From the director


Kathleen Cummings

I typically love writing the biannual Director’s Note. It gives me an opportunity to share my thoughts on the happenings in and around the Cushwa Center and to reflect on how the research projects we sponsor speak to what it has meant and still means to be a Catholic in America. For this issue, however, I dreaded writing this note, and its tone is considerably darker than normal.

This summer’s revelations in the ongoing clergy sex abuse scandal brought home to me the gravity of the crisis and an awareness that its roots extend far deeper into the church than I had admitted or acknowledged. The August release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report, coming on the heels of the news about the misdeeds of Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick—a man I met many times at Notre Dame—evoked from me a deeply personal reaction, and I published some of my thoughts in an August 17 New York Times op-ed. “People will say that there is still holiness in the church, that there are many priests and bishops with good and pure hearts, and they are right,” I wrote. “But there are times when the sin is so pervasive and corrosive that it is irresponsible to talk about anything else, and this is one of those times.”

In the two months since that essay appeared, I have thought almost constantly about how to respond as a scholar. I am convinced there is a corollary to the above statement for American Catholic studies: Yes, there are many stories yet to be written about all the wonderful ways a universal church centered in Rome took root and flourished in the United States. But we now know that even amidst so much grace in that history, sin abounded and crimes were committed. Whereas before I would have said, if asked, that sexual abuse in the church was not a subject I studied, I now believe that you cannot be a scholar of Catholicism in the United States without grappling with this issue to some extent. It is now so deeply embedded in American Catholic consciousness that it is irresponsible not to acknowledge it.

I am still working out what this will mean in terms of concrete proposals, both at the Cushwa Center and at Notre Dame more broadly, as the University’s president, Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., has invited me to co-chair a task force on the University’s scholarly response. At this point we have invited Robert Orsi to present some of his research on the global sex abuse crisis at Cushwa’s April conference, Global History and Catholicism. Peter Cajka, Maggie Elmore, and I are in conversation with Orsi and others about how we might develop a larger project. Stay tuned, and send me your ideas.

Kathleen Sprows Cummings

Kathleen Sprows Cummings is the William W. and Anna Jean Cushwa Director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. She is also an associate professor of American studies and history at Notre Dame.

This director's note appears in the fall 2018 issue of the American Catholic Studies Newsletter.