When I lived in Old City, Philadelphia I would frequently pass the Natural Museum of American Jewish History on Independence Mall. This was around the same time that I had joined the board of the Catholic Philopatrian Literary Institute, which played a central role in the 19th-cenutry creation of the American Catholic school system.
Growing familiar with the Catholic history of the city, and seeing how American Jewish history was being told in a relevant way to international visitors, started me thinking seriously about the role that a “National Museum of Catholic History” could serve.
There is no such museum or cultural center for Catholic in the United States today. I think Catholics tend to view their Christian life in a much smaller, humbler, and more parochial way, so this makes sense to a degree. Catholics tend not to see themselves as a national constituency in the same way that other Christian denominations do.
But it’s also past time we learned to start doing that—seeing ourselves as a people, and curating our story so that future generations can understand their role as Catholics in American life.
A few thoughts on what such an institution might look like:
- A museum that tells the Catholic story from its beginning—the one, holy, Catholic, and Apostolic church
- A museum and cultural center focused as much on artifacts as cultural conservation—on the living out of the orthodox faith in the present
- A place for Catholic thinkers, leaders, and educators to serve on fellowship to teach in a coordinated way, developing curriculum that could be used nationally in schools and parishes
- Not limited to history of Catholicism in America, but that still speaks to it in a special way—speaking to ways that Christianity has shaped the American experiment, and the ways it has to stand apart from the state
- A headquarters in Philadelphia with sister institutions in other cities that speaks to Philadelphia’s unique role as a “Holy Experiment” and Pennsylvania’s special role in crafting American pluralism and religious toleration
- A welcoming place for all types of visitors that is nonetheless unapologetic in conveying the particularities of the universal faith
The Knights of Columbus seem like a natural organization to spearhead something like this. It could, however, be too narrow if created by any single constituency. It’s for this same reason I’d be hesitant about the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops organizing it by themselves.
I’ll probably develop this further as time goes on.