Friday, October 26, 2007

Examining the "Catholic Ghetto"

One hears all the time that American Catholics were stuck in an introverted ghetto until they grew up and joined the larger culture. It's a common self-aggrandizing story told by more than a few baby boomers.

Note how this essay explodes that liberation story with the gunpowder of multi-culturalism.

The history of the ghetto image in Catholic usage tells much about the changes of mood in Catholic life during the past quarter century. When apologists for Catholic behavior and critics of the encircling WASP cultures wanted to reinforce and legitimate Catholic group-bonding, they accented the ways in which ghetto life was imposed on minorities. This Ellis did only briefly, when he said that the “aloof and unfriendly” American intellectual climate had discouraged Catholics, led them to slacken their efforts, and prompted this “minority to withdraw into itself and to assume the attitude of defenders of a besieged fortress.”

At other times during the domestic aggiornamento that followed the Second Vatican Council, however, a self-deprecating, indeed sometimes almost masochistic view of the tradition prevailed. Then the ghetto was seen not as imposed from without but self-imposed from within. Angry James Colaianni typically wrote that “Ghettoism suffocates. It is just another jail man builds for himself to keep from becoming free.” Some such critics were romantic about the surrounding glories of the secular city, naive in their neglect of the role of intimate community in human life, and scornful of ancestors whose ways they could never understand or emulate.


My thesis is that while Catholicism often did nurture ghetto existence, it was by no means unique in its relative isolation from a putative Protestant-secular world which I shall henceforth call "The Culture." Surrounding the Catholic version were so many other religious, national, and ideological ghettos that they cast the Catholic ghetto in a less distinctive light. Their presence forces us to reconsider whether the The Culture was not in many ways a larger and more expansive ghetto itself.


Historians of intergroup relations who have concentrated on the anti-Semitism of some Populists or Henry Adams, or on the anti-Catholicism of the nativist American Protective Association at the turn of the century, do have virulent and potent topics on their hands. But they often miss the dynamics of ghetto existence. One sees more vitriol and hears more vituperation, for example, in conflicts between Catholic Americanists and anti-Americanists, Ukrainian Uniates and Ukrainian Orthodox, Czech Catholics and Czech freethinkers, Catholic traditionalists and Catholic modernists, within their ghettos, than between any and all of them, say, the American Protective Association. Sociologist Georg Simmel seems to have been right, at least in the American historical instance; “People who have many common features often do one another worse or ‘worser’ wrong then complete strangers do.”
Martin E. Marty, Locations: At Home in the Ghettos

I was surprised to discover the noted scholar of American religion Martin Marty was the essay's author. It was his 1981 presidential address to the American Catholic Historical Association.

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