Caption: This popular 1871 Thomas Nast cartoon, The American River Ganges, reflects the anti-Catholicism present in the U.S. at the time. The ceremonial headdresses worn by the Catholic clergymen are made to look like the jaws of crocodiles.
Catholic University’s Special Collections have rich holdings documenting the history of the American version of Anti-Catholicism from colonial times to the dawn of the twenty-first century. Rare books include eighteenth-century works such as Letter from a Romish Priest in Canada… and A specimen of a book…for avoiding of sinne and harlotrie; nineteenth-century examples including Popery: the foe of the church and of the Republic and Popery Unmasked; and twentieth-century entries like Priest Baiting and Jesuits: Religious Rogues. Additionally, archival collections include those about the burning of the Ursuline Convent in Massachusetts in 1834 and Anti-Catholic Literature collected during the 1928 presidential campaign as well as Catholic attempts to counter bias via a newspaper column, Catholic Heroes of the World War, 1928-1933, and National Council of Catholic Men’s Catholic Hour radio and television programs.
Anti-Catholicism in the United States is historically rooted in the anti-Catholic attitudes of Protestant, mainly British, immigrants to the American colonies. Many of these colonists, such as the Puritans and Congregationalists, were fleeing religious persecution by the Church of England, whose doctrines were akin to the Roman Catholic Church. Broadly speaking, anti-Catholic rhetoric derived from the theological heritage of the Protestant Reformation that criticized perceived excesses of the Roman Catholic Church in the clerical hierarchy in general and the Papacy in particular. In America, theological differences were augmented by secular notions of xenophobia and nativism towards increasing numbers of Catholic immigrants, particularly from Ireland, Italy, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. Animus was similarly focused on the Pope’s control of bishops and priests.
Catholic support for the American Revolution helped alleviate charges about the inherently treasonable nature of Catholicism. George Washington, as both commanding General and President, was a staunch promoter of religious tolerance as a vehicle of public order and virtue. He suppressed anti-Catholic celebrations in the Army while reliance on Catholic France and Spain for military, financial, and diplomatic aid further reduced anti-Catholic rhetoric. Britain’s king replaced the Pope as the demon patriots had to fight. By the 1780s, Catholics were extended legal toleration in New England states that previously had been hostile, and the anti-Catholic tradition of Pope Night (Guy Fawkes’ Day), November 5, was discontinued.*
Anti-Catholicism peaked in the mid nineteenth century with alarm over the heavy influx of Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany. In the 1830s and 1840s, Protestant leaders attacked the Catholic Church as an enemy of republican values. The Catholic Church’s official silence on the subject of slavery also raised the ire of northern abolitionist Protestants. In 1836, Maria Monk was published to great commercial success, the most prominent of many such scurrilous pamphlets (even though it was soon revealed to be a fabrication). Numerous supposedly former priests and nuns were on the anti-Catholic lecture circuit with lurid tales, usually involving sexual depravity and dead babies buried in the basement. Intolerance exploded in 1834 when a mob set fire to an Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts. The resulting ‘nativist’ movement was a frenzy of anti-Catholic violence; Irish Catholic immigrants, however, were usually blamed for spreading violence and drunkenness. The nativist movement morphed politically into the Know Nothing Party of the 1850s, which unsuccessfully backed former president Millard Fillmore as its presidential candidate in 1856. During the Civil War, however, the widespread enlistment of Irish and German immigrants into the Union Army as well as the dedicated service of priests as chaplains and nuns as nurses helped dispel notions of Catholic disloyalty. They also became more consequential as they better integrated into local and national politics and education institutions.
A major contention of anti-Catholicism in the nineteenth century was the issue of parochial schools. Republican Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, James Blaine of Maine, proposed an amendment to the Constitution in 1874 that stipulated that no public money be used to support any sort of religious schools. President Ulysses S. Grant supported this amendment, which was defeated in 1875, but it provided the basis of so-called Blaine Amendments adopted by 34 states over the next three decades. These state-level amendments forbade public funds to fund parochial schools.
The early 20th century was marked by a new appreciation of Catholicism, especially in western states where Protestantism was not deeply ensconced. In California, they celebrated the history of Spanish Franciscan missions, which became tourist attractions. In 1909, President William H. Taft visited and praised Father Junipero Serra as a Catholic cultural founder of California. In the Philippines, newly occupied by the United States, Catholic missionary efforts were lauded as a “civilizing” force. During World War I, great Catholic mobilizing efforts, especially those of the National Catholic War Council and the Knights of Columbus, were noted and often appreciated by non-Catholic Americans.
Nevertheless, anti-Catholicism raged in the interwar years, most notably the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) continued to argue that Catholicism was incompatible with democracy and parochial schools prevented Catholics from becoming loyal Americans. Catholics responded by affirming their rights as American citizens and arguing that their belief in the right to freedom of religion made them true patriots. In 1922, Oregon voters passed the Oregon School Law, which mandated attendance at public schools. The law outraged Catholics and in 1925 the Supreme Court declared Oregon’s Compulsory Education Act unconstitutional. In 1928, Democrat Al Smith of New York became the first Roman Catholic to gain a major party’s nomination for president and many Protestant ministers warned that national autonomy would be threatened because Smith would take secret orders from the Pope. Another strike against Smith was his opposition to Prohibition, which had widespread support in rural Protestant areas. Despite his loss, there was a surge in Democratic voting in large cities, as ethnic Catholics, including recently enfranchised women, went to the polls to defend their religious culture. Catholics made up a major portion of the New Deal Coalition that Franklin D. Roosevelt put together four year later that dominated national elections for decades.
The Second World War and the Holocaust brought religious tolerance to the fore. Despite a few dust ups, such as Eleanor Roosevelt’s feud with Archbishop of New York Francis J. Spellman over Catholic schools receiving federal aid, the 1950s were marked by efforts to present a unified front against communism as national leaders appealed to the values that Protestants, Catholics, and Jews held in common. The so-called Catholic question remained a key factor affecting the vote for and against John F. Kennedy in the 1960 Presidential Campaign. To allay Protestant fears, Kennedy kept his distance from Church officials and in a highly publicized speech announced: “I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who also happens to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my Church on public matters—and the Church does not speak for me.” After 1980, historic tensions between evangelical Protestants and Catholics dissipated as the two groups often saw themselves allied in opposition to divisive social issues like abortion and gay marriage. By 2000 the Republican coalition included about half of Catholics and a large majority of white evangelicals.
*Pope Night was an anti-Catholic holiday celebrated annually on November 5 in colonial America. It had evolved from Guy Fawkes Night in Great Britain that commemorated the failure of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 by prominent Catholics to blow up the British Parliament. The rowdy celebration included drunken street brawls and the burning of the Pope in effigy.