A History of the Catholic Church in the American South, 1513-1900

By Vecsey, Christopher; Woods, James M. | Church History, September 2012 | Go to article overview

A History of the Catholic Church in the American South, 1513-1900


Vecsey, Christopher, Woods, James M., Church History


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A professor of history at Georgia Southern University, James M. Woods has authored several essays and monographs regarding American Catholicism, especially in Arkansas. He has now penned a synthetic study of the Catholic Church in the South through four centuries, drawing upon previously published sources, both primary and secondary.

As Woods acknowledges, his is a "traditional, institutional narrative" (xiii) containing nothing "jarring or provocative" (xiii), focusing rather, he avows, upon a Southern Catholic "tapestry of faith with many differing colors and hues" (377), from Spanish missions among Native Americans from Florida to Texas, through Maryland's colonial experiment in religious toleration, francophone Louisiana's black codes, the establishment of minority Catholic enclaves throughout the deep South, to the Civil War and beyond.

Correcting historiography that has "virtually ignored" (xiii) Catholicism in the South, Woods demonstrates the supreme importance of the See at Baltimore--from Archbishop John Carroll to James Cardinal Gibbon, and by means of the three Plenary Councils of 1852, 1866, and 1884 held in that city--in overseeing the growth of Catholicism nationwide in the 1800s. Although by 1900 Southern Catholics constituted only ten percent of the ten million Catholics in the United States (over half a million in the New Orleans and Baltimore archdioceses)--Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Poland, and elsewhere favored the Northeast and Midwest, where the jobs were--Southern Catholics could boast the earliest U.S. Catholic seminary, college, and religious orders of men and women.

Woods shows how colonial hostilities, especially among Spain, France, and England, exacerbated by the sectarianism of the Reformation and Counter Reformation, shaped Southern Catholicism, its church-state frissons, its aggressive missionizing ethos, and its ongoing encounters with anti-Catholicism. Internal rivalries, for instance between Jesuits and other religious orders and with diocesan powers, indicated competing agendas within the Catholic body politic. Women, especially nuns like the Ursulines, the Sisters of Charity, the Sisters of Loretto, and others, often provided the force of civilization on the frontier: staffing schools, hospitals, and orphanages. In the absence of priests they sometimes served as "unofficial 'deaconesses' for the sacraments" (225).

"Not all of the facets of this history are bright and edifying," Woods writes, "indeed, some are quite dark" (377). None darker than Southern Catholicism's complicity in the enslavement of African Americans and the institutional racism endemic to the American South (and to America as a whole). Catholicism provided little ethical transcendence to the issues of slavery or race. Like most whites, Catholic authorities presumed blacks to be natural slaves according to self-serving Aristotelian theory and "accepted slavery as long as those in bondage were well cared for and were presented with the Catholic gospel" (103). …

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