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ANTI-CATHOLICISM. Bigotry against Roman Catholics, as well as the ideas that have rationalized such bigotry, have long been elements in North American politics and popular culture. Like racism and anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism is a fluid, international phenomenon buttressed by political, cultural, and intellectual justifications; like them, anti-Catholicism has served as a means of ostracizing a social group to consolidate political and cultural power in other groups. Additionally, just as historians trace the origins of racism to the early modern period, so too anti-Catholicism dates from this period—a legacy of Reformation-era disputes and of the European religious wars prior to 1648. (With origins in the ancient world, anti-Semitism dates much farther back.) A distinguishing mark of anti-Catholicism is that it developed in tandem with the modern papacy, a religio-political institution whose activities were widely perceived as threats to non-Catholic religious and secular authorities. Significantly, since Roman Catholics were the largest U.S. religious denomination after about 1870, anti-Catholicism was thereafter aimed at a religious plurality, not a religious minority, within the national population.

Frequently anti-Catholicism was voiced as opposition to the Roman papacy, particularly to papal influence in political affairs. It was carried to North America by seventeenth-century Puritan settlers of New England, where anti-Catholicism retained vitality despite the dearth of Catholics in that region until the nineteenth century. In the absence of a Catholic population, anti-Catholicism resulted from two notable sources, and it developed in context with repressive Penal Laws in early modern England and Ireland. First, demonstrated opposition to the papacy and to the European "Catholic countries" (especially Spain and France, which also held North American colonies) was a key indicator of English national identity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; affirming the separation from Rome of the English government and of the Church of England served as a statement of "Englishness" and a mark of national pride. Second, early New England Puritans viewed their colonial enterprise as a "holy experiment" by which they would provide for the world a "modell of Christian charity" and God-centered government; they believed their experiment to be the beginning of a new order in religion and politics, purified of every hint of papal influence and of the historical accretions of Catholic doctrine that perverted true Christianity. As the widespread influence of the papacy persisted and even grew after the seventeenth century, expressions of autonomy from Catholic Rome continued to be active elements of political and cultural identity in England, its American colonies, and, later, in the United States. Anti-Catholicism notably reared itself the "New York Conspiracy," or "Negro Conspiracy," of 1741: after a series of New York City crimes, thirty-five people were executed, most of them African Americans accused of conspiring to overthrow the white gentry; included was a white man wrongly suspected to be a Jesuit priest and thought to have planned a revolt among blacks and poor whites. Significantly, the Maryland colony represented an exception to colonial anti-Catholicism: founded by English-Catholic George Calvert, Lord Baltimore, in 1633, it was the first British outpost to endorse freedom of religion, including legal toleration for Catholics and Jews.

Between 1830 and 1930—a century of massive immigration into the United States—anti-Catholicism was an active element in many debates around immigration, and it pervaded popular literature and political humor in the United States, occasionally fueling violence against Catholics. Frequently references to Rome's despotic influence over immigrant Catholics served as a backdrop to outbreaks of anti-Catholic activity. Among well-known events was the 1834 looting and burning of a Charlestown, Massachusetts, Ursuline convent at the hands of anti-Catholic vandals. More representative, however, were nonviolent deployments of anti-Catholicism such as the proliferation in the 1830s and 1840s of popular "exposés" about the repressive influences and deviant sexual activities of Catholic clergy and nuns, and the 1884 presidential election, wherein Republicans decried the Democratic Party's association with "rum, Romanism, and rebellion" (references to the party's stance on Prohibition, its heavily immigrant-Catholic base, and its strength in the secessionist South). Other notable examples included the activities of the American Protective Association in the 1890s across the northern and midwestern United States, which endeavored "to place the political position of this [U.S.] government in the hands of Protestants to the entire exclusion of the Roman Catholics"; the anti-Catholic rhetoric of the Ku Klux Klan in the early-twentieth-century South and Midwest; and the rhetoric used against New York governor Alfred E. Smith, an Irish-American Catholic, in his 1928 bid for the presidency. Later, during John F. Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign, the same arguments used against Smith—particularly, the possibilities of political manipulation by Roman authorities—were resurrected.

After 1930, unabashed expressions of anti-Catholicism increasingly gave way to more reasoned debates, especially debates regarding Catholicism's relation to the autonomous individual. Concepts of American identity have long enshrined the notion that Americans are democratic by temperament and individual, autonomous actors free from undue pressures upon their moral choices. Given its history of definitive pronouncements upon moral issues and its connection to the papacy, Catholicism was thought by many to be antithetical to individual autonomy, thus antithetical to "being American"—a view fueled by the 1870 official proclamation of papal infallibility in certain matters of faith and morality. Prominent twentieth-century intellectuals like the philosophers John Dewey and Theodor Adorno commented on Catholicism's inherent authoritarianism and its potentially debilitating effects upon the human psyche and personal autonomy, suggesting that it weakened individual moral conviction and shaped the sort of "followers" suitable for totalitarian regimes. At the popular level, church teachings on matters of sexuality received much attention throughout the twentieth century, and American commentators on birth control, abortion, and homosexuality—including many Catholic commentators—criticized as repressive the prohibitive church teachings on these issues, emphasizing the centrality of personal choice in matters of sexuality and the church's disrespect for individual autonomy. Certainly not every expression of disagreement with official church teaching can be understood as "anti-Catholic"; nonetheless, many U.S. church leaders and lay Catholic commentators have noted the persistence in these debates of centuries-old distinctions between Catholicism and national identity, suggesting that modern anti-Catholic attitudes have assumed greater subtlety to conform to the norms of civil public debate.

Since the late eighteenth century, the majority of church leaders have responded to anti-Catholicism by appealing to American values of religious freedom and toleration and encouraging Catholics to affirm the compatibility of being both patriotic Americans and loyal Catholics. In consequence, Catholics sometimes have portrayed themselves as hyper-American, culminating in innumerable public affirmations of patriotism, especially during World War I and the early Cold War era, when suspicion of "un-American" activities reached high points.


Billington, Ray Allen. The Protestant Crusade, 1800–1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism. New York: Macmillan, 1938.

Colley, Linda. "Britishness and Otherness: An Argument," Journal of British Studies 31 (1992): 309–329. Treats anti-Catholicism in early modern England.

Gleason, Philip. "American Identity and Americanization." In The Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups. Edited by Stephan Thernstrom. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1982.

Greeley, Andrew M. An Ugly Little Secret: Anti-Catholicism in North America. Kansas City, Mo.: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1977.

Kinzer, Donald L. An Episode in Anti-Catholicism: The American Protective Association. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1964.

MacLean, Nancy. Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

McGreevy, John T. "Thinking on One's Own: Catholicism in the American Intellectual Imagination, 1928–1960." Journal of American History 84 (1997): 97–131.

James P.McCartin

See alsoCatholicism ; Discrimination ; Know-Nothing Party ; Nativism ; Religion and Religious Affiliation .

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