Roman Catholicism in the United States: A Thematic History

By Margaret M. McGuinness; James T. Fisher | Go to book overview

Many mid- to late nineteenth-century Protestants who cherished their deep spiritual roots in the nation’s soil fretted that the growing Catholic presence in America was disproportionate to the church’s status as an ancient religion in a new country. The U.S. church was organized into dioceses—territorial jurisdictions led by bishops—linked in turn to often-unwieldy structures of authority administered by the Holy See in Rome. Protestants worried about this “Roman connection,” which would indeed strengthen throughout the nineteenth century, but American Catholics were generally much less interested in Rome than in Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and dozens of other burgeoning communities where spiritual and material services provided by the church filled pressing needs and opened vast frontiers of opportunity. In the half-century that followed the Civil War, U.S. Catholics built the largest network of private elementary schools in world history; took possession of the Democratic Party’s political machinery, which operated most of the nation’s largest cities; raised hundreds of orphanages and hospitals staffed largely by members of booming Catholic women’s religious communities; and opened scores of colleges and universities for women and men.

The rapid growth of American Catholicism, along with the schools, hospitals, and orphanages built to serve the needs of the Catholic population, often led to the development of an American anti-Catholic—or “nativist”—impulse that sometimes targeted not just the church as an institution, but those vestigial Catholic forces and institutions bedeviling Protestants. In August 1834, for example, the Ursuline convent at Charlestown, Massachusetts, was burned to the ground by a nativist mob, but the girls’ school destroyed in the conflagration (staffed by Ursuline nuns from the convent) enrolled daughters of the locally unpopular Unitarian [Protestant] elite in greater numbers than it did Catholic schoolgirls.

Hostility to Catholicism was one thing; in practice this impulse was often refracted through struggles between Protestant Americans divided by social class, political outlook, or geography. The enduring complexity of American Protestants’ “Catholic problem” was one good reason, as historian R. Laurence Moore astutely noted in Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans (1986), that “after the Civil War virulent anti-Catholicism was a weaker force in American life than Catholicism.” This relative degree of security enabled late nineteenth-century Catholic leaders to expansively debate the proper role for their church in the United States or, as Moore put it, “to imagine more than one way to press their collective fortunes in America.”2

The literature of U.S. Catholic history has both recorded and reflected that debate; at times historical works have even shaped the dialogue. While it is true that U.S. Catholic historiography from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century ritually extolled heroic explorers and church hierarchs while eschewing potentially divisive issues, at least one biographical study of a prominent Catholic triggered a late nineteenth century intrachurch controversy that resulted in a harsh, ill-informed, but momentous response from the Holy See. In 1891 Walter Elliott, an American priest of a religious community known as the Paulists, authored a hagiography of the congregation’s founder, Isaac Hecker, a German American from a Protestant immigrant family and a one-time Transcendentalist who in 1844 communed for six months with fellow nature mystics and utopians at Brook Farm in Massachusetts. Hecker converted to Catholicism shortly after leaving the

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