Can a Catholic be a True American?

July-August 1989By James J. Thompson Jr.

James J. Thompson Jr. is a Nashville-area writer and Book Review Editor of the NOR. His latest book is The South, the Church and the Future.

American and Catholic: The New Debate.  Edited by Joe Holland and Anne Barsanti. Pillar Books. 122 pages. $8.95.

The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History.  By David H. Bennett. University of North Carolina Press. 509 pages. $29.95.

The Life of James Cardinal Gib­bons, Archbishop of Baltimore, 1834-1921.  By John Tracy Ellis. Christian Classics. 2 vols., 1,442 pages. $65.



Spot the howler in the fol­lowing passage: “Methodism and American culture can no longer be held in separate compartments. One must be transformed by the other, both must change together, or war must be declared between the two.” “Methodism” is wildly inappropriate, right? What would fit? Run an eye down the lengthy list of Protestant denominations, trying each in turn: none rings true. What about “Catholicism”? Precisely. The words appear in Joe Holland’s essay in American and Catholic.

Rarely does one think of Protestantism and American cul­ture as locked into “separate compartments,” nor do many commentators warn of the possi­bility of warfare between the two. Save for the most radical or perversely estranged sectarians, Protestants have always rested at ease in the American Zion. Well they might: it is their land. They settled it, nurtured it through long decades of English suprem­acy, and then threw off the co­lonial yoke to establish a new na­tion. Protestants filled the land from shore to shore, reaped a staggering abundance from its fields, wrenched industrial might from its factories, and infused the young nation with rambunc­tious self-confidence. A Protes­tant need not fret about a clash between religion and culture; for him, the two have generally been inseparable.

The Catholic has not had it so easy. Even so, it sounds strange to hear Holland talk about those “separate compartments.” After all, not many Protestants contin­ue to snub Catholics as pariahs, and if the venomous anti-popery of Know Nothings and Klansmen is not stone dead, it flourishes only fitfully among the most disreputable nut-groups. Aren’t Catholics as fully integrated into American life as, say, Episcopal­ians or Presbyterians?

American and Catholic re­veals that Catholics continue to debate the proper relationship between religion and cultural identity. Charlene Spretnak, for example, urges a “greening” of Catholic consciousness that would, in turn, inject a transform­ing spirituality into the coldly ra­tionalistic culture of science and technology. Michael Schwartz, another contributor to the sym­posium, advocates the warfare that Holland descries as a future possibility. At least some Catho­lics appear eager to reopen a de­bate one had supposed dead: Can a Catholic be a true American?

The most common answer, and one that generations of Prot­estants have voiced with gladsome celerity, has been concise and blunt: No! David Bennett’s mas­terly charting of the ebbs and crests of “antialienism” recalls the suspicion, animosity, and flat-out hatred Catholics suffered un­til recently in their struggle to be welcomed as true-blue Americans. “Antialien enmity was part of the heritage of the colonial ex­perience,” Bennett notes. “The earliest target was Roman Cathol­icism.” This “enmity” encom­passes much more than anti-Ca­tholicism. Bennett contends that from the outset, the American venture has engendered a division between insiders and outsiders, between “true Americans” and “aliens.” The former invariably have appointed themselves the “protectors of the promised land…against alien, destructive forces.”

To document this reading of American history Bennett rounds up the usual suspects: Know Nothings, Kluxers, funda­mentalists, anti-Communists, and an assortment of right-wingers of the most recent vintage. Until the 1920s the “party of fear,” to use Bennett’s phrase, concentrat­ed its wrath mainly upon literal outsiders — immigrants — and this assured that Catholics, along with Jews, would be the prime target of nativism. Since the Red Scare of 1919-1920 the focus has shifted to ideas and away from groups of people defined by eth­nicity and religion, Bennett ar­gues. This has thrown the animus upon internal aliens, upon pur­veyors of such ideologies as Com­munism and, lately, secular hu­manism.

The typical liberal historian (and most historians are liberals) surveys all this with distaste and clucks self-righteously: “What an appalling record of bigotry this nation has compiled!” In a won­derfully comic fashion, historians who despise Roman Catholicism piously condemn anti-Catholics as irrational, paranoid bigots. Professor Bennett reacts less pre­dictably. Although he abhors the excrescences of nativist hatred that mar our history, he disdains the cheaply bought frisson that comes from boasting of moral su­periority over our forebears.

Bennett comprehends the shock of change that stunned na­tive-born Americans in the 1840s and 1850s when their land was inundated by millions of German and Irish migrants. In judging the nativists, he observes: “The disruption of American life was not the product of their overheated imaginations but of objective conditions. Their ‘solutions’ to these problems may have been ir­relevant, inappropriate, and de­structive, but their fears were rooted in reality.” As the saying goes, even paranoiacs have real enemies. It was not paranoid to fear that jobs would be lost to hungry newcomers willing to work for a pittance. It was not ir­rational to ask how these clan­nish immigrants, numbers of whom clung to Old World lan­guage and customs, would be in­tegrated into American society. It did not necessarily confess big­otry to point out that crime and disease rates soared with the Irish invasion.

Sheer numbers alone, with­out the complications of religion, would have guaranteed a hostile reaction from native-born Ameri­cans. “The new aliens bore so many burdens and presented so many problems,” Bennett asserts, “that they would have been as­sailed even if every one was a good Protestant.” They were not, of course, and Bennett, with his skillful examination of the origins of the Know Nothing movement of the 1850s, reveals the volatility of the religious issue.

The earliest anti-Catholi­cism unleashed its anger not so much against homegrown Catho­lics in the English colonies — there were too few of them, even in Maryland, to cause much trepida­tion — but against the threat leveled by England’s Catholic rivals, France and Spain. By the late 18th century a combination of American independence, Spanish and French aid to the successful rebels, and the small number of Catholics in the newly formed nation smoothed the jagged edges off anxieties over supposed papist machinations.

John Carroll, the first Cath­olic bishop in the United States, dispelled from the minds of all but the most inveterate pope-haters the notion that American Catholics were aliens. Of a distin­guished Maryland family, Bishop Carroll (Archbishop after 1808) extolled republican government, endorsed the principle and prac­tice of religious liberty, cham­pioned the separation of church and state, and continually remind­ed Catholics and Protestants alike that the Roman Church (in its American manifestation) com­ported perfectly with the institu­tions and guiding ethos of the new nation. Most non-Catholics either agreed with Carroll’s con­tention, or, more likely, consid­ered the matter too inconsequen­tial to warrant attention.

Carroll died in 1815; a little over a half-century later, in 1877, James Gibbons assumed com­mand of Carroll’s old Archdiocese of Baltimore, the premier see in the U.S. A vast gulf separated the worlds of these two prelates. At the time of Carroll’s death Ro­man Catholics were but a tiny clearing in a thick Protestant for­est. The Church was strongest in the South, and, save for the re­cently added Catholics of Louisi­ana, its communicants were main­ly of English descent. By 1877 everything was topsy-turvy. Ca­tholicism now counted its largest numbers in the burgeoning cities of the Northeast and Midwest, and the English imprint had most­ly faded: the preponderance of Catholics was now either German or Irish. Although the vicious anti-Catholicism of the Know Nothings had been swept away by the tumult of civil war, it had left the Catholic community deeply scarred. A new burst of rancorous Catholic-baiting, this time under the aegis of the Amer­ican Protective Association and similar nativist groups, would soon explode, largely in response to massive immigration from the Catholic lands of southern, cen­tral, and eastern Europe.

By 1886, when Pope Leo XIII bestowed a cardinal’s hat upon Gibbons, the Archbishop had emerged as the pre-eminent Catholic prelate in the U.S. If John Carroll in a sense founded the Church in the U.S., then Gib­bons was the great consolidator who guided the Church through perilous times and ushered it in­to the century in which it would burst at the seams with unprece­dented numbers and exercise a clout too conspicuous to be ig­nored. It is not surprising that, 30 years after the Cardinal’s death in 1921, historian John Tracy El­lis would require two hefty vol­umes (now reprinted in a hand­some edition from Christian Clas­sics), totaling nearly 1,500 pages, to do him justice.

Ellis does not press the point, but his detailed recount­ing of Gibbons’s reign suggests that the Archbishop established as his primary goal the re-Ameri­canizing of the Church. During Carroll’s ascendancy, antialiens found scant material with which to formulate a case against Cath­olics in the U.S. There was noth­ing foreign about Carroll and the Catholic community he headed. By Gibbons’s time, however, condemnations of Catholic for­eigners had become the stock-in-trade of no-popery agitators.

To combat the postwar re­surgence of bigotry and to efface the image of the Church as an ali­en institution, Gibbons identified several tasks that would domi­nate his long tenure as unofficial head of the Church in this country. He sought, first of all, to en­courage rapid acculturation of immigrant Catholics, to trans­form them as quickly as possible into solid citizens discernibly no different — save in choice of reli­gion — from their countrymen. Along with this, he endeavored to convince old-stock Americans that Catholics were loyal patriots and that devotion to Catholicism did not negate love of country. Finally, Gibbons labored assidu­ously to keep the Vatican inform­ed of events in the U.S. and to educate curia officials on the na­ture of the American experiment in republican government and democratic society. Through this he hoped to save the pope and his advisors from blunders that would irritate non-Catholics and exacerbate the difficulties faced by the Church in this country.

No other churchman was better qualified to succeed in all this. Gibbons was blessed with limitless patience, a sanguine out­look, and an irenic temperament, and his down-to-earth practical­ity suited to a tee the pragmatic disposition of Protestant Ameri­ca. Downplaying the importance of theology and doctrinal exposi­tion, he concentrated on church governance. Gibbons exuded no hint of mystical fervor or exotic asceticism; to Protestants he appeared as wholesome, vigorous, and manly as their own clerical heroes.

Few American religious leaders, Catholic or Protestant, have won the admiration, respect, and honor accorded Gibbons during his lifetime. Confidant to presidents and statesmen, praised by Protestant and Jewish spokes­men, lionized in the press, he was, as the New York Herald editorial­ized at the time of his death, “ev­erybody’s Cardinal,” just as St. Francis “is everybody’s saint.” El­lis’s biography, a monument to the Cardinal, does nothing to be­smirch the reputation that Gib­bons fashioned over the course of his distinguished career.

But that reputation is not as unsullied as it was 40 years ago. Did Gibbons misguide the Ameri­can Church, his critics ask? Did he surrender too much to win ap­proval from the dominant Protes­tant culture? Although Michael Schwartz reserves his most caustic barbs for Archbishop John Ire­land of St. Paul, Minnesota, he condemns Gibbons too as an “assimilationist.” In their implacable determination to Americanize the immigrants and to imbue them with a love of things Amer­ican, Gibbons, Ireland, and their allies in the hierarchy were guilty, Schwartz charges, of a “gigantic cultural surrender.” To Catholi­cize America, not to Americanize the Church, should have been the Catholic mission. Schwartz com­mends the German “separatists” who, in their refusal to embrace American culture, stood at polar opposites from Gibbons and Ire­land. Schwartz repudiates Gib­bons’s legacy and exhorts contemporary Catholics to borrow a page from the Germans of the previous century.

Joe Holland labels this the “restorationist” strategy, and de­fines it as a call for “the church to function as a past-oriented counter-culture — rejecting mod­ern American culture….” In ef­fect, it abandons the central line of descent in the American Church, for by Schwartz’s defini­tion, Archbishop Carroll was the first assimilationist. From Carroll to the present, the leaders of the American Church have generally pursued the course that Schwartz decries.

To Gibbons the term “Americanism” meant mainly that Catholics could be fully American without compromising their religious principles. But in Europe the word crackled with associations that had little to do with America itself. European id­eologues have frequently ham­mered their ignorance of this country into a sword to slash at their foes in the sectarian intel­lectual wars that periodically convulse the Continent. In this instance, particularly in France, republicans who wanted to re­shape the Church in a more liber­al mold hailed American Catholi­cism as the model to emulate. Catholic monarchists and the Right in general as readily damn­ed separation of church and state and other alleged heresies import­ed from across the Atlantic.

The whole “Americanist controversy,” as it came to be known, is a mare’s nest. This much can be said reasonably: contrary to what some officials in the curia suspicioned, the American Church did not crawl with heresy. Ellis’s explanation of the American side makes sense: “Any American Catholic of the time would have subscribed heart­ily to the Americanism which embodied the love he had for his country. But no American Cath­olic consciously turned the senti­ment which he would define as legitimate patriotism into a sort of American Gallicanism that put his allegiance to his country ahead of his fidelity to the Church of Christ.” At bottom, the contro­versy illustrates not so much the supposed heretical proclivities of a few American bishops, but more the way unfortunate mis­understandings can arise between the American hierarchy and Rome.

However, some contempo­rary Catholics, eager to enlist the past on the side of neo-Modernism, have fabricated a self-serving history of the Church in the U.S. Stripped to bare bones it looks something like this: since John Carroll’s day the most enlighten­ed and farseeing churchmen have struggled to loosen the grip of papal authority and create on these shores a Catholicism com­mensurate with the dreams and ambitions of free men. Whatever truth lies in this interpretation, it misses the mark with Gibbons. As head of the Church in the U.S. he labored to expand its sway and win Protestants and un­believers to the faith. Yet, it is true that, on occasion, what he believed would best serve these ends clashed with the view enun­ciated by the Vatican.

A variety of issues — every­thing from the papal condemna­tion of Henry George’s Progress and Poverty to the rectorship of the Catholic University of Amer­ica — created friction between the Vatican and the American bishops. Take, for example, the papal injunction barring Catho­lics from membership in secret societies. In Europe such organi­zations, epitomized by the Ma­sons, were often bitterly anti-Ca­tholic. The Vatican justifiably forbade Catholics to belong to these societies. In the U.S., fra­ternal lodges, temperance soci­eties, and other equally innocuous bodies often involved a de­gree of secrecy, not to conceal maleficent motives, but simply as one way to bind members into a warm and close fellowship. Gib­bons argued that the Vatican’s failure to recognize this situation would needlessly spark ill feelings against the Church.

Gibbons disagreed — vehe­mently at times — with the cur­ia and the pope, but whenever Rome spoke definitively, he ac­cepted the decision — no matter how much it rubbed against his own thinking — “in the spirit of obedience,” Ellis notes, “that should characterize any Catholic bishop in bowing to the will of the Supreme Pontiff.” Gibbons would have been horrified at the intimation that, in disagreeing with the Vatican, he was challenging papal authority or trying to distance the American Church from the seat of the Catholic faith. The difference between Gibbons and the stance of many American Catholics today is too painful to linger over.

Though born in Baltimore in 1834, Gibbons was more im­migrant than native. His parents had only recently settled in the U.S., and three years after James’s birth, they returned to Ireland, to remain there until 1852, when the widowed Mrs. Gibbons pack­ed up her brood and moved back to the U.S., this time to New Or­leans. In returning to this coun­try at that time, the Gibbonses participated in the first massive Catholic exodus from Europe to America.

The Irish quickly adapted to their new homeland, and they rapidly grasped control of the Church and rose to prominence in city government as well. De­spite this early success, the Irish felt the sting of resentment and rejection from old-stock Ameri­cans. To win acceptance, they surmised, they would have to be more American than the Ameri­cans. Perhaps some of this senti­ment informed Gibbons’s patrio­tism. No one had questioned John Carroll’s credentials. Who could forget that he was scion of one of colonial America’s most illustrious families? Gibbons, by contrast, bore the stamp of the immigrant, a mark that made him sensitive to aspersions upon Catholics’ patriotism. To a fellow bishop he once wrote: “We should not let Protestants surpass us in our expression of loyalty & devo­tion to our country.”

In the twilight of his life Gibbons must have been satisfied that his heroic labors to domesti­cate the Catholic Church had been lavishly rewarded. At the time of his death in 1921 the Cardinal was one of the most prominent and beloved public figures in the U.S. He symbolized the successful Americanization of the Church. How cruel the iro­ny of events: within a short time after Gibbons’s death America launched an anti-Catholic spree more vicious than anything the country had witnessed since the Know Nothings. Al Smith’s can­didacy for the presidency in 1928 might have been, given the acceptance Catholics had seem­ingly won, a joyful confirmation of the Americanization of the Church. Instead, it provoked a rampage that fired an unmistak­able message across the land: “Catholic” and “good American” were mutually exclusive terms.

Ironies, like wonders, never cease: just a few years after the massacre of 1928, Fr. Charles Coughlin turned the tables on Protestants. Before he sank into the pit of anti-Semitic raving, Coughlin, according to Bennett, “provided an inverted nativism” that enabled Catholics to reverse the previous decade’s harsh ver­dict against their Church. Who were the miscreants who had forced America to her knees — her economy broken, her morale shattered, her Dream destroyed? Not Catholics, Coughlin snapped, not the immigrants and their sons and grandsons, not the factory workers, coal miners, and labor­ers. Who, then? Upper-class Prot­estants, Coughlin thundered: Ivy Leaguers, men of impeccable old-stock connections, those who pulled the strings of economic power from boardrooms, execu­tive suites, and country clubs.

It took the anti-Communist fever of the 1950s to solidify the transformation of Catholics into true-blue Americans. Antialienism had historically inveighed against alien peoples, and Catho­lics, because of successive waves of Catholic immigration from 1830 or so until World War I, by definition had been outsiders. Bennett argues that the Red Scare of 1919-1920 tended to shift the emphasis from clearly definable alien peoples to un-American ideas. The period after World War II witnessed the culmination of this trend, and Catholics, rep­resented by such figures as Sena­tor Joe McCarthy, Cardinal Spellman, and Bishop Sheen, were on the correct side this time. They deferred to no one when it came to excoriating seditious ideas. The election of John Kennedy in 1960 accomplished what Al Smith had failed to do: win ac­knowledgment from Protestants that Catholics had arrived, that they were as fully American as anyone else.

Although Bennett underesti­mates the current vitality of anti-alienism directed against outside peoples — in this case Hispanics — he correctly discerns that anti-alienism today more often turns on ideological, rather than ethnic, considerations. The latest perni­cious threat, of course, is secular humanism, and the assault on it has united many Catholics with their old tormentors, the Protes­tant fundamentalists. Who would have thought that a Baptist preacher from Lynchburg, Vir­ginia, would ever brag about the number of Catholics who agreed with him on moral and social is­sues? Not since the days of John Carroll have Catholics been so readily accepted as fully Ameri­can. It is cause for celebration. Or is it?

Most Catholics basically feel comfortable in America today. Neither ambivalent patriotism nor a sense of divided loyalty mars their ease; they are as com­pletely American as their Protes­tant compatriots. Most Catholics couldn’t care less about debates over the relationship between Ca­tholicism and American culture. Mainly they want what other Americans do: prosperity, self-fulfillment, security, and a happy present and bright future. Most of them, one suspects, desire some sort of indigenous Catholicism. Many resent the Vatican’s stirring up of trouble with what see as its old-fashioned bluster about obedience and its dreary niggling over moral standards. Others don’t appreciate John Paul’s imprecations against Western materialism and entrepreneurial adventuring. In either case, they say the Pope doesn’t under­stand America.

One thing might throw this cozy arrangement out of kilter. By the turn of the century, de­mographers predict, the Catholic Church’s membership in the U.S. will be over 40 percent Hispanic. This could provoke a fresh surge of nativism, one that would again turn antialienism against a group of people. A renewal of savage bigotry might drive many Catho­lics in upon themselves and back to where they started in this country: on the margins of society. Whether this would foster the sort of 19th-century separat­ism that Michael Schwartz ad­mires is problematical. With their proliferating numbers, dense con­centration in certain parts of the country, vibrant Latin culture and Spanish language, Hispanics might succeed where the Germans failed. But the lures of American­ism — “progressive America, opu­lent America,” as Schwartz calls it — would creep up on them in time, seducing them toward their own form of cultural surrender. How many middle-class Hispanics dream of creating an autonomous Catholic culture? Those who ex­pect the influx of Hispanics to transform the Church into a counter-culture may be in for a melancholy surprise.

Despite the wishes of such people as Charlene Spretnak, one doubts that Catholicism will trans­form American culture. Nor will Michael Schwartz likely see his program triumph: the bulk of Catholics will consider it insane to reject American culture.

To those Catholics who hazard to engage in Joe Holland’s “New Debate,” I offer a question: Did anyone ever get to heaven for being a good American?



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