Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Origins of Radical Catholicism XXV: The Spanish-American War and the Vatican

“It’s just a little war—but it’s the only one we have” was the way that Theodore Roosevelt described the Spanish American War—and he should know: he led the famous Rough-Riders down San Juan Hill as part of America’s move to push Spain off the stage of history.  At the beginning of the nineteenth century Spain had an empire that spanned the globe: as great and far flung as Britain’s.  By the end of the century Spain’s ragged empire consisted only a few semi-neglected possessions.  Spain itself was spent, a has-been nation.  For the United States to pick a war with Spain was like the neighbourhood bully to push down an old lady and grab her purse with its few dollars, but that is what we did.
America was spoiling for war.  It was a time of “Manifest Destiny”—it was, we were telling ourselves—God’s plan that we bring civilization and Christianity to the rest of the world.  Civilization meant American ways and Christianity, of course, meant Protestantism.  And we wanted an opportunity to show Europe that we were ready to be a world power.  We had come of age.  Spain, for its part, did not want a war with America.  It knew it couldn’t win, but the United States was determined not to give it a choice.  The pickings were too easy; the fruit of empire hanging too low not to pluck it. 
The Holy See was not anxious for a war between Spain and the United States.   Spain was an old ally of the papacy—not always a faithful child—but an old ally none the less.  The Church knew that if America won the war and seized Spanish possessions—Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines—those lands would be opened up to American ways, and worse, to Protestant Missionaries.  Spain’s dominions had been Catholic for centuries.  Catholic hegemony would be lost, and in the mentality of the Church at that time, souls would be lost to the heresies the “evangelists” would bring.  Spain’s dominions had been Catholic for centuries. 
The American bishops, liberal and conservative, were Americans after all and their loyalty was divided.  The bishops felt that the Church in the United States was at a critical time and it would not be wise to oppose American policy despite the wishes of the Holy See.  The United States had been whipped into a war fury by newspaper magnates Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst and while Republican President McKinley was anxious to settle the issues with Spain—which were many and complex—by negotiation, the newspaper industry and the Democratic Party were hell-bent for leather on a war.    
Leo XIII tried to have Archbishop Ireland intervene with President McKinley—with whom Ireland was a friend—but he was unsuccessful.  This was not because McKinley wanted a war—unlike Teddy Roosevelt, McKinley did not—but because the tide of public opinion could not be resisted.  While most of the bishops chose neither to endorse the war nor pass on the Pope’s insistence that we not go to war (sound familiar—remember the American bishops not conveying to their congregants papal condemnation of the wars in Viet Nam and Iraq) Ireland, once we were in the war, was an outspoken advocate of the American cause.  This did not delight the Holy See and was probably one of several reasons why Ireland never got a red hat.   
This was not a good time for the Holy See and its relationship with the United States.  The Holy See was unhappy with the fact that they best they could do with Washington was to have an Apostolic Delegation.  It was very important for the papacy to have full diplomatic relations with nations in order to demonstrate to the Kingdom of Italy that while Italy has taken its land it could not take its Sovereign authority.   But anti-Catholicism was too strong in the American Republic to allow the Vatican this conceit.  It would only be in Reagan-John Paul exchange of tits for tats in their cooperative effort to bring down Marxism that the Delegation would be raised to an accredited embassy, a nunciature.    
The Holy See was increasingly frustrated with the American Church.  They were appalled at its openness to non-Catholics, they were fearful of its democratic heritage, and they did not understand why it was so unable to influence the society in which it was rooted.  The Holy See saw a potential for power in the American Church that it had not itself yet recognized.  While it may have been only a small fragment of the general population, it was the largest—and fastest growing—religious body in the United States.  Surely with the right sort of leadership it could leverage itself from its position in the shadows of American Presbyterianism, Methodism, and Episcopalianism into the  catbird seat of American public influence.  All it needed was the right leadership...hmmm.  we’ll have some fun with that  This has been a long and (mostly) unbroken run and I want to continue it in two directions--Americanism back to the time of John Carroll and earlier, and forward into the twentieth century.  I think we will be able to understand some of the things that are going on in the Church today if we look at the long tradition of American Catholicism.   But we do need a break.  I have some other entries prepared on a variety of subjects and then go back and tie up some issues we had started--Saint Peter's Basilica, for example--and maybe start some new ones.  So stay tuned. 
The image is Cardinal Gibbons greeting Theodore Roosevelt. 

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