Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Transatlantic Connections: American Anti-Catholicism and the First Vatican Council (1869-70)

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Transatlantic Connections: American Anti-Catholicism and the First Vatican Council (1869-70)

Article excerpt

One of the most exciting developments in historical scholarship over the last two decades has been the emergence of transnational history. Historians in a range of fields have looked beyond the nation to investigate the cross-border movement of ideas, people, and goods in the modem era.1 In the United States, where a deeply entrenched belief in national exceptionalism has favored historical narratives that emphasize difference rather than exchange, the originality of the transnational approach has been particularly striking. Historians have offered a fresh reading of pivotal American reform movements, from feminism to social progressivism to temperance, by exploring their connection to a broader North Atlantic network.2 Recent histories of American Catholicism have adopted a similar approach. Explicitly rejecting the parochialism of previous scholarship, Peter R. D'Agostino and John T. McGreevy have investigated the transAtlantic linkages that profoundly shaped the attitudes and identity of American Catholics.3

One subject that is yet to benefit from a transnational approach, however, is anti-Catholicism. Historians have interpreted anti-Catholicism within different conceptual frameworks, but these varied approaches share, almost without exception, a rigid focus on domestic circumstances. Early interpretations sought out factors that were unique to the American past. Anti-Catholicism was thus seen as having been encoded in the national psyche with the Puritan settlement of the nation, a lurking prejudice that, in the presence of large-scale Catholic immigration, burst into nativist hostility.4 In a related interpretation, anti-Catholicism is understood as an outgrowth of an entrenched American propensity to see sinister forces conspiring against the nation.5 More recent works have moved away from the stress on irrational fears and fantasies. In Jenny Franchot's landmark work, Roads to Rome: The Antebellum Protestant Encounter with Catholicism, the author argues that anti-Catholicism was a powerful tool in the cultivation of a national identity defined in terms of Protestant allegiance. The specter of Rome, she contends, was wielded by Protestant elites in an effort to smooth over divisions within their faith as well as within the nation. Whatever their differences, all Americans could unite in opposition to the Catholic Other.6 The emergence of gender history has further deepened our understanding of the origins and power of anti-Catholic feeling in nineteenth-century America. Historians have argued strongly that antiCatholic feeling was driven as much by a perceived threat to cherished gender ideals and the sanctity of the home as by the fear of political sub- version.7 Despite their originality, however, these approaches have remained fixed within a national frame.

A handful of scholars have situated American anti-Catholicism in a broader narrative field. Susan M. Griffin's Anti-Catholicism and Nineteenth Century Fiction offers a comparative analysis of depictions of the Church in American and British novels.8 Maijule Anne Drury argues that opposition to Catholicism functioned in a similar manner in Great Britain, the United States, and Germany. In all three nations, the depiction of Catholicism as hierarchical, authoritarian, and backward served to throw into relief the opposing virtues of Protestantism. These virtues, notably the respect for personal liberty and the encouragement of individual initiative, were in turn understood as the basis of their economic and social advantage over majority- Catholic nations such as Spain and Italy.9 Yet overall, scholars have missed the opportunity to investigate the international dimension of American antiCatholicism. Franchot's Roads to Rome typifies this failing. Although conceding that one of the features of anti-Catholic discourse was "its ability to cross national, class, and ethnic boundaries," her analysis fails to explore the manner in which American anti-Catholics drew on foreign polemics or understood themselves to be part of an international crusade. …

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