June 9, 2017

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

History of the Catholic Church in the United States

John F. FinkRecently, I’ve written series of columns on the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the history of the Catholic Church. It seems appropriate, therefore (at least to me) that I write about the history of the Catholic Church in the United States. But I’ll do that by telling the stories of some American Catholic heroes or heroines. But first, a quick synopsis of that history.

Obviously, it began when Christopher Columbus discovered this land that people in Europe knew nothing about, although it’s believed that St. Brendan might have reached the land from Ireland in the sixth century. Spanish explorers and missionaries arrived in Florida in 1513, and the first Mass in the present-day United States was celebrated in 1526 by Dominican Fathers Antonio de Montesinos and Anthony de Cervantes.

French missionaries were in Canada in the 17th century, and they introduced Catholicism in Michigan and Illinois, and then down the Mississippi River to St. Louis, Mobile, Biloxi and New Orleans.

Between the Spanish explorations to the south and the French explorations to the north were the English colonies along the eastern coast of the New World. As we saw in my columns about Catholic history, England at the time was vigorously anti-Catholic. Maryland began as a religious haven for Catholics, but that didn’t last long. Maryland brought forth vicious anti-Catholic legislation, forbidding Catholics to attend Mass except privately in their own homes and disbarring them from all public offices.

Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, a historian, wrote that a “universal anti-Catholic bias was brought to Jamestown in 1607, and vigorously cultivated in all the 13 colonies from Massachusetts to Georgia.” A common hatred of Catholics united Anglicans and Puritans.

However, the founders of our country were wise enough to write the Declaration of Independence and later the Constitution, which guaranteed freedom of religion. Catholic leaders were wise enough to appreciate these great documents.

At the time of the American Revolution, about 35,000 Catholics formed 1.2 percent of the population, most of them in Maryland. The Carroll family contributed a signer of the Declaration of Independence (Charles), a signer of the Constitution (Daniel), and the first Catholic bishop and archbishop in the United States (John).

During the first half of the 19th century, the Catholic population swelled to 1.6 million because of immigration from Ireland (because of the potato famine there), Germany, Italy and Eastern Europe. The French Revolution at the end of the century caused French Catholics to move here, so the Catholic population reached 12 million.

All this Catholic immigration caused waves of nativism—the American Party (known as the Know Nothings), the American Protective Association and the Ku Klux Klan. Strong anti-Catholicism continued until the Second World War.

It was also World War II that liberated Catholics from the American underclass, or rather, one of the results of that war. The G.I. Bill allowed many more Catholics to attend college and enter professions. They became mainstream Americans.

They also became more politically diverse, moving from strictly Democratic (because Catholics were part of the working classes).

Today, Catholics make up about 24 percent of the American population.

(John Fink’s recent series of columns on Church history is now available in book form from Amazon. It is titled How Could This Church Survive? with the subtitle, It must be more than a human institution.)

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