“America’s Church: The National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and Catholic Presence in the Nation’s Capital” by Thomas A. Tweed. Oxford University Press (New York, 2011). 365 pp., $35.
In “America’s Church,” Thomas Tweed, a professor of religious studies at the University of Texas in Austin, gives us a long overdue historical overview of the crucial components of American Catholicism that led to the establishment of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.
Over the years, the basilica has come to represent many things to various groups within the American Catholic Church and a historical overview of the political and social intrigues that were part of its construction and completion are part of that rich tapestry.
Taking a historical chronology that illuminates the multiple groups, clergy and laity alike, that advocated the initiation of a national Catholic cathedral, the author provides a clear portrait of the intense dynamics at play between the concept of the separation of church and state, the internal intrigues between members of the U.S. Catholic hierarchy and the devotional needs of multiple segments of various Catholic ethnic groups that desired a symbol of their Catholic identity in the nation’s capital.
In a detailed and remarkable manner, the author narrates the individuals, groups and events that successfully overcame obstacles of internal Catholic Church politics, governmental and bureaucratic red tape, the shortages of the Second World War and many other unforeseen problems to finally provide a home for American Catholicism that incorporated the multicultural notions and ideals of a growing American Catholic Church.
Most interesting are the various unrelated groups such as Catholic schoolchildren, Catholic women, various influential American prelates and multiple groups representing Catholic immigrants that joined forces to finance, plan and finally achieve the magnificent edifice we today call the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Often when we Catholics visit the national shrine in Washington, we neglect to remember the great struggles on many levels that allowed American Catholics to achieve a presence in the United States on equal par with other religious denominations. The narrative history presented by Tweed shows not only the struggle endured by American Catholics in achieving social and political harmony, it also illustrates the great advances toward Catholic theological understanding that were made in the 20th century and continue in the present day.
“America’s Church” is a significant work of scholarship that exposes the monumental tasks that accompanied not only the building of a Catholic place of worship, but also the skills employed by American Catholics to become a civil and religious presence in the nation’s capital and all aspects of American society.
Hugh McNichol is a Catholic theologian and historian. He lives in Wilmington, Del., and writes for multiple Catholic media outlets.