Lay Congresses, American Catholic

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Held in Baltimore, MD (1889), and Chicago, IL (1893), and attended by Catholic lay delegates from all over the U.S. for the purpose of considering various social problems affecting the Church. The Catholic Congress of 1889 was held on November 11 and 12 at the Concordia Opera House, Baltimore, in conjunction with the centennial celebration of the American hierarchy. The suggestion for such a convention of laymen came from Henry F. Brownson, son of Orestes Brownson; and despite the initial opposition of Cardinal James gibbons, who doubted the wisdom and timeliness of a congress, the idea quickly won the support of several members of the hierarchy, including Abp. John ireland of st. paul, Minn. William J. onahan, chairman of the committee on organization, was assisted by the historian John Gilmary shea. Brownson was chairman of the committee on papers to be read at the congress. After a solemn opening in the Baltimore cathedral, about 1,500 delegates reassembled at the Concordia to hear 14 papers, including Shea's "Catholic Congresses," Brownson's "Lay Action of the Church," and Charles J. Bonaparte's learned address on "The Independence of the Holy See." Among the resolutions adopted at the congress were those denouncing Mormonism, divorce, secret societies, socialism, and communism. Catholic social and benevolent societies, the Catholic press, and Catholic education were commended; and the delegates pledged their loyalty to the pope and demanded temporal freedom for the Holy See. Finally, they agreed that a second lay congress should be held in Chicago during the Columbian celebration (189293).

The second Catholic Congress, which met in Chicago in early September 1893, was organized by Abp. Patrick feehan of Chicago and William J. Onahan. During the three-day gathering, 18 papers touching on a variety of subjects, including capital and labor, Church and State, the independence of the Holy See, temperance, and Catholic education were read, but without discussion. The more prominent speakers at the congress included Gibbons, Abp. F. Satolli, Edgar H. Gans, Maurice Francis Egan, and George Parsons Lathrop. Resolutions similar to those of 1889 were adopted, but no plans were made for a third congress.

These two Catholic congresses, both of which were looked on with favor by the Holy See and a majority of the American hierarchy, foreshadowed a closer cooperation between the clergy and the laity in the U.S. Archbishop Ireland stated at the conclusion of the Baltimore congress that he hoped the hierarchy, heretofore unaware of the laity's potential, would put "so much talent, so much strong faith" to good use. Seventy-five years later, the bishops assembled at Vatican Council II debated Ireland's suggestion and through legislation reemphasized the interdependence of the clergy and laity within the Church's structure.

Bibliography: Souvenir Volume of the Centennial Celebration and Catholic Congress (Detroit 1889). j. t. ellis, The Life of James Cardinal Gibbons, 2 v. (Milwaukee 1952).

[j. q. feller]