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An "Aristocracy of Virtue": Cultural Development of the American Catholic Priesthood, 1884–1920s

Donna J. Drucker
Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation
Vol. 21, No. 2 (Summer 2011), pp. 227-258
DOI: 10.1525/rac.2011.21.2.227
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/rac.2011.21.2.227
Page Count: 32
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An "Aristocracy of Virtue": Cultural Development of the American Catholic Priesthood, 1884–1920s
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Abstract

This article examines advice literature directed at English-speaking members of the American Catholic priesthood in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. From the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884 through the late 1920s, advice literature transformed from emphasizing how the priest should be a man set above the laity into emphasizing how the priest should be part of a broad priestly fraternity, taking on the role of a public citizen speaking out on issues of the day. After the modernist controversies of the first decade of the twentieth century that stifled their intellectual development, American priests' seminary training particularly emphasized virile masculinity, athletic rigor, and duty and conformity to their superiors. In the late nineteenth century, advice literature encouraged priests to see their lives together in rectories as schools of charity, where all of the priests would, with the assistance of obedient and nonthreatening household staff, encourage each other to be men of prayer and self-sacrifice despite each others' individual foibles. Every aspect of a priest's life, from the rectory environment to his clothing and bearing, was supposed to mark him as a man set apart. During and after World War I, however, advice literature shifted from addressing the priest's life in his rectory and parish alone to encouraging him to participate in civic duties as an American citizen. Diocesan priests like John A. Ryan took a lead role in advocating for social reforms that married public policy with social and economic justice. While priests' sacramental duties remained at the center of their lives and ministries, advice literature nonetheless encouraged them to rethink their place in the sociocultural landscape and to become more vocal promoters of Catholic values in the public sphere.

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