Gibbons, James (1834-1921)

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James Gibbons (1834-1921)

Roman catholic cardinal


Helmsman. The son of Irish immigrants, James Gibbons was the most visible and influential figure in American Catholicism during his sixty years as a clergyman. He guided the church through the tumultuous years of massive Catholic migration to the United States from 1880 to World War I. Gibbonss tact, diplomatic skill, and enthusiasm made him the most respected Catholic in the United States. While he did not always achieve his goals, he was an inspired liaison between Rome and Catholics in the United States. President Theodore Roosevelt praised him as the most respected and venerated and useful citizen of our country.

Early Life. James Gibbons was born in Baltimore on 23 July 1834, but because of his fathers poor health the family returned to Ireland in 1837. (Gibbonss American birth would later be a mark of distinction that set him apart from the majority of his fellow Catholic bishops.) Gibbons returned to America with his mother in 1853, settling in New Orleans. The course of his life changed dramatically in January 1854, when he heard a mission sermon and discovered a calling for the priesthood. In 1855 he entered St. Charles College in Maryland and later continued his studies for the priesthood at St. Marys Seminary in, Baltimore. He was ordained on 30 June 1861 in Baltimore, a city divided by the Civil War. Gibbons served as a chaplain to Union troops stationed in the city and as pastor of a church with a congregation predominantly composed of Confederate sympathizers. He demonstrated great pastoral, organizational, and diplomatic skill in his first assignment as a priest. Archbishop Martin Spalding recognized his talents quickly i and asked the young priest to serve as his secretary. Gibbonss first task was to coordinate preparations for the Second Plenary Council of American Catholic; Bishops in Baltimore in 1866. As assistant chancellor i of the council, he made many contacts with church leaders. When the papacy established the Vicariate; Apostolic of North Carolina in 1868, Gibbons was named the first Catholic bishop of that state.

Catholic Apologist. The thirty-two-year-old Gibbons was the youngest bishop in the Catholic Church when he was consecrated on 16 August 1868. His diocese in North Carolina had fewer than seven hundred Catholics and only three priests. Nevertheless Gibbons demonstrated the talents that would make him a Catholic leader of the front rank: a capacity to mount articulate, forceful, and diplomatic defenses of Catholic teaching; an attitude of openness and warmth to non-Catholics; and a bedrock confidence that American political institutions were beneficial to church interests. In 1872 Gibbons became bishop of the diocese of Richmond. Once again he led a tiny Catholic population living in the midst of an overwhelmingly Protestant society. He drew on this experience while writing his most important published work, The Faith of Our Fathers (1877). A vigorous and engaging apologetic for Catholicism in America, the book became a bestseller among Catholics. (By the time of Gibbonss death two million copies were in circulation, and it had been translated into six foreign languages.) Gibbonss i effective defense of the Catholic faith rapidly made him the most widely known spokesman for Catholicism in America.

Baltimore. The archdiocese of Baltimore was the senior Catholic diocese in the United States, and its bishop was acknowledged by his peers as the leader of the American church. In the late 1870s the archbishop was James Bayley, whose poor health often caused him to call on Gibbons for assistance. Concerned about the smooth transition of authority in his diocese, Bayley asked Gibbons in 1877 to serve as his coadjutor archbishop (an assistant with the automatic right of succession). Gibbons hesitated for months but finally agreed to serve with Bayley. In October Bayley died, and Gibbons sat on the most important diocesan throne in America. As archbishop of Baltimore, Gibbons corresponded frequently with the Vatican and was deeply involved in formulating the churchs response to the massive surge of Catholic migration to the United States. Gibbons epitomized the American Catholic hierarchy, an Irish American with little personal exposure to Catholics from eastern and southern Europe. Indeed his own pastoral experience was gained in circumstances where Catholics of any sort were an overwhelming minority of the population. Like many Irish American bishops, he was not always sensitive to the concerns of immigrants. Gibbons, however, proved to be an effective administrator, presiding over the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in late 1884. That council set in place the framework for an extensive system of Catholic parochial schools and reorganized the routine operations of the Catholic Church in America. Pope Leo XIII rewarded Gibbons in June 1886 by naming him a cardinal of the church.

Decades of Struggle. The next two decades were exceedingly taxing, as Gibbons was called upon to mediate repeated and complex disputes about how simultaneously to meet the needs of immigrants and establish the Catholic Church as an American institution. Gibbons also advised Rome about American realities, a difficult task in a period when the political and social changes taking place in Europe, particularly in France and Italy, preoccupied Vatican authorities. To Rome it often looked like the United States was a source of political doctrines that emphasized revolution and the separation of church and state. During the 1880s Gibbons interceded with papal officials often, working successfully to prevent condemnations of the Knights of Labor and the writings of the economic reformer Henry George.

Americanists. Gibbons also lent substantial support to a group of bishops who eagerly embraced American culture and the political system. This group, led by Archbishop John Ireland of Saint Paul, Minnesota, argued that all Catholics in the United States should conform to a single Catholic culture, firmly American in ethos, language, and political commitment. The group, known in Europe as the Americanists, believed that the growing ethnic diversity of the American Catholic Church and the passionate loyalty of many immigrants to old-world identities threatened both the unity of Catholicism and the authority of the bishops. American bishops who opposed the Americanists frequently complained to Rome that concessions to American culture would lead to widespread abandonment of the Catholic faith by immigrants.

Ecumenical Outlook. Gibbons himself was optimistic about Catholic success in America and willing to make public ecumenical gestures. He and Ireland, for example, attended the Worlds Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, an event organized and dominated by liberal Protestants. Gibbons even agreed to lead the parliaments opening session in a recitation of a Protestant translation of the Lords Prayer. That and similar gestures scandalized many conservative Catholics. Throughout his career, Gibbons was also a highly vocal supporter of American political institutions and of the nations increasingly aggressive foreign policy.

Papal Intervention. The papacys growing concern about the influence of American society on the American Catholic Church became evident in the mid 1890s. In 1895 Pope Leo XIIIs encyclical Longinqua Oceani praised the progress of the Catholic Church in America but explicitly rejected the view that the American model of separation of church and state should be universally adopted. In 1899 the Americanist conflict culminated when Pope Leo addressed an apostolic letter to Gibbons called Testerm Benevolentiae. It stated that reports had reached Rome that some American Catholic clerics held the heretical view that the Catholic Church should alter both its external forms and traditional doctrine to respond to the pressures of the modern world. Gibbons hurriedly condemned those views, too, assuring the pope that no American bishops or priests supported those ideas.

A Record of Successes. The shift in papal policy left a decisive conservative mark on American Catholicism that lasted for decades. In the final decades of his life, Gibbons witnessed the easing of ethnic tensions within the church. He also served as an unofficial adviser to several presidents on Catholic matters, conveying, among other things, the view of the papacy to American leaders. His greatest public success, however, was cumulative. Over the course of decades he succeeded in reassuring millions of American Protestants and other non-Catholics that Catholicism was ultimately compatible with the American political and cultural system.

Catholic and American. Gibbons died on 21 March 1921, and his passing was widely mourned. Although he remained firmly in the Irish American camp, Catholics of many ethnic identities gave him credit for guiding the American church through the peak years of internal ethnic tension. During Gibbonss tenure the Catholic Church could well have been marginalized in America because of its association with reactionary European political currents. Instead, the Catholic community was grudgingly and gradually accepted into the American mainstream. This was, in some considerable measure, because of Gibbonss deft leadership and sincere American patriotism.


John Tracy Ellis, The Life of James Cardinal Gibbons: Archbishop of Baltimore, 1834-1921 (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1963);

James Gibbons, Faith of Our Fathers (Baltimore: J. Murphy, 1904).

James Gibbons

views updated May 18 2018

James Gibbons

James Gibbons (1834-1921), an American Roman Catholic cardinal, did much to reconcile the Church with national institutions when American Catholicism was faced with momentous transformation and crisis.

James Gibbons was born on July 23, 1834, in Baltimore, Md., of Irish immigrant parents. His boyhood was spent in Ireland, where he received his education; he returned to America to study at a Catholic college and seminary in Baltimore. Ordained in 1861, he rose rapidly in the councils of the Church and by 1868 was consecrated vicar apostolic of North Carolina.

In 1877 Gibbons became archbishop of Baltimore, the oldest and most prestigious archdiocese in the United States (which included Washington, D.C.). In 1886 he was created a cardinal, the second American to receive the red biretta. From that time until his death in 1921, he was the unofficial leader of the Church in the United States, honored and extolled by all Americans. In 1917 Theodore Roosevelt wrote to him, "Taking your life as a whole, I think you now occupy the position of being the most respected, and venerated, and useful citizen of our country." When the United States entered World War I, Gibbons gave unstinted support to President Woodrow Wilson.

Gibbons was a staunch defender of the Church, and his The Faith of Our Fathers (1876) was one of the most successful apologetics written in the English language. Yet he respected all faiths, and at the 1893 Parliament of Religions he led the assembly in the Protestant version of the Lord's Prayer, to the consternation of Catholic conservatives. Gibbons successfully defended the Knights of Labor (a union considerably Catholic in membership) from papal censure, thereby winning a reputation as labor's friend, though in fact he deplored class consciousness and condemned industrial violence. He unalterably opposed the fragmentation of American Catholicism into ethnic divisions. He championed the American separation of church and state and never ceased to praise America's democratic institutions.

There was little of the ascetic, the mystic, or the scholar about Gibbons. He was not a bold innovator, brilliant orator, or masterful administrator. Yet such was the transparency of his piety and patriotism and such were the depths of his love for Church and nation, that he remains to this day the greatest and most beloved Catholic leader America has known.

Further Reading

John T. Ellis, The Life of James Cardinal Gibbons Archbishop of Baltimore, 1834-1921 (1952), impressively researched and brilliantly written, is superior to Allen S. Will's fine Life of Cardinal Gibbons (1922). Ellis's American Catholicismis the best brief treatment of Gibbons. For the crucial era of Gibbons's leadership see two splendid, scholarly works: Robert D. Cross, The Emergence of Liberal Catholicism in America (1958), and Thomas T. McAvoy, The Americanist Heresy in Roman Catholicism, 1895-1900 (1963; formerly titled The Great Crisis in American Catholic History, 1895-1900, 1957). □

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James Gibbons (American cardinal)

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