Catholics in America

NUNS HELD AGAINST THEIR WILL in dungeons. Ordinary people forbidden to read the Bible. Priests plotting to destroy the nation’s public school system. An army of illiterate immigrants scheming to bring the United States under the pope’s control.

Such were the rumors that led to discrimination and violence against the Catholic Church in early America. Most Americans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were Protestant, and they treated Protestantism as the unofficial religion of the republic.

Some were so hostile to the growing numbers of Catholic immigrants in their midst that they resorted to violence. In 1834 an angry mob burned down a convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts, because of a false rumor that a nun was imprisoned there, and in 1844 a riot broke out in Philadelphia because of fears that Catholics wanted to prevent Bible reading in the public schools.

The Philadelphia riots lasted for three days, with two Catholic churches burned to the ground, more than 100 people injured, and 20 people killed. It was one of the worst episodes of religious violence in the nation’s history.

Since anti-Catholic sentiment has declined dramatically in recent decades, many Americans have forgotten that Catholics once struggled to practice their faith freely. But their history reminds us of the fragility of religious freedom in the United States. Even though the Constitution guarantees the “free exercise” of religion, the nation has often failed to live up to its pluralistic ideals.


long memories

The first Protestant colonists to settle in America brought with them a long history of animosity toward Catholics, stemming from the Protestant Reformation. Both Catholics and Protestants had suffered terribly during the European religious wars that occurred in the wake of the Reformation, with countless numbers imprisoned, tortured, and killed.

But the British Protestants who settled in America particularly remembered the violence inflicted by “Bloody Mary” (Queen Mary I, 1516–1558), who burned hundreds of Protestants at the stake. One of the most popular books in colonial America was John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments (popularly called The Book of Martyrs), which featured graphic accounts of Protestant martyrs being hanged, burned, or broken on the rack.

Most of the original 13 colonies passed laws limiting the rights of Catholics. Ironically, even Maryland (literally “Mary’s Land”), founded by Lord Baltimore as a haven for Catholics, ended up persecuting them. Protestants outnumbered Catholics, and as they gained control over the government, they passed laws forbidding Catholics to vote, hold public office, and worship publicly.

Catholics gained greater acceptance during the Revolutionary War because most fervently supported the patriot cause. Charles Carroll, a wealthy Catholic planter from Maryland, signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. His cousin John Carroll, the first Catholic bishop in America, wanted “to preserve inviolate forever, in our new empire, the great principle of religious freedom.”


a new kind of immigrant

Catholics in revolutionary America tended to be wealthy, English speaking, and more focused on private devotions than on public displays of their faith. Thus the Protestant majority mostly tolerated them. But when, in the nineteenth century, Catholic immigrants began pouring in from Ireland, Germany, Italy, Poland, Mexico, and Lithuania, Americans became increasingly anxious about their influence on the republic.

In 1789 U.S. Catholics numbered only around 30,000; but by 1826, 250,000 had arrived, and by 1850, Catholic ranks had swelled to more than a million. These new immigrants tended to be poor and uneducated. With the exception of German Catholics, who settled on farms in the Midwest, they clustered by nationality in northeastern cities. Living in squalid tenements and employed in low-paying jobs, they were often caricatured as “infidels” and drunks responsible for the nation’s growing crime rate.

Irish Catholics were especially reviled. Influenced by centuries of British hostility toward the Irish, cartoonists often depicted them as dark-skinned savages, racially inferior to whites. These Catholic immigrants were also more militant about defending their faith than earlier generations of American Catholics had been. Influenced by the Catholic revival in Europe, they held large parish mission meetings in urban neighborhoods, publicized reports of Marian apparitions around the world (especially at Lourdes in 1858), and claimed publicly that “sacramentals” like medals, statues, pictures, and holy water could be means of God’s grace. They also insisted that miraculous healings were possible, a claim that many Protestants at the time found superstitious.


“awful disclosures”

As the Catholic population in America increased during the nineteenth century, so did hostility against them. One of the bestselling books before the Civil War (surpassed only by the Bible and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin) was a scathing attack on the Catholic Church, The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk (1836).

Monk claimed to have been a nun in Canada, where she had supposedly been forced into sexual slavery by the mother superior, who instructed her that the pope himself had ordered sisters to prostitute themselves to the priests. Monk’s narrative included lurid scenes of nuns being brutally beaten or imprisoned in an underground dungeon, priests scurrying through underground tunnels on their way to sexual assignations, and infants being strangled at birth. Monk claimed that hundreds of dead infants had been thrown into a pit of lime in the convent’s basement.

Reporters soon discovered that Monk’s tale was fictitious, fabricated by several Protestant ministers who later quarreled over the profits in court. But the book sold widely because it echoed Protestant stereotypes about Catholics.

Monk claimed that she was not allowed to read the Bible for herself or to trust her own conscience. Taught to believe that she had “no judgment of my own,” she was determined “to obey the priests in all things,”even if that meant tolerating rape and murder. She seemed to be living proof that Catholicism threatened American democracy. If Catholics were more loyal to the pope than to the American republic, how would they ever become good citizens? During the early 1850s, nativists organized the American Party, better known as the “Know Nothing” Party because of its codes of secrecy, which lobbied to delay citizenship rights for immigrants and prevent them from voting. In 1854 it succeeded in electing five senators and forty-three representatives to Congress, and only the Civil War halted its ascent to political prominence.


church and state and pope

If the Vatican had taken a more conciliatory tone in the nineteenth century, Americans might have been less fearful of the Catholics in their midst. But as European revolutions diminished the political power of the Catholic Church, Pope Pius IX responded by expanding and strengthening its spiritual authority.

In 1854, six years after the government of the Papal States was overthrown, Pius proclaimed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (the teaching that the Virgin Mary was conceived without sin). And in 1864 he issued the Syllabus of Errors, which condemned liberal ideas about the sovereignty of the individual and the free exercise of religion.

It was an “error,” argued the pope, to believe that “every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true.” A group of “Americanists” within the Church strongly supported the separation of church and state but were reprimanded for their views. Pius IX also convened the First Vatican Council (1869–1870), which declared that the pope was infallible when promulgating dogma.


a catholic subculture

Alarmed by all this, Protestants hoped that the public school system would inculcate Catholic children with American values. But because they defined “American” as Protestant, they supported curricula that most Catholics found offensive. Catholic children were required to read not only the King James Version of the Bible (instead of their own Douay-Rheims version, based on the Latin Vulgate), but anti-Catholic stories in textbooks as well. In response, Catholic leaders strongly discouraged parents from sending their children to public schools. In 1884 the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore urged every church to build its own parochial school. Catholics argued that they should be able to direct their tax money to these schools (an issue still hotly debated today) but were met with strident opposition.

By building their own schools, orphanages, and hospitals, Catholics tried to nurture a distinctively Catholic worldview. Suspicious of liberalism and individualism, the Church argued that individual freedom always had to be subordinate to God’s commandments. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1910, “liberalism” was a dangerous ideology that led to “the abolition of the Divine right and of every kind of authority derived from God; the relegation of religion from the public life into the private domain of one’s individual conscience; [and] the absolute ignoring of Christianity and the Church as public, legal, and social institutions.”

Catholics also denounced free-market capitalism for elevating individual profit over the common good. They argued that employers had a moral responsibility to pay wages high enough to support an entire family, not simply an individual worker.


“The anti-christ has won”

Despite the similarity of these opinions to some Protestant critiques, Protestants in this era continued to accuse Catholics of being subversive and “un-American.” The Ku Klux Klan, reorganized in 1915, gained 2,000,000 members by 1924 by attacking Catholics and Jews, as well as African Americans, as enemies of the nation.

When Al Smith, a Catholic, became the Democratic presidential candidate in 1928, the Klan sent out a flyer warning people that the “anti-Christ” had won. According to widespread rumors, the pope planned to move into the White House if Smith was elected. (Not surprisingly, Herbert Hoover easily defeated him.) In 1949 Paul Blanshard published a virulent attack on the Catholic Church, American Freedom and Catholic Power, which sold more than 100,000 copies and warned that the Roman hierarchy was plotting to impose “its social policies upon our schools, hospitals, government and family organization.”


into the American mainstream

Yet Blanshard’s book was already out of date by the 1950s. As growing numbers of Catholics attended college and moved into the middle class, they seemed more interested in assimilating into the culture than criticizing it and no longer seemed as foreign or threatening. As the Cold War era dawned, Catholics also took a strongly anti-Communist stance. During the 1950s, Archbishop Fulton Sheen hosted a popular television program, Life Is Worth Living, which mixed spiritual advice with dire warnings of the Soviet threat. As many as 10,000,000 Americans watched his show each week.

John F. Kennedy’s election to the presidency in 1960 was the most visible sign of assimilation. Although some Catholics objected to Kennedy’s claim that his beliefs would have no impact on his role as president, they shared his conviction that Catholicism and democracy are compatible. They were immensely proud to see the nation’s first Catholic president swearing to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”


On the same side

Only a few years after Kennedy’s election, Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), a meeting of the world’s Catholic bishops that proclaimed a new spirit of openness to modern culture. In a remarkable set of documents addressing liturgy, scripture, ecumenism, and the role of the Church in the modern world, the council emphasized that Church teachings could develop over time. One, Dignitatis Humanae (1965), reversed centuries of Catholic opposition to religious freedom by insisting that all individuals had the right to practice their faith without coercion.

But the American Catholic experience reminds us that religious minorities have struggled to practice their faiths freely in the United States. Other religious groups, especially Muslims, have taken Catholics’ place as the targets of suspicion. We can only hope that we eventually achieve John F. Kennedy’s vision of a more perfect nation—a nation where people of faith “will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.” CH

By Catherine A. Brekus

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #102 in 2012]

Catherine A. Brekus is associate professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School and the author of several books on early American Christianity.
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