Friday, January 21, 2011

A fundamental American Prejudice: the roots of American Anti-Catholicism

Let’s look at the subject of anti-Catholicism in the United States today, following up on yesterday’s blog on President John Kennedy and his address as a candidate for office to the Houston Ministerium.

The roots of Anti-Catholicism in the American nation go back to the English Reformation and the pathological phobia that the Puritan wing of the Anglican Church had towards anything “Catholic.” The Anglican Church in the late sixteenth and until the mid-seventeenth century was an uneasy union of several disparate groups ranging from the conservative “high church” party with its Book of Common Prayer, much simplified and orderly rituals, and strong patristic theology to the radical Calvinist wing that wanted a complete break with England’s Catholic past. This later “low Church” wing included many similar but independent groups including the “Pilgrims” who settled Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts in 1620. The wider movement are often referred to as “Puritans” as they wished to “purify” the Church of England of any and every remnants of its Catholic past ranging from bishops to wedding rings. Through much of the period from 1558 when Elizabeth I ascended the throne until the restoration of the monarchy after the English Civil War in 1660, the radicals dominated the political scene in England and Catholics kept a low profile.
This ties in a bit to the blog I did on Mary Ward several days ago, but a particular type of Catholicism developed in England due to the dominance of the Puritan party and subsequent persecution of Catholicism—a persecution which waxed and waned over the years but which, even in its less virulent periods, required Catholics to be make themselves all but invisible. Formal religious life disappeared in England—it was impossible for monastic institutions to flourish under the restrictions on Catholicism. Mass was conducted—usually with some secrecy—in the homes of wealthy and even noble Catholic families. (The Dukes of Norfolk, the premier peers of the Realm, were one of the great families who had remained “in the old religion.”) The various European embassies in London had Catholic Chapels, and during the reigns of James I and Charles I, their queens-consort (Anne of Denmark and Henrietta Marie of France respectively) were Catholic and had their chapels and chaplains, but attending Catholic services in these London chapels was a bit dangerous for those who felt a (often prudent) need to conceal their Catholic identity. Consequent to these restrictions on public worship, many aspects of traditional piety—public processions, feast days, Sunday Vespers, Benediction—all but disappeared.
Catholics coming to the New World found that the colonies offered them no better a situation. Catholicism was outlawed in all of the colonies save Pennsylvania. Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York had particularly vitriolic laws proscribing the Catholic religion. Rhode Island proclaimed freedom of conscience for its residents but it is unclear if this extended to Catholics. Given that no Catholic community developed in colonial Rhode Island it seems that Catholics were unwilling to test the waters and see if the freedom of conscience applied to them. (A synagogue opened in Rhode Island,, the first in the colonies, only thirteen years before Independence.)
It was against this background that George Calvert, First Baron Baltimore, (an Irish title although the Calverts were Yorkshire folk) appealed to his friend King Charles I for a proprietary colony (a colony which belonged to him personally and in which he was supreme authority under the King—no accountability to Parliament (dominated by Puritan Church of England folk)—and was granted the land north of the Potomac River to the 40th parallel. Calvert was a Catholic and the arrangement permitted him to allow for Catholics to have freedom to practice their religion, creating the only place in the North American colonies outside Pennsylvania where Catholicsm could be legally maintained.
There will have to be several posts about Maryland in the near future, but for the present suffice it to say that the Maryland Catholics were a wholly respectable lot. They tended to be English and Anglo-Irish Gentry who farmed large estates with labor supplied by African slaves. Like their counterparts in England and the Irish Pale, their Catholicism was somewhat private and discreet. Likewise, the German Catholics who settled in Pennsylvania tended to be rural farmers and unlike the German immigrants of the 19th century they adapted themselves rather quickly to American ways. The only priests available to them were Maryland Jesuits who came up into southern Pennsylvania and whose Catholicism was, again, discreet.
Catholicism tended to be practiced in the home, not in the public streets. Processions were not indulged in. The clergy wore no distinct dress, save for their clothing being of dark colors and devoid of superfluous ornamentation. There were no convents or monasteries. Mass was held in chapels or churches built in an American colonial style and free of much ornamentation except for an occasional oil painting, imported from Europe, behind the altar. Devotional life, consisting of private prayers, was a family activity. Bishop Richard Challoner’s (Challoner was one of the English Vicars Apostolic) book A Manual of Prayers, (published 1758) was a very popular source of devotion.
This discreet Catholicism helped Catholics “fit in.” Protestantism of a variety of stripes, while having a cultural dominance, was also a religion practiced within the walls of the Meeting House and the family home, though for different reasons. The unanimous support of the American Catholics for Independence in and after 1776 won them points among the citizenry of the new Republic and most of the anti-poprery legislation was gone by the end of the Revolution. Still the young Church proceeded carefully. They were hesitant about asking Rome for a hierarchy until the Protestant Episcopal Church had established a bishop in New York and in Virginia and Maryland Episcopalians were in the process of electing bishops. Bishops were seen as “European” and monarchical, but when there was no outcry over Episcopalian bishops, the American Catholics felt it safe to proceed and elected John Carroll, a member of a family that had been prominent in the Independence movement and who himself had served with Benjamin Franklin on an unsuccessful mission to Canada to ask the Canadians—Catholic and until recently French—to join with the thirteen southern colonies in breaking with Britain. Carroll, when a bishop, encouraged a convert from the Episcopal Church, the widowed Elizabeth Ann Seton, to establish an American community of the Daughters of Charity, French sisterhood. The American sisters dressed not in a traditional European style habit but in ordinary widow’s garb and became immensely well thought of by the Protestant population for the work they did among the poor and for the education of children. Carroll’s cathedral was in the American style, constructed by the same architect who had built the President’s mansion. To the American taste it had few ornaments—a successor had to purchase from Europe statues of the Blessed Virgin and Our Savior. Carroll, a humble man and devoted to republican principles, avoided the pomp of European bishops. His priests adapted many of the rites of the Church, especially the baptismal, marriage, and funeral rites, to the American situation, even celebrating them in English instead of Latin. Indeed Carroll and his priests discussed the desirability of the Mass itself being put into English, though the idea never advanced to the point of a proposal to Rome. The area around the national capital was strong Catholic territory with the old Catholic families like the Matthews, the Mudds, the Carrolls and others supplying many of the Civil Servants for the new city. All in all Catholics, a small proportion of the population, had won a place for their Church in America.
The Catholic population began to shift with a flood of immigration in the 1840’s. The middle-class educated Catholic, the German Farmer, and the Maryland Gentry were being replaced by a flood of poor and most often illiterate Irish. Germans and French and a trickle of Italians trying to escape the European turmoil of 1848 and its wave of revolutions comprised waves of non-English speaking immigrants who had strange customs and whose loyalty to the new Republic was uncertain. The tolerance for Catholicism faced its first serious challenge since the penal laws in the colonies. This will be continued in future postings.
Today's image is a portrait of Charles Carroll of Maryland, the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence.

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