July 4, 2008


Proud to be Americans

This July 4, we celebrate the 232nd anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Only one Catholic, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Md., signed that document, but it is remarkable that he was a member of the Continental Congress since, in those days, Catholics in most of the colonies couldn’t vote and were discriminated against throughout the colonies.

Despite the discrimination and frequent acts of violence against Catholics in our history, Catholics have always been among the most patriotic.

That was demonstrated before the Declaration was signed. On Feb. 15, 1776, the Continental Congress asked Charles Carroll, his cousin, Father John Carroll, Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Chase to go to Canada to try to gain the support of the Canadians for the Revolution. The Carrolls did so despite the fact that Catholics in Canada were well disposed toward England because England had granted them religious freedom with the passage of the Quebec Act in 1774.

Catholics might have been able to expect greater tolerance from England than from other colonists. Nevertheless, most of them supported the Revolution and fought for it. President George Washington acknowledged that at the time of his inaugural when he told John Carroll, then the U.S.’s first Catholic bishop, “I presume that your fellow citizens will not forget the patriotic part which [Catholics] took in the accomplishment of their Revolution, and the establishment of your government.”

During the Civil War, Archbishop John Hughes of New York was sent by Abraham Lincoln to France to try to win the support of Emperor Napoleon III for the North. The leadership of both the northern and southern armies was heavily Catholic. There were 50 Catholic generals in the Union Army, and 20 with the Confederacy.

Catholics fought in that war in far greater proportion than those of other religions. This was partially because so many of them were poor immigrants who were drafted into the army. Wealthy men could get exemptions or pay $300 for a substitute, but few Catholics could come up with that sum. The most famous of the Catholic groups was the Irish Brigade of New York’s Sixty-Ninth Regiment. It began with 3,000 men. By the war’s end, only 530 were left.

The University of Notre Dame’s Father William Corby was the Irish Brigade’s chaplain. A bronze statue of him is on the Gettysburg battlefield. Another chaplain, who won the Medal of Honor, was Father John Ireland, later the Archbishop of St. Paul.

Then there were the nuns. More than 600 of them volunteered as nurses immediately behind the battle lines. They are the inspiration for the monument “Nuns of the Battlefield” in Washington.

During World War I, the most celebrated chaplain was Father Francis P. Duffy, who served with the legendary Col. “Wild Bill” Donovan in the “Fighting Sixty-Ninth” Irish regiment. In World War II, it was Gen. (Bishop) William R. Arnold, the first Catholic chaplain to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

During WW II, all five sons of Mr. and Mrs. Tom Sullivan—George, Frank, Joseph, Madison and Albert—died when the Japanese sank their ship, the Juneau. A movie was made about the brothers and a warship was named after them.

Of course, many Catholics also served in Korea, Vietnam, in the first Iraq war and still today.

But it wasn’t just in wars that Catholics proved their patriotism. At the end of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century, Cardinal James Gibbons was adviser to six presidents. Former President Theodore Roosevelt said to him in 1916, “You now occupy the position of being the most respected and venerated and useful citizen of our country.”

Other prelates noted for their patriotism included Archbishop Ireland, Archbishop Fulton Sheen, Cardinal Francis Spellman and Cardinal John O’Connor.

The philosophy of the Declaration is the philosophy of the Church. Both teach that all people are created equal and are endowed by God with certain rights. Furthermore, St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) wrote, “If there be a lawful cause, the multitude may change the kingdom into an aristocracy or democracy.” That’s similar to what Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1776.

We Catholics are proud to be Americans.

— John F. Fink

Local site Links: