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.
God bless YOU Mary Anne! Thank you for this very informative piece! In reading the lives of the saints I’ve learned about many instances of anti-Catholic bigotry, especially in England (most recently I learned about the great sufferings of St. Claude de la Columbierre at the hands of the anti-Catholic English in his day) and throughout Europe. I had no idea that it has always been so strong here in America-yes, by individuals and groups, but not by our Government. If ever there was a time to band together and pray it would be now and yes, especially, pray for our wonderful bishops! Thank you for this!
Thank you Anne for the insightful comment. You make an excellent point that it is not our Government itself that has engaged in such bias. In fact, our government was carefully founded with protection for religious liberty built in at multiple levels. Wise statesmen (& women) saw the potential for abuse, and sought to prevent it. However, there have always been ill-informed, uncharitable individuals – some with great political power – whose intentions are less than honorable. As Catholics we need to understand their motives, and the reality of their strength, and respond first with prayer, second with political savvy.
As always, your encouragement is much appreciated,
Hi Mary Anne,
As we discussed at Holy Hill, I really liked this blog. I recently just came across much of the history of the US and found out about the persecution of the Catholic Faith that I had not previously known. I think that there are many people who are not aware of much of our history and how much the Catholic faith played in starting this country on the path to freedom, education, healthcare, etc…. I think that all Catholics should have a refresher course on the history of our Catholic faith in the US.
THank you for a great blog!
Thank you for the kind words. I too am amazed that this history is not more well known. Thank you so much for the encouragement and willingness to share your thoughts.
An amazing blog – we applaud our Bishops, especially Cardinal Designate Doland. for all they are doing to make it known that we as Catholic Church will not stand for this. We also applaud those Priests and Catholics in the pews who are willing to speak out – as you have in your blog. When all is said and done after looking at all the persecutions and predjudices throughout the years that you have listed in your article I have to say it is good that we stand up and be counted – but we also must remember – Christ died on the Cross – and through that persecution came our salvation. When we have done all we can and still are persecuted we must say a joyful thank you to the Father for making us worthy to be treated like his Son. And when it is our children and their children that we are concerned about – we must remember Mary had to say her yes too from the crib to the cross.
United In Christ & Mary,
Thank you for the kind words. You make a very valid point regarding the salvific nature of suffering – that persecution is a means of unity with our Savior. Thank you for that reminder. You are very perceptive in noting that such persecution ought to come with a sense of joy, when it is endured for our Savior. This history, and our need to respond to God’s grace within it are important to share. Thank you again for your well written response.
Ad Jesum per Mariam,
This related piece was posted by friend of mine on Facebook today. With Anne L.’s permission I am reposting it here. I think she makes an excellent point regarding the injustice of requiring tax payers to provide contraception, abortifacients, and sterilization WITHOUT CO-PAY to the general public.
“Why should every health insurance plan in the country be required to provide contraceptives and sterilization at no cost to one patient, while other patients are charged co-pays and co-insurance on life-saving drugs and operations? The HHS mandate goes far beyond the conscience issue to the …absurdity that free contraception is an entitlement program for which every insured American must pay. And what will be the incentive for a woman to choose a lower-cost form of birth control over a more expensive one? We will all be required to pay for her choice. Aren’t our health insurance premiums already too high?” Anne L.
Very good post. I am glad you discussed the religious persecution of Catholics in our nation’s child years. Slavery of all kind is a stain on our country, part of this nation’s original sin. Unfortunately, with the allowance of abortion so rampant and supported at levels of government, I fear 1973 was the year this country fell into mortal sin and has yet to recover. Here is hoping for the best! God love you.
— Travis Dover,
Thank you for the kind words. I agree with your assessment – there is a sense that many of the present problems of this age of darkness are directly related to our collective acquiesce to the sins of abortion and contraception. These battles are not merely political, but spiritual as well. We’ll pray for the best.
By the way, I greatly enjoy your insightful, humorous blog Catholic1 at http://Catholic1.net, as well as your posts on Twitter.
Thanks for all you do for Our Lord and Our Lady,
Mar y Anne