This New Book About American Catholic History is Epic Reading

From the battlefields of the American Revolution to the majesty of Baltimore’s cathedral, the unfinished Continental Achievement is a riveting achievement.

Book cover of Unfinished Symphony superimposed on Samuel Augustus Mitchell’s 1867 map of the United States
Book cover of Unfinished Symphony superimposed on Samuel Augustus Mitchell’s 1867 map of the United States (photo: Geographicus Rare Antique Maps/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

The artist Benjamin West famously depicted the 1783 Treaty of Paris. The treaty ended the American Revolution, but the painting itself remains unfinished. The future President John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, William Temple Franklin and Henry Laurens are there, but the embarrassed British delegation refused to pose for it. Their absence is visually striking, leaving a void in the canvas. But the void isn’t without meaning — it makes a statement about the future.

In a similar way, the late Kevin Starr’s Continental Achievement: Roman Catholics in the United States (Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2020) is an unfinished work, yet whole in its true vision. In a poignant note to readers, Starr’s widow, Sheila, states that on his last day, he had prepared the dedication, preface and table of contents. He had planned 20 chapters; there are 10.

Continental Achievement is a fascinating, engrossing read. It is worthwhile to learn about the United States’ Catholic history; it is inspiring as it is educational.

In the preface, Starr sets the stage. It is expansive, from the ex-Jesuit John Carroll and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, to the struggles over New Orleans, western expansion, and the conversion of Servant of God Isaac Hecker after residing in the utopian community of Brook Farm and Fruitlands, Massachusetts. He promised a panoramic view of American Catholic history, stretching from the American Revolution of the 1770s to the 1850s, with a cast of thousands. In a similar way, Continental Achievement delivers as a work, though “incomplete.”

What remains is an enthralling saga with fascinating characters, ending on a cliffhanger at the Battle of New Orleans and a victorious Andrew Jackson.


Archbishop John Carroll

The book looks at America as a credal nation, particularly through the life of Archbishop John Carroll. Carroll founded Georgetown University, built the Cathedral of the Assumption in Baltimore, and helped establish the first dioceses in the United States. Starr presents Carroll as a complicated character — ambitious, pious, paternal and patriotic. Carroll also championed the vernacular Mass — surprisingly timely, with the CDW (Congregation of Divine Worship) authorizing a translation change this past Ash Wednesday.

Starr wrote:

“Carroll underscored the irony that small ancient churches in the Middle East, as well as Greek and Armenian Catholics, enjoyed the privilege of vernacular liturgies when such a privilege was denied the English-speaking world. In the United States, moreover, both the lack of books and illiteracy made it difficult to obtain any level of self-instruction in the faith. A vernacular Mass could help the less privileged sectors of the Catholic community, including Roman Catholic slaves, to receive instruction along with worship and Eucharist.”

Carroll’s concern about privilege again sounds contemporary, except it is over vernacular liturgy. He desired only that the Mass be in English, not that its content and format be changed. One wonders what Carroll would make of priests facing the congregation and the overall casualness. What would he think of a changed liturgical calendar with a new season called “Ordinary Time” and saints like St. Christopher removed from the universal calendar?

Carroll instituted the lay trustee system for churches, a dramatic break from Europe. Starr wrote:

“Prefect Carroll had no trouble with New York’s trustee system, which reprised the Maryland experience in terms of Jesuit plantations registered under the name of lay trustees prior to suppression and now by outright ownership by ex-Jesuit secular priests no longer under a vow of poverty. … This system of lay trusteeship was congruent with Protestant America’s ownership of parishes and hence, offered a point of acceptable consilience, provided that ownership did not confer on lay trustees autonomous power to hire or fire clergy at will.”

Carroll lived to see this conflict, particularly between Fathers Charles Whelan and Andrew Nugent at St. Peter’s in New York City, escalate to a riot within the sanctuary. He regretted setting up the lay trustee system but did little to change it. The recent controversy of St. Anselm College in New Hampshire with the Benedictines shows conflict between laity and clergy exists to this day.

Starr does not present a whitewashed Carroll. He notes:

“John Carroll had two African servants, for example, one free and the other enslaved. A twenty-first century observer cannot help but feel the shadow of slavery cast its ominous noir over one’s desire to praise the architecture, gardens, gracious lifestyle, civic entrepreneurism, and Catholic culture of Baltimore.”

This approach to his subject contrasts with the “1619 Project” which sees slavery as America’s eternal damnation. Starr viewed slavery as a product of Original Sin, which is a condition of human nature. He also noted that in an urban economy, slavery was becoming an expensive luxury. Instead of calling for Carroll’s “cancellation,” Starr depicts him as an admirable, religious but deeply flawed man. Carroll advocated for Catholic religious freedom, while benefiting from slavery. It is a discomfiting reality, but Starr does not run from it. Rather, he gives the ‘both/and’ portrait of Carroll — and of his country. Starr writes for the reader who knows the truth can be made into lie both by commission and omission.

Starr addresses Carroll’s disconnect from classical and Scriptural references in his George Washington eulogy. It is sadly reminiscent of the state of education today — unmoored by history, or the sense of Catholicism. Georgetown Law, the school he founded, has stated:

“Georgetown Law has a long tradition of leading work in feminism and gender studies. Recent faculty research has addressed critical legal issues such as LGBTQ rights, women’s human rights, the relationship between gay rights and religion, and sex discrimination.” 


St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

Starr made St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s life a second strand of his history. He wrote a detailed story of her life, far from the usual cardboard hagiography. Mother Seton bridged eras and churches. She was born into the Anglican Church when New York was one of the 13 colonies; at the end of her life, she was a Catholic living in the state of Maryland, now part of the United States. He follows St. Elizabeth Ann Seton through her married life, her heartbreaks, and her life as a religious.

Starr imbues her with humanity. For example, he wrote, “Paradoxically, Elizabeth Bayley Seton was sensitive to handsomeness throughout her life, occasionally making reference to it, even if the man be bishop or priest.”

He also pointed out:

“Sulpician John Baptist Mary David, her imposed and resisted director, insisted that she (St. Elizabeth Seton) master what was perhaps for her the most difficult of the three vows of religion: obedience. Even harder, that obedience was to the directives of a priest superior she had not chosen and with whom she did not share much temperamental affinity. … For someone as intensely attuned to spiritual direction as Mother Seton was, this obligation proved a hardship she learned to accept.”

St. Elizabeth Seton is shown to be human rather than portrayed as an unattainable model.

Starr powerfully used the stories of John Carroll and St. Elizabeth Seton to describe the American Catholic experience. It is a riveting narrative, from the battlefields of the American Revolution to the majesty of the Cathedral of the Assumption in Baltimore. Continental Achievement is epic, even in its unfinished state.