Last night’s conversation at Presbycast about a lot of things Presbyterian, together with current research on Roman Catholic debates during the 1980s about the church and American identity, got me thinking about whether I, as a historian of J. Gresham Machen and the OPC get away with writing this kind of evaluation of the PCUSA. What follows is from Jay Dolan’s The American Catholic Experience (1985) [Dolan taught history for many years at Notre Dame]. Here’s his description of what happened in the United States after Vatican II:
Another change that transformed the religious world of Catholics was a new understanding of sin. The traditional concept of sin was grounded in a system of laws, some of which were rooted in Scripture or the natural law, while others were promulgated by the church. The new Catholic morality argued for a more personal, less legalistic, approach to sin. The virtue of love became primary, together with the individual conscience. The implications of this shift, publicized in both scholarly and popular works, was tremendous. Perhaps most dramatic was the decline in confession. A 1974 study found that only 17 percent of the Catholics surveyed went to confession monthly, compared to 37 percent in 1963. Soon form followed function, and reconciliation rooms, where priest and penitent could interact face to face, replaced the dark confessional box. Penitential services became popular, and on some occasions a public general absolution replaced private confessions. (434).
For those who say nothing changed after Vatican II, Dolan is a contrary voice and a recognized authority on Roman Catholicism in the United States to boot (not a blogger or apologist).
But that’s not the primary reason for unearthing this quote. The point is this: what if I wrote this about the PCUSA after the OPC’s formation? What if I asserted in a book published by a trade press (Doubleday) that the PCUSA had become liberal, that it changed its theology on sin and salvation, and that these departures from historic Presbyterian practices constituted a “new” Presbyterianism, or Protestantism for a “new age.”
Of course, while wearing my OPC hat, I think that about the PCUSA. But I can’t get away with that in the mainstream publishing world without running the risk of being ostracized from the profession as the Gary North of American historians. Call me a coward. But historians of American religion cannot make certain claims about communions everyone knows to be theologically accurate because they don’t want to admit that the fundamentalists had a point.
It could also be a function of 2k. What is acceptable for churchmen’s judgments is not so for professional historical scholarship. We don’t always succeed but we do try to keep theological judgments from informing historical analysis. Sometimes that’s artificial. But it’s also the case that professional academics is not the place to settle ecclesiastical conflicts.
Still, why do those academic calculations not apply to Jay Dolan, the history of Roman Catholicism in the United States, or Doubleday? Is it a function of academic seniority? Once you acquire tenure you can write whatever you want?
Or is it that what Dolan said is actually good history and that converts and apologists have yet to catch up with the church they’ve joined and celebrated?