Though the mission of this blog is to be one of “praise and thanksgiving,” every once in awhile I need a good rant. The political posturing of the Obama Administration over the past few weeks has provided a surplus of rant-worthy material; however much of it has been covered in other blogs, thus I need to take a different approach. Anti-Catholic bias in America is nothing new. Our 200 year history is replete with stinging, vile examples of this insidious assault on all things Catholic. Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. stated that prejudice against Catholics was: “the deepest bias in the history of the American people.”
I’ll venture a guess that most American Catholics are not aware of the strong history of Catholic persecution and anti-Catholic bigotry in the USA. As George Santayana once stated, “Those who do not learn their history are doomed to repeat it.” In light of the Obama Administration’s recent HHS mandate to force all Catholic institutions to purchase insurance products that cover (without co-pay) all FDA approved forms of contraception (pills, IUD’s, Depo, etc), abortifacients, and sterilization, and Secretary of the Army John McHugh’s directive denying Archbishop Broglio’s Constitutional right to have his pastoral letter read by Army chaplains during Sunday Mass – Catholics must conclude that that the Obama Administration has decided that their place in history will also be marked with anti-Catholic intolerance.
Our nation’s past is littered with similar assaults on our right to freedom of religion. In the 17thcentury, anti-Catholic bigotry was reflected in colonial life. Historian John Tracy Ellis reports that a “universal anti-Catholic bias was brought to Jamestown and vigorously cultivated in all thirteen colonies.” Colonial charters and early laws contained explicit prohibition of Catholics and were carefully worded to exclude Catholics from ever obtaining political power. For example, the Colony of Virginia enacted a law in 1642 prohibiting Catholic settlers – an edict replicated by The Massachusetts Bay Colony. A brief period of toleration ended with the repeal of the Toleration Act in 1654, thus essentially declaring open season on Catholics once again. Puritans murdered Catholics and plundered their property. Even Catholic Maryland capitulated, ousting Catholic leaders, forcing Catholics to pay heavy fines and taxes, banning them from political positions, outlawing the Holy Mass, sacraments, and Catholic schools.
Even some of our Founding Fathers preached religious bigotry while penning documents that spoke of God and religious liberty. For example, Thomas Jefferson stated in a December 1813 letter to Alexander von Humbolt: “History, I believe furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government.” Similarly, in 1788 John Jay sought to require members of the New York legislature to take an oath requiring office-holder to denounce the pope and foreign authorities in “all matters civil and ecclesiastical ….”
Anti-Catholic prejudice reached new heights in the 19th century. The anti-immigrant feeling was bolstered by anti-Catholic underpinnings. Just like today, prejudice against Catholics was not only socially acceptable, but truly trendy. Like most good fads, everyone who was anyone was doing it. Mark Twain stated in his best-selling book A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court that he had “been educated to enmity toward everything Catholic.” The Nativist movement of the 1840’s and 1850’s was largely responsible for widespread Catholic persecution. This movement was lead by ill-informed Protestant leaders, like Lynn Beecher and Horace Bushnell. They sought to confine Catholics East of the Mississippi. Beecher’s 1835 “Plea for the West” is an example of the fiery rhetoric used to insight hatred against Catholics. Mob violence against Catholics became common-place. Just like in the early colonies, Catholics were beaten, murdered, and had their property burned. Such a mob torched an Ursuline convent in Charlestown, on August 11, 1834.
The “Know Nothing” movement of the 1850’s gave political clout to the bigoted ravings of these mobs, under the auspices of the “American Party.” This party grew out of the numerous anti-Catholic societies of the era, including the Order of united Americans and Order of the Star Spangled Banner. “Know Nothing” referred to the “I know nothing” response that was officially to be given to non-members who queried members about the existence of such clandestine organizations. Their political influence was not insignificant; in November 1854 the Massachusetts “Know Nothings” elected the governor, held every seat in the Senate, and 376 of the 379 seats in the House. The “Know Nothings” carried every New England state in 1855 except Maine, and also won Maryland, and Kentucky, while showing considerable strength throughout the U.S. In 1856, via the “American Party,” the “Know Nothings” ran former President Millard Fillmore for President (unsuccessfully).
Political tensions also escalated over the issue of Catholic Schools. American Parochial Schools were often run by religious sisters. These institutions provided superior education at a modest cost, while insulating the Catholic students from the pagan influences of the larger society. In 1874, Maine’s Republican Senator James G. Blaine proposed an amendment to the Constitution which stipulated that no public land or money, or money derived from a public source “shall ever be under the control of any religious sect.” While the amendment itself was defeated in 1875, the Blaine Amendment served as the boiler-plate for similar amendments that were incorporated into the constitutions of 34 states over the next thirty-years. The Blaine Amendment found a champion in President Ulysses S. Grant. There were many legal tussles over not merely the funding of Catholic schools, but their very right to exist at all. In 1922 the voters of Oregon passed the Compulsory Education Act- or the Oregon School Act. The basic purpose of this initiative was to eliminate all Catholic schools. Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court determined in Pierce v. Society if Sisters (1925) the Act to be in violation of the Constitution.
From Al Smith’s failed (1928) presidential bid, to John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960, unfounded fears that a Catholic American President would somehow compromise national security and American identity by respecting the authority of the Holy Father played a major role in presidential politics.
It absolutely amazes me that a country with more than 68.5 million registered Catholics could passively accept such pervasive religious intolerance. According to a 2011 Georgetown study, Catholics comprise 22% of the American population; more than 77.7 million Americans identify themselves as Catholic. The United States is home to the fourth largest Catholic population in the World. Data from 2008 demonstrates that there are more that 626 Catholic Hospital Systems in the U.S.; these healthcare systems comprise the nation’s largest group of nonprofit systems, with an annual budget of 84.6 Billion dollars – including the 5.7 billion in donated care annually.
We care for the poor, educate the ignorant, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, heal the sick, comfort the sorrowing, and bury the dead – in a way that provides more services than any other comprehensive charitable effort in the U.S. Yet, as a group we remain the most politically correct entity to slam and against which to discriminate. As the historian John Higham once noted, anti-Catholic bias is “the most luxuriant, tenacious tradition of paranoiac agitation in American history.”
With the line drawn in the sand by HHS secretary Sebelius and the Obama Administration, I fear things will only get worse. Thank Heaven (literally, please!) for leadership of our Bishops, beginning with Cardinal Elect Dolan’s response that this edict offers Catholics “a year in which to figure out how to violate our consciences.” Kudos to the 160+ Bishops who have written to their flock, and publicly renounced this unjust law.
Please pray for our Bishops- that they may be imbued with the grace, wisdom and courage requisite this present darkness. Please pray for our Nation’s leaders that they might dust off the Constitution, and act as statesmen rather than mere politicians. Please pray for our fellow citizens that we might all truly be One Nation Under God, with Liberty and Justice for All.
God Bless You!
For additional information on the history of Catholics in America, you may wish to pick up a copy of: Christ in the Americas by Anne W. Carroll, TAN Books, 1997.