Spring 2004

Here Come the Evangelical Catholics

William L. Portier

“The dissolution of the subculture is the context in which the Second Vatican Council, and its understanding of the church-world relation in modernity, was received in the United States.”1

Part I

1. Who are the evangelical Catholics? An anecdotal sketch


The counterintuitive phrase “evangelical Catholic” entered American Catholic historiography in 1983 when David O’Brien applied it to Isaac Hecker, the nineteenth-century founder of the Paulist Fathers. Hecker’s desire to engage with culture and to “make America Catholic” was, O’Brien argued, a creative response, neither “denomi- national” nor “sectarian,” to the “evangelical imperative” created by the modern political conditions of religious liberty and pluralism. With historian Timothy L. Smith, O’Brien emphasized the “evangelical stress on a changed life” as “perhaps the major source of reform energy in nineteenth-century America.”2

In 1989 O’Brien made “evangelical Catholicism” one of three “styles” of “contemporary public Catholicism.” Hecker and Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day served as O’Brien’s chief examples of the “evangelical Catholic” style. He contrasted it with the civil “republican” style, embodied by the colonial Carrolls and John Courtney Murray, and with the more pugnacious “immigrant” style of Archbishop “Dagger John” Hughes, builder of New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Crossing liberal-conservative boundaries, O’Brien paired charismatic Catholics with Catholic Workers as evangelical Catholics.

O’Brien’s  approach  to  evangelical  Catholicism  was  not uncritical. Evangelicals, he thought, tended to marginalize themselves in public debate while their “sectarian zeal” undervalued the workaday world. A contemporary public Catholicism, he argued, needed all three styles. But, he concluded in 1989, “The force of evangelical Catholicism will undoubtedly grow as the realities of voluntarism assert themselves more fully among Catholics.”3   Fifteen years later, O’Brien’s words sound remarkably prescient.


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To read this article in its entirety, please download the free PDF or buy this issue.

1. Space limitations prevent my thanking by name all who have helped with this article. To those unnamed, when you see the books and articles you’ve recommended or my not always successful attempts to respond to your comments and criticisms, please know that I am grateful. I am especially grateful to  David  O’Brien  and  James  Davidson,  who  provided  extensive  written comments on an earlier draft.

2. David J. O’Brien, “An Evangelical Imperative: Isaac Hecker, Catholicism, and Modern Society” in Hecker Studies, ed. John Farina (New York and Ramsey: Paulist Press, 1983), 87–132, at 94, 90–91. Smith, a Nazarene pastor with a Harvard Ph.D., published Revivalism and Social Reform in Mid-Nineteenth-Century  America (New York/Nashville: Abingdon Press) in 1957.

3. David J. O’Brien,  Public Catholicism (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1989),  242–252,  at  251.  O’Brien’s  authoritative  biography,  Isaac  Hecker,  An
American Catholic
(Paulist) appeared in 1992.