To Produce a History of Catholic Philanthropy in America from 1780 to the Present

Project Number: 
Start Date: 
Mon, 01/01/1990
End Date: 
Tue, 12/31/1991

Oates undertook a study of Catholic philanthropy in the United States, reviewing the primary and secondary literature and visiting over thirty archives. She also compared the insights of other scholars specializing in the history of philanthropy. Oates formulates an interpretation of Catholic charitable endeavors which stresses the need to examine the intersection of external and internal forces and the changing social environment, on the one hand, and the vision, concerns and commitments of religious organizations, on the other. Past generations of American Catholics have bequeathed us an impressive institutional matrix. But as reports of parish and school closings and other difficulties accumulate, the need to comprehend the forces that created and sustained these institutions in the past becomes crucial. Oates discovered that numerous edifices scattered throughout the nation were the result of the dedicated work provided by hundreds of local charitable groups and religious communities, including communities of women religious. Oates found in the records of these organizations a local, plural, and democratic Catholic stewardship which facilitated the expression of religious commitment. These organizations were an essential part of a culture that produced numerous religious vocations, involved lay Catholics in unprecedented numbers, and helped Catholic charities became a central part of American philanthropy. These local organizations are now subsumed within bureaucratic structures operating at the national level. Oates theorizes that the result has been a decreasing level of lay commitment to these institutions, evidenced in the fact that by 1980 the annual contributions to the Church from Catholic households had reached an historical low.