Most of what we consider institutional America — its governmental, academic, cultural, and even religious — structures were created by the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Of course, there were many of Dutch, German, French Huguenot, Scandinavian, and other Northern European nationalities in their makeup; moreover, although tied to them by blood and religion, such folk as the Swamp Yankees of New England and the Rednecks of the South were not really part of the magic circle. Instead, we are here talking about what passed for Aristocracy in these United States — a combination of the descendants of the earlier settlers and fighters of our first two major internal conflicts (call them revolutions or civil wars as you will) and those of the 19th century robber barons, such as the Vanderbilts, Fords, and Rockefellers. Bear in mind also that our native gentry were far from monolithic: each major city and its hinterlands boasted their own: Boston’s Brahmins, the Old Philadelphians, and the listees in the country’s various Social Registers. For better or worse, they created everything from the Smithsonian Institution to the Boy Scouts of America.
It is important to bear in mind that at its best the WASP ethos was not all about cocktails at the club and yachting. There was an ethic of hard work, of being useful, and of civic-mindedness — noblesse oblige in the case of the wealthier among them. From California’s San Simeon to Massachusetts’ Hammond Castle, the country is dotted with the grand houses they built — some of which, as with those two examples, were intended to be museums for the edification of the general public after their owner/builders passed away. To them also, we owe the Colonial Revival Movement, beginning with the Centennial in 1876 — tied up with which were the nascent Conservation, Historic Preservation, Arts-and-Crafts, and City Beautiful movements. Even as regards their manners and etiquette, these were seen as restraining selfishness. As Richard Duffy put it in his introduction to the first edition of Emily Post’s classic book on the subject, “Selfishness is at the polar remove from the worldly manners of the old school, according to which, as Dr. Pusey wrote, others were preferred to self, pain was given to no one, no one was neglected, deference was shown to the weak and the aged, and unconscious courtesy extended to all inferiors. Such was the ‘beauty’ of the old manners, which he felt consisted in ‘acting upon Christian principle, and if in any case it became soulless, as apart from Christianity, the beautiful form was there, into which the real life might re-enter.’” But these natural virtues were built upon a shaky spiritual foundation, that in great degree morphed over time into our current “wokeness.”
Thus it is that most of the institutions they built are caught up in masochistic seizures of self-incrimination since the Floyd death in Minneapolis. Structures of WASPery ranging from the Sierra Club to the American Antiquarian Society to the Ivy League are busy attacking the memories of their own founders and pillorying their own histories in pursuit of any taint of “systemic racism” — while ignoring their current racist attitudes of implied Black inferiority. Most distasteful of these pitiful displays, perhaps, was the support of Theodore Roosevelt’s own great-grandsons for the removal of their forbear’s statue from New York’s American Museum of Natural history. Despite their long-term antipathy to Catholicism and Catholics, the widespread disdain of the WASP’s progeny toward their ancestors is pathetic — truly painful to watch.
Back then, of course, Catholic response to the WASPs was varied. A quiet disdain married to melancholy over being superseded by them was the lot of the old colonial Catholic aristocracies in the Southwest, Louisiana, and Maryland. The bulk of Catholic Americans and their descendants, however, were post-independence immigrants. For some, “being accepted” became all important; this meant aping WASP ways as much as possible up to — and in some cases, including — outright shedding of the Faith — in a word, the Kennedy Solution. The other was to disdain WASP ways and manners, and those of our religion who imitated them — the “Jiggs and Maggie” school, if you like. But neither imitation nor ridicule could conceal the fact that the one thing Catholics were not doing was evangelising. At the very time when the Episcopalian, Presbyterian. Congregational, and other favoured WASP denominations were beginning to collapse doctrinally — and so perhaps in a more receptive mood, had our message been preached energetically — we were at first more interested in getting “one of our own” elected. Afterwards we were too busy with our own post-Vatican II implosion to worry about our own souls, let alone those of outsiders.
We ought to have kept in mind the first conversions in Rome, and the state of mind of such as Henry Adams. The first were among two classes: the slaves, to whom Catholicism gave hope and belief in the value of their difficult lives; and the old pre-Imperial nobility, whose adherence to the nearly extinct “Roman virtues” was supernaturalised from a mere clinging to worthy tradition to a preparation for the Gospel. In the period immediately preceding the coming of the Faith to Rome, one could well imagine them sharing Henry Adams’ point of view regarding being superseded by pushier, more ignoble sorts: “Landed, lost, and forgotten, in the centre of this vast plain of self-content, Adams could see but one active interest, to which all others were subservient, and which absorbed the energies of some sixty million people to the exclusion of every other force, real or imaginary.” Had evangelisation rather than respectability been the aim of Catholic America, folk like Ss. Elizabeth Ann Seton and Katherine Drexel, Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, Fr. John Thayer, and Orestes Brownson might well have been pioneers, rather than oddities.
Certainly, as the course of American Anglo-Catholicism shows, there was at least an influential element among the WASPs that came to be interested on their own in what the Church had to offer. As with that movement anywhere, this group produced some whose embrace of Sacramental Christianity led them to believe that theirs was an equal or better case to that of Rome: typical of these were such figures as Charles Chapman Grafton, who brought the Cowley Fathers to America and served as Episcopal Bishop of Wisconsin. But it led others such as Ralph Adams Cram (who actually felt the first stirrings of conversion at a Papal Mass in Rome) and T.S. Eliot to seriously desire reunion with the Catholic Church, under the Pope. That they did not convert perhaps says as much about the Church in their time and place as it does about them. In any case, in the United States as in the other parts of the Anglican Communion, the Anglo-Catholics revived such devotions as prayers for the dead and to the Blessed Sacrament and the Virgin Mary. They “Catholicised” the Anglican service into something resembling the Tridentine Mass in English, and revived religious communities among their co-religionists. As elsewhere, a network of Anglo-Catholic parishes propagated their views and practises across the country. Despite the general doctrinal wreck of Anglicanism over the past few decades, it was their revival, invention, or preservation of a unique religiosity that constituted the patrimony whose preservation Benedict XVI wished to accomplish through his creation of the Personal Ordinariates. But this patrimony was not merely to be retained as a sort of museum piece; rather, the Pope saw it as a gift to the whole Church and a means of evangelising the Anglosphere as a whole — and of which these United States are an integral part. If Anglo-Catholicism has any real future, it is within the Ordinariates.
Traditionally, the Episcopalians have acted as community sanctifiers, with such rites as Lessons and Carols, blessings of hounds, madrigal dinners, boar’s head festivals, kirkin’ o’ tartans, and, indeed, all sorts of civic, musical, theatrical, and literary activities used to reinforce the community. Ordinariate communities in particular and Catholic parishes in general need to think about filling that role on the local level — according to circumstances. The same is true as regards nominal chaplaincies in local hereditary, veterans’, and service organisations. But where the Episcopalians used these for primarily secular ends, for us they must be made means of evangelising. Moreover, we ought to emphasise, as they did for their heroes the various American Saints, Blesseds, Venerables, and Servants of God, celebrating their feasts and or memories as splendidly — and with as much civic involvement — as possible. This is particularly true of the patronal feast of the United States, the Immaculate Conception — and the various State and local patrons.
Similarly, to the Catholic laity in particular falls the task of taking up the WASP slack in areas that many of us never have given much thought to: local historical, conservation, preservation, and cultural organisations that while in and of themselves have limited goals, nevertheless serve to make the local community a better place in which to live. Again, not as an end in itself, but ultimately to evangelise — WHILE making things better.
Obviously, such a plan depends upon as many Catholics as possible — clerical and lay — putting the Faith first, above all other considerations. This seems like a tall order, the conversion of this country; but so was that of pagan Rome. Just as the Catholics converted and ultimately saved the Roman Empire as a noble idea (and often, a reality), so too would the gradual conversion of this country eventually transform our WASP-founded institutions into something far better than we can conceive of. It may be that our greatest efforts shall not succeed in the long run. But if we try our hardest to bring it about, it shall help our own personal salvation mightily. As with the old Roman nobility, those WASPs who convert redeem and baptise the work of their fathers. And who knows? Their descendants and ours may well see something wonderful arise on the soil of these United States.