Roman Catholicism in the United States: A Thematic History

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

TWELVE
Praying in the Public Square: Catholic Piety
Meets Civil Rights, War, and Abortion

James P. McCartin

As thousands of truant school children poured into Milwaukee’s streets to march for racial equality in October 1965, one figure among them stood out not only for his age and enthusiasm, but also for his clerical collar. Asked why he was there among children twenty or more years his junior, James Groppi, a white priest and prominent activist who gained a national reputation by organizing over 100 civil rights marches in his native city, simply declared, “I didn’t think I had a choice”1 In fact, Groppi was one of a dozen priests and two dozen religious sisters who that day became conspicuous symbols of a growing Catholic commitment to the forces of political change. A vocal minority of Catholic laity, both in Milwaukee and elsewhere, likewise joined such priests and sisters in embracing activism, and those who did so tended to affirm, like Groppi, that their faith compelled them to do so. In the process, these Catholics embodied Groppi’s claim that “marching is not only a protest, it is a prayer.”2 Hailed by supporters and denounced by opponents, these Catholic activists garnered national attention, sparked controversy, and exercised profound influence within and beyond the U.S. Catholic community as they brought their prayers into the public square.

Religion and public activism converged in the late twentieth century as Americans devoted themselves to a whole range of initiatives designed to procure social and political change. The rising influence of Protestant Evangelicals in the decades after 1945, a development that would eventually help secure Republican dominance in post-1980 U.S. politics, has attracted historians’ generous attention.3 But Catholics, too, played a vital and

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