Meertens Ethnology Lecture by Leonard Norman Primiano, Professor and Chair, Department of Religious Studies, Cabrini College Philadelphia PA
The public expression of the Roman Catholic tradition in the United States has been a source of both controversy as well as deep influence over the course of American history. In the early years of colonial America’s Atlantic colonies, Catholic churches and their exterior iconography were forbidden as public structures, even in Quaker-controlled Pennsylvania. In the nineteenth century, Catholic Church buildings were targeted and destroyed in anti-Catholic riots in cities such a Boston and Philadelphia. Later in that century, the influx of European Catholic immigrants created a definitive presence in developing urban America, as well as the countryside, with a greater incidence of Catholic personnel from priests in collars to nuns in habits, and Catholic sacramental culture - statues, processions, and material objects - filtering out into the consciousness of what was ostensibly understood as a Protestant Christian society. That Catholic presence began departing the cities spreading to suburbs as the armed forces returned home from Europe in 1945. Post-World War II brought the phenomenon of television into the American home and with it a presence of Catholic ecclesiastical culture. Television in the United States remains a fascinating resource for a visual ethnography of contemporary Catholic life and its impact from post-Vatican-II institutional representation to vernacular religious practices in the twenty-first century. My lecture will consider the contemporary presence of the Catholic tradition on the visual medium of American television and how television assists in the formation of opinion about this religious tradition. Furthermore, I ask the question how are mediated representations of the institutional Church and lay believers articulating what it means to be Catholic in an era of Church sex scandals, public battles between the hierarchy and Catholic women religious, Catholic politicians running for public office, and the robust expression of the Catholic faith as it is creatively lived and interpreted by individuals in their everyday lives. The lecture will be illustrated with clips from various television sources found on the Internet.