Catholic America

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Catholic America


Melting Pot. Catholic immigration to the United States rose steadily in the late nineteenth century, increasing the number of Catholics from approximately three million in 1860 to twelve million by 1900. The resulting changes in the scope and composition of the Catholic population had a significant impact both within and outside the Catholic community. Before 1870 Catholicism was a strong but regional presence in a Protestant America. Recent Irish immigrants dominated the institutional life of the church, while a German Catholic minority exercised great strength in the Midwest. Hispanic Catholics held sway in the newly acquired Southwest, and Creole Catholicism had a strong presence along the Gulf of Mexico. But soon after 1880 a remarkably diverse stream of immigrants began arriving, and within a few years large communities of French, Canadian, Portuguese, Spanish, Belgian, Slovak, Croatian, and Hungarian Catholics settled in the United States. Overshadowing these groups were massive numbers of Italians and Polesmore than three million of each group arrived in the United States between 1880 and 1920. Catholic immigrants concentrated their settlements in the rising industrial settlements of the Northeast, often transforming local demography. Many New England towns and cities, for example, had entirely homogeneous Protestant populations at the beginning of the nineteenth century and almost entirely immigrant Catholic populations by the early twentieth century.

Uniformity. Within the American Catholic Church this great migration created a diversity that was almost bewilderingand not particularly welcome among the longer-established Irish Americans. American Catholics experienced their own version of the perennial American problem of diversity and unity and had the added task of relating the many subtraditions of European Catholicism to a united, hierarchical church. This challenge was deepened by complex divisions of loyalty among many of the new ethnic groups and often significant differences of ritual and customary pious practice. The problem of uniformity was addressed directly at the Third Plenary Council of American Catholic Bishops in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1884, which produced a uniform set of parish and diocesan procedures, a catechism for Catholic

youth, and a plan to require all Catholic parishes to operate their own parochial schools. Sentiment varied among Catholic bishops, but during the 1880s the dominant approach emphasized the formation of a united and uniform American Catholic culture, which was to be created and reinforced by uniting Catholics of all backgrounds in panethnic parishes that would emphasize the English language and acculturation to the United States. This position was particularly identified with Americanist bishops such as John Ireland of Saint Paul, Minnesota; John Lancaster Spalding of Peoria, Illinois; and James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, the leader of the American hierarchy.

Ethnic Concerns. Non-Irish immigrants tended to oppose this orientation, seeking to gather the church in a loosely connected set of ethnic networks that could meet the cultural and religious needs of particular immigrant groups. In the cities and towns populated by new immigrants, religion often played a larger role than it had in their homelands, since Catholic churches and practices could provide tangible ways of retaining ethnic identities. The Catholic religion provided a powerful framework for the observance of individual and collective turning points from birth to death, and parishes often provided the key social organizations that facilitated urban life. One typical parish in Chicago in the 1890s sponsored religion classes, athletic events, and twenty-three other programs for its ten thousand members. (Catholic parishes of the period tended to be amazingly vast by Protestant standards.) The parish network was doubly important among immigrants who did not speak English. Although interethnic conflict strained American Catholicism and provided a strong undercurrent to the debates of Americanists and conservatives during the 1890s, immigrants brought with them some important common traditions and attitudes that functioned over the longer term to support the development of a new Catholic subculture.

Acceptant of Church Authority. Most Catholic immigrants of the period were shaped by common peasant and conservative origins, and they proved to be open to the influence of Catholic authorities. They were also willing, along with Irish American Catholics, to accept papal authority as definitive. In addition the Catholic ritual system, which was promoted energetically, provided a common set of religious experiences and ideas that reinforced Catholic distinctiveness in a Protestant-dominated country. The parochial-school system that emerged in the 1880s and 1890s proved to be a powerful force for Catholic cohesion. While Protestant institutions tended to shed their distinctive religious identities after 1880, the growing American Catholic subculture fortified its religious character. And although anti-Catholic discrimination remained a powerful reality, the tendency toward neighborhood segregation reinforced the distinctive sense of Catholic identity.


Anti-Catholicism, a sentiment developed over the centuries since the Protestant Reformation, was deep-seated in many American Protestants. Nativist, anti-Catholic views welled up several times during the nineteenth century and enjoyed considerable social respectability. Under the leadership of Henry Francis Bowers, the American Protective Association (APA) gained support during the depression that began in 1893. John L. Brandts 1895 work, America or Rome, Christ or the Pope?, expressed the exaggerated fears of the APA. The United States is Romes favorite missionary field. . . . Our country is a paradise for Rome. She has, without being disputed, introduced into our beautiful and fair land, many dogmas, founded upon pretended visions and fabulous tales, more fit for pagan darkness than for evangelical light; she has burdened millions of our people with masses, auricular confessions, priestly celibacy, and fears of purgatory; she has attacked our public schools; she has denounced our Bible; she has favored the union of church and state; she has thrust her hands into our treasury; she has monopolized the funds donated to the religious bodies for Indian education; she controls our telegraphic system; she censures and subsidizes the public presses; she manipulates many of our political conventions; she rules many of our large cities.... she has put judges on the bench and muzzled the mouths of many of our ablest statesmen and editors; she has plotted to destroy our government; she has made her subjects swear allegiance to a foreign power.

Source: John L. Brandt, America or Rome, Christ or the Pope? (Toledo, Ohio: Loyal, 1895), pp. 4-8.


Jay P. Dolan, American Catholic Experience: A History from Colonial Times to the Present (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1985);

Dolan, Catholic Revivalism: The American Experience, 1830-1900 (South Bend, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1978);

James Hennessey, A History of the Roman Catholic Community in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981);

Ann Taves, The Household of Faith: Roman Catholic Devotions in Mid-Nineteenth Century America (South Bend, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986).

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