The Magazine

Things Not Seen

How faith was received in the Era of Good Feelings.

Aug 8, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 44 • By EDWARD SHORT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

These are untenable assertions. First, parishes were established as geographical, not ethnic, units. Second, there is no evidence to suggest that parishes separated American Catholics from their non-Catholic fellows. On the contrary, they continue to foster a sense of citizenship in the Catholic faithful. The projects that the state created to replace parishes may promote dependency, crime, isolation, and despair, but they do not inspire citizenship. And last, the claim that assimilation was something for which it was necessary to invent a “mythology” is typical of her theoretical approach to the subject. Imagine trying to convince George M. Cohan of such a notion—or better yet, James Cagney, who gave such life to Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Schultz begins with an epigraph from W. E. H. Lecky, the 19th-century historian of rationalism, who argued “that the progress of civilization produces invariably a certain tone and habit of thought which make men recoil from miraculous narratives with an instinctive and immediate repugnance.” She ends with a quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s daughter, Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, a convert to Catholicism who devoted herself to caring for the cancerous poor: “Mrs. Mattingly,” wrote Lathrop, “was destined to become and to remain .  .  . a living instance, to every one, of the doctrine and mystery of the Holy Eucharist, at the moment when she was restored to health, after receiving the real yet glorified body of our Lord in the consecrated wafer.”

Schultz cites these epigraphs to suggest that there has always been a divide in America between the mystery of Catholicism and a modern civilization contemptuous of the miraculous. But this is unpersuasive: America has never been as antagonistic to Catholicism as Schultz imagines—or as rationalistic. That Catholicism provoked nativist resentment was a tribute to its power, not evidence of its unpopularity.

Indeed, to grasp the import of Mrs. Mattingly and her miracle we must go not to Lecky but to David Hume, who wrote (in his essay “On Miracles”) of how “the Christian Religion, not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its veracity. And whoever is moved by Faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person.”

This is the sort of faith to which Americans have customarily been drawn, and an essential element in the history of Mrs. Mattingly and her miracle. Hume was convinced that such faith “subverts all the principles of .  .  .  understanding” and is “most contrary to custom and experience.” But he wrote this in 1772, and could not have known that the faith of America is perfectly consonant with the custom and experience of the American people.

Edward Short is the author of Newman and his Contemporaries.