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Gibbons, James


GIBBONS, JAMES (18341921), American Roman Catholic churchman, archbishop of Baltimore, cardinal. The fourth child and eldest son of immigrant parents, James Gibbons was born in Baltimore on July 23, 1834. After a sixteen-year (18371853) sojourn in Ballinrobe, County Mayo, Ireland, where he received his early education, Gibbons returned to the United States and settled in New Orleans. Acting on a long-held desire to seek ordination, he studied for the priesthood at Saint Charles College in Ellicott City, Maryland, and at Saint Mary's Seminary in Baltimore. He was ordained a priest for the archdiocese of Baltimore in 1861.

Gibbons's career in the parish ministry ended in 1865 when Archbishop Martin Spalding made him his secretary. Thereafter, Gibbons experienced a swift rise through the ranks of the hierarchy. In 1868 he was named the first vicar apostolic of North Carolina and elevated to the rank of bishop; in 1872 he became the bishop of Richmond, Virginia; in May 1877 he was named coadjutor archbishop of Baltimore with right of succession; and in October 1877 he became the archbishop of Baltimore upon the death of James R. Bayley.

In assuming leadership of the archdiocese of Baltimore, Gibbons found himself in a position of great importance and high visibility in the American Catholic church. As the oldest diocese in the United States and the see within whose boundaries the national capital fell, Baltimore and its bishops enjoyed a degree of ecclesiastical and political prestige that other dioceses and bishops did not possess. These factors, together with Gibbons's longevity, his elevation to the cardinalate (1886), his accessibility to public officials and his personal friendship with every president from Cleveland to Harding, his tactful and conciliatory mode of governing, his irenic attitude toward non-Catholics, and the phenomenal success of his catechetical Faith of Our Fathers (1876), combined to make him the outstanding American Catholic churchman of his time.

Although he is justly famous for his contributions to such intramural Catholic projects as the founding of the Catholic University of America (1889) and the establishment of the National Catholic War/Welfare Council (1917), Gibbons's place in American Catholic history is really the result of the use he made of the prestige of his office and his personal talents in addressing four major problems that confronted the American church between 1877 and 1921: immigration, industrialization, nativism (the xenophobic reaction of Americans to immigrants), and Vatican apprehensions concerning American religious pluralism. Gibbons clearly saw that these four problems were interrelated, for all were concerned with the underlying problem of effecting some rapprochement between the Catholicism he loved and the American political and cultural life he revered. With his fellow americanizing bishops, John Ireland and John Keane, he sought both to assuage the fears of nervous nativists and to insure the internal unity of the church by advocating a pragmatic policy of assimilation that urged immigrant Catholics to adopt the language and mores of the host culture. His program did not endear him to German-American Catholics, but, combined with his conspicuous patriotism during the Spanish-American War and World War I, and his writings in praise of the American political system, it did much to enhance both his and his church's reputation as bulwarks of patriotism.

The same desires to demonstrate the social utility of the chuch to the nation, to insure the internal health of the church, and to protect the church from detractors animated Gibbons's defense of the Knights of Labor before the Roman Curia. His advocacy of the Knights as well as his work to reconcile New York's socially minded Father Edward McGlynn to the church earned him the reputation of a labor advocate comparable to Pope Leo XIII (18781903) and Cardinal Manning of Westminster in the universal church, and of a force for social peace at home.

While Gibbons enjoyed some measure of success in his attempts to demonstrate the compatibility of Catholicism and American life to non-Catholic Americans, the signal failure of his career was his inability to demonstrate the same either to conservative members of the American hierarchy or to Roman authorities who saw only a dangerous and corrosive indifferentism in the americanizers' praise of and accommodation to American mores. Leo XIII's condemnation of Americanism in 1899 (Testem benevolentiae) came as a stunning blow to Gibbons and his colleagues at the same time that it heartened the conservative followers of Archbishop Michael A. Corrigan of New York. In time, however, Gibbons's reputation in Rome was rehabilitated, and when he died in 1921 he was acknowledged by both his co-religionists and his fellow citizens to have been the dominant force in the American Catholic church.


Browne, Henry J. The Catholic Church and the Knights of Labor. Washington, D.C., 1949. A narrative history of Catholicism's recognition of the rights of labor, with special attention to Gibbons's efforts to avert a papal condemnation of the Knights.

Cross, Robert D. The Emergence of Liberal Catholicism in America. Cambridge, Mass., 1958. Outlines the ideological position of the americanizers and the conservatives involved in the so-called battle of the prelates in the late nineteenth century.

Ellis, John Tracy. The Life of James Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore 18341921. 2 vols. Milwaukee, 1952. The definitive biography of Gibbons.

Fogarty, Gerald P. The Vatican and the American Hierarchy from 1870 to 1965. Stuttgart, 1982. Examines the troubles encountered by the American hierarchy in dealing with a Curia that did not fully understand the American political system.

Gibbons, James. A Retrospect of Fifty Years. 2 vols. Baltimore, 1916. A collection of diary entries and articles written during Gibbons's episcopal career. Selections concerning the relationship of Catholicism and American life are especially helpful in understanding the man.

Joseph M. McShane (1987)

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