Roman Sources for the History of American Catholicism


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Matteo Binasco
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , May
     220 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Matteo Binasco’s Roman Sources for the History of American Catholicism was compiled and written in response to a long-standing need for a reference guide to the Roman resources relating to the history of Catholicism in North America. The decision to satisfy the need originated from participants at a seminar at the University of Notre Dame in 2014, sponsored by the university’s Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism. The seminar’s goal was to encourage scholars to incorporate a more transatlantic approach in their writing of US Catholic history by utilizing the wealth of resources in the fifty-nine archives in Rome. Earlier generations of historians, clerical and lay alike, had been trained in Europe, were familiar with the archives, were multilingual, and evaluated the history of the church from a more global perspective. Revisions occurred by the 1960s and 1970s as the theory of American exceptionalism was reinforced by the new social history, attracting a generation of younger historians who argued for a more autonomous and nationalist framework. With few exceptions, this development generated less interest in tapping the Roman archives for research.

Yet, some scholars, such as Gerald P. Fogarty and the late Peter D’Agostino, called American historians to task for this omission, reminding them that the history of the Catholic Church in America could not be fully told without references to the materials in the Roman archives (xi–xii). By adopting such an approach, they reasoned, scholars could integrate the church’s development into mainstream historical narratives and bring to the surface further discoveries within the contents of the sources themselves.

Binasco, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Notre Dame’s Rome Global Gateway, was hired to complete an updated, comprehensive reference guide on the resources, beginning in September of 2014. His completed product is a remarkable body of work that is meticulous and comprehensive. Prior to Binasco’s compilation, there existed few guides available to American scholars. In 1911, US historian Carl Russell Fish published a volume entitled Guide to the Materials for American History in Roman and Other Italian Archives (Carnegie Institution). Additionally, between 1996 and 2006, the Academy of American Franciscan History authorized a multi-volume series conducted by Slovenian archivist Anton Debevec and his assistant and successor, Giovanna Piscini, entitled United States Documents in the Propaganda Fide Archives: A Calendar. Second Series (6 vols. to date; Academy of American Franciscan History, 1980–2006). Binasco begins his book in 1763 which marks the year the French ceded its Canadian holdings to England. The end date of 1939 coincides with the death of Pope Pius XI who, using papal prerogative, closed all archives prior to his passing that year. Beyond 1939, some World War II and Cold War materials have been made available as well as documents pertaining to the Second Vatican Council 1962–1965 (2).

Included in each of the fifty-nine archives are details on address, phone, fax, and email. Days and times of operation, including holidays and other observances, are listed as are document languages. Each archive is accompanied by a brief history with attention to prominent figures, dates, and events. Institutional name-changes over time, and notifications concerning building renovations, are also recorded to avoid disruptions in research timetables. In these repositories, researchers are treated to coverage on matters in combatting heresy, supervision of theological disputes, discipline measures, reform efforts, and doctrinal issues. Supportive statistical data is incorporated, and a brief bibliography is supplied for each repository. Concluding the entire book is a select bibliography and library guide with supplemental printed sources. Finally, Binasco provided an update on digital resources at the time of the book’s publication in 2018.

In terms of analysis, by referencing Roman materials historians add another dimension to the understanding of Catholicism in America. The voices of international leaders articulating opinions on sensitive matters, some with potentially tremendous impact, cannot be ignored or shunted off to the sideline. To illustrate this point, a sampling of some of Binasco’s findings in the archives of the former Sacred Congregation de Propaganda Fide, now renamed the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples with jurisdiction in the United States, contain documents on the following: the activities of 17th-century Jesuits in Maryland; immigration issues in the 20th century; diocesan reports related to assistance for African American Catholics; and the church’s monitoring of anti-Catholic activities of the Ku Klux Klan between 1922 and 1933. The Vatican Library, and the Vatican Secret Library, retain thousands of materials in print, many devoted to American Catholic interest. Two collections of correspondence dealing with Italian migration to America and the struggles within the Italian American church can be found in the Toniolo papers, housed in forty boxes with over 7,000 documents and the Villari letters, which includes 105 volumes of correspondence. Of equal importance are the 1,847 documents, manuscripts and maps contained in fifteen boxes on the activities of Gaetano Bedini, the first apostolic delegate to the Unites States (64).

The labors of Binasco and his colleagues have produced a monumental work that serves as an effective reference tool for furthering scholarship in American Catholic history. Though probably beyond the scope of the study, the final product could have been enhanced if more extensive explanations of content were included within the “Descriptions of the Holdings” sections. Doing so would have assisted scholars in narrowing selections of both archives and materials, thereby maximizing their time and research while in Rome. Nevertheless, those who wish to rewrite Catholicism in America within a broader transatlantic framework now have a single, reliable volume to help direct their efforts.

About the Reviewer(s): 

AJ Scopino is an adjunct instructor of history at Central Connecticut State University and Manchester Community College  

Date of Review: 
August 19, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Matteo Binasco is Adjunct Professor at the Università per gli Stranieri di Siena and at the Università degli studi di Genova.


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