Gibbons, James

views updated


Cardinal, ninth archbishop of Baltimore; b. Baltimore, Md., July 23, 1834; d. Baltimore, Md., March 24, 1921. He was the oldest son of Irish immigrant parents and was taken to Ireland at the age of three when his family returned, hoping to improve his father's health. However, Thomas Gibbons died in 1847, and in 1853 Bridget (Walsh) Gibbons returned to the U.S. and settled in New Orleans with her five children. For two years James worked as a clerk in a grocery store, but having decided to be a priest, he entered St. Charles College, Ellicott City, Md., in 1855. In 1857, he proceeded to St. Mary's Seminary, Baltimore, and was ordained for that archdiocese on June 30, 1861, by Abp. Francis Patrick Kenrick.

After about six weeks as an assistant priest at St. Patrick's Church, Baltimore, Gibbons became pastor of St. Bridget's Church, Canton, and the mission of St. Lawrence O'Toole across Chesapeake Bay. For four years he attended his two congregations and assisted as a volunteer chaplain to the Civil War troops at Fts. McHenry and Marshall. In 1865 he was appointed secretary to Martin John spalding, seventh Archbishop of Baltimore, and a year later named assistant chancellor of the archdiocese and made responsible for some of the preparations for the Second Plenary Council, which convened at Baltimore in October 1866. This council recommended to the Holy See the erection of new ecclesiastical jurisdictions in the U.S., among them the Vicariate Apostolic of North Carolina to which the 32-year-old James Gibbons was named. He was consecrated with the title of bishop of Adramyttium in partibus infidelium by Archbishop Spalding on Aug. 16, 1868.

North Carolina, nearly 50,000 square miles in area, had over a million people of whom only about 700 were Catholics. Although Gibbons found there only three priests and no Catholic institutions, he soon infused new life into his scattered flock. In October 1869 he left for Rome to attend Vatican Council I (December of 1869 to July of 1870), where he was the youngest of more than 700 bishops from all over the world. When he returned to North Carolina in October 1870, he found it plagued by carpetbagger rule. In 1872, upon the death of Bp. John McGill of Richmond, Gibbons was named administrator of the vacant see and in the following July was appointed successor to McGill while still being left in charge of North Carolina. Despite this double burden, which he carried for the next five years, the Church made marked progress in both states.

Gibbons drew on his missionary experiences in North Carolina and Virginia to write a simple exposition of the teaching of the Catholic Church designed to enlighten Catholics and to instruct prospective converts and Protestants. Published in 1876, The Faith of Our Fathers proved to be the most successful work of its kind in the apologetical literature of American Catholicism. When James Roosevelt Bayley, eighth Archbishop of Baltimore, sought a coadjutor, Gibbons was named in May of 1877 and given the right of succession. Bayley died on October 3, and 16 days later Gibbons arrived in Baltimore, where, at the age of 43, he assumed charge of the premier see of the U.S.

Archbishop of Baltimore. As archbishop of Baltimore, Gibbons automatically became one of the principal leaders of the American Church. Even during the eight years (187785) when he was outranked by Cardinal John McCloskey, Archbishop of New York, this leadership continued to grow because of McCloskey's retiring manner and increasingly ill health. In the period before the establishment of the Apostolic Delegation (1893), the occupants of the See of Baltimore performed many of the

functions of that institution, acting as a clearing house for American business with the Holy See. All of this Gibbons continued to do, although in a routine way, since it was not his nature to initiate new policies or inaugurate new undertakings. Thus the event that won him a national reputation in ecclesiastical circles, the Third Plenary Council of 1884, over which he presided as apostolic delegate, was in no sense owed to his initiative, any more than was the institution that may be said to have been born during the sessions of that council.

The Catholic University of America. In both cases the initiative was in other hands; in fact, Gibbons was distinctly cool to the proposal for a council, and when the time came for the bishops to vote on the location of the university, he voted for Philadelphia, not wishing it in his archdiocese. However, once the more progressive and daring bishops of the West had forced the issue of a council by appeals to Rome, Gibbons assumed the leadership that his office demanded and effectually managed the difficult and protracted preparatory plans for the council. And once the council itself had voted favorably on the project of a university, he presided with balance and fairness to all groups over the committee appointed to bring into being a university.

As archbishop of Baltimore he automatically became the first chancellor of the University once it had been determined to locate it in Washington, which was within his archdiocese. Thus from a presiding official who had somewhat reluctantly attended its birth and supervised its early life, Gibbons passed to the role of a promoter and, indeed, literally a savior of the University in the dark days of 1904 when bankruptcy overtook the treasurer and threatened to close the institution. The success with which Gibbons presided over the council for four weeks to the satisfaction of the 71 bishops in attendance made him a probable candidate for further honors, and his name was mentioned for cardinal after the death of McCloskey in 1885. In May 1886 Leo XIII designated him for the cardinalate and the red biretta was conferred on him on June 30 in Baltimore's cathedral.

Cardinal. Shortly after Gibbons's advent to Baltimore the American Church entered upon the two stormiest decades in its history. The last 20 years of the 19th century were marked by an unprecedented influx of Catholic immigrants from Europe, whose coming magnified existing problems and created new ones which the bishops had to meet. Into every major problem the archbishop of Baltimore was projected, first, by reason of his office, secondly, because after 1886 he was the ranking national dignitary of the Church, and finally, because his grasp of the affairs of Church and State was commanding. While he had no part in creating the controversies of the 1880s and 1890s within Catholic ranks, he had a major share in the solution of most of them.

Secret Societies and McGlynn Affair. The problem of membership of Catholic men in secret societies reached an acute stage in the 1880s. The cardinal was anxious that Catholic men should remain apart from any secret groups that would endanger their religious faith, but he was strongly opposed to the Church's banning these groups unless there was positive proof of their harmful character, as in the case of the Free-masons. He believed that hasty condemnations were injurious to the Church's prestige in the eyes of non-Catholics, and that they often failed to attain their objectives. Accordingly, he defended the Knights of Labor (K of L) when they came under the scrutiny of the Catholic bishops of the U.S. in 1886, and of Rome in February 1887. His defense prevented the public condemnation of the K of L in the U.S., a happy contrast to what had happened in Canada three years before.

This same spirit characterized his approach to the question of whether to put the works of Henry George, author of the single tax movement, on the Index, as Abp. Michael A. corrigan of New York and others advised. Gibbons was not at all in sympathy with George's economic theories, any more than he was with the action of Edward mcglynn, New York priest. McGlynn's defiance of his archbishop in support of George's candidacy for mayor of New York and of his economic doctrines had led to his suspension by Corrigan and his later excommunication by the Holy See. Gibbons deplored both the fallacies of George's theories and the intransigence of McGlynn, but he insisted that a condemnation of George's books would do more harm than good, since it would afford him and his constituents a publicity that they had not merited.

These views were embodied in the documents that Gibbons addressed in February of 1887 to Cardinal Giovanni Simeoni, Prefect of the Congregation de Propaganda Fide. The one prevented a public condemnation of the K of L, while the other succeeded in keeping George's books off the Index and their author from receiving a public condemnation from the Holy Office. Gibbons's action in these two cases helped to set the American Church's future policy toward the rising industrial society of which Catholic laborers were so important a part. Gibbons knew the value that his fellow Americans attached to democratic procedures. He was sensitive, too, to the danger that might arise from officials of the Roman Curia acting in a manner that would put weapons into the hands of the enemies of the American Church. Therefore, he had said to Simeoni, "To speak with the most perfect respect, but also with the frankness which duty requires of me, it seems to me that prudence suggests, and that even the dignity of the Church demands that we should not offer to America an ecclesiastical protection for which she does not ask, and of which she believes she has no need."

Nationality Conflicts and School Controversy. It has often been said that Gibbons's major contribution was his ability to interpret the U.S. to the Holy See and the Catholic Church to the U.S. This was illustrated in the controversy of the late 1880s between quarreling groups of Catholics of differing national backgrounds, mostly Irish and German, which constituted a severe internal strain on the American Church. Throughout this crisis Gibbons emphasized the oneness of their common American citizenship and its obligations, as well as the oneness of their religious faith. In the sermon he preached in Milwaukee (Aug. 20, 1891) at the conferring of the pallium on Abp. Frederick X. katzer, the cardinal warned, "Woe to him who would breed dissension among the leaders of Israel by introducing a spirit of nationalism into the camps of the Lord! Brothers we are, whatever may be our nationality, and brothers we shall remain." In the same spirit he had sought to quiet the misgivings of President Benjamin Harrison when the latter revealed to him his uneasiness over the threat of foreign interference in the nationalist disputes of the American Catholics; Gibbons succeeded in convincing the President that the policies of German extremists would find no countenance with Pope Leo XIII.

He worked to calm his coreligionists during the controversy over parochial schools in the early 1890s while agreeing substantially with the proposals of Abp. John ireland of St. Paul. At the same time he made clear to his non-Catholic fellow citizens why the Catholic Church was compelled to insist on having its own school system. Finally, as the 19th century was closing, Gibbons did his share to reassure Leo XIII that there was no justification for the charges made by a few conservative Catholic writers in France that there was, within American Catholic circles, a movement tinged with heresy called americanism.

Other Contributions. Gibbons and his fellow bishops faced the problems of a growing secularization of American society along with the highly varied character of the Catholics themselves, composed, as they were, of men and women of numerous national backgrounds. When he took possession of his titular Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere on March 25, 1887, he sought in his sermon to harmonize as far as possible conflicting elements in American Catholic life. Acknowledging that the U.S. was not without defects, he stated, nonetheless, "I proclaim with a deep sense of pride and gratitude, and in this great capital of Christendom, that I belong to a country where the civil government holds over us the aegis of its protection without interfering in the legitimate exercise of our sublime mission as ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ." The cardinal's remarks on separation of Church and State in the U.S. on that occasion have since been echoed many times by clerical and lay representatives of the American Church.

Patriotism was a favorite theme of Cardinal Gibbons. Of few things was he more proud as an American than his country's Constitution, of which he said in January 1897, "I would not expunge or alter a single paragraph, a single line, or a single word . " The last article hepublished only a month before he died stated that as the years passed he had become "more and more convinced that the Constitution of the United States is the greatest instrument of government that ever issued from the hand of man." This conviction endeared Gibbons to Americans of all religions. On June 6, 1911, President William Howard Taft and former President Theodore Roosevelt were among the 20,000 people assembled in Baltimore to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his ordination. Gibbons's interest in national, state, and municipal questions led Theodore Roosevelt to remark to him in 1917, "taking your life as a whole, I think you now occupy the position of being the most respected, and venerated, and useful citizen of our country."

Gibbons lived to within three months of the 60th anniversary of his ordination as a priest; his 52 years as bishop and 35 years as cardinal and dean of the American hierarchy made him a symbol of the American Church, which he represented at hundreds of functions, ecclesiastical and secular, in Europe and the U.S. He was a spiritual guide for men of his time. He ordained 2,471 priests and consecrated 23 bishops, a record for the American Church until 1945. In addition to conducting the affairs of his own see, and functioning as dean of the American hierarchy in the founding of the National Catholic War Council (1917), forerunner of the National Catholic Welfare Conference at whose birth he presided (1919), he fostered the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, better known as Maryknoll (1911). He wrote articles for secular and Catholic periodicals and newspapers, and besides The Faith of Our Fathers, he was the author of four other works: Our Christian Heritage (1889), The Ambassador of Christ (1896), Discourses and Sermons (1908), and A Retrospect of Fifty Years (1916).

Bibliography: j. t. ellis, The Life of James Cardinal Gibbons, 2 v. (Milwaukee 1952), especially "An Essay on the Sources," 2:651659, where all the leading manuscript and printed sources for Gibbons's life are listed with critical comments.

[j. t. ellis]

About this article

Gibbons, James

Updated About content Print Article