George Marlin and Brad Miner have woven a grand tapestry of a book. Sons of Saint Patrick  , a history of the archbishops of New York, is at once a moving chronicle of the travails and triumphs of Catholic immigrants in America, a thoughtful commentary on American politics in the 19th and 20th Centuries (including how Catholic clergy and politicians affected its course), and a riveting portrait of the men whose religious fidelity, political savvy, and courage secured the status of the Church in the most important city in the most important nation in the world.
That’s a lot to accomplish in one volume, but accomplish it they do, with a winning style animated by revealing detail. This is no mere hagiographical work of some diocesan history office. Marlin and Miner have made good use of previous scholarly efforts (most prominently the work of Florence D. Cohalan, Thomas J. Shelly, and John Tracy Ellis). But they have also taken advantage of interviews with still living participants in the story, and have benefitted from wide access to archival material, especially correspondence, much of it previously unavailable to outsiders. This book will interest not only the ethnic and spiritual descendants of St. Patrick, and not only New Yorkers, but all who are interested in the history of Catholicism in America.
The book proceeds chronologically, emphasizing the authors’ judgments about the dominant characteristics of the ordinaries who have headed the archdiocese since the 1850s. This is conveyed in part by their pithy and playful chapter headings – e.g., “The Gardener” (Archbishop John Hughes, who planted the seeds for all that followed); “The First” (Archbishop John McCloskey, New York’s – and America’s – first cardinal); “The Roman” (Archbishop Michael Corrigan, who had close ties with Vatican officials); “The Builder” (Cardinal John Murphy Farley, who knew a thing or two about bricks and mortar)); “The Bureaucrat” (Cardinal Patrick Joseph Hayes); “The Power Broker” (Cardinal Francis Spellman); “The Equalizer” (Cardinal Terence Cooke); “The Admiral” (Cardinal John J. O’Connor); “The Realist” (Cardinal Edward Egan); and “The Evangelist” (Cardinal Timothy Dolan).
The separate chapters could stand on their own, and there is hardly a weak entry among them. Marlin and Miner know how to tell a story even when the immediate subject of their focus doesn’t rise to heroic proportions. The most riveting chapters are those dealing with the tenure of “Dagger John” Hughes (1842-1864) and those that discuss the reign of Cardinal Spellman (1939-1967) through to the present.
Taking the work as a whole, one is struck by two overarching themes. First, how extraordinarily fortunate Catholic New Yorkers have been since the formal establishment of their archdiocese in 1850. To a man, their archbishops have been an exceptionally talented lot – faithful, dedicated, resourceful, and above all, courageous. Their faults are, all things considered, relatively small by comparison. Not all dioceses have been so uniformly well served for so long a period.
The other theme that comes across on so many pages of this nearly two-hundred-year chronicle is the constancy of anti-Catholic prejudice. At first – and for a long time – it took the form of overt nativism of the sort evidenced in the Know Nothing movement of the mid-late 19th Century. But even after the gradual assimilation of Catholics into mainstream political culture in the 20th Century, a new expression of a more damaging prejudice took the place of the old. With the decline of the mainline Protestant establishment, the new prejudice has taken on a radical form, aptly described by Benedict XVI as “the dictatorship of relativism.” This insidious intellectual force necessarily makes any kind of serious Catholicism a danger to the self-appointed janissaries of contemporary dogmatic secularism.
This is a far more potent threat than the anti-Catholicism faced by Dagger John Hughes and his colleagues in the mid-1800s. In those days, despite entrenched opposition, American bishops and their priests were uniformly orthodox, as were their brothers in Rome. For the most part, they could count on the laity to follow their instruction and to rally ‘round when the Church and its mission were under attack. And, over time, their numbers became sufficient to gird the Church with adequate legal and political protection.
Very little of that is true today. Although free exercise of religion is under attack as never before, the Church’s ability to affect public policy is demonstrably weaker than it has been for most of modern American history. To make matters worse, the teaching authority of the bishops has lost considerable traction among the people in the pews. (To note but one striking example, the latest Pew polling data indicate that 48 percent of Catholics believe that abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances.)
The reasons for this dramatic decline in Church status, episcopal authority, and lay orthodoxy are complicated and beyond the scope of this review. But bishops seeking to do something about it could do worse than to ponder the lessons conveyed by The Sons of Saint Patrick.