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CATHOLICISM. In 1520, Martin Luther (14831546) explainedin his famous open letter to Pope Leo X (reigned 15131521)that he considered the Roman Curia "more corrupt than any Babylon or Sodom ever was," and that it was "characterized by a completely depraved, hopeless and notorious godlessness." For hundreds of years thereafter, Luther's remarks were construed as an indictment not just of the Curia, but of the entire Catholic Church. With this picture of corruption and depravity, he established one side of a polemical divide over ways to describe Catholicism in early modern Europe that has endured to this very day. The argument over whether or not Luther's picture of the church was realistic has been engaged by historians for generations, from Cesare Baronio (15181607) and Paolo Sarpi (15621623) in the late sixteenth century to Massimo Firpo and John W. O'Malley in the late twentieth century. The debate has been clouded by ahistorical commitmentsat first simply religious, then political and cultural as wellthat serve as an obstacle to a true comprehension of the past. Since roughly 1945, the argument has turned on whether the terms "Counter-Reformation" or "Catholic Reform," or any of a host of other related terms, can describe the period, or if something more innocuous, like "early modern Catholicism," might be better. No matter where one stands on this battle over historical terminology, all agree that Catholicism in this era was variegated, fascinating in its complexity, and riddled with internal and external conflicts that make simple categorization of this institution quite impossible.

Catholicism between 1500 and 1789 has commonly been defined through the conflict between Protestant reformers and Christians who remained loyal to Rome. Luther, like John Calvin (15091564) and many Anglican and Anabaptist thinkers who followed, was not so different from medieval reformers who called for change in Christian practices. He may have insisted initially on reconsideration of the best way to explain the necessity of penitence, not just penance, in the process of salvation. The challenge to common church teaching expressed in his Ninety-Five Theses (1517), however, increasingly came to be understood as a threat to papal authority. This perception, which was reinforced by Luther's own words in the three great Reformation treatises of 15201521 and by the rallying of other critical voices at his side, encouraged members of the Catholic hierarchy to see him as the latest in a long line of medieval reformers. They could then treat him, as they did his predecessors, as one who would eventually go away without leaving any substantial impact upon the structure of ecclesiastical authority.


The common definition of Catholicism in early modern Europe as hinging on the challenge of Luther and other Protestant reformers, and on Roman reaction to that challenge, has obscured the complexity and multiform nature of the institution. First, consider the complexity of the papacy itself. Popes from Alexander VI (14921503) through Pius VI (17751799) exhibited many characteristics, but consistency and uniformity were not among them. At the beginning of this era, the papacy was an institution competing for the loyalty of the European people against secular powers attempting to extend the reach of their authority. Fifteenth-century papal claims to absolute power, both spiritual and temporal, were defined in practice during the pontificates of Julius II (15031513) and Leo X as an effort to secure the integrity and independence of the Papal State. They used both diplomatic and military resources to do so. By the end of the early modern era, however, the papacy had become quite ineffective in political terms, having been pushed to the periphery of contemporary political society. For example, Clement XIII (17581769) and Clement XIV (17691774) were unable to save one of the largest religious orders in the church, the Society of Jesus, from its European enemies. Early modern popes attempted to consolidate their religious and governmental authority in a rapidly changing world, but they did so with inconsistent policies and performance. The popular imagination of today often views early modern popes as warriors against heresy. This may have been true of popes like Paul IV (15551559) and Pius V (15661572), who personally presided over inquisitorial meetings. But later popes, like Innocent XI (16761689), saw devotional and theological developments like Jansenism and Quietism as dangerous and still disapproved of the use of force to deal with them. An even later pope, Benedict XIV (17401758), had no trouble reconciling the apparent contradiction between support for clerical education and scientific investigation on the one hand, while at the same time continuing prohibitions on reading with a new Index of Prohibited Books. Similar levels of inconsistency exist when examining the actions of popes in artistic patronage, in promotion of church reform, in support for scholarship, and in creation of public services for the Papal State.

PopePaul III(15341549), anindividualwhose actions were filled with inconsistencies, might be seen as one who epitomized the early modern papacy. He is considered by many to be the first pope of the Catholic Reformation (or the Counter-Reformation). He not only appointed cardinals who presented him with a stinging indictment of the evils in the contemporary church, known as the Consilium de Emendanda Ecclesia (1537), but he also convened the Council of Trent in 1545. In addition, he procured the legitimization of three of the four children he fathered before becoming a priest and bestowed enormous ecclesiastical incomes and properties upon one son and upon the two grandsons he appointed as cardinals. This unreformed approach to the enrichment of his family was contradicted by his generous artistic patronage and by his promotion of reform-minded clerics. Among the latter was a Spaniard, Ignatius of Loyola (14911556), whose new religious order, the Society of Jesus, Paul formally approved in 1540. Paul revived the Roman Inquisition in 1542, but designed it to operate with a lenience and moderation that some of his successors rejected. He was a pope like many others in this period: a "reformer" who could never fully break away from the traditions of corruption. They were richly human, defying simple categorization.

The Council of Trent (15451563), whose decreesnot to mention the drumbeat of anathema within themepitomized Catholic reaction against Protestant thought, was a richly complicated event riddled with conflict. According to the standard interpretation, popes controlled the assembly through the papal legates who set the agenda for each session, and through Jesuit theologians who, over those eighteen years, ensured that doctrinal and disciplinary decrees were secured that were acceptable to the popes. From the very beginning, however, legates like Marcello Cervini (15011555), Giovan Maria de' Ciocchi del Monte (14871555), and Carlo Borromeo (15381584) struggled to persuade prelates to attend, to remain once they had arrived, and to get along, sometimes in ways that were much more practical than dogmatic. When they were not breaking up shoving matches among the bishops, legates mediated, rather than dictated, among members of the papal, imperial, and French factions that emerged at Trent, while attempting to promote papal plans. Popes themselves varied widely in their commitment to the gathering as a means to solve the problem facing the church. Paul III convened the council, but he clearly feared the conciliarist leanings of some of the prospective council members. Julius III (15501555) and Pius IV (15591565) moved the Tridentine assembly vigorously toward completion. In between those two, however, Paul IV insisted categorically that the meeting remain in suspension, convinced that he could carry out the reform on his own through the Roman Inquisition, over whose meetings he presided, and through his personal Index of Prohibited Books. In the end, the decrees were formulated by conciliar bishops, who put themselves in charge of bringing the documents from Trent to life in Catholic practice.


Implementation of the decrees of the Council of Trenta series of clarifications of doctrine, disciplinary decrees, and directives on such matters as clerical educationshould have brought a uniform church into existence in short order, but local realities made this impossible. Papal authority was not strong enough to effect any change as broad-ranging as that outlined at Trent. In France, implementing the decrees was especially slow, as royal control restricted even the publication of the decrees. Bringing clerical behavior there into something resembling conformity with the decrees took centuries, not decades. Recent scholarship on the Netherlands reveals that seventeenth-century bishops faced opposition to their reform plans not just from local constituents, but from Rome as well. They engaged in especially complex negotiations to try to secure claustration of nuns, that Tridentine rule most often cited as evidence of effective, centralized, disciplining control, in local convents. In the end, Netherlandish nuns determined the characteristics of their own common life, apparently at least as much as bishops. In Italy, prelates had the example of Carlo Borromeo (15381584), archbishop of Milan, not to mention precedents like Gian Matteo Giberti (14951543) in Verona, Bartolomeo de Martyribus (15141590) in Braga, and Marcello Cervini in Gubbio, to follow. Borromeo became the model Tridentine bishop, holding diocesan synods, enhancing catechetical instruction, and conducting pastoral visits. But even in Italy the process was relatively slow, as bishops elsewhere butted up against the many cathedral chapters, and monastic institutions that asserted their independence from episcopal control and appealed to Rome any challenge to that independence.

Effective implementation of the decrees was a complicated matter. The process hinged not just on the ability of bishops to operate freely over those at least theoretically under their control, but also upon the determination of some rulers to control their national churches. The papal prerogative of simply naming bishops, let alone controlling their activity, was decidedly limited, especially in Spain, France, and England. The tradition of royal leadership in religious matters in Spain continued throughout the early modern period and was already well established in 1478, when Ferdinand (ruled 14741516) and Isabella (ruled 14741504) convinced Rome of the need for a Spanish Inquisition controlled by the monarchs. Spanish monarchs retained the right to appoint bishops in the Netherlands, as well as across the so-called New World. Such an arrangement within France was created in the Concordat of Bologna (1516) between Leo X and King Francis I (ruled 15151547). Behind these and similar practicessuch as monarchical control of appointments to ecclesiastical benefices in Englandwas a concern over the distribution of revenues that was more financial than religious. When viewed in the context of Tridentine decrees insisting on the appointment only of properly trained clerics who would take seriously the cura animarum, 'care of souls', these facts illustrate that Roman determination to control the reform process, as well as the practical ability to do so, varied considerably.

Some of those who drafted the Tridentine decree on seminaries may have desired a highly centralized clergy obedient to Roman doctrine and leadership, but recent research suggests implementation of this directive was desperately slow, and that any such desire went largely unfilled. In places like Milan, seminary training after Trent was anything but uniform. Many candidates studied in multiple institutions, and only some of those were under the control of the archbishop. Diocesan seminaries there were part of a larger system that included schools run by some of the new Catholic religious orders. In Fiesole, the first attempt to found a seminary did not occur until nearly a generation after the assembly at Trent completed its work. Formal seminary instruction in Fiesole did not commence until 1635. Even if trained, the reshaping of local priests into a professional class through episcopal visitations and instructions may have been the intention of early modern bishops, but they apparently made little progress in this era. In Milan, during the archiepiscopal administrations of Carlo and Federico Borromeo (15641631), the majority of priests resembled the superstitious, worldly, sinful laity they served far more than the confessional interrogators the archbishops had in mind.


The intention of all Catholic reformers was to revive religious life generally, but locally support for revival and opposition to it were both common. Hence, real change was limited. Seminary education and pastoral visits were supposed to create a consistently well-educated and attentive clergy. Local records suggest that the members of the laity supported such an intention, but in practice, some established members of the clergy challenged the change. Giambattista Casale, a carpenter and late-sixteenth-century diarist in Milan, enthusiastically praised the reform work of Carlo Borromeo. Casale related popular support both for the attention Borromeo devoted to his personal pastoral responsibilities, and for his initiatives to improve the quality of local priests. Clerics there, however, were not so favorably impressed. In 1569 and 1570 they assaulted the archbishop, first verbally and then physically, as his reforming ideals were threatening their clerical positions and income. One can find many examples of ecclesiastical and civic leaders developing new institutions and enhancing the power of old ones, designed to enforce religious orthodoxy, proper notions of political sovereignty, and moral purity. At the same time, crime statistics, court recordsincluding the recently opened central archive of the Roman Inquisitionand other forms of documentation all reveal that the goal of conformity was far from achieved. Archbishops and parishioners in the Netherlands in this era did not completely agree on what constituted a good pastor, but one thing was sure: neither were satisfied with those they observed. The well-noted crackdown on questionable belief and behavior among upper-ranking clerics did not preclude behavior by oneReginald Pole (15001558, the cardinal archbishop of Canterbury and papal legate to the early sessions at Trent)that led his most recent biographer to assert that he was, for all practical purposes, married to his longtime companion, the Venetian noble and cleric Alvise Priuli (d. 1560).

Where Catholic religious practice was effectively reformed in early modern Europe, it often came through leadership from members of a variety of religious orders. The members of long established orders, like the Franciscans, Benedictines, and Augustinians, initiated reforms to improve adherence to the religious rule each followed, but the reform movements frequently resulted in division and the creation of new branches of these orders. This operation followed a well-established pattern in the Franciscan order, for example. The new Capuchin group founded by Matteo di Bassi (14951552) was not unlike the so-called spirituals from an earlier age in its call for stricter observance of the rule of Saint Francis. Their emphasis on preaching and identification with common people, especially in towns, contributed to the spread of reformed Catholicism. Angela Merici of Brescia (14741540) and Ignatius of Loyola founded brand new orders, the Ursulines and the Society of Jesus, respectively, whose inspiration turned as much on the goal of serving the needs of others as on the pursuit of perfection among its own members. The Ursulines became educators, especially in catechism, as well as servants of orphans and women in need of shelter. The Jesuits engaged in a wide variety of ministries, but like the Ursulines, their principal influence on the European community came through work in education. They were central to the development of secondary schools that prepared young men for university study, and to the beginnings of seminary education. These were just a few of the many new and newly reformed orders of the early modern period.

Members of the secular (that is, diocesan) clergy on the one hand, and members of religious orders (both clerics in religious orders and nuns) on the other, engaged in disputes that further complicate the picture of Catholicism in this age. In general terms, members of religious orders tended to assert their independence from episcopal control based upon their foundations and authorizations that came directly from the papacy. This was a traditional position for religious orders to take. But when they did so in the early modern period, especially after the Council of Trent, they butted up against bishops armed with the decrees of Trent. Many of these bishops intended to exercise their authority to examine clerics and grant permissions to preach and to hear confessions in their dioceses, whether they were secular or regular clergy. Members of religious orders could often, through appeals to the papacy, gain exemption from such episcopal authority. There was not, however, any general position of the papacy in favor of the independence of regular clergy. Paul IV, to take a notable example, was decidedly suspicious of the devotional innovations designed by Ignatius of Loyola and the Jesuits to facilitate their pastoral activities. For a time, he even insisted that they recite the divine office in unison, in violation of the Jesuit constitutions established under preceding popes. We ought not to think of this distrust of religious orders as a position taken up exclusively by belligerent popes like Paul IV. When questions were raised concerning the propriety of the independence of the Ursulines and their activities outside the convent, the push to cloister them came not just from authorities in Rome, but also from parents of the sisters and other family members.

European members of both branches of the Catholic clergy increasingly engaged in preaching, a fact that undermines one of the most common stereotypes about Catholicism in this era. A common assumption is that, to the Catholic clergy of this period, preaching was either completely marginal or used only for unjust fundraising operations such as the sale of indulgences. But the historical record of preaching in the early modern period is much more complicated. At the beginning of the period, members of religious orders, like Franciscan and Dominican friars, were exceedingly popular preachers. They delivered well-attended sermons on a daily basis during Lent and Advent. In fact, civic leaders vied to secure the best known preachers among them. The popularity of these preachers was based, at least in part, on the lack of preaching by members of the secular clergy, who were largely absent from their pastoral duties. After the Council of Trent, short homilies within the Eucharistic celebration became increasingly common. There was a veritable explosion of publications related to preaching in the early modern period. The explosion included simple instructions by bishops, handbooks of forms for the composition of sermons, and collections of the work of celebrated preachers, in addition to formal treatises on the topic. This literature reveals that theorists recommended explicitly the utilization of humanist rhetorical ideals and clear explication of basic doctrine in sermons. Court preachers speaking before popes and heads of state retained the prominent characteristic of their medieval predecessors. Preaching held a central place in the religious culture of all early modern Europe, not just Protestant lands.


Preachers touched local Catholic communities whose common experience of the religion varied considerably. During the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Milan was a very different place compared to a city in a Protestant territory, like Amsterdam. In the former, priests were on the lookout for both clerics and members of the laity who deviated from the newly defined norms of Trent. They spent the bulk of their time trying to form Catholic identity around those norms, often with minimal success. In the latter, and in many other towns and cities in the British Isles, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Dutch Republic, Catholics created religious spaces in places where such were officially proscribed, but in practice they were tolerated by neighbors and officials who knew well of their existence. At the turn of the eighteenth century, Catholics controlled twenty such semi-secret churches (schuilkerk) in Amsterdam. One was a narrow row house whose third-floor church could hold some 150 persons in pews and galleries. Catholics in early modern Spain probably experienced religion in a manner that was closer to that of the Milanese. They surely were the subjects of a plan for orthodox indoctrination. For some, especially in rural areas, their practice may have become outwardly Christian, even approaching Catholic, but it was mixed with appeals to the supernatural through spells and potions that illustrate the difficulty with which "pagan" superstitions died in this era. Moreover, the divide between Christians and Jews in European communities was often anything but complete. Paul IV set up an enclosed ghetto in Rome that is still widely seen as a precursor of Nazi versions in Eastern Europe. But emphasis on this episode encourages ignorance of the more tolerant policy that both preceded and followed his administration. It also hides the fact that, as recent scholarship has shown, Jews and members of the Catholic laity in Rome shared a good deal in common, and that the ghetto had few negative effects on the religious and cultural identity of Jews in Rome.

Believers, especially in urban areas, organized themselves into confraternities, a vast array of diverse organizations that belied the image of contemporary Catholicism as uniform. Confraternities had existed as devotional organizations promoting piety and social service, mainly in the towns of the medieval period. In the early modern period, when centralizing tendencies in the organization of Catholicism allegedly held sway, such organizations and their independence from hierarchical control should, logically, have disappeared. They did not. Instead, they tended to become stronger. Whether their increased strength was based upon enhanced devotion to more clearly defined dogmas, on the Eucharist, or upon an increasing charitable need in contemporary cities is unclear. Some of these institutions seemed on the surface to cooperate with growing states and their centralization of charity. In some places, however, like Bologna, confraternities that took on a more political role allowed patricians to maintain secure hold on certain elements of administration in the Papal State (specifically over the prison system) against centralization under the papacy.

Individual Catholic believers, and not just those in confraternities, seem to have experienced religion much more through their devotional practices than through any conscious adherence to dogma, whether orthodox or heterodox. Popular religious practice varied widely despite the hope of some Catholic leaders to regularize devotional life. Throughout the sixteenth century, there is little evidence to suggest that instruction in dogma went far beyond practice in the memorization of basic prayers and foundational formulas like the Nicene Creed. Later, increasing expansion of the Confraternities of Christian Doctrine and the publication of the Catechism of the Council of Trent in 1566 surely facilitated the spread of the doctrines defined at Trent. But real work on that document did not begin at least until late in 1562, if not 1563. Once it was completed under Pius V in 1566, priests had to learn and translate the contents of the massive Latin edition before the process of explaining the ideas in terms accessible to common people could begin. Popular cults honoring the mostly unofficial but locally recognized patron saints continued. Pilgrimage sites that had developed in the Middle Ages, such as Loreto, location of the house in which Mary allegedly grew upmiraculously transported from Palestine to the Adriatic coastmaintained their popularity, along with the sacramentals that attended their use. Popular piety found expression throughout Europe, but frequently outside the confines of standard religious instruction, outside of new Tridentine liturgical parameters, and outside of the sacraments. Processions were often more boisterous than devout, the majority of Catholics received Communion infrequently, and clerical reform rarely touched rural areas in large portions of Europe before 1650. Popular piety could be found in other forms, however, as in the well-attended theatrical productions presented in towns, especially the university towns, of northern Europe. Jesuit colleges were famous for presentations that dramatized the spiritual life with scenes of both angels and hell, and these remained popular, especially in southern Germany, through the middle of the eighteenth century. Some earlier religious dramas produced in the Low Countries during the reign of Emperor Charles V (ruled 15191556) included presentation of varying religious positions from contemporary theological debates.


Efforts to spread the faith through missionary activity in Europe and beyond have received scant attention, but consideration of this activity exposes still more variations in the Catholic experience. The revival of Catholicism represented by reform initiatives that predate Luther, as well as those initiatives designed to counteract his work and that of other Protestant reformers, spurred action to spread Catholicism throughout Europe, not to mention the New World. The Jesuits led an attempt to recover believers in the German-speaking territory who were "lost" to the Protestant movement. They were active in cities like Cologne and Vienna in the Holy Roman Empire in the 1550s, where their schools enrolled large numbers and where they attempted to prepare better trained clergy who might help in the recovery process. They tried to do the same in Slavic-speaking lands at approximately the same time, but with much less success. The English crown attempted to thwart Jesuit efforts to spread Catholicism in Britain after the Reformation. Jesuit missionary work there was complicated by the political and theological controversy over the divine right of kings during the age of King James I (ruled 16031625). Catholic clerics from a number of religious orders took part in efforts to spread the faith in Spanish and Portuguese holdings in Asia, Africa, the Americas, and the Pacific islands. The standard image of these missionaries arriving on the heels of the conquistadors and forcing adherence to the new religion, armed with an ideology that permitted coercion, is only partly true. While mass conversions were frequently carried out, missionaries often faced a hostile initial response from local populations, especially in Asia. When they did, somelike Francis Xavier (15061552), for examplesimply moved on to other towns and regions where they hoped for better luck. Our image of the character of Catholic proselytism in this era must be able to explain not just the mass conversions, but also the retention of Roman doctrine over the long term. It must explain not just those instances where the value of native culture was discounted, but also Catholic missionary work that accommodated local practices. The latter was so extensive in China, for instance, that Jesuits there like Matteo Ricci (15521610) were considered promoters of paganism by some Roman authorities.


Perhaps the most enduring image of early modern Catholicism is that of an institution that systematically shut down emergent local culture and freedom of thought. Exploration of the activity of Catholics in art, literature, music, and science demonstrates the inadequacy of that image: the reality was far more complex. In the artsincluding sculpture, painting, poetry, drama, prose, oratory, and musicthere is no doubt that anti-Protestant ideology contributed to new Catholic production. The Protestant attack on art, not to mention the development of new notions of Christian heroism, certainly influenced the way biographers, preachers, painters, sculptors, and composers expressed themselves. But they looked for effective techniques and for attention-grabbing flourishes to impress audiences and to demand an active response. There is no doubt that rules for propriety in various forms of art, notably oratory and painting, reflect an attempt by church leaders to control. The Tridentine decree on sacred images from the twenty-fifth session (1563) and the discourse on sacred and profane images published in 1582 by Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti (15221597) are the texts most frequently cited to suggest that ecclesiastical repression in the world of art was effective. However, the assertion that the attempt was successful ignores a vast body of evidence. Evidence lies in the humanistic oratory of post-Tridentine preachers and funeral eulogists. It can be found in the intense painting and sculpture created by artists like Agostino (15571602), Annibale (15601609), and Ludovico Carracci (15551619), as well as Gian Lorenzo Bernini (15981680) and Giambologna (15291608). The era was one of bold creativity that followed from humanistic innovations that were only partly subordinated to the goals of religious leaders. The works produced by popular Italian vernacular authors also serve as evidence. They offered everything from legal to occult texts, in addition to the orthodox religious publications associated with the post-Tridentine printing industry. Yet another example can be found in northern Europe. In Germany, Catholics, and even Jesuits, were behind an artistic revitalization that contributed to the survival of Catholicism there, but also to the emergence of the German baroque movement.

Early modern Catholicism allegedly had a stultifying effect on intellectual life, and especially on the development of science, but recent scholarship suggests that this view needs considerable revision. Intellectual historians have insisted that humanism remained a vital, dynamic intellectual movement in the seventeenth century throughout Europe, despite attempts by church authorities to refocus scholarship to support new confessional ideologies. Spanish intellectual life apparently was much more complex than historians in previous generations had thought. In Spain, humanism mixed with more traditional scholastic thought, and writers moved with considerable flexibility between methods: even Spanish inquisitorial records illustrate this reality. Something similar was largely true in Italy, especially in the age of Athanasius Kircher (16021680). Jesuits at the Roman Collegesome from Germany like Kircher, and others from elsewhereshowed considerable favor for the cosmology of Tycho Brahe (15461601), even though it stood in sharp contrast to the Aristotelian status quo. The "church," both as an institution and literally as a structure, provided a great deal more support for the development of science, especially astronomy, than most would imagine, given the pervasive image of the struggle Galileo Galilei (15641642) had with the bureaucrats of the Roman Inquisition. Observations and calculations carried out in some of the principal cathedral churches of Europe, with the financial support of high-ranking prelates, paved the way for improvements in observational astronomy. They also belie the image of the Catholic Church as an effective, let alone pervasive, barrier to the expansion of learning. However, extreme Catholic opposition to the Enlightenment movement also reared up toward the end of this period. Still, had counter-cultural efforts like these been effective on any significant level, historians would have considerably greater difficulty explaining the emergence of the jarring political revolutions of the late eighteenth century.

If, as the famous American lawmaker Tip O'Neill once said, "All politics is local," then perhaps all history is local, too. The history of early modern Catholicism surely could stand as an example to defend such a thesis. Historians studying more distant ages in the past sometimes face a paucity of sources and data that makes generalization necessary. The early modern period was no such era. It was, on the contrary, the very age in which the passion for record keeping that we take for granted today first emerged. Such records, in their display of local circumstances and realities, illustrate a human complexity that defies categorization. When Martin Luther wrote his letter to Leo X, he set the pattern for consideration of early modern Catholicism, either demon or hero, that is only now being revised and seen with a human face. Further historical investigation will reveal even more wrinkles and complexities. Early modern Catholicism will take a good deal longer to describe, but the description will be closer to the human reality of that fascinating era.

See also Calvin, John ; Clergy: Roman Catholic ; Index of Prohibited Books ; Inquisition ; Jesuits ; Luther, Martin ; Missions and Missionaries ; Papacy and Papal States ; Reformation, Catholic ; Reformation, Protestant ; Religious Orders ; Trent, Council of .


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William V. Hudon


views updated Jun 27 2018


Keith P. Luria

Catholicism's social history cannot be separated from its political or intellectual histories. But social historians have brought to the study of Catholicism questions and methodologies different from those found in older "church history." They are less concerned with the evolution of doctrine and more with the interaction between what the church taught and the way people practiced their faith. And rather than study the internal institutional development of the church, they have turned their attention to its relations with Europe's political entities.

The interest in subjecting Catholicism to social historical analysis has stemmed largely from the growing prestige of social science approaches evident throughout the historical discipline in recent decades. Historians influenced by sociology, such as Gabriel Le Bras and the school of religious sociology he founded in France, assessed people's commitment to Catholicism through quantifying their participation in ritual activities, such as Easter communion or attending mass. Others, drew their inspiration from anthropological theories, such as Émile Durkheim's idea of religion as a reflection of group's self-conception. Scholars like John Bossy and Natalie Zemon Davis have examined how religious rituals and beliefs could bind people together and could set them against those with different conceptions of religion or society.

The sociological and the anthropological do not exhaust the ways social historians study Catholicism. But they do represent two poles: the quantitative, which emphasizes the church and its varying ability to impose practices and beliefs on the faithful, and the ethnographic, which emphasizes the meanings people derive from their religion and the uses to which they put it. Keeping both of these approaches in mind, the social history of Catholicism must assess the impact the church had in shaping society, and it must also be aware of how the church was inevitably shaped by social and political concerns of the laity.

The integration of western European society and Catholicism, both as an institution and as a practiced faith was most complete in premodern Europe, apparent in the daily lives of families and individuals, the organization of groups and communities, and the functioning of states. The Protestant Reformation challenged this fusion between church and society, but, in Catholic countries, it did not disintegrate. Indeed it was strengthened. Beginning in the eighteenth century and continuing through the twentieth, the pressures of increased secularization and competing beliefs adversely affected the church's dominant role in creating national unity and communal identity. The social history of Catholicism between the early modern period and today traces this long transformation.


Catholic rituals in premodern Europe had a dual purpose. Not only did they fulfill doctrinal requirements enabling the faithful to strive for salvation, they also worked what John Bossy has called the "social miracle" (Bossy, 1985, p. 57). Rituals created social bonds and harmony where rivalries and enmity could otherwise prevail. The sacrament of baptism provides an example of this dual purpose. For the church, baptism incorporated an infant into the community of Christians, washed him or her of original sin, and, through exorcism, protected him or her from diabolical influences. But for the family, baptism also incorporated the child into the earthly community of which he or she was a part. The rite also created a bond of affinity between the child's family and the godparents. Baptism thus satisfied doctrinal concerns and reinforced social bonds. Marriage did the same. The church's blessing of spouses conferred grace upon them and signaled the creation of a new Christian household. But the church also encouraged marriage's role as a means of allying families, ending feuds, and establishing peace.

Religious practices similarly established social bonds in groups such as confraternities. In small villages, confraternities could include all the adult inhabitants. In cities, they brought together members of particular neighborhoods, crafts, professions, or social classes. While most were organizations for men, some had both men and women, and others, such as Rosary confraternities in France, became primarily women's organizations. Initiation rituals, common religious observances, and periodic feasting bound the members to each other. The confraternities' rules, moreover, strove to insure brotherhood and charity among the membership. Disputes were submitted to arbitration to prevent lawsuits and ill feeling. Wealthier members helped the poorer through loans or alms. And the group aided its members even in death, arranging funerals, accompanying bodies to burial, and paying for memorial masses.

Rituals also cemented the social bonds of communities. Processions, for instance, were held on important civic and religious holidays—the festival of a city's patron saint or the feast of Corpus Christi. And they were staged at moments of crisis—during military threats or epidemics. Urban processions usually included representatives from the city's clergy, its governing body, and its various craft guilds and/or confraternities. These groups marched in a hierarchical order that reflected their status in the community. Thereby, through Catholic ritual, the social body was created and displayed in pageant form.

The most potent means of creating the "social miracle" was Catholicism's central ritual act, the Mass and its eucharistic service. The Eucharist brought about reconciliation of social conflict through its symbolism of many parts united in a never divisible unity, the body of Christ. Confession, the repenting of sins, and the making of restitution for them, including those committed against one's neighbors, was the necessary preparation for partaking of communion.

Thus Catholic belief and ceremony both mirrored and created the social structure, ensuring citizens a place within a divinely ordained system, and establishing social harmony. However, we should be careful in assuming that religion's role was entirely efficacious. Religious practices could provoke disputes or provide the occasions for them. Members of social elites competed for prestige through their patronage of religious devotions or establishments. A community's poor might use the annual Carnival, the time prior to Lent when normal social rules and order were suspended or inverted, to riot and seek redress for the un-Christian inequities under which they suffered. Therefore, we must not simplify Catholicism's reinforcement of a traditional European social order; its powerful effect could work in quite the opposite direction.

Much the same is evident in Catholicism's role in states. European monarchies were sacral political systems. Catholic teaching legitimated monarchy as a divinely ordained means of maintaining social order and justice. Kings drew authority from ceremonies derived from Catholic ritual, such as the French royal coronation during which new monarchs swore to defend the true faith and took communion in both kinds, the body and the blood, a privilege usually reserved for priests. The ceremony lent rulers a semi-divine status, which was evident in the belief that they could cure scrofula by touching the afflicted.

But the political role of Catholic belief and ritual did not function perfectly. We cannot assume that subjects were convinced by the claims kings made in ceremonies and political propaganda. Certainly the sacred character of the French monarchy did not prevent revolts. In another sense also, the fit between Catholicism and royal authority was not seamless. Kings and popes frequently found themselves in conflict. Furthermore, kings could find themselves beset by quarrels within the church that weakened their power. The Jansenist controversy, for example, helped undermine the French monarchy in the decades before the Revolution (see below). Nonetheless, as long as Catholicism remained a country's largely unanimous faith, it would continue to buttress its social and political systems.


The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century challenged this unanimity. Protestant countries broke the web of connections between Catholicism, society, and the state. In Catholic societies these connections were, if anything, renewed and strengthened by the vast Catholic reform movement extending from the sixteenth century into the first half of the eighteenth. The church convened the Council of Trent between 1545 and 1563, to set an agenda for combatting the spread of Protestantism, improving the quality of its clergy, and transforming the religious and social lives of the Catholic faithful. Bishops ensured these goals by frequent episcopal visits to their dioceses' communities to investigate the ritual practices, beliefs, and moral behavior of their flocks. They targeted many customs of traditional local religion and tried to suppress those they found indecent or too independent of clerical control, such as confraternity banquets, nocturnal pilgrimages, or overly enthusiastic devotion to miracle-working relics and images. Reformers sought instead to encourage a piety based on the individual's examination of conscience, proper attention to the church's sacraments, and reverence for approved devotions. On their visits, bishops also investigated illicit sexual behavior, drunkenness, familial conflicts, and a host of other social sins.

Together governments and the church worked to create confessionalized Catholic states in which people were subjected to more political control and more religious discipline than ever before. With the political appointment of reform-minded bishops in countries like Spain and France, the Catholic Reformation advanced jointly with the extension of government control over autonomous regions and unruly subjects.

So described, the Catholic-Reformation church can easily appear as a modernizing institution in European society, one that rationalized its own internal structure, allied itself with states doing the same, imposed social discipline, and sought conformity and control. But the description exaggerates the repressive tendencies in the Tridentine program. Catholic reformers did seek to establish greater clerical control over religious practices and to focus them on the church's central doctrinal concerns, such as the Eucharist or the cult of Mary. They did insist on greater decorum in festivals, processions, pilgrimages, and confraternal celebrations. And they did want to instruct the faithful in a better understanding of church doctrine. But Catholic reformers never opposed all popular religious practices; they permitted the cult of saints and relics, confraternities, and the belief in miracles. Indeed, many of the church's efforts revitalized religion's traditional local purposes. Authorized saints may have been substituted for unauthorized ones, but the faithful could still seek miraculous intervention to help with life's problems. And even if stern bishops disapproved of what people believed, nothing prevented these people from taking what the bishops offered and adapting it to their own purposes. Hence the widespread Rosary devotion, with its individualized and meditative prayers, may have been a Catholic-Reformation style of worship, but Rosary confraternities also provided a new means to accomplish an old end by establishing bonds of affinity between their members.

The church did not seek to create a modern society based on disciplined, isolated individuals. Such an idea was entirely foreign to its social conceptions and would remain so for a long time to come. Insofar as efforts at increasing social discipline were successful, and success was partial at best, the Catholic Reformation reinforced the sense of a divinely ordained, and church-guided, society of estates or orders. In this way, the church was still congruent with the Catholic society around it. One can see this congruence at work, for example, in new religious groups established for laypeople, most notably Jesuit sodalities, which organized their members into the traditional corporate groups of European society, with separate associations for nobles, bourgeois, and artisans. But as European society changed in the early modern period, these old means of maintaining Christian charity and brotherhood would seem increasingly outmoded.


As long as the church maintained the allegiance of rulers and their people, Catholicism would remain the essential unifying principle of social order and monarchical political systems. The first disassociation of Catholicism and society, in what had been heretofore Catholic countries, appeared in the eighteenth century as certain social groups fell away from Catholic observance. Royal governments, which had long seen the church as providing legitimacy for monarchs and stability for the social order, now looked to other ways of justifying their authority and of controlling their subjects. The impact of this development varied from country to country, and its reasons remain in some ways poorly understood. But they included disputes within the church, the impact of Enlightenment attacks on the church, and a process of dechristianization starting to take hold in certain places, notably France.

That the church's clergy had deep socioeconomic divisions was hardly a phenomenon new to the eighteenth century; however, it became at this time a source of growing conflict. In France, high-ranking aristocrats dominated the upper clergy. Parish priests, generally of middling social origins, were better trained and more conscientious in their duties than before the Tridentine reforms. They resented their inferior position in the church more than ever before, and their relations with their superiors became increasingly embittered. One result of the spread of Enlightenment rationality in France was the demand for more socially responsible and useful priests. The Enlightenment bon curé (good parish priest) who labored in his parish to provide religious, educational, and welfare services, fit this demand well; the wealthy, worldly, aristocratic upper clergy, who appeared little concerned with pastoral cares, did not. Antagonism between the lower and upper clergy resulted in their split in the 1789 Estates-General, which led to the formation of the revolutionary National Assembly. The priests had in no way sought to undermine the church's position in society, but as the Revolution progressed, their challenge to the institution's hierarchical order would have that effect.

In Spain, Italy, and elsewhere, the upper clergy was less aristocratic than that of France, but the rural clergy was also less well trained and supported. The fall in religious vocations throughout western Europe in the second half of the century left the church seriously understaffed and unable to carry out its spiritual functions in some rural areas—the Alentejo in Portugal, the Mezzogiorno in Italy. And as a large landowner in these regions, it was the target of local resentment. In certain places, such as the Mezzogiorno, the problem was somewhat offset by the missionary work of Jesuits, Redemptorists, and Lazarists. But male orders too suffered from the fall in vocations. Women's orders, especially those engaged in charitable, hospital, or educational work, survived on much better terms, but in cities more than the countryside.

During the eighteenth century, the church was also beset by doctrinal controversies that embroiled it in political conflicts and contributed further to its loss of public esteem. The most important of these disputes was over Jansenism, especially acute in France, though it had echoes elsewhere. The rigorist theology of the Jansenists found strong support among the French clergy despite its being declared heretical. Efforts to suppress the movement, such as the 1713 papal bull Unigenitus, backfired and made Jansenist priests appear the victims of papal and royal despotism. Jansenists set themselves up as opponents of heavy-handed political authority and helped turn public opinion against the royal government and the Jesuits, allies in the persecution of Jansenists. The Jesuit-Jansenist confrontation also furthered a decline in respect for the French church and led to the dissolution of the Jesuits in France in 1764. The Jesuits had problems in other countries as well. Portugal expelled the order from its possessions in 1759, and they were ejected from Spanish possessions in 1767. Finally, in 1773 under pressure from Catholic monarchs, Pope Clement XIV (reigned 1769–1774) dissolved the order.

Contemplative orders that did not seem involved in useful work were also under fire. In 1781 the Austrian Emperor Joseph II (reigned 1765–1790) closed monasteries and convents not engaged in teaching or nursing. Joseph used much of their former property to fund schools and hospitals. The reasons behind these government policies against the Jesuits or contemplative orders were different in each case, but they indicate that the monarchies of Europe were disengaging themselves from their traditional close connections to the church.

Historians of French religious life in the eighteenth century have also explored a wider disaffection with the church that they call "dechristianization." The phenomenon is not well understood and attempts to measure it have been questionable, but in France if not elsewhere it seems undeniable that at least some of the social elite were turning away from religious practices the church had tried to inculcate since the Council of Trent. The quantitative study of wills in Paris and in Provence has shown that after 1730 testators' requests for memorial masses fell dramatically. The evidence suggests that the belief in purgatory, central to the church's scheme of salvation, was exercising less and less hold over Catholic minds. Whether this development means society was becoming dechristianized, or perhaps just turning its religious concerns in other directions, has been a much harder question to answer.

Other indications suggest, however, that adherence to the church's teachings and moral strictures was falling off. One sign was the fall in vocations. Another was the decreasing share of the bookselling market that religious publications commanded. Confraternities were losing members to more secular forms of sociability: the elite to Masonic lodges and others to cafés. Demographic studies of French localities have demonstrated a marked late-eighteenth century increase in prenuptial pregnancies and illegitimate births. In general, however, birthrates fell, suggesting that people were using contraception and thus rejecting the church's rules on sexual activity.

Historians have offered various reasons for dechristianization. One is that the rigorous demands of the Catholic-Reformation church drove people away from strict observance. Another is that politicized and irreconcilable disputes, such as that between the Jansenists and their opponents, called into question Catholic doctrine's absoluteness. Belief began to seem less a matter of truth than of opinion, and thus it could be rejected. Presumably contributing to this development were the secularizing ideas of the Enlightenment, but its role was complex. Throughout Europe, an enlightened Catholicism did not entirely reject the church but called on it to play a more useful role in society, helping to promote social welfare, education, and public morals, all part of enlightened, absolute monarchs' programs in Austria, Prussia, and Portugal, as well as in France. Finally, changing economies were leading to the migration of people from rural areas to rapidly growing cities, disrupting the parish life that the Tridentine church had seen as essential to social and religious discipline. Urbanization and increased literacy also meant the wider circulation of ideas inimical to Catholicism. Beset by internal disputes, a decline in vocations, and a poor distribution of its resources, the church was ill prepared to cope with these changes in European society. Religious conformity and the complete fit between Catholicism and society became impossible to maintain. The revolutionary upheaval of the late-eighteenth century would make this disengagement permanent.


In France, criticism of the church as a wealthy and unbeneficial institution, combined with the effects of dechristianization, culminated first in the revolutionary government's takeover of the church and later in its attempt to abolish Christian worship entirely. In November 1789, the Assembly nationalized church property. In July 1790, it passed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which made clerics into salaried civil servants and applied the Revolution's democratic ideals to the church's administration. Voters would henceforth elect their parish priests and bishops. The French Catholic church became completely dependent on the state, but Catholicism was no longer the country's single legal religion. Toleration was established and citizenship offered to Protestants and Jews. The refusal of the papacy to respond positively to these developments led to a further and even more fateful decision in November 1790, when the Assembly voted the Ecclesiastical Oath that required each member of the clergy to swear loyalty to the nation and the constitution. The oath split the French church and provoked widespread resentment and resistance. Most bishops refused it, as did about half of the lower clergy. The divisions were deep and lasted far beyond the Revolution. Those regions where oath-taking priests predominated—Paris, the southeast, and parts of the southwest—would later be known for anticlericalism and low rates of Catholic observance. Regions where priests who refused the oath were numerous—the west, the east, northeast, and the Massif Central—would remain areas of strong Catholic piety well into the twentieth century. In such areas opposition to the Revolution was bitter, leading in the Vendée and Brittany to bloody counterrevolutionary revolts.

The Civil Constitution was short-lived; the Revolution's radicalization led to a government-sponsored campaign in 1793 to 1794 in which churches were closed, vandalized, or converted into revolutionary temples. Priests were outlawed, forced into exile, arrested, and sometimes executed. Catholic worship was replaced by revolutionary festivals, such as the cult of reason. Resistance to the campaign was widespread, even in prorevolutionary areas, but open Catholic practice largely ceased until the fall of Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794) in 1794. Under the Directorial regime after 1795, Catholic worship once again became legal. But with much of the clergy dispersed and now without government financing of the church, Catholicism in France depended largely on lay initiative as townspeople or villagers undertook to lead worship themselves, reopen churches, and reestablish devotional life.

The church's position in France was not regularized until Napoleon (1769–1821) negotiated the Concordat with the papacy in 1801. Although Catholicism was recognized as the "religion of the majority of the French people," the church did not return to its prerevolutionary status as the only established faith (Desan, 1990, p. 24). All religions were legally equal. The church, moreover, was firmly under Napoleon's control. He ensured stipends for the clergy and appointed the bishops. All priests were to swear an oath of loyalty to the state, and prayers for the government were recited in all churches. Former church property would not be returned.

In no other country was the religious upheaval of the revolutionary years as traumatic as it was in France. But in every place touched by warfare, Catholic practice was disrupted and the church's relations with government and society affected. In regions where revolutionary or Napoleonic regimes were established, the church surrendered property; monasteries and convents were closed and parish priests lost positions. Confraternities, previously so important for lay-involvement in religion, declined or disappeared in much of Italy, and in Spain their role in parish life diminished. The Revolution also deeply politicized the question of religious choice. Adherence to Catholicism was no longer universal in nominally Catholic countries. Henceforth, it involved a conscious decision and that decision was not only a matter of faith it was also a statement about one's political stance and outlook on the modernization of Europe in the nineteenth century.


After the revolutionary trauma, the church could no longer assume dominance over the spiritual lives of people in Catholic countries. Catholicism increasingly competed with other religions guaranteed toleration in liberal states. It also competed with the growth of religious indifference and with political ideologies that were suspicious of the church or rejected it altogether. The church saw itself as embattled with rapidly triumphing forces of secularization, materialism, scientific advances, liberalism, and eventually socialism. Historians too have long considered the nineteenth century a time of prevailing secularization. However, recent work in the social history of religion suggests a more complex situation.

The picture of Catholic practice in the nineteenth century presents striking geographic and class differences. Rural areas maintained high levels of compliance with Catholic observances. But in a time of rapid urbanization, fewer and fewer city inhabitants took the church's prescriptions seriously. The evidence for this conclusion comes from quantitative studies of participation in life-cycle rituals, such as baptisms, marriages, and funerals, or other Catholic obligations, such as attendance at mass and the taking of Easter communion. Available statistics show that in Paris almost 90 percent of families sought out priests to perform baptisms for their children in 1865; by 1908 the number had dropped to under 59 percent. Wealthier quarters often had much higher participation rates than working-class districts, where rates were particularly low. In Paris's working-class twentieth arrondissement between 1909 and 1914, only 6 percent of the population took Easter communion (Kselman, 1995, pp. 169–170). In the Spanish city of Logrono, over 90 percent of the inhabitants took Easter communion in 1860, but by 1890 that figure had fallen to 40 percent. Only 6 percent of the eighty thousand people in Madrid's working-class district of San Ramon took Easter communion in the 1930s and only 7 percent attended mass (Callahan, 1995, p. 51).

The numbers reflect a serious decline from the near-universal participation of the early modern period, and they suggest why ecclesiastics viewed cities as cesspools of immorality, political radicalism, and atheism. The Parisian priest François Courtade complained in 1871, that the "laboring population of Paris are without faith and without God. The notion and feeling of the divine seem to have entirely withdrawn from them" (Kselman, 1995, p. 165). Of course, he wrote this in the year of the Commune, but the sentiment was common among the Catholic clergy. In 1855, the Spanish bishop Antonio Palau wrote: "Who can doubt that people from all parts of the world, of all religions...flowtothegreat centers of manufacturing and commerce, and communicate . . . their religious indifference.... Faith has grown languid, charity has become cold [and] religious sentiment has grown weak" (Callahan, 1995, p. 43).

But we must be careful in drawing the conclusion that urbanization necessarily led to religious indifference. Research in the later decades of the twentieth century has shown that much depended on where the people flocking to urban centers came from. Cities located in regions with observant rural populations had much higher rates of participation in Catholic ceremonies than those that were not. For example, Quimper in Brittany and Metz in Lorraine—both areas of strong Catholic piety—had relatively high rates of taking Easter communion. Limoges—located in the Limousin, long known for religious indifference—had rates that were much lower.

The overall statistics on observance also hide a large gender imbalance. Women were more observant than men. The trend, already apparent in the eighteenth century, accelerated during the nineteenth and continued into the twentieth. Church attendance increasingly became a form of female sociability; men met in the café or in political groups, often those with strong anticlerical views. Some have suggested that the predominance of women in Catholic worship developed from a particularly feminized Catholic piety, of which popular shrines, such as Lourdes, associated with visions of the Virgin are one example. Such feminized piety is described as sentimental or saccharine with an emphasis on the need for quiet suffering, as found for instance in the cult of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (1873–1897). Compared with the more austere piety of the Catholic Reformation or the eighteenth century, that of the nineteenth century, especially in its popular devotions, does seem more emotional, if not to say insipid. However, to describe such characteristics as especially feminine is to impose an already heavily gendered language on the phenomenon. Men were also involved in popular religious observances, and priests promoted and led them. It is equally possible that Catholic worship attracted women because it stressed their role, or that of saintly figures like Thérèse of Lisieux and Bernadette Soubirous (1844–1879), the Lourdes visionary, or that of a female sacred figure like Mary in the future of the church and the salvation of countries turning toward secularism. The questions that feminization of religious practice poses remain one of the most pressing areas for future research.

The overall decline in Catholic observance stemmed in part from the church's own shortcomings. The church failed to adapt its network of pastoral care to a rapidly urbanizing society. European cities grew enormously across the nineteenth century and the provision priests and parish churches did not keep pace. The ratio of priests to urban inhabitants declined steadily. In Vienna it was 1 priest to every 1,641 people in 1783, 1 to 4,290 in 1842, and 1 to 5,949 in 1910. Paris had 1 priest for every 3,056 inhabitants in 1861 and 1 for every 4,790 in 1914. Marseilles had 1 for every 2,450 in 1861 and 1 for every 4,550 in 1921. And the shortfall was particularly evident in the working-class areas into which rural immigrants flooded. In Paris in 1906, the priest-to-inhabitant ratio was 1 to 3,681 in the central, wealthy arrondissements and 1 to 5,760 in the working-class surrounding districts (McLeod, 1995, p. 16; Kselman, 1995, p. 170). Presumably some of the strong anticlericalism of urban workers derived from their sense that the clergy had deserted them.

The growth of belief systems hostile to Catholicism also contributed to the decline in religious practice. Middle-class liberals and working-class socialists often saw the church as an enemy. Liberals could, at times, reach accommodations with the church, as did Spanish Moderates in negotiating a concordat with Rome in 1851. And after the upheaval of the 1848 Revolution, bourgeois Frenchmen found a new appreciation of the church as an instrument of social control. But as heirs to eighteenth-century rationalism, many liberals found themselves at odds with Catholicism. The church opposed certain basic liberal beliefs, for example, religious toleration. Liberals deplored the church's ownership of large amounts of property, its influence within educational systems, and its alliance with right-wing politics. Liberal governments moved to curtail the church's role and power in society. In 1836, the Spanish government suppressed male religious orders, and over the next twenty-five years liberal regimes sold much ecclesiastical property. In Prussia, Otto von Bismarck's Kulturkampf, the decade-long campaign against the church in the 1870s, included expulsion of the Jesuits, prohibition of using pulpits for political uses, state approval of clerical appointments, and establishment of state control over religious schools and instructors. Education was also a source of conflict in France, where, in the 1880s, the Third Republic laicized the school system.

The antipathy between the church and political radicals was even stronger. The church saw socialism as godless. Workers were suspicious of the church's alliance with social elites, employers, and political conservatism. Although the church was not an inveterate defender of capitalism—unconstrained economic development seemed egotistical, and unrestrained competition for wealth seemed sinful—its view of society was steeped in an idealized understanding of the past in which rich and poor were tied together by the bonds of Christian charity. Political radicals saw conflict between classes as inevitable, and workers had no use for clerics who preached resignation rather than political action. Mutual hostility erupted in serious outbreaks of violence, most notably during the Paris Commune of 1871, when priests held hostage were killed.

The social and political conflicts in which Catholicism was engaged in the nineteenth century can easily make it appear that the church was in constant retreat before the onslaught of the modern world. And the complaints of clerics, especially Pope Pius IX (reigned 1846–1878), who issued the Syllabus of Errors in 1864 to combat modernity, can give the same impression. However, the church could also make use of what modern life offered. Cities, so often derided as spiritual wastelands, were also places where new Catholic groups could organize. Catholic leaders established schools, youth groups, women's clubs, sports associations, credit unions, cooperatives, and unions in their effort to reclaim the religious loyalty of urban populations. The success of these efforts was limited, particularly when workers were targeted. In the aftermath of the Commune, the French aristocrat Albert de Mun founded Catholic workers' discussion circles and recreational societies. In Spain, church leaders sponsored associations of workers and employers. Workers were suspicious of such organizations, which were more concerned with regaining them for the faith and fighting socialism than with improving their economic situation. In the spirit of Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum novarum (1891), some of the clergy sought to open the church to science, political democracy, and worker's rights. Leo (reigned 1878–1903) had insisted on including in the document the statement that workers had a right to organize independent unions. But the church could not shed its paternalism, and when such ideas were put into practice they still involved clerics leading laypeople whom they expected to be obedient.

The church had more success when it could combine opportunities available in modern society with its more traditional undertakings. The most spectacular development in nineteenth-century Catholic piety were the apparitions of the Virgin Mary that led to the development of popular pilgrimage shrines. The church preached the imminent arrival of a Marian age that would precede the Second Coming, and the message found a receptive audience among a laity with an already fervent popular devotion to the Virgin. Although not all the apparitions and pilgrimages gained ecclesiastical approval, the church promoted those that did energetically, and it used the means the modern world provided to do so.

The most successful of the nineteenth-century shrines was that of Lourdes in the French Pyrénées, where the Virgin appeared to Bernadette Soubirous in 1858. Lourdes quickly became a magnet for pilgrims from all over Europe, who came to the sacred grotto seeking miraculous cures. The church's promotion of such a miracle shrine might seem a retreat from the modern world into the popular religion that the Catholic-Reformation church had tried to discourage. Indeed, the church hierarchy, faced with a European culture it no longer dominated, now found strength in the deep well of popular devotion and practices, which rallied the faithful to an embattled religion.

However, the church's investment in popular shrines did not represent a turning away from the modern world. It was precisely the cultural, technical, and commercial developments of the nineteenth century that made the shrines' success possible. Increased literacy provided a large audience for the reports of miracles published in widely-read Catholic periodicals. La Croix, produced by the Assumptionist order in the 1880s and 1890s, was one of France's most popular newspapers. New national railroad networks made it feasible for large numbers of pilgrims to travel to remote locations like Lourdes. The newly developing travel industry saw to the housing and feeding of the pilgrims. These miracle-working shrines were very much a part of the modern world.

The shrines also became embroiled in the modern world's political conflicts. Lourdes served the cause of the Bourbon legitimists against the Second Empire and later against the Third Republic. But eventually it also became identified with French nationalism; French Catholics took pride in Mary's appearance in their country. And after the defeat by Prussia and the crisis of the Commune, the shrine was declared a symbol of national regeneration. Lourdes's success sparked imitations. At Marpingen in the German Saarland in 1876, village girls had visions of the Virgin near a spring. A pilgrimage quickly developed that boosted German Catholic morale in the struggle against Bismarck's Kulturkampf. The Marpingen apparitions also raised the possibility that Germany would now have a shrine to rival the French Lourdes.

Thus the church at the end of the nineteenth century was not in complete retreat from the modern world but was painfully coming to grips with it. Catholicism's sources of strength lay no longer in the universality of Catholic practice, but in sometimes spectacular manifestations of popular devotion. Rather than being a primary determinant of European society and culture, the church was and would continue to be subject to problems that divisions in society provoked.


The church's problematic reconciliation with the modern world continued through the first half of the twentieth century. In multiconfessional societies, and in those with growing religious indifference, the church remained on the defensive. In liberal democracies, even in those with nominally Catholic majorities, the church increasingly operated in a self-contained sphere with its own associations, school systems, welfare institutions, and political parties. In Spain and Portugal, the church was closely allied with fascist regimes, which enforced the conservative morality Catholicism condoned. The church's relations with Italian Fascism and Nazism were much more problematic. And under post–World War II communist regimes, the church provided a rallying point for political resistance and was an important component of national identity against Soviet domination. Thus for much of the century, the church's relation to society depended largely on the political system of individual countries. At the end of the twentieth century, however, the trend toward political liberalism and democracy seemed to be leading to the compartmentalization of Catholicism throughout all of Europe.

In France the separation of state and society from the church proceeded the farthest. In the first decade of the century, the anticlerical Third Republic applied harsh laws against Catholic religious orders, and in 1905 it enacted a complete separation of state and church. Relations between the two remained embittered. In 1925, an assembly of French cardinals and archbishops issued a declaration condemning laicity and urging the faithful to disobey the law. This resistance seemed precisely the sort of disloyalty that secularists feared from ultramontane Catholics. The French clergy, as was the case with the church as a whole, was intransigent in the belief that no well-ordered society could exist unless its laws conformed to Catholic teachings. The church's relations with the Vichy government, which enforced a conservative moral regime, were much better. But under the postwar republics the church once again had to contend with governments that disassociated themselves from religious institutions and with a population that was increasingly nonobservant.

In Spain the conflict between the church and liberal governments as well as that between the clergy and left-wing workers provoked great conflict, culminating in the Civil War of 1936–1939, during which seven thousand members of the clergy were executed, churches were sacked, and the bodies of clerics were exhumed from their graves. The Civil War's violence convinced many that it was necessary to organize society around the church's moral, social, and political teachings. Francisco Franco's regime overturned the liberalizing policies of the republican government. It repealed the divorce law and made religious marriages compulsory for all. It also decreed Catholic religious teaching mandatory in schools, and gave ecclesiastical authorities oversight of educational curricula. Hence, the segregation of Catholicism and society was, in principle, reversed; Catholic observance became a sign of social respectability and political orthodoxy. But the church-state alliance also worked to limit Catholicism's impact. Regions and social groups resistant to the regime were also strongly anticlerical.

In Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, the situations were different. As was the case in Spain and Portugal, a church that had long opposed liberal ideas had no problem at first in seeing authoritarian regimes suppress them. However, in neither country would the church-state alliance endure. The nationalization of the Papal States at the time of Italian unification had set off a long church-state conflict that Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) and Pope Pius XI (reigned 1922–1939) brought to an end with the signing of the Lateran Treaty of 1929. However, conflict arose over church autonomy and fascist ideology. The papal encyclical Non abbiamo bisogno ("We have no need") of 1931 denounced the pagan worship of the fascist state and declared its conception of society to be incompatible with Catholic doctrine. In Germany, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (the future Pope Pius XII, 1939–1958) signed a concordat with Hitler in 1933. Disputes between the state and the Vatican quickly resumed. In 1937, when the Vatican issued the encyclical Mit brennender Sorge ("With burning anguish") condemning racism (though without specifically mentioning Nazism), the regime reacted with a fierce antichurch campaign that sent many priests to concentration camps. Thus although the church and these totalitarian regimes shared common enemies in democratic liberalism and socialism, they were not capable of, nor even inclined to, re-create the integration of Catholicism and European society that had long since disappeared. Nonetheless, the willingness of the church to come to agreements with these regimes disillusioned many, and the disillusionment was accentuated by the sorry and controversial record of Pius XII's refusal to speak out against the Holocaust. The church's encounter with conservative, totalitarian regimes would finally bring about its long overdue reconciliation with liberal democracy and eventually with religious toleration. But this would occur in a post-World War II Europe in which the church as an institution was increasingly isolated from much of society, and its teachings increasingly out of step with social mores.

Ironically, only where the church was persecuted, as in Poland, would its integration with society remain strong. The Polish church provided political leadership as well as a rallying point during the centuries-long struggle for national unity and independence. Catholic symbols, such as the shrine of the Black Madonna at Czestochowa, were also national symbols. In the twentieth century, the great variety of Catholic educational, cultural, welfare, and labor organizations constituted much of Polish civil society. However, before the war Poland was an ethnically and religiously diverse country; Catholics accounted for 65 percent of the population. It was only after the war, especially with the extermination of the Jewish community, that the church could claim the religious allegiance of 95 percent of Poles. The church's hostility to communism made it the center—and its primate, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński (1901–1981) the leader—of resistance to the postwar regime. And the church's alliance with Solidarity helped bring about the downfall of that regime. However, since the establishment of the post-communist government, splits between church and society have appeared. Catholic leaders see their faith as central to Polish identity and seek to have the church exercise a tight control over society. The primate Cardinal Józef Glemp encouraged Catholic political candidates to run against those of other religious, specifically Jewish, backgrounds. The church has opposed the liberalization of divorce and abortion laws. The disputes these policies have provoked, even in strongly Catholic Poland, are replaying the sorts of church-society conflicts found throughout Europe as modernization increasingly has marginalized the church's role in European society.

The church has had two very different responses to the problem modernization poses. One has been to continue to draw strength from some of its most ancient practices, for example, miracle-working shrines. Miracles at Fatima in Portugal, which started in 1917, have continued to this day, and Pope John Paul II has expressed his personal attachment to the devotion. Pilgrims also flock to Medjugorje in Croatia where apparitions of the Virgin started in 1981.

The church's major institutional response was the Second Vatican Council, which Pope John XXIII (reigned 1958–1963) convened between 1962 and 1965. The impact of the Council's work on liberalizing Catholic doctrine, ritual practice, and openness to the world, especially the non-European world, has been profound. The Council greatly reduced the church's traditional hostility toward modern society. Henceforth, an ecumenical institution would respect other Christian faiths and promote religious freedom and tolerance. It would devote new energy to improving the earthly lot of the poor as well as their salvation. The laity would gain a greater role in worship, a democratization of traditional clerical-directed devotional life. The Council thus reformed many of the policies that had guided the church since the sixteenth-century Council of Trent.

But manifestations of popular piety and the liberalization begun at Vatican II have not reversed the separation of the church and European society nor the decreasing importance of Catholicism as a source of individual identity. Regular church attendance has continued to fall, especially among the young. According to a survey done in France in the early 1990s, only 12 percent of those who consider themselves Catholic attend mass regularly (down from 20 percent in the mid-1980s). And only 2.5 percent of those under twenty-five attend (Hervieu-Léger, 1995, p. 155). The church has lost battles over divorce, homosexual rights, and abortion as European electorates have ratified liberal laws on all these issues in most European countries. A more conservative papacy under John Paul II exacerbated some tensions during the 1990s, though the pope roused great popular enthusiasm during his frequent travels, particularly in eastern Europe.

Although Catholicism no longer holds the place it once did in organizing social life and determining social attitudes, it has by no means disappeared from public life in Europe. Fierce political conflicts over such issues as abortion demonstrate the church's continuing ability to interject itself into debates on social morality. And even in France with its long history of secularized public education, attempts by the government to alter the funding of religious schools led to huge protest demonstrations in the 1980s and 1990s. Clearly, even though Catholicism is no longer a dominant element in European society, its impact is still considerable, and social historians will continue to assess its impact.

See alsoSecularization (volume 2);Charity and Poor Relief: The Early Modern Period; Charity and Poor Relief: The Modern Period (volume 3);Schools and Schooling (in this volume); and other articles in this section.


Blackbourn, David. Marpingen: Apparitions of the Virgin Mary in a Nineteenth-Century German Village. New York, 1995. Excellent political, cultural, and social study of one Marian shrine and the entire phenomenon of Marian shrines in modern Europe.

Bossy, John. Christianity in the West, 1400–1700. Oxford, 1985. Important interpretation of the social impact of pre-modern Catholicism.

Callahan, William J. Church, Politics, and Society in Spain, 1750–1874. Cambridge, Mass., 1984. Useful analysis of late-eighteenth and nineteenth-century Spanish Catholicism.

Callahan, William J. "An Organizational and Pastoral Failure: Urbanization, Industrialization, and Religion in Spain, 1850–1930." In European Religion in the Age of Great Cities, 1830–1930. Edited by Hugh McLeod. London, 1995. Pages 43–60.

Callahan, William J. and David Higgs, eds. Church and Society in Catholic Europe of the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge, U.K., 1979. Essays that provide a useful country-by-country overview of Catholicism.

Chadwick, Owen. A History of the Popes, 1830–1914. Oxford, 1998.

Chadwick, Owen. The Popes and European Revolution. Oxford, 1981.

Chartier, Roger. The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution. Translated by Lydia G. Cochrane. Durham, N.C., 1991. Offers a synopsis of eighteenth-century dechristianization.

Chaunu, Pierre. La mort à Paris. XVIe, XVIIe, XVIIIe siècles. Paris, 1978. A study of dechristianization through a massive analysis of wills.

Christian, William, A., Jr. Visionaries: The Spanish Republic and the Reign of Christ. Berkeley, Calif., 1996. A study of apparitions and their political importance in modern Spain.

Davies, Norman. Heart of Europe: A Short History of Poland. Oxford, 1986.

Davis, Natalie Zemon. Society and Culture in Early Modern France: Eight Essays. Stanford, Calif., 1975. Contains vital essays on popular religion.

Delzell, Charles F., ed. The Papacy and Totalitarianism between the Two World Wars. New York, 1974.

Desan, Suzanne. Reclaiming the Sacred: Lay Religion and Popular Politics in Revolutionary France. Ithaca, N.Y., 1990. Important account of Catholic religious revival in France during the Revolution.

Durkheim, Émile. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Translated by Joseph Ward Swain. New York, 1965.

Gibson, Ralph. A Social History of French Catholicism, 1789–1914. London, 1989. Excellent study of Catholicism in nineteenth-century France.

Hervieu-Léger, Danièle. "The Case of French Catholicism." In The Post-War Generation and Establishment Religion: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Edited by Wade Clark Roof, Jackson W. Carroll, and David A. Roozen. Boulder, Col., 1995. Pages 59–85.

Hsia, R. Po-Chia. The World of Catholic Renewal, 1540–1770. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1998. Useful overview of the Catholic Reformation.

Kselman, Thomas A. Miracles and Prophecies in Nineteenth-Century France. New Brunswick, N.J.: 1983. A study of pilgrimages' role in religious and political change in modern France.

Kselman, Thomas A. "The Varieties of Religious Experience in Urban France." In European Religion in the Age of Great Cities, 1830–1930. Edited by Hugh McLeod. London, 1995. Pages 165–190.

Le Bras, Gabriel. Études de sociologie religieuse. 2 vols. Paris, 1955–1956. Collection of the work of an important sociologist of religious practice.

McCarthy, Timothy G. The Catholic Tradition: The Church in the Twentieth Century. 2d ed. Chicago, 1998.

McLeod, Hugh, ed. European Religion in the Age of Great Cities, 1830–1930. London, 1995. Useful collection of essays on religion's confrontation with the modern city.

McLeod, Hugh. Religion and the People of Western Europe, 1789–1970. Oxford, 1981. Excellent synthesis of the social history of religion in modern European history.

Rémond, René. Religion and Society in Modern Europe. Translated by Antonia Nevill. Oxford, 1999. An interpretative essay on the place of religion in contemporary European integration.

Roof, Wade Clark, Jackson W. Carroll, and David A. Roozen, eds. The Post-WarGeneration and Establishment Religion: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Boulder, Colo., 1995.

Sperber, Jonathan. Popular Catholicism in Nineteenth-Century Germany. Princeton, N.J., 1984.

Tackett, Timothy. Priest and Parish in Eightenth-Century France: A Social and Political Study of the Curés in a Diocese of Dauphiné, 1750–1791. Princeton, N.J., 1977. An analysis of the social conflicts in the eighteenth-century French church.

Tackett, Timothy. Religion, Revolution, and Regional Culture in Eighteenth-CenturyFrance: The Ecclesiastical Oath of 1791. Princeton, N.J., 1986. Important work on the Revolution's treatment of the church.

Van Kley, Dale K. The Religious Origins of the French Revolution: From Calvin to theCivil Constitution, 1560–1791. New Haven, Conn., 1996. A provocative study of Jansenism's contribution to the Revolution's origins.

Vovelle, Michel. Piété baroque et déchristianisation en Provence au XVIIIe siècle. Paris, 1973. Study of the process of eighteenth-century dechristianization.


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PIUS X (1903–1914)
BENEDICT XV (1914–1922)
PIUS XI (1922–1939)
PIUS XII (1939–1958)
JOHN XXIII (1958–1963)
PAUL VI (1963–1978)
JOHN PAUL I (1978) AND JOHN PAUL II (1978–2005)

The twentieth century was a period of profound change for the Roman Catholic Church. Perhaps the most significant change to take place during that time was the globalization of Catholicism, which made it increasingly less European in every respect. A second momentous change came shortly after midcentury, when the Second Vatican Council brought about wholesale renewal. Developments in the world at large also brought multifaceted change. The church had to contend with two world wars, astonishing advances in science and technology, and a constant increase in the secularization of the West, especially Europe. Yet despite all these changes, the Roman Catholic Church managed to remain vigorously committed to its ancient traditions. At the very top of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, the papacy grew stronger, despite serious challenges. When it comes to writing the history of the church in the twentieth century, one must begin and end with the popes, for their place in it is comparable to that of the kings and emperors of the old absolute monarchies, who had the power to guide the course of events.

PIUS X (1903–1914)

At the dawn of the century, in 1903, when Pope Pius X succeeded Leo XIII (r. 1898–1903), Catholicism was a faith deeply focused on tradition, and the leadership of the Catholic Church was keenly interested in maintaining the status quo, not just with regard to theology and ritual but also with respect to the church's authority structure and its relation to the world at large. Despite its global reach, the Roman Catholic Church was very closely tied to Europe, its leadership still dominated by European clerics, especially by the overwhelmingly Italian curia of the papal court in Rome. The popes were still claiming sovereignty over Rome and remained adamantly fixed on the idea that the Italian republic had turned them into "prisoners of the Vatican."

The pontificate of Pius X (Giuseppe Sarto) was marked by continuous tension with the social, political, and intellectual changes sweeping across Europe. From the very start, Pius X committed himself to fighting "modernism," the name given to a broad spectrum of ideas and attitudes that were viewed as incompatible with traditional Catholic teachings. Two papal decrees issued in 1907 condemned modernism and clearly spelled out what it was: Lamentabili Sane Exitu ("On a Deplorable Outcome") and Pascendi Dominici Gregis ("Feeding the Lord's Flocks"). That same year, a number of supposedly modernist books were also placed on the Index of Forbidden Books. Chief among the trends labeled modernist was the historical/critical method of biblical scholarship pioneered by German Protestant scholars, which approached the sacred texts of the Bible with exactly the same critical eye it turned on any other ancient document. In 1910 Pius X ordered all Roman Catholic clergy and all teachers in Catholic seminaries to adhere to these two decrees and to take an oath denouncing modernism.

Pius X also committed himself to struggling against political movements that challenged papal supremacy and the rights and privileges of the Catholic Church over and against the state. He thus took aim at Christian democrats in Italy and Europe, and against all other political action groups that fomented change independent of the Catholic hierarchy. Instead, he favored social action groups that accepted the leadership of the clergy and he fostered the creation of such associations. He also constantly denounced the principle of the separation of church and state, and focused intensely on France, where the state had confiscated all church property in 1905, forcing the Catholic Church to pay rent to the French Republic.

As tensions mounted between European states in 1914, European Catholics were thus placed in an embattled position vis-à-vis "the world," a situation that was similar to that of the soldiers who would find themselves waging trench warfare during World War I, which broke out in 1914, during the last month of Pius X's papacy.

BENEDICT XV (1914–1922)

Pius X's successor, Pope Benedict XV (Giacomo della Chiesa), was wholly committed to restoring the peace in Europe but found himself unable to stop the war, which he called "the suicide of Europe." From his call for a Christmas truce in 1914 to his seven-point Papal Peace proposal in August 1917, Pope Benedict's pleas fell on deaf ears. Adopting a policy of pacifism and strict neutrality, the pope steadfastly refused to condemn any of the nations involved in the war. Instead, he repeatedly condemned war itself, associating it with Satan. At war's end, the papacy's neutrality may have cost it inclusion in the Paris Peace Conference and the deliberations that led to the Treaty of Versailles.

On other fronts, the Catholic Church continued to wage a war of its own against modernism and the social and political ills of the age, though Benedict XV had a softer approach to this issue than his predecessor. With the rise of communism after the triumph of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, the Catholic Church stepped up its efforts to address the needs and concerns of workers and the poor. Pope Benedict XV seemed fully conscious of the church's need to address questions of social and economic justice, and urged his clergy to become more active in this area, saying: "It is precisely in this field that the eternal salvation of souls is imperiled" (John, p. 463).

The Catholic laity in Europe continued to engage in social and political action of all sorts and to follow the dictates of their faith, sometimes with surprising results. At the bottom of the social scale, three peasant children in Portugal began to claim in 1917 that they were being visited repeatedly by the Virgin Mary. These reports of apparitions at Fatima drew tens of thousands of the faithful to the site and culminated in the issuance of a number of very political prophecies by the children regarding World War I and the rise of communism in Russia—prophecies that were eventually sanctioned by the papacy. The apparitions themselves were also deemed authentic, and the shrine established at Fatima continued in the twenty-first century to draw millions of pilgrims, laypersons as well as clergy.

PIUS XI (1922–1939)

Embracing the motto, "the peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ," Pius XI (Ambrogio Ratti) could no more ignore the upheavals of his day than could any of the clergy or laity that he shepherded. Close to home, in Italy, the rise to power of Benito Mussolini brought an end to the political impasse that had been in place since 1870. In 1929 Pius XI signed the Lateran Treaty with Mussolini's government, creating an independent Vatican State within Rome and supposedly freeing him from his "prisoner" status. Instead of having no territory to call his own, the pope now found himself ruling the smallest independent nation-state in the world, a state composed of no more than a dozen or so buildings. He also found himself wholly surrounded by a Fascist nation that espoused an intensely secularist and even anti-Christian ideology. And across the Alps, even worse regimes were gaining power and momentum day by day.

Pius XI was helpless in the face of a civil war in Spain (1936–1939) that erupted between a conservative coalition led by Fascists (Nationalists) and a coalition of communists, anarchists, and liberals (Republicans), in which the Catholic Church became both a battleground and a weapon. In areas controlled by the Republicans, rabid anticlericalism led to the deaths of thousands of priests and nuns, and to the destruction of many churches and their belongings. In Nationalist areas, the Fascists committed many atrocities in the name of Catholicism, and when they finally triumphed, their leader, Francisco Franco (1892–1975), set up a repressive Fascist state that continually used the Catholic Church for its own purposes, even to the point of naming Saint Teresa of Avila (1515–1582) an honorary general in his army.

In Germany, the postwar economic depression led to the rise in power of Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) and the Nazi Party. Pope Pius XI found himself unable to do more than secure guarantees for the safety and survival of the Catholic Church through the Reichskonkordat, an agreement signed in 1933. But this treaty between the Vatican and Berlin, like all others signed by the Nazis, was never fully honored. Hitler boasted of having duped the pope into helping him, saying to his cabinet: "An opportunity has been given to Germany in the Reichskonkordat and a sphere of influence has been created that will be especially significant in the urgent struggle against international Jewry" (Hochhuth, p. 298). At the Vatican, Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli (the future Pope Pius XII) denounced Hitler's duplicity as well as his virulent racism, but to no avail.

As attacks on Jews and the church mounted, Pope Pius XI found it necessary to issue an encyclical that condemned both Nazi ideology and violations of the concordat of 1933. Written by the Vatican's secretary of state, Pacelli, the encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge ("With Burning Sorrow") was smuggled into Germany and read from the pulpit of every Catholic Church on Palm Sunday 1937. In it, the Vatican boldly and clearly spelled out the Catholic Church's opposition to the racist and nationalist thinking of the Nazis, arguing that it was fundamentally wrong for anyone to exalt "race, or the people, or the State" above all else, or to "divinize them to an idolatrous level" (Carlen, vol. 3, p. 527). A year before the outbreak of war, in September 1938, Pius XI carefully articulated once more the church's stand against anti-Semitism, in a pronouncement that was banned by the Fascist press in Germany: "Anti-Semitism is … a movement with which we Christians can have nothing to do. No, no, I say to you it is impossible for a Christian to take part in anti-Semitism" (New York Times, 12 December 1938, p. 1).

Although the ghost of modernism continued to haunt Catholic scholarship and learning at this time, fear of it lessened somewhat in Rome. To foster learning, Pope Pius XI established papally sanctioned research institutions such as the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology (1925) and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (1936). Still deeply conservative, these foundations nonetheless paved the way for a greater rapprochement between Catholicism and modern scholarship.

The most enduring legacy of Pius XI's pontificate may not lie in Europe, however, but in its former colonies. Nineteenth-century imperialism had made Europe master of much of the globe, and the Catholic Church had expanded its reach tremendously as a result of this development. Yet, as late as the 1920s, the vast majority of Europe's colonized subjects remained unconverted to the Christian faith. Pius XI made it his business to remedy this situation by encouraging the development of overseas missions, requiring every religious order to pursue this calling. As a result, by 1939 there were twice as many Catholic missionaries in the field as there had been in 1922. Pius XI initiated another significant change in the mission field by insisting that seminaries abroad train and ordain native clergy, who would eventually make European missionaries unnecessary. In 1926 the consecration of the first three native Chinese bishops was one of the initial steps taken toward the globalization of the Catholic Church, a process that continued into the twenty-first century, producing reverse missionaries, that is, priests from the Third World who serve in Europe and North America as the shortage of priestly vocations there continues to worsen.

PIUS XII (1939–1958)

As Pope Pius XI was preparing to issue yet another public condemnation of Nazism and Fascism in February 1939, he died unexpectedly and was succeeded by the Vatican's secretary of state, Eugenio Pacelli, who took the papal name Pius XII (1939–1958). No other pope in modern history is wrapped in as much controversy as Pius XII, because he seemed so helpless in the face of World War II and the Holocaust. Debate continues to rage. In the minds of some detractors, he seems to have been a willing collaborator, or perhaps an unwilling but uncaring accomplice in the extermination of six million Jews. According to his defenders, he was a brave opponent of consummate evil and a prudent shepherd who did all he could in the worst of circumstances.

As Europe plunged into total war in the fall of 1939, Pius XII assumed a stance of public neutrality similar to that taken by Benedict XV in World War I. But having made public his views of the Nazis and Fascists long before the outbreak of the war, Pius XII's neutrality was much less convincing. On 25 December 1941, for instance, The New York Times praised Pius XII in an editorial, saying his was "a lonely voice in the silence and darkness enveloping Europe this Christmas," and that he was "about the only ruler left on the Continent of Europe who dares to raise his voice at all." Yet the fact that he lived in the capital city of one of the Axis Powers, surrounded by their armies, made his position much more precarious than that of Benedict XV. Moreover, the Nazis were well-known for their brutal reprisals against all opponents, and as a result, the pope was under severe constraints when it came to accomplishing anything within Germany itself. The same was true for every Catholic bishop and priest who lived in Axis-controlled areas. Any protest could incite a reprisal. And indeed, such reprisals routinely occurred on the local level, as in the Netherlands when Dutch bishops protested against the deportation of the country's Jews.

Hitler barely tolerated Pius XII, saying that he was "the only human being who has always contradicted me and who has never obeyed me" (Jansen, p. 429). Pope Pius XII was well aware of his precarious situation yet chose to encourage or engage in clandestine acts of defiance, such as providing hiding places for Jews in churches, monasteries, and convents, or facilitating the escape of Jews from Axis-occupied areas to other countries. It is estimated that about three hundred thousand to eight hundred thousand Jews were saved by such means, at great risk for all involved. Nonetheless, detractors of Pius XII not only challenge the accuracy of these figures but also point out that any such number—no matter how high—is insignificant when compared to the enormity of the Holocaust.

As the Cold War developed in the postwar period and the threat of nuclear annihilation increased, Pius XII began to speak out more forcefully against modern warfare and especially against the concept of deterrence and the stockpiling of atomic weapons, which, as he saw it, served only to make the horror of nuclear war a more imminent possibility. This did not keep him from taking sides, however. A staunch anticommunist and an outspoken critic of the Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin, Pius XII made it clear to the faithful that communism was as incompatible with Catholicism as Nazism had been.

Regarding questions of faith and the relationship of Catholics to the world at large, Pius XII proved to be less conservative than his predecessors, at least in two very important areas. In 1943, Pius XII issued what many consider to be his most important encyclical, Divino Afflante Spiritu ("With the Help of the Divine Spirit"), which removed the barriers that earlier popes had erected against modernism in biblical studies and finally allowed Catholic scholars to apply new techniques of historical criticism in their research. In 1947 he issued another highly influential encyclical, Mediator Dei ("Mediator of God"), which set into motion a renewal of liturgical studies. Unbeknownst to Pius XII and all his contemporaries, this encyclical would eventually lead to a total revamping of Roman Catholic ritual sixteen years later, at the Second Vatican Council.

JOHN XXIII (1958–1963)

When Pius XII died in October 1958, Angelo Roncalli, the patriarch of Venice, was chosen to succeed him under the name John XXIII. Elected under the assumption that he would accomplish little, because of his age and his prior lack of intimacy with the Vatican, the seventy-one-yearold pope stunned the curia and the world by immediately convening an ecumenical council for the express purpose of renewing the church. Aggiornamento is what Pope John XXIII said the church needed: to be brought up to date, put in step with the world rather than in conflict with it. It was to be a "New Pentecost," he proclaimed, an era of renewal and of reconciliation, inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Despite resistance from some in the curia, Pope John XXIII's council assembled for its first meeting in October 1962. This council was unlike any other in the history of the Roman Catholic Church, not only because it had more representatives from nations outside Europe than ever before but also because it was genuinely ecumenical in spirit, allowing the presence of observers from other Christian churches. Its agenda seemed daunting at first and fraught with controversy, but in a mere three years the Second Vatican Council managed to bring about more change than many in the Catholic Church had ever thought possible.

Sixteen documents produced by the council fathers transformed Catholicism from top to bottom. Of these sixteen, six were most instrumental in bringing about tremendous changes.

In its "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church," Lumen Gentium, the council reinterpreted the nature of the church itself and of its hierarchical structure, placing greater emphasis on the role of the bishops within the church hierarchy and softening the rigid monarchical model of the papacy that had accompanied the First Vatican Council's decree on papal infallibility (1870). It also called for much greater participation by laypersons in the work of the church and broadened the meaning of a Christian calling, or vocation, to include the laity as much as the clergy. This emphasis on increased participation by the laity in the church's mission was further reinforced by a separate "Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity," Apostolicae Actuositatem.

The "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation," Dei Verbum, not only reassessed the place of the Bible in Catholic teaching, placing it clearly at the center of all theological and moral affirmations, but also encouraged the laity to read and study Holy Scripture in their own languages and called on scholars to approach the sacred texts with modern methodologies. In this respect, Catholicism moved closer to Protestantism.

In its "Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy," Sacrosanctum Concilium, the council called for a total transformation of the ritual life of the church, drawing on the work that had been spurred by Pius XII's encyclical Mediator Dei in 1947. At the heart of this document stood the theory that the church's ritual, while led by the clergy, is incomplete without the full participation of the laity. This meant that rituals that had not been altered since they had been set in place by the Council of Trent (1563) and the Roman Missal (1580), rituals that had seemed frozen for eternity, were to be changed overnight. The most profound and most noticeable change was the rejection of Latin as the sole language of Catholic ritual and its replacement by the vernacular. Given the Catholic Church's global reach, this meant that the ritual had to be translated from Latin into hundreds of other languages.

Two decrees marked a great change in Catholic thinking on questions of the relationship between the church and the world. The council's "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the World of Today," Gaudium et Spes, openly admitted that, as human culture develops, it is the church's responsibility to address itself to change, to adapt itself and to find ways of proclaiming unchanging truths through the constantly evolving means placed at its disposal. With this document, the Second Vatican Council laid to rest the fears of modernism that had so dominated its discourse and behavior at the dawn of the twentieth century. The "Declaration on Human Freedom," Dignitatis Humanae, while extremely controversial for conservative and traditionalist Catholics, proved to be the one decree most warmly received by those outside the church. Its message was clear: "All persons must be free to seek the truth without coercion." Of course, by professing freedom of religion as a basic human right, the council also defended in principle the separation of church and state and every government's duty to protect freedom of religion.

The council also opened the Catholic Church to friendly dialogue with Protestant and Orthodox Christian churches in its "Decree on Ecumenism," Unitatis Redintegratio. Similar ecumenist sentiments were voiced by the council in its "Declaration on Relations with Non-Christian Religions," Nostra Aetate, which said, among other things, that "the Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions" and that they should be regarded with "sincere reverence."

In sum, the changes brought about by Vatican II, as this council came to be known, were not only numerous but profound. Suddenly, or so it seemed, many of the customs that had been at the core of Catholic identity were gone: Latin liturgies, veils on women's heads at church, rules for fasting at Lent or for abstaining from meat on Fridays all became a thing of the past, along with nuns who always wore distinctive habits and stayed in their cloisters and priests who always wore cassocks and Roman collars. As could be expected, these reforms could not please all Catholics. Although most of the faithful adapted quickly or even welcomed the reforms of Vatican II after its closing session in December 1965, some disparaged the council for having gone too far, others for not having gone far enough. Among the traditionalists who rejected the council's reforms as too radical, none gained more prominence than Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, founder of the Society of Saint Pius X, who was excommunicated in 1988 for consecrating four bishops without the pope's approval.

PAUL VI (1963–1978)

The daunting task of guiding the Second Vatican Council and of shepherding the Catholic Church through these momentous changes was not carried out by John XXIII, who died after the council's first session in June 1963, but by his successor, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, archbishop of Milan, who took the name Paul VI. Since his pontificate was so closely linked to the Second Vatican Council, Paul VI quickly drew fire along with praise.

Without a doubt, Paul VI presided over the most intense reform that the Catholic Church had undergone in its long history, and he also redefined the role of the papacy in significant ways. He was the first pope to engage actively in ecumenical dialogue with other Christian churches, meeting with the archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, and with the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras I. Pope and patriarch also took a significant step toward healing the Great Schism between Catholic and Orthodox Christians by lifting the mutual excommunication that the two churches had leveled against each other in the year 1054.

Paul VI was also the first pope in history to travel extensively, visiting every continent but Antarctica, addressing all of humanity, not just his Catholic flock, preaching brotherhood and toleration, promoting world peace, social justice, and international cooperation, calling for an end to poverty, hunger, and illiteracy.

Yet in spite of these accomplishments, Paul VI came to be viewed as something of a failure by many within the Catholic Church and outside it. Such judgments stem in part from Paul VI's inability to arrest the mass defections of priests and nuns and the sharp decline in clerical vocations that began to plague the Catholic Church in the 1960s and continued unabated into the next century.

But by far the loudest and most biting criticism of Paul VI came from those who disagreed with his stand on the issue of birth control. In 1968, much to the surprise of many Catholics and non-Catholics, Paul VI rejected the recommendations of a commission that John XXIII had established to review the issue of contraception, issuing the encyclical Humanae Vitae ("Of Human Life"), which declared all forms of birth control a sin, save for the so-called rhythm or natural method, in which couples abstain from sexual activity during the few days each month when the woman is fertile. The shock waves caused by this encyclical within the Catholic Church and in the world at large were enormous, in great part because this was an issue that affected all Catholic married couples intimately and also had implications for world population growth. To many, it seemed a reversal in the church's recent wave of renewal, even a return to the days of the modernist crisis. It also struck many inside and outside the church as socially irresponsible, given the unprecedented population explosion, especially in poorer nations, many of which were heavily Catholic. Paul VI responded to the firestorm of criticism by standing firm on the issue, but he never fully recovered from the disappointment and grief that this resistance caused him. The last ten years of his papacy were active, but even by his own account, they seemed tinged with gloomy disillusionment. In a sermon preached in 1972, he went as far as to say: "We believed that after the Council would come a day of sunshine in the history of the Church. But instead there has come a day of clouds and storms, and of darkness …" (Paul VI, Internet site).

One of the post–Vatican II developments that Paul VI surely saw as a cloud was the creation of liberation theology in Latin America in the mid-1960s. A form of socialism dressed in gospel rhetoric, liberation theology began as the anguished response of Catholic clergy who worked with the poor and struggled for justice on their behalf, usually in countries with subsistence economies and an uneven distribution of wealth. Proclaiming Jesus a revolutionary liberator not just in the world to come but in the here and now, liberation theologians called upon the church in Latin America to do more than change the liturgy and to engage itself directly in the transformation of society.

Liberation theology was as much a political movement as an ideology, and its leaders could never separate theory from praxis. Although it had gathered momentum for several years, it seemed to burst into existence in Medellín, Colombia, in 1968, at the second Latin American Bishops' Conference, which openly condemned the industrialized nations for their exploitation of the Third World and also defended the notion that the pursuit of social justice on earth is at the very heart of the gospel message. Liberation theology quickly gained many followers in the 1970s, even among the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Latin America. One of its chief assumptions was that economic conditions in Latin America made it necessary for the Catholic Church in the Third World to be totally dedicated to the poor and their needs. Mixing Gospel citations, the texts of the Second Vatican Council, and rhetoric about class struggle—some of it openly Marxist—liberation theologians engaged with the poor, dispensing medicine and practical advice along with the sacraments, challenging the status quo on a daily basis. As the movement spread through the creation of small groups known as bases de comunidad (community bases), lay leadership increased, making it less clerical and hierarchical, and making liberation theology less and less appealing to many at the Vatican. Occasionally, some liberationists would openly praise the communist revolution in Cuba or turn their revolutionary rhetoric into action. Occasionally, too, some would become martyrs to their cause, as happened with Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who was murdered in 1980 by soldiers while he was saying mass.

JOHN PAUL I (1978) AND JOHN PAUL II (1978–2005)

When the weary Paul VI died in August 1978, as liberation theology was gaining momentum far from Rome, he was succeeded by Cardinal Albino Luciani, who, in turn, died unexpectedly after only thirty-three days as Pope John Paul I. The churchman chosen as the next pope in October was as much a surprise as the heart attack that had felled John Paul I. Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, from Kraków, Poland, was so far off every expert's radar screen that he elicited responses of "Cardinal who?" when his name was announced. Yet, by the time of his death in April 2005, this pontiff, who took the name John Paul II, would be well known by billions around the world, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, and would be credited not only with redefining the papacy and the reforms of Vatican II but also with bringing about the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

The first non-Italian pope to be elected since 1522 and the first ever to hail from a Slavic country, John Paul II defied the odds and baffled the so-called experts from the very start. At fifty-eight, he was one of the youngest popes in well over a century, and this allowed him to serve twenty-seven years in office—the third longest pontificate in history, according to the records of the Catholic Church. There is no denying that this pope is regarded by many as a major figure in the history of the Catholic Church and the world at large.

Having lived under Nazi rule and then under Soviet-style communism in Poland, and having confronted evil with a deep faith based on traditional Catholic values, John Paul II was unlikely to fit any existing mold or any previously devised definition of "conservative" or "liberal." Above all, he was wholly committed to grounding the Catholic Church in its two thousand years of tradition. Yet at the same time, he seemed intent on unflinchingly meeting the contemporary world head-on. At the core of his message lay the conviction that all humans had a "universal call to holiness," and that this call, like the cross itself, was "a sign of contradiction" to the world.

John Paul II baffled all experts by claiming a high moral ground and reveling in apparent contradictions. Resolutely committed to moral absolutes, he condemned both the ethical relativism of the wealthier Western nations and the singleminded absolutism of fascists, communists, and racists. A deeply spiritual man, he assailed all materialistic and hedonistic impulses with equal ferocity, be they grounded in the teachings of Karl Marx and Mao Zedong or in the mindless, insatiable capitalist consumerism of the West. A pacifist and a shrewd politician, he condemned violence while doing his utmost to undermine abusive regimes. Deeply aware of the plight of the poor in the Third World and just as deeply concerned with environmental issues, he called on the wealthier nations to restructure their priorities, aim for greater justice in the distribution of the earth's resources, and promote a greater respect for nature. A mystic at heart, he defended even the smallest points of traditional Catholic belief with dogged tenacity and at the same time publicly approached other faiths with reverence and humility, even to the point of publicly apologizing for past instances of Catholic intolerance.

Had he remained ensconced in the Vatican, much of this might have made little difference. But John Paul II was a very visible and public pope, "the people's pope" as some in the news media dubbed him. An untiring traveler and mingler—even after a would-be assassin in Saint Peter's Square shot and nearly killed him in 1981—John Paul II expanded the reach of the Catholic Church and of the papacy itself in unprecedented ways. During his pontificate, he made more than one hundred trips, more than all the previous popes in Christian history put together, logging more than 1.1 million kilometers, or 725,000 miles (nearly three times the distance to the moon), attracting millions of people to see and hear him in the flesh. It is estimated that some of the crowds he drew were the largest to have assembled in human history.

When he died in the spring of 2005, John Paul II was repeatedly praised for having brought down the Soviet Union and its empire. His first pastoral visit to Poland in 1979 and his support of the Solidarity movement in his native land were often cited as the first step toward the eventual undoing of that Marxist state and all others in Europe. He never did visit Russia, even after the fall of communism, or China, which he earnestly desired to do. But he did take a swipe at Marxism in Latin America, not through his visit to Cuba, which had no adverse effect on Fidel Castro's long dictatorship, but rather through his condemnation of certain Marxist tendencies in liberation theology. Early in his pontificate, while visiting Mexico in 1979, he began to challenge liberation theologians by warning that "this conception of Christ as a political figure, a revolutionary, as the subversive of Nazareth, does not tally with the Church's teachings" (John Paul II, paragraph 1.4)

By the 1990s, John Paul II made it abundantly clear through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—formerly known as the Holy Office, or Inquisition—that no matter how much liberation theology squared with Catholic social teachings, especially in regard to the responsibility that all Catholics have toward the poor, all talk of a class struggle and the need for revolution was totally unacceptable. Moreover, by appointing many conservative bishops over a twenty-seven-year period, Pope John Paul II made sure that the hierarchy of the Latin American church would keep a tight lid on liberationists.

Although popular around the globe, especially with traditionalist Catholics, John Paul II was the bane of liberals and progressives in the wealthier nations, who tended to see him as unforgivably retrograde, or worse, as a Grand Inquisitor of sorts. On virtually every issue that was of concern to them, he struck them as being in the wrong. He silenced liberation theologians and ordered all Catholic clergy not to involve themselves directly in politics. He dismissed feminism outright, decried abortion, and denied women access to the priesthood. He also denied priests the right to marry and condemned all forms of artificial contraception, including the use of condoms as a means of halting the spread of the AIDS epidemic. Worse yet—as liberals saw it—he was totally inflexible when it came to sex, branding extra- and pre-marital relations, homosexuality, and pornography inherently wrong and sinful. On questions of medical ethics he seemed just as obstinate, challenging advances in science at every turn, damning those who favored euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, and cloning.

But that is only one side of the story. Conservatives, too, were sometimes irked and confused by John Paul II. Ironically, his consistent emphasis on the sacredness of life, which made him seem hopelessly conservative to liberals, also led him to condemn some things that were dear or acceptable to conservatives, such as capital punishment, war, violence, and bare-knuckle laissez-faire capitalism. And his peacemaking efforts also sometimes seemed like useless meddling to them.

John Paul II's long tenure in office allowed him to leave a significant legacy that will last at least a generation: a conservative leadership in the episcopacy and in the college of cardinals. Another of his legacies is the change he effected in the complexion of the ruling elite of the church hierarchy, which at the time of his death was no longer dominated by Europeans, even less by Italians, but was instead more truly representative of the Catholic Church's global reach.

These bishops and cardinals appointed by John Paul II, along with his successor, Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger), will need to confront various problems that surfaced in the final two decades of the twentieth century. First and foremost, they will need to deal with the shortage of vocations to the priesthood that has plagued most of the wealthier nations for nearly two decades. In Western Europe particularly, they will have to contend with a growing secularism and a sharp decline in church attendance. In those countries that were once the epicenter of Roman Catholicism—Italy, France, Spain, Belgium, and Austria—the percentage of the population that attended church regularly or even cared to consider themselves Catholic in the year 2000 was only a fraction of what it had been in 1900. Although great gains were made elsewhere, especially in the Third World, the shifting balance in membership will obviously lead to readjustments in the leadership of the Catholic Church and to other changes. In addition, as at the dawn of the twentieth century, but at a faster pace, the leadership of the Catholic Church will have to contend with unprecedented change in virtually every sphere of life.

But when all is said and done, Catholicism remains vibrant in its twenty-first century and as ready to take on the world as ever.

See alsoAbortion; Catholic Action; John Paul II; John XXIII; Lateran Pacts; Paul VI; Vatican II.


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Carlos M. N. Eire


views updated Jun 27 2018


the culture of catholicism
ultramontane catholicism: governance and ideology
ultramontane catholicism: politics and society
devotional and theological developments

The Catholic Church as an institution was at the center of many of the most intense and significant political debates in the long nineteenth century. The Catholic Church was a potent political force because it frequently combined forceful leadership and a clear agenda with a membership that made Catholicism the largest single religious denomination in Europe. Although not evenly distributed throughout the Continent, Catholics were a clear majority in southern and western Europe—Spain, Portugal, Italy, Austria-Hungary, France, and Belgium (after 1830)—and constituted substantial minorities in the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Germany.

Not everyone baptized as a Catholic, of course, took their religion to mean the same thing, and levels of religious practice and commitment to the institutional church varied, sometimes sharply, on the basis of region, gender, and social class. But even lukewarm Catholics would have been familiar with the general teachings of the church about salvation and how to obtain it. And a majority of Catholics remained committed to the sacramental system that celebrated and sanctified key transitional moments in their lives. It is impossible to be certain what such participation means, but when combined with evidence of devotional vitality at shrines such as Lourdes, it appears that Catholicism continued to provide a "sacred canopy" for vast numbers of European Catholics. Catholicism functioned, therefore, not only as an institutional church, but also as a cultural system of symbols and rituals that provided a sense of meaning and order for its adherents.

the culture of catholicism

Catholicism in the nineteenth century inherited from the medieval era and from the reforms of the Council of Trent (1545–1563) a vision of a transcendent world beyond the here and now and a rich variety of rituals that allowed Catholics to communicate with that world. Heaven remained the goal for Catholics as a blissful realm where God and his saints resided for eternity. But if there was a heaven, there was also a hell, a place where those outside the church, and those within it who sinned and were not forgiven through the Catholic sacrament of penance, would suffer forever. Throughout the nineteenth century, preachers continued to resort at times to grisly descriptions of the horrific tortures awaiting the damned, as famously reported by James Joyce, whose fictional account of Father Arnall's sermon in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) mirrors many of those delivered in churches during the period. Such preaching might lead some to skepticism and fuel anticlericalism, but it could also provoke religious dread, which along with hope for salvation constituted essential elements of Catholic culture. For Catholics, as opposed to Protestants, the afterlife also included purgatory, a third place where those who deserved neither eternal reward nor punishment would suffer for a time before being welcomed into the community of saints.

Since the 1980s historians have observed how visions of the afterlife evolved over time, producing changes in the basic frameworks people used for interpreting their lives. In the nineteenth century, Catholicism, while never abandoning the threat of hellfire, tended to emphasize the possibility of redemption, at least for Catholics, and inflated the significance of purgatory. Indulgences granted by the church for prayers and devotional practices proliferated, offering believers a way to shorten not only their own time in purgatory, but also the period of suffering endured by departed loved ones. This shift can be seen as a response to complex changes, including concern about competition from secular ideologies, and enhanced attention to affective relations within families whose members could not tolerate the possibility of eternal separation. The increasing influence of the moral theology of the Italian priest Alphonsus of Liguori (1696–1787), who taught that confessors should take a paternal approach to their penitents and keep them from despair, provides another window onto a Catholic spiritual world that was softening in subtle but important ways its Tridentine patrimony.

Catholicism provided a map of the afterworld for its adherents, and through its rituals offered people a way of channeling the grace needed to gain heaven. Catholic culture was infused with a sense that Jesus and his saints, especially Mary, his mother, would respond to the prayers and supplications of believers. In particular, the sick and their families sought help and healing through the shrines that were ubiquitous in the Catholic world and through the devotions associated with them. Processions were common, especially in rural areas, to celebrate the feast day of a parish patron, to request divine help to stop a drought or an epidemic, or to seek protection from invading armies. Such practices, which had been regarded with suspicion by many clergy during the eighteenth century, were officially encouraged after the French Revolution, as the church sought to strengthen its ties with ordinary believers.

For the clergy and many of the laity, however, the Mass was at the center of Catholicism, and at the center of the Mass was the moment of consecration, when the officiating priest pronounced the Latin phrases "Hoc est enim corpus meum" (For this is my body) and "Hic est enim calix sanguinis mei" (For this is the cup of my blood), thus transforming the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Catholics were obligated to attend mass each Sunday, and to confess their sins and receive Communion during the Easter season. These two practices have been used by sociologically minded historians, inspired by the work of Gabriel Le Bras in France, to measure levels of Catholic commitment. The French case has been the most thoroughly studied, but the reports of clergy from throughout Europe allow us to form a general picture of Catholic observance, which varied widely according to a number of factors.

Throughout Europe some regions were renowned for their devout populations. Brittany in western France maintained high levels of religious practice among both men and women throughout the century, while the clergy in Limousin, southwest of Paris, despaired over the low

levels of practice among their flock. Father Ramo'n Sarabia, who preached throughout Spain in the early twentieth century, was pleased with the piety he found in the north, in Castile, Aragon, and the Basque country, but was shocked by what he found in the southern provinces of Andalusia and Extremadura. In the city of Azuaga in 1913, for example, only ten men and two hundred women, out of a population of eighteen thousand, attended mass regularly. Ireland and the Polish-speaking territories were also sites of high levels of Catholic practice, which may even have increased in the course of the nineteenth century. In the Irish case, greater mass attendance in the wake of the potato famine of 1846 resulted in part from the organizational work of Paul Cullen, who was named archbishop of Armagh in 1850 and of Dublin in 1852. But in Ireland and Poland, Catholic practice was also an important means of expressing cultural opposition and political dissent directed at foreign rulers.

Gender as well as region emerges as a crucial factor in studies of religious practice. Women tended to be more devout than men, a pattern that became stronger in the course of the century, to judge by the French case. In the middle years of the century, when slightly more than half of the French population received Easter communion, two women practiced for every man. When the percentage of Easter communicants dropped to around 25 percent in the early twentieth century, the ratio of females to males approached five to one. Finally, social class and urbanization were important factors in determining religious practice, with Catholic preachers throughout the century bewailing the alienation from the church of workers, who were being led astray by the seductive appeal of cities and the corrosive ideology of socialism.

There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that clerical laments about the problems posed to Catholicism in a modern age marked by materialism and unbelief were more than just groundless complaints. The positions of clerical hand-wringers and sociologically minded historians have converged to produce an argument that sees religion in general, and Catholicism in particular, as out of step with the modern world. According to this view, the secularization of Europe is an inevitable process that accompanies the rise of science and the progress of reason, the growth of the state as a provider of basic services, an urbanized society with a large working class, and ideologies that provide alternatives to traditional religion as the basis for moral codes and a sense of meaning. All of these developments had a negative impact on Catholicism, and declining levels of practice do suggest an attenuated attachment to the institutional church. However, historians have become increasingly attentive to the numerous exceptions that qualify a vision of Catholicism in decline. The high levels of orthodox practice in Poland and Ireland have already been noted as important indications that Catholicism could flourish when associated with national political movements. Similarly, the sustained loyalty of women works against models of decline that give privileged status to the behavior of men. The minority status of Catholicism in the newly unified Germany also led to higher levels of attachment to the church. Among the urban working class in Germany, Catholics were much more likely to practice their religion than were Protestants. Polish Catholic miners in Prussian-ruled Silesia went to Mass on Sunday and prayed to Saint Barbara as they descended into the coal pits.

Sunday Mass attendance and Easter communion are not the only ways to measure the attachment to Catholicism. Throughout Catholic Europe those who did not go to Mass on a regular basis still generally insisted on participating in the sacramental system, which established a series of rites of passage that marked their path through life and death. In Paris during the 1860s, only 14 percent of the population made their Easter duty, but over 90 percent of the children continued to be baptized. Anticlerical societies made an effort to promote civil alternatives to religious services in the last third of the century, but despite their efforts the vast majority continued to insist on Catholic baptism, first communion, and rituals for marriage and death. It would be excessive to conclude that all those who participated in these rites of passage were thoroughly familiar with and committed to the doctrines and beliefs that the church understood as the underlying principles. But the vast majority of Catholics would have heard either through an occasional sermon or a catechism class required for first communion, that baptism took away original sin and thus made eternal salvation possible. And when the clergy attempted to limit access to the sacraments, especially extreme unction, administered to the dying, or to deny the dead a Catholic burial, they faced angry congregations, a fact that made priests increasingly hesitant to adopt too rigorous a standard for admission to the sacraments. Count Cavour (Camillo Benso) and King Victor Emmanuel, under whose leadership Italy was united at the expense of the pope and his papal territories, and who were officially excommunicated by Pius IX (r. 1846–1878), asked for the sacrament of the dying, extreme unction, and were able to find accommodating clergy to minister to them on their death beds. The Catholic sacraments drew popular support because they provided individuals and communities traditionally sanctioned rituals appropriate to celebrate the most important moments as people moved through life. This need was channeled through rituals that also opened up the promise of salvation. Catholic culture in the nineteenth century thus operated on both a horizontal plane, where it sanctified birth, marriage, and death, and a vertical one, where it provided access to grace and salvation.

ultramontane catholicism: governance and ideology

Catholicism was a cultural system constituted by beliefs and rituals, but these were maintained by a hierarchical church with an institutional and political agenda that was complex, contested both internally and externally, and in constant evolution. From the perspective of the institutional church, the most noteworthy change in the nineteenth century was the increasingly centralized and authoritarian governance by officials at Rome and particularly the pope. Papal authority grew

relative to national churches, a point evident in the series of concordats that Rome negotiated with state governments, starting with the treaty between Pius VII (r. 1800–1823) and Napoleon I in 1801 that resolved the decade-long battle between the revolutionary republic and the church in France. Throughout the rest of the century concordats were established with most of the states in Europe, including Protestant Prussia, that specified the rights of Catholics to practice their religion freely, to train their clergy, and to educate their young, frequently in state-funded institutions.

The centralization of church governance, or ultramontanism, was defended in theoretical terms by writers such as Joseph-Marie de Maistre (1753–1821) and the vicomte Louis-Gabriel de Bonald (1754–1840), who saw Roman authority as the only alternative to the disorder of the revolutionary era. Devout Catholics in the nineteenth century never forgot the attacks on churches and the clergy that accompanied the radical phase of the Revolution between 1792 and 1794. The revolutionaries' association of Catholicism with fanaticism and counter-revolution was matched by the conviction among most French Catholics that republican institutions posed a mortal threat to their religion. The sacking of the episcopal palace in Paris in the wake of the French revolution of 1830 and the violent deaths of two archbishops in Paris during the June days of 1848 and the uprising of the Paris Commune in 1871 served as powerful reminders of the continuing threat revolution posed to the church. The memory and continuing fear of revolution, and the consequent desire for order, provided a powerful impetus for popes to form alliances with established governments, even those of non-Catholics. Thus, Pope Gregory XVI (r. 1831–1846) condemned the Polish insurrection of 1830–1831 and called on Polish Catholics to remain loyal to the Russian tsar, despite government policies that favored the Orthodox Church and discriminated against Catholics.

Revolutionary impulses were linked to liberalism, which was condemned in a series of papal pronouncements that fulminated against claims for the rights of individual conscience, freedom of the press, and the separation of church and state. Pope Gregory XVI set the tone for such statements in Mirari Vos of 1832, directed against the French priest Félicité de Lammenais, whose newspaper L'avenir (1830–1831) envisioned a liberal Catholicism allied to democracy and independent from state entanglement. Pope Pius IX's famous "Syllabus of Errors," which accompanied the encyclical Quanta Cura (1864), included the following among the propositions it condemned:

15. Every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true.

77. In the present day it is no longer expedient that the Catholic religion should be held as the only religion of the State, to the exclusion of all other forms of worship.

80. The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism, and modern civilization.

By bluntly opposing freedom of religious choice and the separation of church and state, and insisting on the incompatibility of Catholicism with "modern civilization," Pius IX identified the church with a reactionary posture, a connection that has since shaped the attitudes of many Europeans, both Catholics and non-Catholics.

Socialism, like liberalism, was defined by the Catholic Church as a modern ideology that needed to be contested and defeated under the leadership of the pope. Associated with a materialist philosophy and an assault on the family, property, and established religions, socialism was forcefully condemned in papal pronouncements in the second half of the nineteenth century. Rerum Novarum (1891), the important encyclical of Pope Leo XIII (r. 1878–1903) on the condition of the working class, vigorously defended private property, and asserted that "the main tenet of Socialism, community of goods, must be utterly rejected, since it only injures those whom it would seek to benefit, is directly contrary to the natural rights of mankind, and would introduce confusion and disorder into the commonweal." But Rerum Novarum included as well a critique of uncontrolled capitalism and its consequences for the working class, whose rights to organize and strike were defended. By the end of the century, Catholic leaders realized that jeremiads condemning the modern world were an insufficient response to the new social conditions. In practice as well as theory, Catholicism showed itself adaptable to modern conditions in ways that belie some of the more extreme rhetoric of Gregory XVI and Pius IX.

Nationalism was in some instances another powerful ideological enemy of ultramontane Catholicism. The unification of Italy under the leadership of the Piedmontese monarchy crushed the hopes expressed by writers such as Father Vincenzo Gioberti in the 1840s that the pope might assume the leadership of a federal Italian state. Instead, the popes consistently condemned the new state, and insisted that the papal territories be restored, a claim that was not settled until the Lateran Treaty with Mussolini in 1929. In Germany the unified nation-state that emerged after 1870 engaged in a decade-long Kulturkampf, a culture war fought by the chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, and his government against a church whose members were thought to owe their primary loyalty to the pope rather than to the German emperor. In a sense, the drive for creating a unitary nation-state in Europe parallels the impulse toward papal infallibility, as both nationalism and ultra-montanism sought to clarify lines of authority, and to strengthen central authority at the expense of the provinces.

Ultramontanism was a defensive ideology directed against newly emerging competitors, but it was also a positive statement affirming the truths of Catholic doctrine and the power of the pope to define and defend them. Ultramontanism achieved its most dramatic victory with the declaration of papal infallibility at the Vatican Council that met in Rome in 1870. Although this decree was opposed by a minority of bishops, including the archbishops from Vienna and Paris, most of the dissidents eventually accepted the doctrine, which claimed that the pope could not err when he taught Christians on matters of faith and morals, and also called on all Christians to submit to Rome on questions of discipline and governance. This affirmation of papal authority was accompanied by an enhanced symbolic status for the person of the pope, who became an object of popular veneration, a representative figure for a Catholic identity that transcended national boundaries. Images of Pius IX, for example, were widely distributed among Catholic populations, providing Catholics with a symbol of unchanging truth, doctrinal certainty, and the defense of their communities from the threats posed by increasing state authority and rapid social change.

ultramontane catholicism: politics and society

Ultramontane Catholicism embraced papal authority and rejected modern ideologies it saw as immoral and destructive. It is easy to understand why so many liberals, nationalists, and socialists saw Catholicism as a reactionary force, a defender of authority and hierarchy that needed to be opposed and defeated for the sake of human dignity, freedom, and progress. Some historians have suggested, however, a more complicated version of Catholicism as it affected political and social development in the nineteenth century. The church rejected the right of individuals to make personal judgments about religion, but it also opposed the claims of the nation-state when it infringed on the freedom of Catholics to practice their religion, and educate their children. Catholics in Belgium formed an alliance with liberals that produced a constitution in 1830 that affirmed the principle of popular sovereignty and granted religious toleration. Margaret Anderson has argued that the Catholic Center Party in Germany, which represented a third of the electorate in the last third of the century, was an important instrument for training German Catholics about the democratic process. In Poland and Ireland, Catholicism ended up in an alliance with ethnic groups whose aspirations to throw off the tutelage of foreign rulers were combined with a powerful Catholic identity. In all of these instances, Catholicism can be seen as fueling movements in favor of liberty and democracy, thus challenging any easy generalization based only on papal encyclicals. But it is important to note as well that the successful efforts of Catholics to mobilize a mass constituency could be based at times on targeting religious enemies, roles played by Protestants, Freemasons, and Jews. The French newspaper La croix, published by the Assumptionists starting in the 1880s, was particularly effective in using anti-Semitic language and images to reach a mass audience and played an important role in provoking the controversy surrounding Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus's conviction of treason in 1894.

On social questions Catholics inspired by the traditional obligation to help the poor played an important role in providing relief in a period when state welfare systems were either nonexistent or in their infancy. Frédéric Ozanam's Society of St. Vincent de Paul, established in Paris in 1833, brought together middle- and upper-class Catholics who involved themselves directly with the needy. Ozanam's goals for both the givers and receivers of charity were spiritual as much as social, and the Society did not embrace a program of social reform, but by the middle of the century chapters had spread throughout Catholic Europe, and were offering help to thousands of the poor, answering their basic needs. In the Prussian Rhineland, Father Adolph Kolping (1813–1865) founded an association that provided cheap housing and educational opportunities for young unmarried workers, an initiative comparable to the work of Father Don Bosco, who founded a religious congregation in Turin to work with the growing youth population in Italian cities. Toward the end of the century, in the wake of Rerum Novarum, Catholic labor unions were organized, providing support for workers ranging from miners in the Ruhr Valley to agricultural laborers in Sicily.

Catholic women practiced their religion more regularly than men, but the role of women in Catholicism was not limited to passive participation in rituals celebrated by a male clergy. Organizations provided an important outlet for female sociability, creating networks in which women assumed leadership roles, organizing charitable work and managing pilgrimages for the sick to Lourdes, for example. Female religious congregations were particularly important, growing throughout the century, from 11,000 to 40,000 in Spain between 1797 and 1904, from 12,000 to 135,000 in France from 1808 to 1878, and from 7,794 to almost 50,000 in Germany between 1866 and 1908. The schools and hospitals run by sisters provided crucial services, but they also gave women opportunities for leadership and power unavailable elsewhere in European society.

Catholic labor unions and religious congregations were part of an organizational network that expanded rapidly in the late nineteenth century, creating in many areas a subculture that encompassed schools, churches, a specialized press including daily newspapers and periodicals, and leisure activities. The People's Association for Catholic Germany (Volksverein) was a model of Catholic organizational success, enlisting over eight hundred thousand members by 1914, establishing itself as one of the largest voluntary associations in imperial Germany. Historians of the Netherlands, where Catholic schools and organizations were especially important, have used the concept of pillarization, to describe a process whereby Catholicism formed, alongside Protestantism and socialism, a comprehensive framework for the lives of its members. German Catholicism could be described in similar terms, providing its members with schools, churches, youth clubs, reading rooms,

and adult education programs—a whole range of institutions that generated a sense of identity and empowerment, but that also marked Catholics as separate and insular.

Some of the most popular Catholic organizations had as their main goal the support of missionary activity, which experienced a major renewal in the nineteenth century. The Society for the Propagation of the Faith, founded in Lyon in 1822, published a magazine full of stories about heroic preachers spreading the gospel throughout the world; by 1860 there were over two hundred thousand subscribers for a journal that was translated into over ten languages. New congregations of priests and nuns, such as the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, and Sisters of Saint Joseph de Cluny, along with older ones such as the Jesuits (reestablished in 1814) provided European clergy for the missions, who staffed schools and hospitals as part of their conversion efforts. Catholic missions contributed to the sense of religious revival that was common in the nineteenth century, and along with Protestant efforts helped define the "civilizing mission" that European states used to legitimize their expansion into the world.

devotional and theological developments

Ultramontane Catholicism, understood as an ideology, took a defensive and intransigent posture toward the modern world, as being assaulted by revolutions, new ideologies, and aggressive nation-states, forces opposed by a heroic and infallible leader. But the ultramontane program included as well a devotional and theological component that, while linked to the political and social agenda of the church, established new modes of thinking and feeling about God and the saints. Early in the nineteenth century the writings of Catholic Romantics such as Friedrich Schlegel, Joseph Görres, and François-René du Chateaubriand challenged the rationalist critique of religion represented most prominently by Voltaire (1694–1778). They argued instead that religion needed to be valued as an emotional and aesthetic experience, and they looked to the spiritual writings and religious architecture of the Middle Ages for inspiration. Catholicism, however, produced few intellectuals of great significance for most of the rest of the nineteenth century. Ignaz von Döllinger revived historical studies of the church from his position in Munich, but was marginalized as a result of his opposition to infallibility. John Henry Newman, whose conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism drew attention throughout the Catholic world in 1845, argued for a developmental and historical approach to theological doctrine, but he was more an influence on the twentieth than the nineteenth century. Early in the twentieth century Pius X (r. 1903–1914) stifled Catholic intellectual life through his assault on "modernism," an attempt by scholars such as Alfred Loisy to interpret the Bible using the tools of modern historical criticism.

An intensified emotionalism characterized Catholic popular devotions, exemplified in the cults of the Sacred Heart and of Mary, which exploded in the nineteenth century, fueled by millions of rosary beads, holy cards, novenas, and confraternities. In 1858 Pius IX provided doctrinal support for Marian devotionalism when he defined the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which asserted that Mary, alone among humans, had been born free of original sin. The Immaculate Conception had been a subject of theological debate since the Middle Ages, and Pius IX's decree resolved the debate in a manner that elevated Mary, already the most important of Catholic saints, to an even more exalted position. Christological devotions remained important as well, however, as Thomas a' Kempis's fourteenth-century spiritual classic, The Imitation of Christ remained immensely popular among Catholic readers. The devotion to Christ took more somber forms as well. The Stations of the Cross, based on contemplating the suffering of Jesus during his passion and death, continued to spread from its base in Italy, and a number of women became famous throughout the Catholic world for sharing the wounds of Christ and thus his redemptive work. Anna Katharina Emmerich (1774–1824), a West-phalian mystic who dictated widely read and detailed accounts of the life of Christ based on her visions, experienced the stigmata, as did Gemma Galgani (1878–1903), a young Italian woman from Lucca who became the first person who lived into the twentieth century to be canonized as a saint. In France, Thérèse Martin (1873–1897), who entered a Carmelite convent when only fifteen years old, authored a spiritual autobiography that became enormously popular among Catholic readers after its publication in 1898. Sister Thérèse (who became known as the "Little Flower") advocated a life of constant self-sacrifice, but rejected the spiritual tendency that emphasized pain and blood. Both of these models had broad appeal, especially among women, and along with the high levels of female religious practice and the prominence of female religious congregations suggest a "feminization" of Catholicism in the nineteenth century. This development needs to be understood, however, within the context of a church that still concentrated most of the power in the male clergy, and substantially increased the authority of the pope. Few generalizations bearing on the complex institutional and cultural system that made up Catholicism can be maintained without the need for such qualification. Catholicism in the long nineteenth century faced enormous political and social challenges, and even a sympathetic historian would acknowledge that it struggled at times in adapting to them. Even historians critical of Catholicism would acknowledge that in 1914 it had reinvented itself as a potent political, social, and cultural force, figuring centrally in the personal and collective lives of millions of Europeans.

See alsoAnticlericalism; Catholicism, Political; Center Party; Concordat of 1801; Leo XIII; Manning, Henry; Newman, John Henry; Papacy; Pilgrimages; Pius IX; Separation of Church and State (France, 1905).


Anderson, Margaret Lavinia. "Voter, Junker, Landrat, Priest: The Old Authorities and the New Franchise in Imperial Germany." American Historical Review 98 (1993): 1448–1474.

——. "The Limits of Secularization: On the Problem of the Catholic Revival in Nineteenth-Century Germany." The Historical Journal 38(1995):647–670. A valuable critique of secularization and an excellent starting point for German Catholicism.

Aston, Nigel. Religion and Revolution in France, 1780–1804. Washington, D.C., 2000. Synthesizes the enormous literature on this crucial topic.

Atkin, Nicholas, and Frank Tallett. Priests, Prelates, and People: A History of European Catholicism since 1750. New York, 2003. Brief and even-handed, with a good bibliography.

Broers, Michael. The Politics of Religion in Napoleonic Italy: The War against God, 1801–1814. New York, 2002.

Burton, Richard D. E. Holy Tears, Holy Blood: Women, Catholicism, and the Culture of Suffering in France, 1840–1970. Ithaca, N.Y., 2004. Examines an important set of devotional beliefs.

Callahan, William J. Church, Politics, and Society in Spain, 1750–1874. Cambridge, Mass., 1984.

——. The Catholic Church in Spain, 1875–1998. Washington, D.C., 2000.

Chadwick, Owen. The Popes and European Revolution. New York, 1981.

——. A History of the Popes, 1830–1914. New York, 1998. Chadwick's volumes on the papacy are rich in detail and generally sympathetic.

Christian, William, Jr. Person and God in a Spanish Valley. Princeton, N.J., 1989. Brilliant evocation of rural Catholicism.

Curtis, Sarah A. Educating the Faithful: Religion, Schooling, and Society in Nineteenth-Century France. DeKalb, Ill., 2000. Valuable study of how nuns were recruited and trained and the work they did.

Gadille, Jacques, and Jean-Marie Mayeur. Histoire du christianisme des origines a' nos jours. Vol. 11: Libéralisme, industrialisation, expansion européene (1830–1914). Paris, 1995. Comprehensive, with chapters on individual states and developments in theology, practice, and missionary work.

Gibson, Ralph. A Social History of French Catholicism, 1789–1914. London, 1989. The single best overview of French Catholicism.

Grew, Raymond. "Liberty and the Catholic Church in Nineteenth-Century Europe." In Freedom and Religion in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Richard Helmstadter, 196–232. New York, 1997. Challenges conventional views on the subject.

Kertzer, David. The Popes against the Jews: The Vatican's Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism. New York, 2001.

Kselman, Thomas. Death and the Afterlife in Modern France. Princeton, N.J., 1993.

Larkin, Emmet. "The Devotional Revolution in Ireland, 1850–1875." American Historical Review 77 (1972): 625–652.

Smith, Bonnie G. Ladies of the Leisure Class: The Bourgeoises of Northern France in the Nineteenth Century. Princeton, N.J., 1981. Shows how middle-class women drew on Catholicism in shaping their separate sphere.

Sperber, Jonathan. Popular Catholicism in Nineteenth-Century Germany. Princeton, N.J., 1984.

Strikwerda, Carl. A House Divided: Catholics, Socialists, and Flemish Nationalists in Nineteenth-Century Belgium. Lanham, Md., 1997.

Wintle, Michael. Pillars of Piety: Religion in the Netherlands in the Nineteenth Century. Hull, U.K., 1987.

Thomas Kselman


views updated May 11 2018


The Catholic nature of childhood is often elusive, changes across time and place, and often reflects the broader culture of which it is part. In addition, historians of Catholicism have only recently turned their attention to childhood experiences. Given these important cautions, however, there are some important distinctive ways in which Catholicism has shaped childhood experiences.

The Early Church

Early church sources contain repeated favorable references to people who chose the church over their families, of parents who abandoned their children to lead devout lives themselves, or who gave their children to the church to help build monastic populations. But it is not clear whether this indifference to children reflected more the Christian or the Roman cultural influence. Some historians suggest that these attitudes reflected the dualistic thought of early Christians that contrasted the perfect sacred with the profane secular. Theologians and church officials often characterized things of the world, such as the body and material goods, as inherently evil. Attachment to biological families reflected the power of the world to sway individuals. Christian literature characterized those who chose marriage and parenthood as weaker and more prone to their passions and desires than those who chose childlessness. Christianity clearly praised the latter over the former. But for those Christians who bore and raised children, little evidence suggests a powerfully distinct experience from that of non-Christian families.

The emphasis on the duality of thought did appear to provide a theological or philosophical foundation for child-rearing practices, however. Many debated whether children, and especially "infant" children (those under seven years of age), were capable of sin. Did they suffer from the same earthly passions and enticements that plagued adults? The introduction and adoption of infant baptism during the fourth century suggests that church officials believed that children could sin, and that they inherited original sin. Evidence of severe corporal punishment for childhood transgressions abounds, and suggests a special fervor aimed at rid-ding children of their proclivity to sin. But here again it is not so clear that these Christian child-rearing practices differed significantly from those of non-Christians. The Christian reasons for severe child-rearing practices might differ, but the practices themselves seem more widely shared. Moreover, some historians see the Church as a strong child advocate. Historian Richard Lyman Jr., for example, writes that the Church insisted that "children had souls, were important to God, could be taught, and should not be killed, maimed or abandoned, and that they were very useful to the self-image of the parents" (p. 90). In short, the Church championed children's interests against cultural pressures to kill, abandon, or devalue them.

Infant baptism had other implications for church sacraments and children. The early Church initiated adults with a process that required great preparation and instruction, and culminated with a ceremony incorporating what Roman Catholics today know as baptism, first communion, andconfirmation. By the fourth and fifth centuries, however, Roman churches began to baptize infants (relative newborns), and delay the other ritual sacraments until later in childhood. This separation of the sacraments did not spread universally until the eleventh century, however, and did not receive official sanction until the Council of Trent in 1562 asserted that small children need not receive the Eucharist. Throughout the medieval period, the Church stressed Christ's divinity more and more, and therefore discouraged children from receiving communion for fear that they might not fully comprehend the distinction between the Eucharist and normal bread and wine. Catholic theology teaches that the bread and wine actually transform into Christ's body and blood during Mass, and so communion reception is a powerful sacred act. Delaying communion reception until children become older was a recognition that young boys and girls would likely not appreciate the gravity of the ritual. Some places forbade children from receiving communion until age fourteen.

Pope Pius X sought to increase communion reception among all Catholics, and so decreed in 1910 that children should receive first communion at age seven. Only in the twentieth century has this become the common age at which Catholic children receive their first communion. Confirmation too has changed a great deal over the years. Eastern churches continued to link baptism and confirmation, so that Eastern-rite Catholic children were confirmed in their infancy. Western churches saw a variety of practices over time and from place to place, with a more uniform practice emerging only in the twentieth century. Pope Pius X's 1910 decree Quam singulari had the effect of making confirmation a sacrament that children received in their adolescence, as a mark of spiritual maturity.

Despite the universal practice of infant baptism during the Middle Ages, the Church came to see children younger than seven years old as largely incapable of sin. Manuals for confessors began to focus on the sins of older children. These manuals suggested a great concern for two kinds of sin: theft and sexual activity. One presumes that the church stressed these to parents as well, and urged them to discourage their children from stealing (especially food) and having sex. Italian Catholic child-rearing manuals in the mid-sixteenth to the early eighteenth century recognized the important role that parents played in shaping their children,

and for this reason struggled with two somewhat opposed positions. The first supported and encouraged parents as the surest teachers of their children to help in resisting the allure of sin. The second worried about the parents' roles in discouraging children of mature age from choosing a religious vocation. These guides, commissioned largely for powerful bishops who sought to guide their flocks in their roles as parents, concentrated on urging parents to take on nurturing rather than repressive roles in moving children toward a virtuous life. They saw within children the seeds of virtue, and not primarily the weeds of sin, and they instructed parents to support virtue's growth within their children. Catholic parents following these manuals would have created a nurturing and affectionate environment for their children.

Catholic childhood experiences varied so widely throughout Europe during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the state of research is so young, that it is difficult to make broad and accurate generalizations. But it is reasonable to suppose that as the international Church became more tightly controlled by Rome, and as the local Bishops sought to establish their own power more firmly, the emphasis on obedience to authority heightened. Catholic child-rearing practices may have reflected the greater stress on hierarchy within the family. Some social scientists have suggested as much, though the empirical data are not so strong here. It is clear that many Catholic children felt the difficult transition to industrialization through first-hand experience with mechanized work. Even Catholic orphanages embraced child labor as a means of covering institutional costs. It is also quite clear that many Catholic children embarked on overseas voyages as their families sought economic improvement in the developing United States.

American Catholicism and Childhood

American Catholic children in the revolutionary and early national period grew up in what historian Jay Dolan has termed the "republican" church. American Catholics in this period sought to align themselves culturally, politically, and socially with the democratic ideals of the emerging nation. Catholics sought less to separate themselves from prevailing norms than to embrace the new ideals that guided social and cultural behavior. Because so few priests and nuns labored in America during this time, the laity provided most of the institutional, community, and liturgical structures for themselves. Children would have grown up experiencing their religious lives in their homes primarily, rather than in a separate sacred space. Their parents provided religious instruction and the opportunities for prayer, reflection, and ritual practices, and they would have emphasized very similar social and cultural ideals to their Protestant neighbors. Though still clearly patriarchal, Catholic families moved with Protestant Americans toward a more democratic family structure that emphasized affection over duty.

Once European Catholics began immigrating to America in large numbers during the early nineteenth century, the nature of American Catholic childhood experiences changed dramatically. Catholics in this immigrant church constructed and lived within a church suffused with a hierarchical and formal institutional presence that sought to shape children's lives profoundly. The family remained the most powerful influence on Catholic children, of course, but the institutional church sought to shape Catholic children much more powerfully than in the republican church. The rise of the separate Catholic school system and the devotional culture that immigrants brought with them and then adapted to the new nation shaped Catholic childhood indirectly through its influence on parents and directly by its pervasive contact with children themselves. With the masses of lay Catholic immigrants to America came thousands of Catholic priests and nuns as well, so that a church that had developed largely independent of clerical presence saw the dramatic growth of the formal institutional structure.

The Catholic school system grew tremendously throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as an alternative to the emerging public school system. For many Catholics, their experiences in parochial schools constituted their most extensive immersion in the Catholic world. Catholic bishops stressed to their priests from the middle of the nineteenth century onward the importance of developing parish schools, with the result that parishes built their schools before even their churches. Until the latter half of the twentieth century, Catholic children often sat in classes of fifty to seventy students taught largely by women religious whose own education often ended with the eighth grade. Students learned discipline, deference, obedience, and respect for hierarchy.

Despite extraordinary efforts to educate all Catholic children in parochial schools, at no point in American history did more than half of Catholic children actually attend such schools. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, most Catholic children attended public schools with their Protestant, Jewish, and other neighbors. For these Catholics, the most significant institutional encounters came when they joined the Catholic school children in the extensive devotional culture that immersed Catholic children in an extensive array of formal rituals. This powerful devotional experience most distinguished Catholic childhood from others.

Historian Jay Dolan has characterized devotional Catholicism for the century between 1850 and 1950 as exhibiting four key features: a strong sense of sin, a heavy emphasis on ritual, a firm belief in the miraculous, and a keen sense of hierarchy and deference within that hierarchy. Catholic children experienced this culture in the churches when they attended weeklyand sometimes dailyMass, confession, any of the regularly sponsored novenas (special rituals typically dedicated to particular saints offered each of nine consecutive weeks), benedictions, and adorations. Parishes also sponsored "missions" offered by orders of priests who specialized in generating enthusiasm among the faithful or fallen away. Children here learned of the dangers that the temporal world posed for them, that God would intervene to help deserving believers in their crises, and that they should respect churchand by extension allauthority. Wedded to each other through a vast array of distinctive behaviors, Catholic children developed powerful identities as a unique and religiously privileged group. Though historians disagree on whether these experiences aided or hindered adult Catholic social and cultural success in America, they generally agree that Catholics developed a very powerful Catholic identity with strong boundaries that limited social interaction with others. They lived within an extensive Catholic social and cultural (though not geographical) ghetto that prized otherworldly salvation above all else, and saw as the only means to that aim a life lived apart from the evil influences of the broader materialist society.

In the schools and churches, Catholic institutional representatives had direct and powerful contact with Catholic children. Priests and nuns sought to shape childhood experiences according to religious norms defined largely by church officials. But the children came from families with varying commitments to these ideals, and embraced or resisted the institutional influences accordingly. The Catholic family more than any official church institution most profoundly shaped Catholic childhood, and the Catholic family did not always embrace official church ideals. Because Irish Catholics dominated the clergy, for example, families from other ethnic backgrounds often resisted the institutional influence resolutely.

Immigrant Catholics came to America from a number of different nations and cultures even within their nations of origin. Catholic families often differed from each other in the values that they prized and passed on to their children. It is difficult therefore to make precise conclusions that apply to all Catholics in this period, so readers should be mindful of the great variety of American "Catholic" experiences throughout the period. Some generalizations are warranted, however. In general, Catholic immigrant families in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries tended to have more children than their native counterparts, and they tended to be quite poor. Catholic children often grew up in large families that suffered great economic hardship. They understood want and deprivation, and they went to work at young ages to help support their families. At a time when middle-class American culture prized domesticity and a pronounced and prolonged childhood experience apart from the emerging market economy, American Catholic children experienced the market intrusion into their lives at very young ages. Catholic parents worked long hours in the mills and mines, and their children filled the tenements and alleys of America's emerging slums. Catholicism both challenged and ameliorated these experiences.

American church officials and the parochial schools by and large emphasized deference to authority, and this included civic and economic authority. In this way the Church pushed children to work within established social structures rather than challenge them. Yet the late nineteenth century saw increasing sanction for social justice efforts that condemned exploitation of the poor and their families. Pope Leo XXIII's 1893 encyclical Rarem novarum officially endorsed social justice work and supported demands for family wages, unions, and a just economic order. For the most part, Catholic families remained largely working class through the early decades of the twentieth century. The real changes in Catholic family size and child-rearing strategies came in the latter decades of the twentieth century, and coincided with Catholics' movement to the middle classes.

Social scientists in the twentieth century tell us that American Catholic families in the early decades of the century had more children than Protestants. Catholic fertilityrates then converged briefly with Protestant in the 1930s before diverging during the baby boom decades of the 1950s and 1960s. The Catholic rate declined faster than the Protestant during the 1970s, however, so that they were largely indistinguishable by the 1980s. Not surprisingly, Catholic attitudes toward birth control followed similar patterns, so that by the 1970s they differed insignificantly from Protestant attitudes even as church officials persisted in forbidding their use.

A similar pattern seems to have existed for Catholic child-rearing strategies. Social scientists suggest that Catholic parents more than Protestants valued obedience highly and devalued intellectual autonomy in their children throughout much of the twentieth century. The evidence for these claims is less firm than for the birth rate patterns, however. The conclusions depend upon the logical extension of a hierarchical church model into the family, and interpretations of responses on social surveys. Catholic parents presumably discouraged their children from creative explorations of intellectual challenges and from pursuing challenges to authority. By the early 1980s, however, Catholic parenting values converged with mainline Protestant perspectives, and conservative Protestant parents appear to have adopted the positions once held by Catholics. At the end of the twentieth century, American Catholic parents differed very little in their child-rearing attitudes and practices from their Protestant neighbors. But the Church continued to support a separate school system, mark childhood milestones with sacraments, and prize child rearing as a laudable vocation. The latter two actions characterized Catholic practices throughout the rest of the world as well. The Catholic influence on childhood experience throughout the western world matters less than socioeconomic class, race, and geography, but it continues to mediate responses to these forces. It does not do so uniformly, though, nor with the same power.

See also: Islam; Judaism; Protestant Reformation .


Alwin, Duane F. 1986. "Religion and Parental Child-Rearing Orientations: Evidence of a CatholicProtestant Convergence." American Journal of Sociology (September): 412440.

Ariès, Philippe. 1962. Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life. Trans. Robert Baldick. New York: Knopf.

Burns, Jeffrey M. 1978. "The Ideal Catholic Child: Images from Catholic Textbooks 18751912." Working Paper Series, Center for the Study of American Catholicism, University of Notre Dame. Spring. Notre Dame, IN: The Center.

deMause, Lloyd, ed. 1974. History of Childhood. New York: Psycho-history Press.

Dolan, Jay P. 1985. American Catholic Experience. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Ellison, Christopher, and Darren Sherkat. 1993. "Obedience and Autonomy: Religion and Parental Values Reconsidered." Journalfor the Social Scientific Study of Religion 32, no. 4: 313329.

Hyde, Kenneth E. 1990. Religion in Childhood and Adolescence: A Comprehensive Review of the Research. Birminghan, AL: Religious Education Press.

Lyman, Richard B., Jr. 1974. "Barbarism and Religion: Late Roman and Early Medieval Childhood." In The History of Childhood, ed. Lloyd deMause. New York: Psychohistory Press.

Martos, Joseph. 1982. Doors to the Sacred: A Historical Introduction to the Sacraments in the Catholic Church. Garden City, NY: Image Books.

Mosher, William D., David Johnson, and Marjorie Horn. 1986. "Religion and Fertility in the United States: The Importance of Marriage Patterns and Hispanic Origin." Demography August: 367380.

Shahar, Shulamith. 1990. Childhood in the Middle Ages. Trans. Chaya Galai. London: Routledge.

Walch, Timothy. 1996. Parish School: American Catholic Parochial Education from Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Crossroad.

Wood, Diana, ed. 1994. Church and Childhood: Papers Read at the 1993 Summer Meeting and the 1994 Winter Meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Timothy Kelly


views updated May 11 2018


The term Catholic, which etymologically means universal, is used within Christianity to differentiate it from other Christian communions such as the Protestant or Russian and Greek Orthodox Churches. The Catholic Church maintains that it is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic, as the Nicene Creed states, and that the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, is the head of Christianity, the Supreme Pontiff of the Church of Christ. Consequently, it is common, not only for Catholics but for others, to refer to the Catholic Church as "the Church." Besides the Latin rite which has several subdivisions such as the Ambrosian (Milan, Italy), the Mozarabic (Toledo, Spain), the Lyonnais, the Braga and the Monastic rite, the Catholic Church includes Eastern rites such as the Byzantine, Alexandrian, Armenian, Chaldeian, and Antiochene.

The term Catholic was first employed by Saint Ignatius Martyr (d. 107 ce) in an epistle to the Church of Smyrna, when he said: "Ubi Christus, ibi catholica Ecclesia"("There where Christ is, is the Catholic church"). Christianity began in Palestine, stemming from the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary and Joseph the carpenter, who was baptized by John the Baptist in the river Jordan around the year 28 ce (Matthew 3:1-17). This is the very Jesus who declared himself the Messiah, the Christ, at the beginning of his public life. In Nazareth, attending Sabbath service at the synagogue, he attributed to himself the words of the Scriptures: "The spirit of the Lord is upon me / because he has anointed me; / he has sent me to announce/good news to the poor…"(Luke 4:16-20). Jesus was crucified in April of the year 30 ce by command of the Roman Procurator Pontius Pilate, and after his resurrection his disciples undertook the evangelization of the world, following their teacher's command as stated in the Gospel of Matthew: "Full authority in heaven and on earth has been committed to me. Go forth therefore and make all nations my disciple; baptize all in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all that I have commanded you. And be assured, I am with you always, to the end of time" (Matthew 28: 16-20).

The Apostle who did the most to spread the word of this new religion among the Gentiles was Paul of Tarsus, born Saul. A rabbinical student of the Jewish Diaspora and a Roman citizen, he died martyred with the Apostle Peter in Rome under the rule of the Emperor Nero, circa 67 ce. Paul had evangelized part of Asia Minor, Palestine, and Syria, and his disciples brought the word to Greece, Macedonia, Egypt, and Northern Africa. Wherever there were Jews living in the Diaspora, there was a fertile ground for converts to Christianity. Slowly, evangelization reached very large numbers of people, including the Roman Imperial family. Since Rome was the capital of the Roman Empire, it was chosen as the center of Christianity and this became a well entrenched ideology (Kantorowicz 1981).

Up to the fourth century, however, the Eastern Churches of Ephesus, Antioch, Alexandria Caesarea, and Carthage retained great importance. Early Church Fathers such as Iraeneus (b. c.190–195), Tertullian (b. c. 160 in Carthage), and Origen (185–254 ce) lent their prestige to Rome by asserting the supremacy of the Universal Church. At the time of Origen, the Roman Empire was in total political chaos and decadence; thus, one could conceive of Christianity as an alternative that could rescue the positive values of the Empire. The Emperor Constantine's 313 Edict of Milan ended the persecution of Christians, and the conversion of the Emperor himself completed the victorious journey of the new religion. Rome, now the center of Christianity and Catholicism, with the establishment of the papacy and the Holy See, saw its central role reaffirmed with the crowning of Charlemagne aHoly Roman Emperor in the year 800. The Bishop of Rome therefore claims his authority as conferred to Peter by Christ: "You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church" (Matthew 15:18).

The Oriental Churches, such as the Greek and Russian Orthodox, had also been growing and had become centers of Christianity in their own right for political and religious reasons. Divisions within Christianity were further accentuated with the Protestant Reformation (1517) led by Martin Luther (1483–1586) who, in protest against the practice of indulgences, posted his 95 theses on the door of the Palast Church in Wittemberg, Germany, and later by John Calvin, who began the Reformation (1532) in France. The Church of England broke away from the Catholic Church under the reign of Henry VIII, after his divorce from Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn (1533), and his excommunication by Pope Clement VII, bringing about the final rift between Rome and England. Like Protestantism, the Anglican Communion has maintained the necessity for the faithful to pray in the vernacular; thus Thomas Cramer (1552) produced its Book of Common Prayer. The Church, in response to several heretical currents throughout its history—for example the Cathar heresy resulting in the Albigensian Crusade in Southern France (1209–1229)—also established the Inquisition in 1233 ce and the Pope entrusted its powers to the Dominican order. A conviction of heresy could result in capital punishment and burning at the stake.

These rifts between Christian denominations are reflected in major differences regarding issues of vital religious, theological and social importance. The rift with the Reformation centered on clerical celibacy, the primacy of the Roman Pontiff, the practice of simony, the abuse of indulgences and the seven sacraments themselves, as well as the Eucharist. It was followed by a Catholic Reformation with the Council of Trent (1545–1564) which provided a reform of the clergy (establishment of seminaries for the preparation and instruction of priests), of evangelization, missionary work, and Catholicism itself. Sacerdotal celibacy and the exclusion of women in the priesthood were reaffirmed. The Index of Prohibited Books (Index librorum prohibitorum) was issued with papal approval along with the Professio Fidei (Profession of Faith) for all Catholics to follow.

The Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) was convened by Pope John XXIII in order to prepare the Church for the modern world. It dealt with issues such as the mission of laity, the nature of religious freedom, ecumenism, and liturgical reform such as the usage of the vernacular in liturgy. While the First Vatican Council (1869–1870) reaffirmed the doctrine of Papal infallibility, based on the creed of the Pope as direct heir to St. Peter who received the office directly from Jesus, the Second Council was more inclusive, attempting to reach out ecumenically to all the Churches and even other religions. However, with the encyclical Lumen gentium (The Light of the Peoples) the Church claimed to be "the one Church of Christ which in the Creed is professed one, holy, catholic and apostolic … which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in community with him"(Pope Paul VI, November 1964). Regarding salvation, the Council held to the notion that Christians and non-Christians might be saved by accepting and responding to the grace of God and in its revelation through the mercy of Christ, the "baptism of desire," a tenet that many Christian theologians and intellectuals had advocated. For instance, in his Divine Comedy, Dante exposed his conception of Limbo, and allowed the salvation of Cato, Rhipheus the Trojan, and the Emperor Trajan.


The Church has maintained that the Virgin Mary, as the human mother of Jesus, is the mother of all humanity, and that Catholics and others may intercede with her and the other saints in heaven through prayer: "The Blessed Virgin Mary can best be set forth as a most exalted Co-operatrix with Christ. Such a chapter would greatly enhance the glory of the Mother of God" (The Sixteenth Documents, p. 666). In Catholic tradition, the Virgin Mary became the figural fulfillment of Eve who has been blamed—by theologians from Saint Augustine to Jerome, to Aquinas and even Luther and up to the present—for the original sin, which has become primarily a sexual issue and foundational to misogyny in Christian cultures. Since the time of Augustine, the sexual urge has been proclaimed a sin and chastity is traditionally upheld. The Biblical Eve has become, in art and literature, the image of the femme fatale, while Mary has taken her place as mother of humanity and the symbol of life rather than death, as a means of salvation and the fruit of Redemption. In Catholic exegesis, Mary is a symbol and type of the Church (typus Ecclesiae) as are all the female figures of the Old Testament such as Rachel, Sarah, Rebecca, Ruth, Judith, and others (Di Scipio 1983, Pelikan 1996).


The Church, born under persecution during the Roman Empire, has always maintained pacifism in social teaching. In the modern era, however, some Catholics maintain that there may be a "just war," such as World War II against the evil of Nazism, but even such wars are meant to prevent or limit wars, not justify them. Pope John XXIII pointed the way with his encyclical Pacem in Terris (1963). Pope John Paul II adamantly opposed the Iraq War (begun 2003) and made a cornerstone of his pontificate a reconciliation with Jews, Muslims, and non-Christians, even apologizing to some for past errors committed by the Church of Rome. At the same time John Paul reaffirmed Church teaching against capital punishment in all instances as immoral.

The Catholic Church thus has a lively tradition of dissent on social issues such as pacifism and sexuality, as demonstrated by figures such as the Jesuit priest Robert Drinan (d. 2007) who served as a Representative to the U.S. from Massachusetts for five terms and hotly opposed the Vietnam War in the 1960s, and ignored the Church doctrine by supporting federal financing of birth control and abortion. Similarly, Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton, who served as pastor in an inner city Detroit parish, co-founder of the peace ministry Pax Christi, broke ranks because of his teaching in favor of gay men and lesbians and the ordination of women, as well as his open lobbying in favor of victims of sexual abuses, and was forced to resign in an apparent act of retaliation by the Church (New York Times, January 26, 2007). Another controversial priest was the French-born Abbé Pierre (d. 2007), founder of the organization Emmaus International to help the homeless and the indigents. He served in World War II as a chaplain for the French Navy and also in the French Resistance, he helped Jews and others escape from the Nazis, was elected to the National Assembly, and received the French Legion of Honor which he gave back as a gesture to dramatize the issue of the homeless. The French President Chirac gave him another. He enraged the Catholic hierarchy by supporting gay marriage and revealing that as a young priest he had sex with a woman.


The Catholic Church follows the precept that everyone is equal in the eyes of God and restated this principle in Vatican Council II on the authority of Paul in Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11: "There is, therefore in Christ and in the Church no inequality on the basis of race or nationality, social condition or sex because, 'there is neither Jew nor Greek: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male or female. For you are all "one" in Christ Jesus'" (The Sixteen Documents, p. 143). But on the question of ordination, the Catholic Church upholds the magisterium, the position that priestly ordination can be conferred only on men. This was reaffirmed in Pope John Paul II's Apostolic Letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (Sacerdotal Ordination, 1994) which states: "the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and definitely held by all Church faithful." The Church saw it as necessary to restate this position in a subtle manner because of the challenge being posed in the late twentieth and early twentieth-first centuries by many women's groups who claim that Jesus had several women apostles, particularly Mary Magdalene, whom feminist scholars consider one of the first apostles as confirmed by the Gnostic Gospels, and of whom Augustine himself said that the Holy Spirit made the Apostle of the Apostles. The present Pope, Benedict XVI, as Cardinal Joseph Raztinger, head of the Office of Congregation of Faith, stated several times that the Church is God's Church, and that theologians cannot change this. Nevertheless, in the 1970s, Ludmila Javorova and other Czech women were ordained to serve the needs of women imprisoned by Communists.

Another important issue is priestly celibacy. Celibacy is a longstanding tradition in the Church from its origins with the example of Jesus himself and Paul. The Church has had to intervene repeatedly on this issue. Pope Leo the Great (440–461) decreed celibacy in the fifth century, as this rule was not being followed and many clergy kept concubines at home. It was reaffirmed in the eleventh century at the Synod of Poiters in 1074, when Pope Gregory VII excommunicated married priests. Celibacy was upheld again in the First Lateran Council (1124), and after the Protestant Reformation at the Council of Trent (1545–1563) which affirmed that celibacy and virginity are superior to marriage. It was restated at the Vatican Council II in 1965, and in the Encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus of 1967 issued by Paul Pope VI, who also issued celibacy dispensations (frozen by Pope John Paul II in 1978), and in the Code of Canon Law of 1983.

Since Vatican Council II, the Catholic Church admits to the deaconate married men of mature age, but it does not permit ordained priests to contract marriage. It does allow men who have been married to enter the priesthood, provided they refrain from sexual intercourse, but it excommunicates those priests who have contracted marriage. This is constantly being challenged, as in the case of Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo from Zambia (b. Lusaka 1930) who married and, excommunicated, still ordained other married priests and founded an organization of former priests defrocked for having contracted marriage, such as Married Priests Now and the Association of Married Priests, founded by theologian Giuseppe Serrone. However, the Eastern Rites do ordain married men and the Vatican has admitted married clergy from the Anglican faith who have converted to Catholicism.

The Church faces great difficulties because of the decline in priestly ordination and the exclusion of women. Throughout the world, married priests are performing religious rites, such as the Easter service, as a response to this shortage and in rebellion against Rome. The Vatican has, through the eminent theologian Cardinal Martini, affirmed, on December 5, 2006, that nowhere in the New Testament is it stated that married men cannot be ordained, but the Church upholds the tradition that celibacy is the better choice, as stated by the Apostle Paul (I Corinthians: 7). Interestingly enough, during the period 2001 to 2006 many more young women have been entering convents, according to an article in Time Magazine (November 20, 2006, pp. 53-56), although since 1965, Catholics nuns have decreased in number from 179,954 to 67,773. The Church maintains, notwithstanding the sexual scandals that have affected it in the United States, that celibacy is not the cause for the decrease of priesthood. Yet sexual scandals have already caused entire dioceses to go bankrupt because of legal expenses for settlements of sexual abuses by clergy, one case being that of the Diocese of San Diego, which would be the fifth (New York Times, February 20, 2007, p. A14).

It must be noted that sexual abuse by the clergy is the domain of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith in Rome, not of local bishops. This is in accordance with the Apostolic Letter of John Paul II, Scramentum sanctitatis tutela, and the 1983 Code of Canon Law punishes sexual abuse of a minor with laicization and dismissal from the ministry. The Anglican communion (77 million members) faces similar debates regarding homosexuality, same-sex marriage and the ordination of women, as it discussed the actions of the Episcopal Church of the United States (its American branch is made up of 2.3 million members), which has ordained lesbian female bishops. Conservative bishops have refused to celebrate the Eucharist with Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori, maintaining that this violates Scriptural teaching: "Facing a possible church-wide schism, the Anglican communion yesterday gave its Episcopal branch in the United States less than eight months to ban blessings of same sex unions or risk a reduced role in the world's largest Christian denomination" (New York Times, February 20, 2007, p. A1). The Catholic Church has vehemently opposed legislation favoring recognition of same-sex unions in the United States and other countries, and is in open conflict with the government, the Parliament and the Italian Constitution (La Repubblica, February 13, 2007, pp. 10-11). Pope Benedict XVI, in speaking to the faithful, has affirmed that "No human law can subvert the law of the Creator" (La Repubblica, February 12, 2007).


The Church holds that human life is holy and that each individual, male and female, is equal and created in the image of God. It opposes abortion (Portugal is the latest Catholic country to allow abortion, beginning 2007), euthanasia, homosexuality, artificial birth control, artificial insemination, and same-sex marriage. The Church tells the faithful that sex is not sinful if contained within marriage and for reasons of procreation, but is a capital sin if practiced outside of marriage. Pope John Paul II, in his Theology of the Body (October 29, 1980), states that physical love allows one to understand "the meaning of the whole existence, the meaning of life." In essence this is a restatement of the Aristotelian and Thomistic principles of the perfection achieved in the unity of the body and soul, something that Dante Alighieri, for example, championed in his Divine Comedy. Since the Church considers Manicheism a heresy (the doctrine that the Spirit is good and the Flesh evil), the human body and sex are good within limitations. Yet it prohibits and considers sinful sexual relationship between men, between women, same-sex marriage, and the remarriage of divorced people.

Consequently the Church faces strong criticism and challenges on issues such as artificial contraception, artificial insemination, abortion (which may carry the penalty of excommunication), and sexuality in general, in particular for its ban on the use of condoms in the prevention of AIDS and teenage pregnancy. The Church maintains that abstinence is the only way to prevent unwanted pregnancies or the spread of AIDS. Studies indicate that most Catholics ignore the Church on these points, and that they generally make use of artificial contraception. Abortion is very high among Catholics in Latin American countries—with the highest number of Catholics in any continent—and condom distribution is widely practiced in Africa and other continents for AIDS prevention, even by Catholic missionaries. Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, President for the Pontifical Council for the Family has restated that the Church has not changed its views on the use of condoms (Catholic News Agency, May 4, 2006). The Church is aware that most Catholics do not follow these precepts, but it remains consistent in its traditional teaching.

The Catholic Church also condemns euthanasia, which is allowed in the Netherlands and some other countries. In 2007, the Church was involved in a very serious controversy with the case of Welby, an Italian man suffering with Parkinson's Disease, who had requested to die, and was allowed to, when a Dr. Riccio from Cremona disconnected a respirator. Mr. Welby intentionally wanted to provoke a dialogue on this issue. The Church Vicariate in Rome then refused Mr. Welby a Christian burial (January 2007), and this caused a huge uproar; many Catholics were appalled and accused the Church of hypocrisy, for it permits religious services for notorious criminals and political figures, such as General Pinochet of Chile, while denying the same for a suffering person of the same faith. Cardinal Martini of Milan intervened and pointed out the difficulty of such a case and urged the government to pass a law similar to the one in France which prohibits, in such cases, the use of medical treatment with obdurate and unreasonable obstinacy (Sole 24 Ore, January 21, 2007). Yet statistics clearly indicate that most Catholics in Italy (68%) favor "a good death," that is, allowing one to die without prolonged suffering and unnecessary treatment.

In February 2007, Pope Benedict XVI reaffirmed the traditional Church policy on same-sex marriage, euthanasia, and abortion in his Sunday Sermon (Angelus) and to the Conference of Italian Bishops (CEI) on February 4, which was celebrating the Sacredness of Life Day. He also upheld the precept of the traditional family union through matrimony in response to an ongoing debate among the faithful on all these issues, claiming that his position is "based on the real needs of the couple"(La Repubblica, February 5, 2007, p. 13, U.S. edition). And he attacked once again all legislation favoring genetic manipulations, abortion, euthanasia, eugenics and selective diagnosis before birth (La Repubblica, February 24, 2005, p, 15). At the same time, in a Catholic country like Italy, the number of unmarried couples living together has risen from 192,00 in 1983 to 555,000 in 2005. Similar statistics hold for other countries, and the Church thus faces some very strong challenges—yet throughout the centuries, it has found ways to survive and adapt itself to its times.

see also Alan of Lille; Aquinas, Thomas; Christ; Damian, Peter; Marbod of Rennes; Marriage, Spiritual; Mary Magdalene; Monasticism.


Abbot, Elizabeth. 2000. A History of Celibacy. New York: Scribner.

Allen, John. 2005. The Rise of Benedict XVI. New York, Doubleday.

Cross, F. L., and Livingston, E. A., eds. 1997. The Oxford History of the Christian Church. New York: Oxford University Press.

Deedy, John. 1987. The Catholic Fact Book. Chicago: The Thomas Moore Press.

Di Scipio, Giuseppe C. 1983. "The Hebrew Women in Dante's Symbolic Rose." Dante Studies CI:. 111-121.

Greer, Rowan A., trans. 1979. Origen. 1979. New York: Ramsey; Toronto: Paulist Press.

Hefling Charles, and Cynthia Shattuck, eds. 2007. The Oxford Guide of the Book of Common Prayer. Oxford, UK and New York: Oxford University Press.

Kantorowicz, E. H. 1981. The King's Two Bodies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Orig. pub. 1957.)

Pelikan, Iaroslav. 1996. Mary through the Centuries. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press.

Poodles, Leon, J. 2002. "Catholic Scandals: A Crisis for Celibacy?" Touchstone, April 2.

The Sixteen Documents of Vatican Council II and the Instruction on Liturgy with Commentaries by the Council Fathers, compiled by Rev. J. L. Gonzalez and the Daughters of St. Paul. 1965. Index by Charles Dollen. Boston: Magister Books: St. Paul Editions.

                                              Giuseppe Di Scipio


views updated Jun 08 2018


CATHOLICISM. Spanish and French explorers brought Roman Catholicism to what is now the United States in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Spanish explorers founded St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565, and it became the site of the oldest Christian community in the United States. Missionary priests established mission towns that stretched from St. Augustine north to Georgia. Their goal was to Christianize and civilize the native population. The golden age of the missions was in the mid-seventeenth century, when seventy missionaries were working in thirty-eight missions. The missions then began to decline, and by the early eighteenth century St. Augustine was the only Catholic mission left in Florida. The mission era ended when the British gained control of Florida in 1763.

The French established a permanent settlement at Québec in 1608 that became the center of New France. Missionary priests traveled from Québec down the St. Lawrence River through the Great Lakes region seeking to evangelize the native population. This mission era endured through the first half of the eighteenth century, coming to an end when the British took over Canada in 1763. Throughout the Midwest, French missionaries and explorers left their mark in places like St. Ignace and Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and St. Louis, Missouri.

The Catholic presence in the Southwest was quite widespread. Spanish explorers settled Santa Fe in 1610 and then branched into what is now Arizona and Texas. In the eighteenth century Spanish missionaries, led by the Franciscan friar Junipero Serra, traveled the Pacific coast and founded a chain of twenty-one mission towns stretching from San Diego to San Francisco. The Mexican government took over the missions in 1833 in what marked the end of the Spanish mission era. The dissolution of the missions, however, did not mean the end of frontier Catholicism. The church survived, ministering to the needs of Hispanic Americans and Catholic Indians. When northern Mexico became part of the United States in 1848 as a result of the Mexican-American War, the Catholic Church there entered a new chapter in its history.

In 1634 Cecil Calvert, an English Catholic nobleman, and a small group of English colonists founded Maryland. That colony became the center of the Catholic colonial presence in the English colonies. St. Mary's City

in southern Maryland became the capital of the colony, where Jesuit missionaries from England and Europe established farms. Worship services took place at these farms, which also became the home base for traveling missionaries who ministered to the needs of a rural population scattered about southern Maryland. Catholics were always a minority in Maryland, but they were in a position of prestige and power so long as the Calvert family was in control. That all changed in 1689 when William and Mary ascended to power in England and the Catholic Calverts lost ownership of the colony. Since Maryland was now a royal colony, England's penal laws became law in Maryland. These statutes discriminated against Catholics by denying them such rights and privileges as voting and public worship. Nonetheless, the Catholic population continued to grow, mainly because of the large numbers of Irish immigrants. By 1765, twenty-five thousand Catholics lived in Maryland; while another six thousand lived in Pennsylvania.

One of the most prominent families in colonial Maryland was the Carroll family. Irish and Catholic, Charles Carroll of Carrollton became a distinguished figure in the American Revolution. A delegate to the Continental Congress, he fixed his signature to the Declaration

of Independence. He also helped to write the new Maryland state constitution. Like Carroll, the vast majority of Catholics supported the Revolution of 1776.

The Early National Era and the Democratic Spirit

In 1790 John Carroll, an American-born and European-educated priest, was ordained as the first bishop of Baltimore. Only about 35,000 Catholics lived in the United States at that time. Carroll articulated a vision of Catholicism that was unique at this time. Together with many other Catholics he envisioned a national, American church that would be independent of all foreign jurisdiction and would endorse pluralism and toleration in religion; a church in which religion was grounded in the Enlightenment principle of intelligibility and where a vernacular liturgy was normative; and finally, a church in which the spirit of democracy, through an elected board of trustees, defined the government of parish communities.

The vital element in the development of American Catholicism was the parish. Between 1780 and 1820 many parish communities were organized across Catholic America. Perhaps as many as 124 Catholic churches, each one representing a community of Catholics, dotted the landscape in 1820. In the vast majority of these communities, laymen were very involved in the government of the parish as members of a board of trustees. The principal reason for such a trustee system was the new spirit of democracy rising across the land.

In emphasizing the influence of the democratic spirit on the Catholic parish, however, it is well to remember that tradition played a very important role in this development. When they sought to fashion a democratic design for parish government, American Catholics were attempting to blend the old with the new, the past with the present. The establishment of a trustee system was not a break with the past, as they understood it, but a continuation of past practices, adapted to a new environment. Lay participation in church government was an accepted practice in France and Germany, and English and Irish lay Catholics were also becoming more involved in parish government. Thus, when they were forced to defend their actions against opponents of the lay trustee system, Catholic trustees appealed to tradition and long-standing precedents for such involvement. This blending of the old with the new enabled the people to adapt an ancient tradition to the circumstances of an emerging, new society.

Mass Immigration and the Church

Once large-scale immigration began in the 1820s and 1830s, America's Catholic population increased dramatically. Many thousands of Irish and German Catholics arrived in the United States prior to the Civil War, marking the beginning of a new era in the history of American Catholicism. It was the age of the immigrant church. The republican model of Catholicism that defined the era of John Carroll went into decline as a more traditional, European model became normative as a result of the influx of foreign-born clergy who brought with them a monarchical vision of the church. Henceforth, the clergy would govern the parish.

In the closing decades of the century, Catholic immigrants from southern and eastern Europe settled in the United States. As a result, the Catholic population soared, numbering as many as seventeen million by 1920. It was a very ethnically diverse population, including as many as twenty-eight ethnic groups. The largest of these were the Irish, Germans, Italians, Polish, French Canadians, and Mexicans. Together they accounted for at least 75 percent of the American Catholic population. Each of these groups had their own national parishes. Based on nationality as well as language, these parishes became the hallmark of the urban church. A city neighborhood could have several different national parishes within its boundaries. Like separate galaxies, each parish community stayed within its own orbit. The Irish did not mix with the Poles. The Germans never mingled with the Italians. Some of these parishes were so large that their buildings (church, school, convent, and rectory) occupied an entire city block.

Because the public school culture was highly Protestant in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, Catholics began to establish their own elementary schools. John Hughes, the Irish-born archbishop of New York City, and John Purcell, the Irish-born archbishop of Cincinnati, were the two most prominent leaders championing parochial schools. The women religious were the key to the success of the schools. Like the clergy, most of these women were immigrants who worked within their own national or ethnic communities. In 1850 only about 1,344 sisters were at work in the United States. By 1900 their number had soared to 40,340, vastly outnumbering the 11,636 priests. This phenomenal increase in the number of women religious made the growth of schools possible, since they were the people who staffed the schools. Their willingness to work for low wages reduced the cost of schooling and made feasible an otherwise financially impossible undertaking.

In addition to the school, parishes sponsored numerous organizations, both religious and social. These organizations strengthened the bond between church and people. Hospitals and orphanages were also part of the urban church and women religious operated many of these institutions.

The Ghetto Mentality versus Americanization

In the antebellum period a Protestant crusade against Catholics swept across the nation. Anti-Catholic riots took place and convents as well as churches were destroyed. The crusade reached its height in the early 1850s when a new political party, the Know-Nothings, gained power in several states. Their ideology was anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic. During this period Archbishop John Hughes became a forceful apologist on behalf of Catholics. Because of the discrimination they encountered, Catholics developed their own subculture, thus acquiring an outsider mentality. Often described as a ghetto mentality, it shaped the thinking of Catholics well into the twentieth century.

Some Catholics wanted the church to abandon this outsider mentality and become more American, less foreign.

Isaac Hecker, a convert to Catholicism and a founder of the religious community of priests known as the Paulists, was the most prominent advocate of this vision in the 1850s and 1860s. Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, Minnesota, with support from James Gibbons, the cardinal archbishop of Baltimore, promoted this idea in the 1880s and 1890s. Advocating what their opponents labeled as an "American Catholicity," these Americanists endorsed the separation of church and state, political democracy, religious toleration, and some type of merger of Catholic and public education at the elementary school level. They were in the minority, however. Authorities in Rome were hostile to the idea of separation between church and state. They also opposed religious toleration, another hallmark of American culture, and were cool to the idea that democracy was the ideal form of government. As a result, in 1899 Pope Leo XIII issued an encyclical letter, Testem Benevolentiae, which condemned what he called "Americanism." The papal intervention not only ended the campaign of John Ireland, but also solidified the Romanization of Catholicism in the United States.

Devotional Catholicism

A distinguishing feature of the immigrant church was its rich devotional life. The heart of this devotional life was the exercise of piety, or what was called a devotion. Since the Mass and the sacraments have never been sufficient to meet the spiritual needs of the people, popular devotions have arisen throughout the history of Catholicism. In the nineteenth century some of the more popular of them were devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, devotion to Jesus in the Eucharist through public exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, devotion to the passion of Jesus, devotion to Mary as the Immaculate Conception, recitation of the rosary, and of course, devotion to particular saints such as St. Joseph, St. Patrick, and St. Anthony. Prayer books, devotional confraternities, parish missions, Newspapers, magazines, and the celebration of religious festivals shaped the cosmos of Catholics, educating them into a specific style of religion that can be described as devotional Catholicism. This interior transformation of Catholics in the United States was part of a worldwide spiritual revival taking place within Catholicism. The papacy promoted the revival by issuing encyclical letters promoting specific devotions and by organizing worldwide Eucharistic congresses to promote devotion to Christ.

Devotional Catholicism shaped the mental landscape of Catholics in a very distinctive manner. The central features of this worldview were authority, sin, ritual, and the miraculous. The emphasis on authority enhanced the prestige and power of the papacy at a time when it was under siege from Italian nationalists. Bishops and clergy also benefited from the importance attached to authority. Being Catholic meant to submit to the authority of God as mediated through the church—its pope, bishops, and clergy. Such a culture deemphasized the rights of the individual conscience as each person learned to submit to the external authority of the church. Catholic culture was also steeped in the consciousness of sin in this era. Devotional guides stressed human sinfulness and a multitude of laws and regulations sought to strengthen Catholics in their struggle with sin. Confession of sins became an important ritual for Catholics and priests spent long hours in the confessional. The Mass was another major ritual along with other sacraments such as baptism and marriage. Various devotions were associated with public rituals in church or with processions that marched through the streets of the neighborhood. In addition to such public rituals, people practiced their own private rituals of devotion. Fascination with the miraculous was another trait of devotional Catholicism. Catholics believed in the supernatural and the power of their heavenly patrons. Religious periodicals regularly reported cures and other miraculous events. Shrines such as Lourdes in France attracted much attention. In the United States many local shrines were associated with the healing powers of certain statues, relics, or pictures.


From the 1920s through the 1950s the church underwent a period of consolidation. Many new churches were built, the number of colleges grew, and record numbers of men and women entered Catholic seminaries and convents. In these years Catholicism still retained many features of the immigrant era. At the parish level Catholicism remained very ethnic and clannish into the 1940s. Devotional Catholicism remained the dominant ethos. Within the educated middle class, which was growing, there was a strong desire for Catholics to become more involved in the public life of the nation. What contemporaries called a Catholic renaissance took place in these years as Catholics began to feel more confident about their place in the United States. Catholics supported the New Deal and many worked in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration. Catholics also held influential positions in the growing labor movement. John Ryan, a priest and professor at the Catholic University of America, gained a national reputation as an advocate of social action and the right of workers to a just wage. Dorothy Day, a convert to Catholicism, founded the Catholic Worker movement in 1933 and her commitment to the poor and underprivileged inspired many young Catholics to work for social justice. In the 1950s Catholicism was riding a wave of unprecedented popularity and confidence. Each week new churches and schools opened their doors, record numbers of converts joined the church, and more than 70 percent of Catholics regularly attended Sunday Mass. The Catholic college population increased significantly. Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, an accomplished preacher, had his own prime time, Emmy Award–winning television show that attracted millions of viewers. In 1958 a new pope, John XXIII, charmed the world and filled Catholics with pride. The 1960 election of an Irish Catholic, John F. Kennedy, to the presidency of the United States reinforced the optimism and confidence of Catholics.


In the 1960s the Catholic Church throughout the world underwent a period of reform. The catalyst was the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965). Coupled with the social changes that were taking place in the United States at this time, the reforms initiated by the Council ushered in a new age for American Catholicism. Change and dissent are the two words that best describe this era. The most dramatic change took place in the Catholic Mass. A new liturgy celebrated in English replaced an ancient Latin ritual. Accompanying changes in the Mass was a transformation in the devotional life of the people. People began to question the Catholic emphasis on authority and sin. The popular support for devotional rituals and a fascination with the miraculous waned. An ecumenical spirit inspired Catholics to break down the fences that separated them from people of other religious traditions. Catholics emerged from the cultural ghetto of the immigrant era and adopted a more public presence in society. They joined the 1960s war against poverty and discrimination, and were in the forefront of the peace movement during the Vietnam War. Also, the Catholic hierarchy wrote important pastoral letters that discussed war and peace in the nuclear age along with economic justice. An educated laity became more inclined to dissent, challenging the church's teaching on birth control, clerical celibacy, an exclusively male clergy, and the teaching authority of the pope. Other Catholics have opposed such dissent and have strongly defended the authority of the pope and the hierarchy. Such ideological diversity has become a distinguishing trademark of contemporary Catholicism.

Changes in the Ministry and the New Immigration

The decline in the number of priests and nuns in the late twentieth century also changed the culture of Catholicism. In 1965 there were 35,000 priests; by 2005 their numbers will have declined to about 21,000, a 40 percent decline in forty years. Along with this came a decline in the number of seminarians by about 90 percent from 1965 to the end of the century. In 1965 there were 180,000 sisters in the United States; in 2000 they numbered less than 100,000. This demographic revolution has transformed the state of ministry in the church. Along with this has come the emergence of a new understanding of ministry.

This new thinking about ministry emerged from the Second Vatican Council. The council emphasized the egalitarian nature of the Catholic Church, all of whose members received a call to the fullness of the Christian life by virtue of their baptism. This undermined the elitist tradition that put priests and nuns on a pedestal above the laity. This new thinking has transformed the church. By 2000 an astounding number of laypeople, 29,146, were actively involved as paid ministers in parishes; about 85 percent of them were women. Because of the shortage of priests many parishes, about three thousand, did not have a resident priest. A large number of these, about six hundred, had a person in charge who was not a priest. Many of these pastors were women, both lay women and women religious. They did everything a priest does except say Mass and administer the sacraments. They hired the staff, managed the finances, provided counseling, oversaw the liturgy, and supervised the educational, social, and religious programs of the parish. They were in charge of everything. The priest came in as a special guest star, a visitor who celebrated the Eucharist and left.

In addition to the changes in ministry, Catholicism is experiencing the impact of a new wave of immigration ushered in by the revised immigration laws starting in 1965. The church became more ethnically diverse than ever before. In 2000 Sunday Mass was celebrated in Los Angeles in forty-seven languages; in New York City thirty languages were needed to communicate with Sunday churchgoers. The largest ethnic group was the Spanish-speaking Latino population. Comprising people from many different nations, they numbered about 30 million in 2000, of whom approximately 75 percent were Catholic. It is estimated that by 2014 they will constitute 51 percent of the Catholic population in the United States. The new immigration transformed Catholicism in much the same way that the old immigration of the nineteenth century did.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century Catholicism in the United States is entering a new period in its history. No longer religious outsiders, Catholics are better integrated into American life. Intellectually and politically they represent many different points of view. The hierarchy has become more theologically conservative while the laity has become more independent in its thinking. An emerging lay ministry together with a decline in the number of priests and nuns has reshaped the culture of Catholicism. The presence of so many new immigrants from Latin America and Asia has also had a substantial impact on the shape of the church. Continuity with the past, with the Catholic tradition, will be the guiding force as the church moves into the twenty-first century.

In 2002 a major scandal shocked the American Catholic community, when it was revealed that some priests in Boston's Catholic community had sexually abused children over the course of several years. The crisis deepened with the revelation that church leaders had often reassigned accused priests to other parishes without restricting their access to children. The same pattern of secretly reassigning priests known to be sexual predators was discovered in other dioceses across the country. This unprecedented scandal of abuse and cover-up severely damaged the sacred trust between the clergy and the laity.


Carey, Peter W. People, Priests, and Prelates: Ecclesiastical Democracy and the Tensions of Trusteeism. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987.

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

———. In Search of an American Catholicism: A History of Religion and Culture in Tension. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Dolan, Jay P., and Allen Figueroa Deck, eds. Hispanic Catholic Culture in the U.S.: Issues and Concerns. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994.

Ellis, John Tracy. The Life of James Cardinal Gibbons: Archbishop of Baltimore, 1834–1921. 2 vols. Milwaukee, Wis.: Bruce Publishing, 1952.

Gleason, Philip. Keeping the Faith: American Catholicism, Past and Present. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987.

Greeley, Andrew M. The American Catholic: A Social Portrait. New York: Basic Books, 1977.

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

McGreevy, John T. Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Morris, Charles R. American Catholic: The Saints and Sinners Who Built America's Most Powerful Church. New York: Times Books, 1997.

O'Toole, James M. Militant and Triumphant: William Henry O'Connell and the Catholic Church in Boston, 1859–1944. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992.

Jay P.Dolan

See alsoDiscrimination: Religion ; Education: Denominational Colleges ; Immigration ; Religion and Religious Affiliation ; Religious Liberty ; Religious Thought and Writings ; Vatican II .


views updated May 11 2018


The Catholic Church traces its origins directly to the person and life of Jesus Christ. Therefore, any historical presentation of family life as it relates to the Catholic Church must go back two thousand years to the very dawn of Christianity. Scholars of this early period point to a major role played by the family in the life and expansion of Christianity.

During the first three centuries of its existence, Christianity not only lacked public approval, but its followers also experienced regular persecution by secular powers. The early Christian church was an assemblage of families who met together for prayer and worship in homes, rather than in public church buildings. Such gatherings contributed to the spirit of church life by having an important family dimension. Roman society failed to value the importance of women and children. The early church took a strong position on the dignity and value of all people. Some historians claim that the church's valuing of everyone, its openness to all regardless of gender, age, or social class, was partly the reason Christianity was persecuted by the state. Its openness to all people was deeply at odds with the hierarchical values and social structures supported by the reigning authorities.

Christian families were sometimes referred to as households of faith in the writings of the early church. Both the celebration of the Eucharist, sometimes called the agape or love feast, along with the celebration of baptism, were events directly involving the family. Occasionally, whole families were baptized into the church. Further, local church leaders, both bishops and presbyters, were chosen in part because of their proven leadership of a Christian household.

Two influential church theologians and leaders, St. Augustine (354–430) and St. John Chrysostom (347–407), both referred to the family as a domestic church in their writings. Although this language was not taken up by the church in subsequent centuries until the Second Vatican Council (1961–1965), the apparent high regard for the family was nevertheless an essential dimension of church life. That their language seemed all but forgotten indicates that soon after this early period, the family seems to recede into the background as a major setting for the Christian life. Family life was no longer a central interest of the church.

Its place as the primary small community of the church was replaced by the creation of monasticism, especially through the efforts of St. Benedict (480–550) and his sister St. Scholastica (480–543). In the rule written for monastic life, they borrowed language inherent to family life. The head of the monastery was to be called the abbot (a derivation of the word for father) while abbesses headed the convents for religious women. The members of the monastic community were to be called brothers and sisters. Entrance into the monastic community was akin to being brought into a new family. Often one's name was changed to underscore a new identity and a new set of familial relationships.

From the inception of the monastic movement, the quest for spiritual perfection within the Catholic Church was largely considered a matter for vowed monks and nuns. Those who lived in ordinary families were implicitly considered second-class members of the church. As the Christian Church became more of a public institution after Emperor Constantine's Edict of Milan (313), Christian families blended in with all the other families of the west. For the next 1,400 years, there is a loud silence in the writings and teaching of the Catholic Church about the role of family life. There is no mention of the importance of family life as significant either for salvation or sanctification.

The Beginnings of a Social Concern for Families

In 1891 Pope Leo XIII initiated a new interest in the church about family life with his pioneering social encyclical called Rerum Novarum (On New Things). The primary focus of this letter concerned the state of labor particularly as it was being influenced by the socialist revolution of the times. As the pope considered the condition of the typical worker, he also took the opportunity to comment on the state of the worker's family. Here he noted the right of families, especially poor families, to adequate food, clothing, shelter, and protection. His interest was primarily on the material or social needs of the family.

The issuance of that encyclical began a pattern of church support for the social welfare of the family. Especially in the United States there developed a group of major church agencies whose primary purpose was assistance to families, especially economic assistance. The St. Vincent de Paul Society, along with many diocesan programs under what was usually called Catholic Charities, sought to meet the needs of families and children. Catholic hospitals and schools, while attending primarily to the sick and to children, often included an interest in the families of those they served. Starting with a huge influx of Irish immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century, the number of needy Catholic families has remained high.

Toward the end of the twentieth century, many Catholic families came to the United States from Latin America and Asia. Helping these families remains a high priority for the Catholic Church. A similar effort toward helping needy families occurs around the world though a variety of international Catholic agencies like Catholic Relief Services and various international organizations sponsored by such religious communities as the Jesuits, Franciscans, and Maryknoll.

Catholic Teachings on Marriage and Family Life

Catholic teaching about marriage was minimal until the Catholic Church formally taught that Christian marriage or matrimony was one of the seven sacraments of the church. This was officially declared at the Council of Trent (1545–1563). This teaching was partly to counteract Martin Luther's claim that there were only two sacraments: baptism and eucharist. Theologians from the thirteenth century on had made mention of the sacramental nature of Christian marriage, but it was not made part of official church teaching until the abovementioned council.

Naming Christian marriage as one of the seven sacraments of the church meant that the act of marrying another, with the intent that the marriage be faithful, exclusive, and open to the creation of new life, creates a sacramental relationship between the wife and husband that participates through the working of grace. Marriage was not only a human or secular relationship. It was part of the dynamic life of being a Christian. It was drawn into the energizing presence of God's spirit that continuously breathes life into the church. Marriage is a sanctified state of life. It renders the wife and husband holy through all those acts that constitute the marriage. This graced dynamic begins with the exchange of marriage vows and through the consummation of the marriage in sexual intercourse. The process of sanctification continues though their life together.

After Christian marriage was officially incorporated as part of church life, there followed a whole series of changes in church practice. These changes happened slowly. In fact, some four hundred years later, there still remain further opportunities on the part of the church to enrich the graced state of marriage and the spiritual lives of families. First of all, the Catholic Church established rather detailed laws concerning who could marry, what dispositions or attitudes were required for marriage, how the sacramental ritual of marriage should be enacted (before a priest and two witnesses), and when and where marriages should take place when celebrated in the church.

Because of these church requirements, the church involved itself in the period before marriage to insure that all its requirements for Christian marriage were satisfied. From the sixteenth until the middle of the twentieth century, this requirement was usually met by a meeting with a priest right before the wedding.

In the middle of the twentieth century, the Catholic Church, especially in the United States and Canada, developed a variety of educational programs for engaged couples. They were designed to help couples enter Christian marriage more knowingly and more personally. These marriage preparation programs were usually given by a priest with the assistance of qualified laity.

As the Catholic Church found itself in situations where the population was religiously diverse, it also faced the issue of marriages between Catholics and non-Catholics. These were commonly referred to as mixed marriages. Up until the Second Vatican Council, these marriages were clearly thought of as second class. Usually they were not celebrated in the church building, and the non-Catholic party had to promise that any children from their marriage would be baptized and raised Catholic.

After the Second Vatican Council, the church took a more pastoral approach to these marriages, sometimes creating special programs for marriage preparation and enrichment. Also, the non-Catholic partners are no longer required to promise that children of the marriage become Catholic. Nevertheless, the Catholic partners are asked to promise to do all within their power to ensure this result. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, just under one half of the marriages that are celebrated in the church are mixed. Sometimes leaders of each one's respective religious community jointly celebrate the weddings of these people.

There are various programs and movements within the Catholic Church to enrich marriages. Many Catholic parishes and dioceses sponsor educational programs for the married. Deserving special mention are the various marriage encounter retreats or experiences that have helped thousands of Catholics gain skills in communication and insights into the sacramental and holy or sacred dimension of Christian marriage.

At the other end of the spectrum, laws and procedures were created to deal with ways the church could accept that a marriage had ended. Up until the Second Vatican Council, there were few justifying causes for a marriage to be declared ended. In brief, this could be accomplished only when the marriage partners had not consummated their union or if one of the parties decided to enter religious life. Courts were established both at the Vatican and in Catholic dioceses to deal with these cases.

Around the time of the Second Vatican Council, a new set of criteria for dissolving marriages was established by the marriage court of the Vatican, which is called the Rota. It allowed the church to declare that a given marriage lacked certain essential qualities that the church held as necessary for the existence of a Christian marriage. If the marriage lacked certain essential qualities, then the parties were given an annulment, which indicates that a Christian marriage was not canonically valid. Essential qualities may be absent in the intention of one or both parties at the time of the wedding, for example, an unwillingness to have children. Or one or both parties may have a personal psychological predisposition that makes them incapable of establishing a lifelong union of life and love.

Catholic Teachings on Human Sexuality

For most of its history, the Catholic Church taught that the primary purpose of God's gift of sexuality was the procreation and education of children. Occasionally other purposes of sexuality were noted, such as deepening the friendship of the married couple and helping to control excessive sexual desire. During the twentieth century biological science and technology made it possible to more effectively control the process of fertilization and the question arose whether Catholics might use these new methods of fertility control.

After extensive discussion involving bishops, theologians, and lay people, Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical letter, Humanae Vitae (On Human Life) in 1968. Before the issuance of that letter, many Catholics expected that the Catholic Church would change its rule of fertility control, which up to that time included only the use of natural methods. In brief, these methods allowed a couple to engage in sexual intercourse during infertile or safe times of the woman's cycle. Various methods of determining the precise time of infertility were developed to assist the couple in their quest for being responsible in the use of their procreative powers. New methods of fertility control developed in the years immediately preceding Humanae Vitae, the most well known being a pill that prevented ovulation. One of its developers was D. John Rock, who was a Catholic doctor.

The pope responded to this by saying that each and every act of sexual intercourse must be open to the creation of new life. In practice, that meant that the couple could not actively prevent possible fertilization from taking place. This teaching has been controversial for many Catholics. Nevertheless Pope John Paul II has strongly maintained the teaching of Pope Paul VI.

The Second Vatican Council reformulated and updated many teachings and practices of the church. In its document called Gaudium et Spes (The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World) it devoted a lengthy section on what it labeled The Dignity of Marriage and the Family. Here it expanded on the meaning of human sexuality in marriage by saying that it is both an expression of marital love, and it is an act that potentially could generate new human life. The church left behind any language of primary or secondary meaning to marital sex. It took a "bothand" approach in affirming two essential purposes of human sexuality. Many pastors, theologians, and married couples welcomed this broader understanding, which clearly valued human sexuality as essentially expressive of marital love.

The 1980 Vatican Synod on Family and Familiaris Consortio

As the Second Vatican Council adjourned, many church leaders felt that the ancient practice of holding regular church meetings or synods would be useful in implementing the reforms of Vatican II and for dealing with pressing issues facing the church. The Vatican has convened synods in roughly three-year intervals since 1965. In 1980, the first synod was held in the pontificate of Pope John Paul II. Its topic was the role of the Christian family in the modern word.

More than 200 bishops representing the Catholic Church from around the world met for five weeks of discussion. In general, the concerns of the bishops were divided into two sets of issues.

For bishops from developing countries, there were many issues raised dealing with such matters as family survival under difficult political and economic circumstances, the role of the state in determining family size, and the survival of the Christian family where Christians were a minority of the population.

For industrialized countries, the concerns were more concerned with internal family issues. Bishops focused the challenges of maintaining intimacy in marriage, the church's response to divorce, the need for family spirituality, and the roles of women and men in the family. The results of all these deliberations were handed over to Pope John Paul II, who then responded in a major teaching document. A year after the synod on the family adjourned, he issued Familiaris Consortio (On the Family). It was easily the lengthiest treatise on marriage and family ever created in the Catholic Church.

The papal document was divided into four sections. The first section of this apostolic exhortation (its official church designation as a document) deals with the realities of family life today. Based on the testimony of bishops from around the world, the pope notes that there are both positive and negative forces that influence family life. Like other parts of human life, the family is a mixture of the light and darkness.

The second section notes that the family must affirm and respect the full personhood of every family member. No other community can value the individual person more than can the family. The depersonalizing forces of society can be countered by an acceptance and love that is a primary part of the God-given role of the family.

Section three presents the heart of the document when it describes the comprehensive role of the Christian family. It divides the family's role into four parts. First, it is to form a community of people, bound together for life while enriching each other, especially through acts of care, kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and love. Its second role is to serve life from its beginning in the mother's womb until death. The family is to be a community of life, protecting life from all that diminishes it, supporting life in all circumstances. Third, the role of the family in society is developed by comparing families to cells that contributes directly to the life and health of the whole body. A strong message of interconnectedness and interdependency comes forth in this part of the pope's exhortation. The last aspect mentioned is the family's role in the life of the church. Here new theological ground is created by showing that the family is not just served by the church or contributes to the church, but rather that the life of the family itself is a significant part of the church's life. This teaching reaches back to the notion of the family as the domestic church, language first expressed in the early church and recaptured in the documents of the Second Vatican Council.

Section four of Familiaris Consortio calls for a comprehensive plan of support for family life from all the other sectors of church life. It calls for a pastoral outreach to all the types of family structures. It requests that local churches serve the needs of single parents, the widowed, the divorced, and the separated. In other words, there is an acknowledgement and respect given to people in a variety of family structures, which is clearly the trend that has developed in contemporary times.

The basic message of this extensive document on the family is that the church must respect and assist Christian families in whatever way it can. Clearly, the family stands at the crossroads of change in modern life. The Catholic Church is called to see that the future of the family is its own future. This perspective comes from both a sense of crisis and an awareness of a pastoral opportunity for church renewal. A family-sensitive approach to church life has roots going back to the beginning of the Christian era. In brief, the Catholic Church now affirms that the family is an essential life-giving part of the church and that it is a source of on-going vitality for entire church.

See also:Annulment; Family Ministry; Godparents; Interfaith Marriage; Marriage Preparation; Protestantism; Religion


barton, s. c., ed. (1996). the family in theological perspective. edinburgh: t and t clark.

cahill, l. s. (2000). family: a christian social perspective.minneapolis, mn: fortress press.

foley, g. (1995). family-centered church: a new parishmodel. kansas city, mo: sheed and ward.

john paul ii. (1981). familiaris consortio—on the family.washington, dc: office of publishing services, united states catholic conference.

kasper, w. (1980). theology of christian marriage. newyork: crossroad.

lawler, m. g. (1998). family: american and christian,chicago: loyola press.

lawler, m. g., and roberts, w. p., eds. (1996). christianmarriage and family: contemporary theological and pastoral perspectives, collegeville, mn: the liturgical press.

mackin, t. (1982). what is marriage? ramsey, nj: paulistpress.

mackin, t. (1989). the marital sacrament. mahwah, nj:paulist press.

ruether, r. r. (2000). christianity and the making of themodern family. boston: beacon press.

schillebeecky, e. (1986). marriage, human reality, andsaving mystery. london: sheed and ward.

david michael thomas


views updated May 23 2018


The Catholic presence in America was small until the nineteenth century. Today, largely due to heavy immigration from Catholic countries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, nearly one-third of the U.S. population is Roman Catholic.

Catholic hierarchy

The ultimate leadership over Catholic churches of all nations is the Vatican, the headquarters of the church based in the independent city-state of Vatican City, which is located within the city of Rome, Italy. From the Vatican, the pope, the head of the Catholic Church, rules Catholics throughout the world. To administer the churches in the various countries, the pope appoints national church leaders, particularly archbishops and bishops, who are subject to his rule.

In 2007, the United States had forty-five archbishops, the highest-ranking bishops who head large Catholic districts called archdioceses. Bishops are priests who teach church doctrine, but who also minister church government. The United States has 290 active bishops. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, founded in 1966, is the official governing body of the U.S. Roman Catholic Church. It is subject to the authority of the pope.

Origins of American Catholicism

The earliest Catholicism in the United States arrived with the Spanish missionaries who founded a mission in St. Augustine, Florida , in 1565. Through the nineteenth century, Spain continued to found missions in the present-day southeastern United States, Texas , New Mexico , Arizona , and California in their efforts to convert the native people to the Roman Catholic faith. (See Spanish Missions .) France sent Catholic missionaries to North America in the seventeenth century, establishing missions in Canada, and later bringing Catholicism to the vast French territory called Louisiana .

At the time of New World settlement, England was a Protestant nation, but it had a significant Catholic population. (See Protestantism .) In 1632, an English Catholic, Caecilius Calvert, Baron of Baltimore (1605–1675), founded Maryland , the first British Catholic colony. The Catholic presence in the American colonies remained fairly small throughout the colonial era.

The first bishops

In 1789, American Catholics numbered only about thirty thousand and were concentrated in Maryland and Kentucky . That year, John Carroll (1735–1815) was elected the first U.S. Catholic bishop, and he would later become archbishop of Baltimore, Maryland. Carroll's vision of the church was greatly influenced by the spirit of American democracy. He supported the lay trustee system of church government, in which elected laymen (people who are not members of the clergy) worked with the

clergy to govern the local parish community. A parish is a district, or neighborhood, with its own church.

Carroll wanted Catholicism in the United States to be free from foreign influence. Seeking to train a clergy that would be familiar with what he described as “the American way of life,” he founded Georgetown Academy (later Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. ) and St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore. Carroll was a strong supporter of religious freedom and of separation of church and state, as established in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution .

Carroll died in 1815 and French cleric Ambrose Maréchal (1764–1828) was named archbishop of Baltimore. Maréchal's vision of Catholicism was entirely different from Carroll's. In his view, the clergy, not the laymen, ruled; he strongly opposed any notion of democracy in the church. These two differing understandings of Catholicism—Carroll's democratic vision and Maréchal's more authoritarian approach—have remained a source of conflict within the U.S. Catholic Church.

Catholic immigration

Irish immigration began on a large scale in the 1830s and swelled in the 1840s, along with a surge in German immigration . Between 1830 and 1860, this increased the Roman Catholic population in the United States considerably: from 318,000 to more than 3 million. Nearly 2 million Catholics in 1860 were immigrants. Other Catholic immigrants began arriving in large numbers later in the century.

Although Catholic communities developed in the farming areas of the Midwest, the vast majority of immigrating Catholics settled in cities, where there were manufacturing jobs. By the end of the nineteenth century, as many as twenty-eight different language groups claimed membership in the Catholic Church. The Irish and Germans were the most numerous national groups, and Polish and Italian immigrants were not far behind.


The influx of large numbers of Catholics in what previously had been a primarily English Protestant society unleashed hostilities among some native-born Americans, particularly in the cities of the northeast. As early as the 1830s, shocking anti-Catholic popular literature began to circulate. Stories and pamphlets depicted sexual orgies behind the walls of Catholic convents, inflaming suspicion and prejudice. The first large-scale anti-Catholic violence in the United States occurred in Charlestown, Massachusetts , in August 1834, where a mob burned down a convent after a rumor spread that priests there were confining a nun against her will.

Continued conflict between Catholics and Protestants arose over city school systems. In most schools, students recited Protestant hymns and prayers and read the Protestant King James Bible; even the textbooks had anti-Catholic biases. Catholic leaders asked that the schools stop using the Protestant Bible and eliminate Protestant hymns and prayers. Some Catholic leaders went further, asking that the state finance Catholic parochial (parish) schools. Their wishes infuriated anti-Catholic groups. Anger mounted, resulting in a riot in New York City in 1842 and a bloody three-day riot in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania , in 1844 in which Protestants destroyed two Catholic churches.

In the 1850s, the Know-Nothing Party (or American Party), whose motto was “Americans must rule America,” rose to political prominence. Antiforeign and anti-Catholic party members took an oath that they would not vote for any foreigners, Roman Catholics in particular. By 1854, the Know-Nothing Party had over one million members and had elected governors, mayors, and congressmen. Former U.S. president Millard Fillmore (1800–1874; served 1850–53) ran as the party's presidential nominee in the 1856 election, but lost. The controversial issue of slavery soon split the party, and its decline was as rapid as its rise. Nonetheless, the Know-Nothings made Catholics feel that they were not welcome in the United States. Catholic immigrants gathered together in their own neighborhoods, creating a world set apart from the rest of American society.

The national parish

Traditionally, Catholic people worshiped in a neighborhood church; nationality had little to do with church membership. In the immigrant neighborhoods of urban America, though, immigrant Catholics wanted to worship in a church where services and sermons were in their native language and where they could continue the traditions and customs of the Old World. Thus, the key institution of the American Catholic world in the nineteenth and early twentieth century was the national parish, with specific churches for each immigrant nationality.

National parishes were more than places to worship. In immigrant neighborhoods, they were the center of community life. In addition to the church, parishes often included a school, a convent for the nuns, or sisters, who worked in the parish, a home for the parish clergy, a hall for social and recreational events, and often a high school or orphanage.

In 1884, American bishops urged that all parishes build a Catholic parochial school. Although that did not happen, 37 percent of Catholic parishes supported a school by 1900. Essential to the development of the parochial schools were the sisters who taught in them. Sisters were also involved in founding hospitals and orphanages and performing a variety of social welfare tasks.

Changes in the church

In the United States in the first half of the twentieth century, the majority of American Catholics were fairly recent immigrants. The church remained traditional, as it had been in Europe. It was a stern overseer of community life and personal morality and a preserver of ancient traditions that made sure its members knew their place. Services were conducted in Latin, rather than the native language, and Catholic education tended to stifle intellectual questioning. Many American Catholic leaders ardently denounced modern life, especially condemning birth control, divorce, and morally suspect entertainment, such as the movies.

By the 1950s, however, the Catholic immigrant population was taking its place in the American middle class. Part of the reason for their prosperity was that trade unions were forcing businesses to grant higher wages and benefits to workers. Two-thirds of all unionized workers were Catholics, and so American Catholicism was strongly tied to labor unions. (See Labor Movement .) A labor union is an organization that serves its members’ collective interests with regard to wages and working conditions. Catholic trade-union leaders convinced church fathers to take up the plight of the poor.

At the same time, Catholic journalist and social reformer Dorothy Day (1897–1890) began social justice campaigns in the Catholic Worker Movement, opening houses of hospitality where the poor and unemployed could find food and shelter. Day and other Catholic reformers tried to live according to Catholic precepts, forming a progressive Catholic counterculture that attracted Catholics and drew many converts to the faith.

Vaticahn II

In 1959, the newly elected pope, John XXIII (1881–1963), summoned a council to bring the Catholic Church up-to-date. The Vatican II council was conducted in four sessions between 1962 and 1965. Among its many rulings, the council gave bishops more freedom, proclaimed that other religions besides Catholicism were of value, supported religious freedom, rejected anti-Semitism, and promoted a more active social role for the church. Vatican II decreed that the Catholic Mass was to be conducted in the country's native language. Laypeople were to acquire a larger role in determining the affairs of the church. The United States Conference of Bishops was created as the ruling body of the church within the United States. It, too, gave laypeople a role in the workings of the church.

Conservative Catholics objected to the changes. Some found the drift from authority to individual choice disturbing. On the other hand, progressive Catholics were disappointed that Vatican II had not taken bolder steps to bring the church into step with modern times. From the 1960s to the 1980s, many American Catholics stopped following some of the strict Catholic teachings, increasing friction between them and the leaders of the traditional church.

Contraception, abortion, and women's rights

After Vatican II, many American Catholics felt that issues of contraception, abortion, and sexuality were personal matters that could be handled without the church's interference. But in 1968, Pope Paul VI (1897–1978) reasserted the church's traditional ban on artificial birth control. American Catholics, particularly women, responded with disappointment and anger. By the end of the 1960s, many surveys indicated that nearly three-quarters of Catholic women were privately using artificial birth control. Many members of the Catholic clergy were openly—and bitterly—opposed to the pope's ruling. The Church's position on birth control remains the same in the twenty-first century.

The issue of abortion came into the forefront of heated debate in the 1970s. The Vatican had labeled abortion an unspeakable crime, and it urged church leaders to act against it. American Catholics for the most part believed that abortion was wrong, but many did not believe it was a mortal sin, or an act of murder. An increasing number of American Catholics felt that women had the right to decide the fate of their own bodies and that abortion was not a decision to be made by a male-dominated church. The National Coalition of American Nuns helped to sponsor a pro-choice advertisement in 1984, but the official stance of the church today, supported by Pope Benedict XVI (1927–), still forbids abortion in Catholic society.

American Catholics also led the battle for equality of the sexes in the Catholic Church, demanding a larger, more visible role for women in the church. In 1985, Gallup polls found that 47 percent of American Catholics were in favor of women priests. In 1988, U.S. Catholic bishops, realizing the need for some new official statement on women's role in the church, published the “Partners in the Mystery of Redemption.” The church condemned sexism as a sin; yet it still did not favor women priests, contraception, or abortion.

Sexual abuse scandals of the 2000s

Beginning in late 2001 and early 2002, the Catholic Church in the United States repeatedly made national headlines due to a series of sexual abuse accusations made against its priests. Many were accusations of child molestation. In 2004, the church's review board issued a report on the molestation problem from 1950 to 2002, recording 10,667 abuse claims over those fifty-two years. In this report, about forty-three hundred priests, or 4 percent of U.S. priests, had been accused of sexual abuse. However, many observers point out that these numbers include only those who reported abuse. The actual numbers are probably significantly higher.

American Catholics were most angered that the church had covered for the abusers, in some cases allowing them to continue the abuse in other parishes. Authorities blamed the continuing pattern of abuse on church leaders who protected abusive priests rather than risk scandal by revealing the truth. Belatedly, steps were taken to end the pattern. At its June 2002 general meeting in Dallas, Texas, the Catholic bishops of the United States adopted a “one strike, you’re out” policy that removes from active ministry any priest who has sexually abused a minor, whether that abuse occurred forty years ago or occurs tomorrow.

The lawsuits against the church continued. By 2005, Catholic dioceses across the United States were paying millions of dollars in damages to victims of child sexual abuse at the hands of priests. As a result, the Catholic Church faced devastating financial problems. Churches were forced to lay off employees, close offices, and shut down schools and seminaries to pay the high price of lengthy legal battles.

By the end of 2007, there were nearly sixty-eight million Catholics in the United States. According to a 2004 poll, 60 percent of Catholics were non-Hispanic whites, or Caucasians; 31 percent were Hispanic; 4 percent were African American; and 5 percent were of other ethnicity.


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69. Catholicism

See also 79. CHRIST ; 80. CHRISTIANITY ; 260. MARY ; 323. POPE ; 349. RELIGION ; 359. SAINTS ; 392. THEOLOGY .

the praetiees in the Anglican communion that hold that Catholicism is inherent in a church whose episcopate is able to traee its line of descent from the apostles and whose faith Catholics agree to be revealed truth. AngloCatholic, n., adj.
an opposition to the influence and activities of the clergy in public affairs. anticlericalist, n.
a book containing the prayers, lessons, etc., needed by a priest for the reading of his daily office.
a 19th-century plan of the German parliamentarian Cahensly, successfully opposed by American interests, to have the pope divide the foreign-born population of the U.S. into ethnic groups and to appoint bishops and priests of the same ethnic and linguistic background as each group.
the condition of a person who is receiving basic instruction in the doctrines of Christianity in preparation for the sacrament of confirmation. Also catechumenate. catechumen, n. catechumenal, catechumenical, adj.
the state of being single or unmarried, especially in the case of one bound by vows not to marry. celibate, n., adj.
1. a sacramental oil.
2. a sacramental anointing; unction.
3. Eastern Christianity. the rite of confirmation.
1. an undue influence of the hierarchy and clergy in public affairs and government.
2. the principles and interests of the clergy.
3. the system, spirit, or methods of the priesthood; sacerdotalism. Cf. laicism. clericalist, n.
1. the philosophy and methods of the ultramontane party in the Roman Church.
2. the methods and processes of the Curia Romana, the bureaucracy of congregations and offices which assist the pope in the government of the Roman Church.
1. a canon lawyer versed in papal decrees on points in ecclesiastical law.
2. a person versed in the decretals. Also decretalist .
the devotion, veneration, or respect accorded saints.
the control of government by clerics. Also called hierocracy . ecclesiarch. n.
encyclical, encyclic
a letter from the Pope to the Roman Catholic clergy on matters of doctrine or other concerns of the Church, of ten meant to be read from the pulpit.
the view that the faith and practice of the Church are based in both tradition and the Scriptures. See also 43. BIBLE .
the body of doctrines, chiefly associated with French dioceses, advocating the restriction of papal authority, especially in administrative matters. Cf. ultramontanism. Gallican, n., adj.
the teaching of a 19th-century Paulist priest, Isaac T. Hecker, who regarded Catholicism as the religion best suited to promoting human aspirations after liberty and truth and to the character and institutions of the American people. Also called Americanism.
the views of Hildebrand, Pope Gregory VII (1073-85), especially those underlying his drastic reforms within the Roman Church and his assertion of papal supremacy. Usually called ultramontanism. Hildebrandic, Hildebrandine, adj.
permission, particularly that given by the Roman Catholic Church, to publish or print; hence, any sanction or approval. (Latin: let it be printed.)
1. the belief in or adherence to the dogma of papal infallibility.
2. the dogma itself.
1. the doctrines, practices, etc., of the Jesuit order of priests.
2. Disparaging, lower case. casuistry or equivocation. Also Jesuitry . Jesuitic, Jesuitical, adj.
1. the nonclerical, or secular, control of political and social institutions in a society.
2. lay participation in church matters. Cf. clericalism. laity, n.
Liguorist, Liguorian
a believer in the theological doctrines of St. Alfonso Maria da Liguori (1696-1787), founder of the Redemptorist Order.
Rare. a religious cult based on the veneration of the Virgin Mary.
Mariolatry, Maryology, Maryolatry
the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mariolater, n. Mariolatrous, adj.
an Arabic-speaking Uniat sect in Lebanon, under the authority of the papacy since the 12th century but maintaining its Syriac liturgy, married clergy, and practice of communion in both bread and wine. Maronite, n., adj.
marranism, marranoism
the forced conversion of Jews or Moors in medieval Spain. marrano, n.
1. a history or registry of martyrs.
2. the branch of ecelesiastical history that studies the lives and deaths of martyrs.
3. an official catalog of martyrs and saints, arranged according to the dates of their feast days. martyrologist, n. martyrologic, martyrological, adj.
the doctrine of the 16th-century Jesuit Luis Molina, who taught that the work of grace depends on the accord of mans free will. Molinist, n.
a Premonstrant.
a 3rd-century controversy in the Roman diocese in which Novation, elected bishop of a schismatic group, declared that lapsed Christians could not be received again into the Church. Novationist, n.
a person resident and serving in a monastery but not under vows; a lay religious worker.
1. a member of the lowest-ranking of the four minor orders in Roman Catholicism.
2. a doorkeeper of a church.
1. the institution and procedures of papal government.
2. the advocacy of papal supremacy. papalist, n., adj.
Usually disparaging. authoritarian government under the direction of the pope. Also papistry . papist, n. papistic, papistical, adj.
the theological concepts taught by or ascribed to St. Peter. Petrinist, n.
Pejorative. papal authority or actions.
a breviary.
a priest who submits a plea for beatification or canonization.
one of the order of Roman Catholic monks founded at Premontre, France, by St. Norbert in 1119. Also called Premonstratensian, Norbertine.
resistance to authority or refusal to conform, especially in religious matters, used of English Catholics who refuse to attend the services of the Church of England. Also recusance . recusant, n., adj.
advocacy of the reunion of the Anglican and Catholic churches. reunionist, n. reunionistic, adj.
Ribbonism, Ribandism
the principles of the Ribbon Society, a Roman Catholic secret society of the mid 19th century. Ribbonist, Ribandist, n.
the practices and doctrines of Roman Catholicism. romanist, n. romanistic, adj.
the system, practices, or principles underlying the priesthood. sacerdotal, n., adj.
simonism, simony
the practice or defense of the selling of church relies, preferments, etc. simoniac, simonist, n.
a fellowship, brotherhood, or other association of a benevolent nature, especially in the Roman Catholic Church. sodalist, n., adj.
the state of one who has received supernatural stigmata, i.e., marks on hands, feet, and side similar to the wounds of Christ. stigmata, n. stigmatic, adj.
a member of a council, meeting to consult and decide on church matters. synodical, synodal, adj.
adherence to tradition, rather than to revelation, independent Bible study, or individual reasoning, as the authority controlling religious knowledge and practice. traditionalist, n. traditionalistic, adj.
a member of a Roman Catholic monastic order, a branch of the Cistercians, observing an austere, reformed rule, including a vow of silence; named after the monastery at La Trappe, France, where the reformed rule was introduced in 1664. Trappist, adj.
the advocacy of the supremacy of the papacy and the papal system, in opposition to those favoring national churches and the authority of church councils. Cf. Gallicanism. ultramontane, ultramontanist, n. ultramontanistic, adj.
the union of an Eastern Rite church with the Roman Church in which the authority of the papacy is accepted without loss of separate liturgies or government by local patriarchs. Uniat, Uniate, n.
the doctrine or advocacy of papal supremacy. Vaticanist, n.

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