Interview with Jim McCartin, Fordham University

Jim McCartin, Associate Professor of Theology and Director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University, joins us for a discussion of his research and the role CRRA has played in shaping and abetting his scholarly work. His book, Prayers of the Faithful: The Shifting Spiritual Life of American Catholics, came out in 2010 and explores prayer in the lives of American Catholics from the 1860s to the 1980s. His current project is the book: American Catholics and Sex from the 1830s to the 1980s.

What is your current area of research?

I’m currently working on a book project on the history US Catholics and sex from the 1830s to the 1980s. The study begins with early nineteenth-century European Catholic immigrants and the anxieties they provoked among non-Catholics concerned that Catholics were sexual deviants because of their practice of vowed celibacy, and it ends with the emerging story of clerical sex abuse in the late twentieth century. In between, it turns out that the story of US Catholics and sex is a great deal more interesting and complicated than historians and others have normally assumed, which makes this project especially exciting.

How did you get interested in your research area?

Well, after the clerical sex abuse scandal exploded in 2002, it occurred to me that, while there is a lot of published work out there on the history of US sexuality, that work has not dealt at all adequately with how religion fits into the story of sex, and in particular, it hasn’t given very serious attention to Catholicism’s place in that story. I was looking for ways to think about how we get to the clerical sex abuse scandal of the early 2000s, and I found nothing that could provide an adequate, sensible narrative grounded in deep archival research. So, while my goal isn’t specifically to write a history of Catholicism and sex abuse, this project emerged out of a desire to offer a narrative that is sufficiently textured and grounded and one that can help to place sex abuse into a larger narrative frame.

How do you use the CRRA’s resources for your research?​ Which resources have been the most helpful, and why? How has Catholic Newspapers Online been useful?

​CRRA has been extremely useful in helping me identify a whole array of published and archival sources for this project. There’s no better way to be able to survey the published materials on Catholicism available in the United States, and I’ve made probably a dozen archival trips based on materials I’ve identified through the Portal. I have to say that I’ve been especially grateful for the digitized newspapers, though, which have been a tremendous source as I try to get a sense for how family life and related questions of sexuality played out on the ground in various local settings.

What’s the most exciting/surprising source you’ve been able to get access to for your research?

​There’s are a lot out there that has fascinated me. Among the most interesting sources I’ve come across are the trial records for an 1843 clerical rape trial that figures into the narrative I’m constructing. But there’s also just a wealth of interesting documentation on the practice of clerical celibacy in the 1880s and 1890s, on sex education in the 1920s, on Catholic arguments over the Rhythm Method in the 1930s, and on same-sex attraction in the 1940s and 1950s. It turns out that US Catholics had a quite complicated and pretty well-informed conversations around these and other themes, conversations that are much more nuanced and interesting than they are normally given credit for.

What do you wish you could get access to but is currently unavailable?

​Good question. I’m not exactly sure there are resources out there on this, but I’d love to have access to documents that provide a clearer sense of how sexuality was framed in the formation of male and female religious in the first half of the twentieth century. I’d also love to see archival materials related to the work of the Servants of the Paraclete, a religious order that, already in the early psot-1945 era, began to care for priests involved in sexual relationships of one kind or another.