Changing Faces of American Catholicism

views updated

Changing Faces of American Catholicism


International Institution. Like Judaism, Catholicism played a vital role in the international movements of people and ideas during the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Prior to 1850 Catholicism in the United States drew much of its population from a few sources. There was a small community of descendants of colonists, English Catholics relocated to Maryland, whose descendants spread out across that state and into Kentucky. To this was added the sparse population of the former French Mississippi colonies, transferred to the United States via the Louisiana Purchase (1803), and the equally small numbers of Spanish-speaking Catholics brought in when Mexico ceded territory to the United States in 1848.

Converts. American Catholicism expanded partly through a small stream of converts. Some were prominent at the time of their conversion. A particularly important group was the converts from the Protestant Episcopal Church, a denomination with roots in the Church of England. During the 1840s an upheaval affected the Church of England; it was known as the Oxford Movement, because it was centered in that university, and also called the Tractarian Movement, because its leaders wrote tracts or pamphlets that explained their evolving theology. A key event of the Oxford Movement came in 1845, when one of its leaders, John Henry Newman, converted from the Church of England to Roman Catholicism; he later became a famous writer and cardinal. American Episcopalianism had its own Oxford Movement® In 1851 Levi Silliman Ives, then Episcopal bishop of North Carolina, converted to Catholicism. In 1872 James Roosevelt Bayley, another convert from Episcopalianism, reached one of the highest positions in Catholicism when he succeeded the scion of a Maryland Catholic family, Martin Spalding, as the archbishop of Baltimore, then one of the most important dioceses in the United States.

Immigration. The real growth in Catholicism, though, came through migration. While some immigrants were displaced from their former homes by the forces of industrialism, one important group came as the result of a disaster. Famine in Ireland sent approximately one million Irish to America in ten years. (The United States had a reasonably accurate count of people arriving at its seaports but not of those arriving at Canadian seaports and walking across the border.) These immigrants were not uniformly devout or observant Catholics because the English had suppressed their religion so that it could not be used as a basis of resistance to imperial rule. In the United States, however, they could practice their religion freely and develop a distinct Irish-American Catholic identity.

Universalism and Localism. Theologically, catholic meant that Gods reign extended throughout the world. (It was similar to what Protestants meant by universal.) Historically, the word catholic was also a way of conveying the idea that the unity of faith outweighed local differences. From the viewpoint of Catholic leaders, there was no problem in sending clergy from one country to minister to another. While other denominations sent American-born missionaries to convert the Indians, Catholic missionaries in this country were primarily Italian Jesuits. Some American Catholics claimed that theirs was a special expression of the worldwide faith because it was formed under conditions of separation of church and state and in a situation in which clergy were scarce. It was also culturally distinct from the way in which the incoming migrants practiced the same faith. To American Catholics claims of uniqueness were added the immigrants own claims that they, too, faced special situations which required them to preserve their faith in its distinctive forms, with the assistance of clergy who spoke their own language. The Vatican continued to stress the unity of faith over the diversity of its expression, while at the same time acknowledging the basic differences between American and European Catholicism.

Religious Institutes. One group with firsthand experience of the differences among Catholics were the members of religious institutes. These institutes were communities of men and women who came together to perfect their own spiritual lives. They all took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and some took additional vows to promote a particular way of life or mission, like the Benedictines, who were devoted to continuous residence in one monastery. The institutes either held land or property in common or undertook some kind of missionary work. Immigrants and their institutions, formed under European circumstances, had to adjust to American conditions. An example was the Christian Brothers, an organization composed of men who did not become priests but who dedicated their lives to teaching. In Europe they taught poor boys, but because of the rigid class system common at the time, many boys who came under their care generally moved no further up than the working class. The greater socioeconomic mobility of the United States led the Christian Brothers to maintain their commitment to teaching the poor, but to switch from purely vocational training to teaching the liberal arts to prepare young men for higher education.

Establishing the Hierarchy. Religious institutes were special bodies within the Catholic community. Most Catholics were under the care of secular clergy, so called because they lived in the world and did not belong to religious communities but were responsible to bishops, the ordinary authority in the diocese. The papacy designated the geographical borders of new dioceses and appointed the bishops. In most countries, the bishops established parishes and appointed pastors. The United States was considered mission territory and thus fell under a different set of rules where parishes and pastors were concerned. What American Catholics commonly called parishes were in canon law known as missions, which could be established by the bishop as needed. What Catholics called pastors were in canon law rectors (which is why their houses were called rectories), who could be transferred according to need, as determined by the bishop. The gap between the canon law that governed most of the settled Catholic world and the exceptions that were made for American mission territory provoked problems. American bishops claimed that the exceptions, which gave those bishops extraordinary power, were needed in the special circumstances of the growing United States; they had to be able to erect or suppress missions and to transfer clergy in order to meet changing needs. The clergy, though, realized that regularly applied canon law would give them greater powers and protections. A further complication came because some bishops sent their most promising clergy for training at the Urban College of the Propagation of the Faith in Rome. Well versed in canon law and having made the acquaintance of some powerful people at the Vatican, Roman-trained clergy frequently challenged episcopal authority in the United States. The situation was not resolved until 1908, when the United States ceased to be mission territory and thus fell under regular canon law.

Institutions. Parishes were the most important institutions in Catholicism, for it was at parish churches that Catholics went to worship. However, they were not the only institutions in the faith. Catholics were supposed to be charitable, to look after the needy. The inexpensive labor provided by charitable religious orders and the funds sent by European Catholics via agencies such as the Austrian Leopoldsverein and the French Society for the Propagation of the Faith made charity possible. During the nineteenth century Catholics began to build systems of charitable care. There were foundling asylums for abandoned babies, orphanages for children who could feed and care for themselves but who were too young to work, detention centers for juveniles, rest homes for the aged, and hospitals for the sick. This charitable network was incomplete and loosely organized, and bishops called for institutions to deal with the most pressing needs, rather than focusing on long-range goals. Religious orders founded institutions in accordance with their historical missions or with the most obvious needs. Each institution was staffed, managed, and funded differently, a system which meant that some flourished while others floundered. The various agencies, though, laid the foundation for later systemization.

Devotionalism. Catholic piety was illustrated in many ways, including participation at Sunday mass and reception of the sacraments, as well as activities individuals pursued according to what they felt they needed for full spiritual lives. In the last category went prayers and countless devotions, such as pilgrimages to shrines or the wearing of medals or scapulars (a long band of cloth worn over the shoulders) to acknowledge the protection of a heavenly patron. Tradition linked devotion with particular places; for example, nineteenth-century American Catholics called the area around Jerusalem the Holy Land and venerated the places associated with Christs birth, ministry, and death although it was too expensive for them to visit those sites. Catholics around the world also developed a sense of holy times. The holy hour was a sixty-minute period of meditation and prayer that generally took place before the Host, or reserved communion bread. A novena set aside nine days (hence the name) during which Catholics would recite special prayers to a patron saint or to Jesus or Mary. Variations on the no-vena were the triduum, three days of special prayer (with roots in the most important three-day period, from Good Friday to Easter Sunday), the thirteen Tuesdays

devoted to Saint Anthony of Padua before his 13 June feast day (Saint Anthony had been buried on a Tuesday), First Friday devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and First Saturday devotion to Mary and the rosary. Catholics also turned their energies to holy actions, such as saying the rosary or participating in the Corpus Christi procession. These new devotions represented a departure from colonial American Catholicism with its emphasis on quiet, inward meditation and reflection and living of a good life. While some historians have linked the new devotions with the arrival of immigrants, others maintain that Catholics altogether were actually making a transition to a distinctly nineteenth-century piety.

Civil War. When the crisis over slavery led to war, American Catholics generally supported their local government. Bishop John Fitzpatrick of Boston and Archbishop John Hughes of New York traveled to Europe to present the Union stance and to stave off foreign intervention. Bishop Patrick Lynch of Charleston, South Carolina, undertook the same task for the Confederacy. When federal conscription of soldiers met with riotous opposition among urban, ethnic, working-class Catholics, the priests of Boston contacted local government and parish leaders to avert a crisis, and the archbishop of New York addressed rioters in the name of law and order. With their tradition of charity, Catholics were especially important in ministering to the sick. Catholic sisters accounted for one-tenth of all nurses serving with both armies. Parishes near the theatre of war were frequently requisitioned for hospitals.

Reconstruction. American Catholic bishops had developed a system whereby each maintained diocesan independence but all could work together for specific goals. When there was only one archdiocese and a few dioceses, the archbishop and bishops met in what was called a provincial council; after the Vatican created more archdioceses, the archbishops and bishops convened in plenary councils. The American hierarchy held its second plenary council in 1866, immediately after the Civil War. The meeting resulted in several policy statements. The bishops, recognizing that they had a unique opportunity to attract newly freed slaves to the faith, called for evangelization. Few answered the call; many American bishops lacked financial and personnel resources for such a program, and many more let their prejudices hinder their ministry. Similarly, the bishops issued a call for the building of parochial schools in order to educate young Catholics while protecting them from anti-Catholic prejudice in public and other private institutions. However, again the bishops lacked the means for a concerted effort, and some of them, such as John Fitz-patrick of Boston, questioned the wisdom of building a separate school system. Therefore, the hierarchy made recommendations rather than requirements.

Vatican I. Catholicism was going through a reconstruction of its own in the late 1860s, which culminated in Pope Pius IXs call for an ecumenical council of Catholic bishops from all over the world. In this case, the papacy had established an agenda of issues for the bishops to discuss, the most significant of which was the doctrine of papal infallibility. Popes were considered to be incapable of making mistakes when, in their official capacity, they issued rulings on the teachings of Catholic faith and morals. Some American bishops, including Peter Kenrick, archbishop of Saint Louis, were not convinced of the legitimacy of papal infallibility; Kenrick thought that it was the bishops, acting together with the papacy, who were infallible. Nevertheless, the council voted in favor of pronouncing the new doctrine in December 1869. (The one time a pope has actually used this power occurred in 1950, when Pope Pius XII declared that every Catholic must believe that Mary was assumed bodily into heaven without undergoing the usual decay in the grave, a doctrine known as the Assumption.) After the 1870s one of the most important issues facing American Catholics was what was called Romaniza-tion, the degree to which Catholics subordinated various national and ethnic traditions to a concept of the universal church as envisioned by papal authorities.


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

Mary Ewens, O.P., The Role of the Nun in Nineteenth-Century America: Variations on the International Theme (New York: Arno, 1978);

James Hennesey, S J., American Catholics: A History of the Roman Catholic Community in the United States (New York &, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981);

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