September 29, 2017

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

The Catholic Church in America between 1928 and 1960

John F. FinkI ended last week’s column by saying that a lot changed between 1928, when Catholic presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith was overwhelmingly defeated because of anti-Catholicism, and 1960, when Catholic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy won. What happened during those 32 years?

The two major events were the Great Depression and World War II. The Depression began after the stock market crash in October of 1929. It affected both Catholics and non-Catholics, obviously, but in some ways Catholics suffered more because they had larger families and were already at the bottom of the economic ladder.

It’s no surprise that Catholics wholeheartedly supported Franklin D. Roosevelt in the election of 1932. After all, most of them were already Democrats who voted for Smith. They continued to support him during his four terms of office.

In the 1930s, though, an unlikely Catholic priest became popular: Father Charles Coughlin. He became the first Catholic to successfully use radio as an evangelizing tool. Unfortunately, his chief topics were politics and economics rather than religion. I can recall my grandfather listening intently to Father Coughlin’s talks, one of 30 million listeners. But he became anti-Semitic and was forced off the air in 1939.

America didn’t get out of the Depression until World War II, during which Catholics fought with great distinction, as they had done in all of America’s previous wars. The five Sullivan brothers of Waterloo, Iowa (George, Frank, Joe, Matt and Al) were all killed in action while serving together on the USS Juneau, which was sunk on Nov. 13, 1942. They had enlisted together on Jan. 2 of that year, less than a month after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Their story was told in the movie The Fighting Sullivans in 1944.

The end of World War II triggered the most important event for Catholics’ economic progress in the history of our country: President Roosevelt signed the G.I. Bill on June 22, 1944. It provided a range of benefits for returning World War II veterans, but mainly cash payments of tuition and living expenses to attend universities.

By 1956, some 2.2 million veterans used the G.I. Bill to attend college, and many of them were Catholics. In most cases, it was the first time a member of their family could do so. They graduated and were able to enter the professions for the first time, enabling them to enter the middle class.

Much of the anti-Catholicism that existed in the early part of the 20th century dissipated as non-Catholics got to know more Catholics by working with them.

By the 1950s, Catholicism was flourishing. The churches were full, there was an abundance of priests and sisters, and the laity were involved in various societies.

Then a religious show became popular on television. Bishop Fulton J. Sheen’s “Life Is Worth Living” was on the air from 1951 to 1957, attracting 30 million viewers even though it was opposite shows by Milton Berle and Frank Sinatra. Bishop Sheen won an Emmy, but, more important, his evangelization efforts led to thousands of converts to Catholicism.

It was a much different Church and country as the 1960s arrived. †

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