75th Anniversary of “American Epoch” Commemorated

Kenneth Craycraft writing in the religious journal Our Sunday Visitor notes that this year is the 75th anniversary of the publication of Waugh’s article in Life Magazine (19 September 1949) entitled “The American Epoch of the Catholic Church.” This followed Waugh’s three recent visits the United States, the last two of which included the research for the article and a lecture tour of Roman Catholic colleges and universities in the eastern states. Craycraft contrasts the “American Epoch” article with the satiric novella he wrote about America after the first trip in 1947. That was, of course, The Loved One. Here are some excerpts from Craycraft’s article:

…The literary product after this journey was more conciliatory and circumspect than the prior… This 75th anniversary year is an opportunity to reintroduce this classic essay, which can be found in a collection of Waugh’s non-fiction “The Essays, Articles and Reviews” (Little Brown & Co., 1984).

The “American Epoch” is a meditation on the paradoxical predicament of the Church in the U.S. The Catholic Church is by far the largest single religious organization in the country, but Catholics represent only about 25% of the American population. Moreover, Catholics have been viewed with suspicion in American public life.

These phenomena are related to the relatively late arrival of Catholics to the new world. Beginning in about the middle of the 19th century, large waves of Catholic immigrants started arriving from Europe. Other than (arguably), the Irish, these were predominantly non-English speaking migrants, from Italy, Germany, Poland, and other historically Catholic countries. Thus, Catholics arrived as both linguistic and religious alien

And they arrived in a country whose moral and political values are also foreign to a Catholic vision. As Waugh rightly notes, American moral sentiments are shaped by the political theory that forms the United States. America, he explains, “is a child of the late-eighteenth century ‘enlightenment.’” The liberal political theory at the heart of America “has persisted through all the changes of her history and penetrated into every part of her life.”…

…about 100 years after the antebellum immigration wave, Waugh observed that “Catholicism is not something alien and opposed to the American spirit but an essential part of it.” The desire to fit in has led to an “enervating toleration,” by which Catholic distinctiveness is dissolved into American vagueness. “Good citizenship,” he concludes, “has come to mean mere amenability to the demands of the government.” And it is considered the “highest virtue.”

Despite these tendencies, Waugh ends “The American Epoch” on a somewhat hopeful note. Yes, Americanism is corrosive of Catholic witness. The Catholic “knows that the history of the Church is one of conflict.” But, “the Catholic holds certain territories that he can never surrender to the temporal power.” Whether or not those territories had been surrendered in 1949, the 75th anniversary of the essay is an opportune time to revisit his observations as a measure of the present — to ask whether the time has been lost or redeemed.

“The American Epoch” was clearly Waugh’s major publication effort for 1949. In the previous years since Brideshead  in 1945 he managed to eke out at least one book a year, although two were novellas and one a collection of reprints. But he clearly took the time required to make “American Epoch” more noteworthy than his usual run of journalism.

As Craycraft notes, the entire article can be read in EAR. But it should also be noted that the version in EAR is not the one published in Life. It is a revised version written for publication two months later in The Month, a Roman Catholic magazine published in the UK. This reflects some changes by Waugh in Life’s version–e.g. at p. 152 of the Life version there is a photo and description of a visit Waugh made to a Catholic girls school in Cincinnati. This did not appear in the UK version. The school (after reviewing the draft) had requested Waugh to remove that material because it was inconsistent with its agreement to allow Waugh to stay in its facilities. They did not want the visit publicized. The Life editors either didn’t receive or chose to ignore that message. The full version of the Life version of the article, including photographs, can be viewed at this link to Google’s archive of the magazine. The article appears at pp. 135-55.



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