July 3, 2009


Thoughts for Independence Day

As we observe the 233rd anniversary of the birthday of our country on Saturday, we can’t help but think about both how good the United States has been to Catholics and how good Catholics have been to the United States.

The Declaration of Independence’s assertion that “all men are created equal,” followed up with the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religion, has enabled the Catholic Church to grow and prosper. This would have been surprising indeed to the colonists who met in Philadelphia in 1776.

At that time, there were few Catholics along the East Coast and those that did live there could not practice their religion freely or vote for civic leaders. So it’s hardly surprising that only one Catholic, Charles Carroll of Carrolton, Md., signed the Declaration. What is surprising is that he was an elected delegate.

But once Catholics were granted freedom of worship, the Church grew rather quickly.

Most of that growth came from the fact that the United States was a haven for the impoverished people of Europe. This was especially true of the Irish who escaped from the potato famine in Ireland. More than 800,000 Irish moved to the United States during the 1840s.

Catholic immigrants continued to come in the 19th century. During the 1880s, 1.5 million came from Germany, 650,000 from Ireland and 300,000 from Italy. Others came from Poland, Austria, Hungary, France and Spain.

All this, of course, was before there was such a thing as an illegal alien. All immigrants were legal. When Ellis Island was set up to handle European immigrants, those coming in only had to pass a cursory physical exam and show that they had $15.

This growth did not come without its problems. Catholic immigrants usually were poor and were discriminated against. Sometimes there was violence. Nativists protested, especially the Know Nothings and the Ku Klux Klan.

Eventually, though, Catholicism became the largest religious community in the country. Today, about a quarter of the population call themselves Catholic.

If the United States has been good for Catholics, Catholics have also been good for the United States. Our leaders have always been great patriots: Archbishops John Carroll, John Hughes, James Gibbons, Francis Spellman and John O’Connor, to mention only a few who were especially noted for their patriotism.

In every war, Catholics have served in the military in greater proportion to their numbers, including today when nearly a third of our soldiers, sailors and marines are Catholics.

Even in the Revolutionary War, when Catholics were only about 1 percent of the colonies’ population, they held prominent positions, including Commodore John Barry, Father of the American Navy, as well as Thomas Fitzsimons, Gen. Stephen Moylan, Thaddeus Kosciusko and Gen. Casimir Pulaski.

During the Civil War, there were 50 Catholic generals in the Union Army and 20 in the Confederacy. Among the most prominent were William Rosecrans, Philip Sheridan, Ambrose Burnside and Thomas Meagher.

Catholic chaplains during the Civil War included Fathers William Corby and John Ireland. During World War I, Father Francis Duffy became celebrated as chaplain with the Irish regiment known as “The Fighting Sixty-Ninth” headed by Gen. William (“Wild Bill”) Donovan. At least four Catholic chaplains have received the Congressional Medal of Honor.

During the Civil War, more than 600 nuns volunteered as nurses—before there was such a thing as a Nurses Corps or Red Cross.

Catholics were also prominent during the so-called “winning of the West.” Just a few of the famous names include Pierre Laclede, founder of St. Louis; Kit Carson, Pierre Chouteau, Tom Fitzpatrick, Father Peter De Smet, Archbishop John Lamy and “Buffalo Bill” Cody.

Catholics serve our country in public life. There are today more Catholics in Congress than any other denomination. If Judge Sonia Sotomayor is confirmed, six of the nine justices on the Supreme Court will be Catholics.

Catholics contributed greatly to the development of the United States and continue to do so today.

We feel as Cardinal James Gibbons did after he received an honor from President William Howard Taft in 1911. He said to President Taft, “You were pleased to mention my pride in being an American citizen. It is the proudest earthly title I possess.”

—John F. Fink

Local site Links: