"We Stand Before the Stars": Reevaluating Catholic Modernism and Liberal Marriage Reform in the United States, 1895-1945

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Margaret Thompson


Catholic Studies, Gender History, Literature, Marriage, Sexuality, Women's History


My dissertation is entitled “We Stand Before the Stars”: Reevaluating Catholic Modernism and Liberal Marriage Reform in the United States, 1895-1945. The inspiration for my title comes from a 1929 article in Forum magazine by Will Durant. In contemplating shifting mores regarding gender dynamics and sexuality, Durant observed that “we stand before the stars almost naked of supernatural creed and transmitted moral code.” My dissertation engages with Durant’s quote by exploring how late nineteenth and early twentieth-century modernist Catholics and secular marriage reformers both contributed and responded to changing social mores related to gender, marriage, romance, and sexuality. Modernist Catholics believed it was possible to retain the essential tenets of their faith while simultaneously embracing certain aspects of American secular modernity, including companionate marriage and a favorable view of romantic sensuality. I draw on a wide array of non-fiction and fiction primary source materials to make the case that there was striking ideological overlap between modernist Catholics and liberal marriage reformers. By contrast, there was a vast ideological chasm separating modernist Catholics from their antimodernist Catholic contemporaries. In the process of highlighting the points of intersection between liberal marriage reformers and modernist Catholics, my dissertation also underscores the notable permeability of the boundary separating secular and spiritual discourses on romance, marriage, and sexuality in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century America.


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