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Rivalry and rapprochement

17 August 2012

William Countryman on the US Churches

Catholicism and the Shaping of Nineteenth-Century America: Jon Gjerde
S. Deborah Kang, editor
Cambridge University Press £21.99
Church Times Bookshop £19.80 (Use code CT241 - free postage on UK online orders during August)

Postliberal Theology and the Church Catholic: Conversations with George Lindbeck, David Burrell, Stanley Hauerwas
John Wright, editor
Baker Academic £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30 (Use code CT241 - free postage on UK online orders during August)

THESE two books share, as their theme, the encounter between Protestant and Roman Catholic Christianity in the United States, but they are very different, both in discipline (one history, the other theology) and in the time period on which they focus (early 19th century and late 20th). Still, they offer, through their very contrast with each other, a vivid record of change.

Professor Jon Gjerde's book is concerned with the Ante-Bellum (pre-Civil War) period, when the existing Protestant majority was feeling threatened by the growth of Roman Catholicism through both immigration and conversion. Both groups struggled to dominate public discourse about education, the family, women, and economic justice. Both also found themselves struggling with internal inconsistencies.

Protestants loudly proclaimed the principle of religious liberty, but feared that it would lead to Roman Catholic domination; Roman Catholics expressed their gratitude for the same principle, but had no real theological explanation for it. Neither group was able to resolve internal disagreements over the issue of slavery, destined to bring the era to a violent end.

Protestant efforts to control the public schools resulted in their increasing secularisation. Roman Catholics hoped instead to effect "pillarization", the kind of separation of religious communities under government auspices which was found in the Netherlands. Failing to achieve it, they created parochial schools and other basic community organs at their own expense. This made them, in social terms, a "denomination", however much they rejected the idea theologically, and so conformed them to American Protestant models.

The resulting sense of division and suspicion on both sides lasted well into the 20th century. But John Wright's interviews with three prominent American theologians (two Protestant, one Roman Catholic) show how much of this suspicion evaporated over the years during and after the Second Vatican Council, enabling a rapprochement of ideas which articulated and encouraged the strong ecumenical drive of the period. Wright remains hopeful that this movement is not yet entirely played out.

Of the two works, Gjerde's is the more dense, mining a rich vein of little known material from a period of major conflict between nativists and the then largely immigrant Roman Church. His previous work on immigrant groups gave him a distinctive perspective on the ways in which the two groups not only clashed, but shaped each other and American culture at large.

Unfortunately, Gjerde died before his work was complete, and the book suffers for it. The style is rough; and, for some reason, "pillarization" is misspelled as "pillorization" throughout. The result is a valuable work unfortunately ill-served by its presentation.

Wright offers a lucid interpretation of the sources and significance of post-liberal theology, and his interlocutors are engagingly frank and open in the interviews. This Anglican reader found it interesting that a theological method with roots in the nouvelle théologie and in Karl Barth comes out in a place that many Anglicans would find familiar. The key element seems to be that of uniting a critical Christian humanism with reverence for long-standing doctrinal tradition, whatever the theologian's exact starting point.

The Revd Dr Countryman is Sherman E. Johnson Professor of Biblical Studies Emeritus at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific and the Graduate Theological Union, California, in the United States.

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