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In a Strange Land

There will always be tension between America’s experiment with democracy and hierarchically structured Roman Catholicism, because the two proclaim different concepts of freedom.  While the former is grounded in the individualism of Protestantism and, more recently, of secularism, the latter regards true freedom as being circumscribed by claims imposed by considerations of the common good and by natural and supernatural law.  In Catholicism and American Freedom: A History, John T. McGreevey, the John A. O’Brien Associate Professor of History at Notre Dame, sketches the main events, ideas, and characters that have shaped American Catholicism since the 1840’s.  His thesis is grounded in the triangular tension among the local Catholic Church, wary authorities in Rome, and the civil and cultural ethos of the country.  In this light, McGreevey discusses such key issues as schooling, slavery, social justice, sexual morality, and religious freedom.  While his analysis of these matters will enrich the historian and theologian, it is the cultural anthropologist who will most benefit from the insight McGreevey brings to the inter-Church and civil dynamics that continue to produce uneasiness between Catholic liberals and conservatives and to cause strains in Church-State relations.

McGreevey is most insightful in his presentation of the philosophical and theological beliefs of certain priests,...

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