Being an American Catholic Today: The Historical (and Current) Challenge

It is important to understand how the American Catholic experience is unique in the history of the Church.

Rally for Religious Freedom March 23, 2012, Seattle

Is it possible for one to be both an American, and Catholic, in the 21st century?  Today, most American Catholics, in fact most people, in the United States or elsewhere, would answer unhesitatingly, “Yes.”  As religious tolerance, at least in the western world, is normative, and the basic human freedom of choice is equally accepted, the question seems rather awkward, if not ridiculous.  Why would anyone perceive or believe that a specific religious and national choice could not be sufficiently compatible to allow an individual to live, and even flourish, unencumbered. We should be safe from prejudice and naysayers raising difficulties or incompatibilities of such a union.  In the United States, freedom of religion—a hallmark of the Bill of Rights—affords not only Catholics, but all peoples of faith, the privilege of being both American, and a practitioner of any religious denomination.

As strange as it might sound to American Catholics today, however, the basic question of being both an American and a Catholic has been present in this nation from the outset. It is still asked today.  A minority religion planted within a huge garden of Protestant dominations, Catholicism was continually challenged from its arrival in the colonies.  Catholics, generally viewed as completely loyal to the pope—a religious ruler living on another continent of the “Old World”—were labeled as disloyal. How was it possible, many asked, for one to be loyal to the basic precepts of American life—namely democracy, republicanism, and a sense of openness and freedom—while simultaneously holding allegiance to a religious institution that never ascribed to these basic principles?  Throughout the 19th century, Americans believed that Catholics could not negotiate this balance—being loyal to both Rome and Washington—and, therefore, could not be both a good American and a faithful Catholic.

While the environment is different, and the issues have been slightly modified, the basic tension between Church and State continues today.  This has been clearly demonstrated by the recent uproar over President Barack Obama’s mandate that religious organizations, including such mainstay Catholic institutions as hospitals and colleges and universities, must offer contraceptive services to all those served by these institutions. This prompted a significant backlash from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), headed by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York.  So the nagging Church /State question continues to manifest itself in the 21st century.

The Unique American Catholic Environment
To comprehend the origins of this question, it is important to understand how the American Catholic experience is unique in the history of the Church.  In Europe, Latin America, and even its early foundations in the Middle East, and the Mediterranean coast of Africa, Catholicism arose within political structures that were favorable to the Church.  From the time of the Edict of Tolerance, issued by the Emperor Constantine in 311, Catholicism was the state religion in the Roman empire.  When the empire dissolved, with national monarchies arising to replace the emperor, this basic relationship of the Church enjoying favorable status with the state, continued.  With the discovery of the New World, conquistadors in Latin America used enculturation of native peoples to introduce them to the Christian faith.  In both cases, Catholicism had no opposition.

During the Reformation, the monopoly the Church held on religion in Europe unraveled.  While Catholicism remained dominant in many countries, other nations experienced the challenge brought by Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, King Henry VIII, and other leaders of the Reformation.  In Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, Catholicism was forced to share the loyalties of people with Protestantism. In the case of England, Denmark, and Sweden the whole nation virtually became Protestant.  Thus, Catholics were forced into a unique role as a minority.  In all these nations, what was not present, were the basic freedoms of Church and State, becoming mainly associated with the American experiment.  In Europe, monarchical, and other non-democratic systems, prevailed.

During the time of colonial America, Catholicism’s position of domination, which characterized Church and State relationships in Europe at that time, was not operative in colonial America.  None of the English foundations, established in North America, i catered to Catholics, save the establishment of the 1634 Maryland palatinate by Cecil Calvert (1606-1675), the second Lord Baltimore.  In most colonies, Catholics found themselves a miniscule minority who, due to latent hatred from the Reformation, were often oppressed, even by colonial law.  In the Massachusetts Bay area, the Catholic  priesthood was punishable by death.1  In 1654, even inMaryland, only five years after an “Act of Religious Toleration” was passed (1649), Catholics were summarily disfranchised.

The Specter of Anti-Catholicism in America
Unbeknownst to most Catholics now, anti-Catholicism has been part of the American landscape from the outset.  This anti-religious, anti-American ideology was manifest in three major ways: literature, politics, and social isolation.  The range of anti–Catholic literature is vast, but was centered in a few infamous books, and many periodicals.  Two of the most virulent and popular books were totally fictitious accounts: Six Months in a Convent (1835) by Rebecca Reed, and Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery in Montreal (1836), supposed written by Maria Monk—a woman who supposedly had “escaped” from a Roman Catholic convent.  The book told lurid stories of sexual encounters between priests and nuns, including the rapid baptism and immediate strangulation and burial of children from these unions.

Politically, anti-Catholicism was most directly manifest in two groups: the “Order of the Star Spangled Banner,” popularly known as the Know-Nothings of 1850s; and, the American Protective Association (APA) of the late 1880s and 1890s.  The Know-Nothings generated quite a following.  Their party platform supported several anti-Catholic ideas, but basically stated that Catholicism was incompatible with America.  The APA was not itself a political party, but rather a private organization that supported a political anti-Catholic agenda.  In part, its secret oath of loyalty stated: “I will use my utmost power to strike the shackles and chains of blind obedience to the Roman Catholic Church from the hampered and bound consciences of a priest-written and church-oppressed people.”2

Socially, Catholics were targeted on various levels.  Many historians suggest that the immigration restriction laws of 1921, and especially 1924, were anti-Catholic in their creation.  While fear of immigrants was, in many ways, rampant during the period, the specifics of the 1924 law—directly targeting immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, regions of largely Catholic populations—singled out specific groups for exclusion.  The National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC) recognized bias in the bill, arguing strongly against it.  When made law, the 1924 initiative (or “The National Origins Act”) successfully closed the door for many Catholics trying to immigrate to the United States.

A Contemporary Analysis
In his book, In Search of an American Catholicism: A History of Religion and Culture in Tension3 Jay P. Dolan, professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, analyzes how Catholicism has integrated itself into the fabric of American society over the past 200 years.  Dolan’s thesis states that American Catholicism has been on a roller coaster, of highs and lows, with respect to its desire to integrate itself into American life.  From his perspective, those bishops and movements, seeking to more fully integrate the faith into American life because of the obvious compatibility there, are viewed as positive influences.  Those religious officials and movements that have championed a separation between Catholicism and American culture are cast in a negative light.

John Carroll, the first Catholic bishop in the United States (Baltimore 1789-1815), who promoted the concept of “enlightened Catholicism,” is viewed as a champion by Dolan.  In 1785, while serving as superior of the Church mission in the United States, Carroll reported the Catholic population in in this country at approximately 1% of the national population. 4  Possibly, because of its extreme minority status, Carroll believed Catholicism needed to be open to the Protestant majority.  Manifestations of such a viewpoint were apparent in his desire: to celebrate the sacraments in the vernacular: to request the Vatican allow the first bishop be elected by priests rather than appointed by the Pope; and, to promote education, including association with non-Catholic institutions.  For Carroll, the United States was a fertile environment to plant the seed of Catholicism; there was no incompatibility between Church and State, he believed.

This high point of compatibility between Church and State was followed, in Dolan’s analysis, by a low point on Catholicism’s roller coaster ride.  The “Immigrant Church,” as manifested most strongly in the administrations of Archbishop John Hughes of New York, and Bishop Francis Kenrick of Cincinnati (later Archbishop of Baltimore). They held the view that close ties between Catholicism and American culture were detrimental to the faith.  Thus, many immigrant groups—most especially Germans and Eastern Europeans—refused to assimilate into the culture of their new country.  Most immigrant German Catholics would not send their children to the “common” (public) schools, fearful that instruction in English would lead to diminution, or even loss, of their faith.  Historians recount the German cry: “Language saves faith.”

In the latter quarter of the 19th century, the roller coaster rose again during the period of Americanism (1885-1899).  Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulist Fathers, provided the spiritual base upon which Americanism stood—seeking to accommodate the faith to the American environment.  Hecker believed in the active presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church in the United States.  The Church in Europe was on its heels, reeling from wars and revolutions; the American church had to take the offensive.  The presence of the Spirit, the democratic and republican principles of the nation, and the country’s belief in religious freedom provided, in Hecker’s mind, the perfect environment for Catholicism to flourish.  His complete belief in the total compatibility between being American and Catholic was the philosophy used by the Americanist bishops, championed by Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore, Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, Minnesota, and Bishop John Keane, rector of The Catholic University of America.

American Catholicism’s time at the apex was, however, short-lived. By the end of the century, a traditionalist understanding, promoted by Archbishop Michael Corrigan of New York, Bishop Bernard McQuaid of Rochester, and Archbishop Frederick Katzer of Milwaukee triumphed.  In January 1899, Pope Leo XIII sent a letter to Cardinal Gibbons, Testem Benevolentiae, which, in essence, condemned the ideas of Hecker.  Leo wrote, “We cannot approve the opinions which some comprise under the head of Americanism. … For it raises the suspicion that there are some among you who conceive of, and desire a church in America different from that which is in the rest of the world.” 5 This condemnation initiated the church’s movement back into a valley.  With the publication, in 1907, of Pascendi Dominici Gregis by Pope Pius X—labeling Modernism as “the synthesis of all heresies”—American Catholic intellectual life and (from the perspective of Professor Jay Dolan) the church in total, retreated into another nadir.  This situation continued during the first half of the 20th century.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) brought the church, once again, to the summit.  This most recent ecumenical Council was presaged in the United   States, however, with the work of the famous Jesuit, John Courtney Murray.  Writing extensively on church and state issues during the 1940s and 1950s, Murray rejected the traditional “Catholic thesis-hypothesis” idea. He said, like Hecker a half-century earlier, that the American principles of democracy, republicanism and religious freedom were the perfect ground for Catholicism to flourish in its own right.  Although Murray was, for all practical purposes, silenced in the 1950s for his views, his appointment by Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York as a peritus at Vatican II, vindicated his earlier rejection, allowing him to be the guiding light behind one of the Council’s most fundamental documents: “The Declaration on Religious Freedom.”

Professor Dolan’s analysis of the roller coaster ride of American Catholic history demonstrates why the question of being American and Catholic has been so fundamental historically.  Depending on the time frame, and the principles involved, the question was answered in different ways.  There has not been one consistent answer, so the question continues to plague American Catholicism into the 21st century.

Manifestations of the Question Today
Today, Catholicism and American culture associate, and possibly cross-influence, each other in varied ways.  Throughout the 20th century, the Catholic bishops in the United States addressed many pertinent cultural issues, including the family, rights of African-Americans, parents of homosexual children, and poverty.  In 1983 and 1986, the bishops addressed war and peace in “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response,” and the economy in, “Economic Justice for All.”  These two pastoral letters were widely read, generating significant discussion, not only within the Catholic community but more widely.  “Economic Justice for All” was especially provocative because it challenged how the United States makes economic decisions.  The bishops were very clear that, while the nations of the world are divided economically along a north-south split—with those in the northern hemisphere prosperous, and those in the southern hemisphere generally poor—economic decisions are based on the east-west political divide.  In other words, economic decisions are made for political advantage, not to meet the economic needs of the world community.  These pastoral letters, as significant examples, show how Catholicism has generated influence within American society.

Catholic education has been a significant contributor to the nation’s overall educational scheme.  From elementary to graduate school levels, Catholic educational institutions dot the landscape of theUnited States.  The religious and social values, taught in these schools, have influenced American thinking. Graduates of these institutions have taken their places in every aspect of American life—professionally, politically, and religiously.

The association of the Church, with and its influence upon individual politicians, has demonstrated how the principles of the state have swayed religious thinking.  John F. Kennedy was adamant that his Catholic faith would play no part in his role as president.  In his famous speech to the Houston Ministerial Association in the fall of 1960, he stated,

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish–where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source—where no religious body seeks to impose its will, directly or indirectly, upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials—and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all. 6

One generation later, the former governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, articulated a view along the lines of Kennedy, but in many ways he went further.  In 2002, Cuomo wrote:

As I understand my religion, it required me to accept the restraints imposed by my religion in my own life, but it did not require that I seek to impose all of them on all New Yorkers—Catholic or not—whatever the circumstances of the moment.My church understands that our public morality depends on a consensus view of right and wrong: our religious values will not be accepted as part of the public morality unless they are shared by the pluralistic community at-large. The plausibility of achieving that consensus is a relevant consideration in deciding whether or not to make the effort. 7

Even more recently, Congressman David Obey (D-Wisconsin), clashed with his bishop, Raymond Burke, over his voting records in Congress.  He summarized their hotly debated disagreement in this manner:

The basic problem is that I remain a John Courtney Murray kind of Catholic, while Archbishop Burke is not. … Archbishop Burke and I differ only occasionally on what is moral, and what is not.  But we differ significantly about what requirements the law can be expected to impose, in a democratic society, on those who do not share our religious beliefs. 8

Quite obviously, the split between religion and state issues continues in the minds of many Catholic politicians.  The statements of these three politicians, spread over the last 50 years, demonstrate the difficulty of being both American and Catholic.  Is it necessary to divorce oneself from his/her Catholic faith in order to serve the American populace as a whole?  While opinions vary on this question, the jury is still out with respect to any resolution.

The challenge of being an American Catholic today has seen a long genesis in the history of theUnited States.  From the outset, Catholics found themselves in a minority status that required them to make choices concerning how they would present the faith in the midst of the unique environment of the American experiment.  Thus, the Church in the United States started what some see as a roller-coaster ride, moving the amplitudes and nadirs in its interaction with the surrounding culture.  This up and down movement of American Catholicism was experienced within the specter of a long-standing, and multifaceted, anti-Catholic rhetoric.  The challenge for American Catholics continues today as manifested most significantly in politics. Is it possible to be both Catholic and American? This perennial question continues to vex people; the answers are still being sought.

  1. Massachusetts Bay Colony, Anti-Priest Law, May 26, 1647.  The law stated that any priest in the jurisdiction of the Colony was to be banished.  A repeat offense was punishable by death.  See John Tracy Ellis, ed. Documents of American Catholic History (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1962), 111-12.
  2. “The Secret Oath of the American Protective Association,” October 31, 1893, Ellis, Documents, 480.
  3.  Jay P. Dolan, In Search of an American Catholicism: A History of Religion and Culture in Tension (New York:OxfordUniversity Press, 2002).
  4. “The First American Report to Propaganda on Catholicism in the United States,” March 1, 1785, Ellis, Documents, 147-48.  He reported 15,800 Catholics inMaryland, 7,000 inPennsylvania, 1,500 inNew York and about 200 inVirginia.  The totalUnited States population at the time was estimated at 2.5 million.
  5. Testem Benevolentiae in Ellis, Documents, 542.
  7. Mario Cuomo, “What Religion Demands & Pluralism Requires,” Commonweal 79 (21) (December 2, 2002): 12.
  8. David R. Obey, “My Conscience, My Vote,” America 191(4) (August 16, 2004): 11.
Fr. Richard Gribble, CSC About Fr. Richard Gribble, CSC

Fr. Richard Gribble, CSC, is a Holy Cross priest, presently serving as a professor of religious studies at Stonehill College in North Easton, Massachusetts. He has written extensively on American Catholic history.


  1. Avatar Fr. Kevin L. Badeaux says:

    A good historical survey of the problem. Was disappointed that the author did not offer some sort of resolution, however tentative, in his conclusion.

  2. Darn that Pius X and his condemnation if modernism! (Whatever became of him, anyways?)

    Thank goodness Vatican II put an end to all his foolishness. Look what great things it’s done for the Church in the US, with all of our young men heading to the priesthood and big families filling the pews, and all of our good Catholic intellectuals teaching us authentic and orthodox Catholicism.

    Hooray for the fruits of this apex!

  3. This is an interesting summary. However, I think that it was more the principles of Gibbons and Ireland, rather than of Corrigan and McQuaid, that triumphed after 1900, despite the formal disavowal of Americanism. Perhaps Archbishop Ireland stopped making some of his more extreme statements, but in general American Catholics strived to be accepted as good Americans, with little attempt to distinguish different senses of what it means to be an American. On this note, although everyone is aware of John Kennedy’s unfortunate statement in Houston in 1960, few are aware of the article, in reply to an earlier open letter to him in the same magazine, which Al Smith wrote in The Atlantic in 1927. Among other things Smith wrote, “by what right do you ask me to assume responsibility for every statement that may be made in any encyclical letter? As you will find in the Catholic Encyclopedia (Vol. V, p. 414), these encyclicals are not articles of our faith.”
    Here is a link to Smith’s entire article:

    • Avatar David Hoipkemier says:

      Thank you, Thomas. That helps put our moral decline in context. This has primarily been about gaining membership to the American Dream.

  4. Avatar Robert A Miller says:

    The problem with Catholic politicians who deny basic Catholic morality that should inform their conscience is that they are not becoming “neutral” or “objective” in their political morality. Rather they have adopted the anti-natural law, the amoral positions of others. They seem to have no problem in imposing that morality on the American public, e.g. the dying unborn killed by sanction of the Supreme Court, President Obama, and many in Congress.

  5. Avatar Robert A Miller says:

    Moderation? So, I also have to deny Catholic morality in order to comment? Or am I misunderstanding what you mean?

    • HPR Site Admin HPR Site Admin says:

      Robert, if you’re referring to a message you received about your comment, it merely meant that comments from first-time commenters are first held for review–to make sure they’re not spam, for example–before being published. You should be good to go now.

  6. Avatar Lynne Cota says:

    I was born an American citizen and Roman Catholic given rights and duties for both. Hopefully, we as Americans and Roman Catholics are leading the life that Christ wants us to lead along with fulfilling our responsibilities to “Caesar”. This to me transcends to all countries on earth. Christ made this easy for us. Somehow His basic teaching seems to be lost in the world’s quest to play the blame game.


  1. […] Historical & Current Challenge to be an American Catholic – Fr. Ric. Gribble CSC, H&PR […]