delaware, to consult the private papers of J. Howard Pew. Why, Preston had wondered, would the personal papers of an oil baron contain essential holdings about a Protestant minister? In Preston’s analysis, Anointed with Oil answers that question in a “highly original, ingenious way,” providing insights for historians of business, the environment, foreign relations, and religion—indeed, offering all readers a type of “skeleton key . . . to understanding modern America itself.” Preston commended Dochuk for teaching historians a valuable methodological lesson, namely that zeroing in on a topic can counterintuitively expand a scholar’s range of vision. At first glance, Anointed with Oil might appear to tackle a narrower set of questions and actors than Dochuk’s first book, but in fact that focus broadened Dochuk’s scope spatially, religiously, and historiographically. Preston also congratulated Dochuk on avoiding unresolvable philosophical questions regarding the relationship between culture and religion. By prioritizing storytelling, Anointed with Oil foregrounds the complexity and contingency of religion in modern American life. Along with all these merits in content, the book also stands out for its prose, which Preston called “an absolute pleasure,” citing favorite turns of phrase from the text. Together, these analytical insights and compositional feats qualify the final product as “terrific history, wonderfully told”; it represents a “landmark book” for the field.  

McAlister began by affirming some of Preston’s remarks. She, too, prized the book’s writing, and she extolled the archival research, the breadth and scale of which were “hard to do justice to” in a brief comment. McAlister also appreciated Dochuk’s success in expanding the narrative’s range of characters. While few sectors of American life have been as gendered and racialized as Big Oil, Dochuk demonstrated the centrality of figures such as the Black oilman Jake Simmons and the major petro-critic Ida Tarbell, revealing them “not only as victims but . . . as complex agents.” McAlister framed her only regrets as the outgrowth of publishing realities: major trade presses like Basic, she noted, are uncomfortable with “theory talk,” but McAlister wished Dochuk could have devoted more time to the concept of the “Anthropocene.” Was oil not only the medium through which humans acted but an “actant” in its own right? Unresolved questions such as these informed McAlister’s opinion that rather than moving onto a new subject, Dochuk should continue to explore oil and religion, perhaps in another historical context, such as Nigeria. 

Dochuk followed with brief reactions, including an explanation of how his Notre Dame colleague Thomas Tweed and Tweed’s concept of “sacroscapes” had helped him to imagine the formative power of an oil field. He encouraged any scholars interested in the history of oil to expand their language capacities and comparative methodologies, two skills that will prove essential for future scholarship. He then engaged questions submitted by participants and moderated by Cummings. Dennis Coday asked the question on most admiring readers’ minds: how did Dochuk do it? Was there a single source that opened his eyes and helped him make sense of this flood of material? Dochuk—a native of Alberta—reflected on his surprise at finding extensive files on the Great Canadian Oil Sands project among the Pew papers, and he also described the payoff for the months of effort it required to gain access to the corporate records of BP, an archive that illuminated the global story of 20th-century oil. When Janine Giordano Drake (Indiana University Bloomington) asked how Big Oil shifted the meaning of the Social Gospel, Dochuk remarked on that theological tradition’s complexity. In one sense, oil had been constitutive, with Rockefeller money propelling certain liberal Protestant actors such as John Mott. But Big Oil had also been the target of Social Gospelers such as Washington Gladden, not to mention Ida Tarbell. Cummings then formulated a composite question drawing on input from many participants, wondering whether Dochuk could comment on climate change, religion, and the politics of energy. Does interest in the “transcendent” still mark environmental debates in the 21st century? Like any good historian, Dochuk avoided specific predictions, but he made a bold case for understanding energy sources as inherently “existential and . . . theological.” Today’s pipeline fights are waged on the terrain of values, and wind and solar both possess an entrepreneurial air that somewhat evokes the spirit of the “wildcatters” in Anointed with Oil. The politics of energy, he suspects, will remain “morally charged.”      

The virtual session concluded with final remarks from Preston and McAlister, both of whom doubled down on their admiration for Dochuk’s achievement. The text, in McAlister’s estimation, promises to “reorient” the history of U.S. empire. Though the coronavirus pandemic forced nearly a year-long delay, remarks by Preston, McAlister, and other virtual participants proved that the wait had not dimmed appreciation for this remarkable scholarly accomplishment.

Peter Cajka on the Catholic roots of conscience-talk

On Thursday, May 13, the Cushwa Center convened its final public event of the 2020–21 academic year. Co-sponsored by the Department of American Studies, the online gathering was equal parts scholarly and celebratory. Following a formal introduction by Kathleen Cummings and remarks by Jason Ruiz (American Studies, Notre Dame), Cushwa postdoctoral fellow Rev. Stephen M. Koeth, C.S.C., engaged in a Q&A with Peter Cajka, a former Cushwa Center postdoc and current teaching professor and director of undergraduate studies for the American Studies department.

The conversation revolved around Cajka’s recently published book, Follow Your Conscience: The Catholic Church and the Spirit of the Sixties (University of Chicago Press, 2021). Koeth invited Cajka to open with an explanation of the book’s counterintuitive premise: how an era renowned for its “modern” and “secular” protest movements actually drew much of its intellectual support from a 13th-century Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas. As the war in Vietnam escalated in the 1960s and selective service required more and more young men to register for the draft, American Catholics overturned commonplace assumptions. Protestants had long accused the Catholic Church of violating conscience and requiring mindless obedience, but lay people drew upon their catechisms and their Catholic schooling to create groups such as the Catholic Peace Fellowship, advocating for a distinctly Catholic tradition of conscientious objection.

Cajka’s narrative highlights the critical role that priests played in these developments, a realization that emerged only late in his research process and that initially surprised him. In Cajka’s view, the midcentury context helps explain this in part. In the 1950s and 1960s, priests still exerted great influence in American life. Seminary enrollments were booming, and their training in Thomistic thought immersed these seminarians in Aquinas’ ideas about conscience. Vatican II also influenced priests in this moment, especially a cohort of younger priests who perceived their calling as advocating for lay families. They were “willing,” Cajka explained, “to stand up for the laity’s rights” to follow conscience on matters such as reproduction.

One of Cajka’s main historiographical takeaways, in fact, flowed from all these insights: “If you look at priests,” he argued, “they take American history to places that we don’t normally take it.” This focus, for example, revealed to Cajka the influence of Thomistic ideas on Martin Luther King Jr.’s renowned “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Using the cases of prelates such as Archbishop Patrick Aloysius O’Boyle, Cajka also shed new light on the constant “interplay” between law and conscience, the conflict over whether conscience rights applied equally in political and ecclesial domains. If some critics have accused priests of inconsistency by defending the rights of conscience in conflicts with the state while diminishing those rights in conflicts with the Church, Cajka insisted that priestly proponents of conscience displayed a type of internal continuity. “You're never going to close the debate,” Cajka predicted. Conscience will always have a “split personality,” emancipating some and binding others.    

In the event’s closing minutes, the on-screen audience—nearly 100 of the author’s family, friends, colleagues, and students, from multiple continents—offered Cajka their congratulations and their questions. Cushwa Center research associate Rose Luminiello invited Cajka to comment on international factors that helped inform American Catholics, and he demonstrated the breadth of his research, discussing examples including the German priest Bernard Häring and the influential, best-selling Dutch Catechism of 1967. In response to questions from Patrick Hayes (Redemptorist Archives, Baltimore Province) and Peter Berard, Cajka described some of the Catholic antecedents to his story. Though conscription during the 1960s mainstreamed the rhetoric of conscience, saturation bombing and the military’s distribution of contraceptives during World War II had catalyzed some of the first comprehensive conscience arguments from American priests such as John C. Ford, S.J. Comments from Shaun Blanchard (Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady University) and Amie Cajka prompted Cajka to attend to conscience language within contemporary Catholic politics: he quoted, for example, from Pope Francis’ commentary on conscience and divorce in Amoris Laetitia.

On the hour mark, the event ended with a presentation of a framed print of the book’s cover art from the Department of American Studies. After a long year that involved many challenges, the Cushwa Center happily concluded its programming with a celebration of this achievement by one of its own.


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