The debate surrounding the New York Mosque, complicated by sensitivity and proximity to a place many Americans consider hallowed ground, echoes over three centuries of prejudice against Catholics. American Muslims should not have to wait so long for acceptance.
The prejudice began early. Catholics in Maryland—where Jesuits who arrived with the first settlers in 1634 established parish communities—enjoyed greater freedom to practice their religion than did Catholics in other colonies, yet still encountered obstacles from additional taxation to restrictive oaths. Their clergy were often inhibited by legislation such as the 1704 “Act to prevent the Growth of Popery Within this Province” that explicitly forbids the Jesuits from proselytizing, although legislation approved three years later allowed private worship. Nine of the original thirteen colonies established some form of Protestantism as the state religion.
Persecution became more overt as more Catholics immigrated to this country in the nineteenth century. And often violent, as in the burning of the convent in Charleston, Massachusetts, by a Protestant mob in 1834, the so-called nativist riots in Philadelphia and New York in the 1840s, the Know-Nothing movement and the terrors it created everywhere in the 1840s and 1850s, the awful work of Bloody Monday in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1855. Institutional expressions of bigotry like the American Protective Association grew through the nineteenth century, and peaked with the Ku Klux Klan in the early twentieth century.
At the time of the First World War, many Catholics had emigrated from countries America was fighting, and this, coupled with their connection to Rome, made them easy targets. Catholics signed up for the military in droves, while the bishops created the National Catholic War Council (NCWC) to support the war effort in general and Catholic troops in particular, but that did not help much in reducing anti-Catholic bigotry.
Even the 1928 presidential nomination of Al Smith, a Catholic Democrat who was then governor of New York, did not quell it. Mainstream Protestants were leery of Vatican control, and post-election folklore had Smith sending a one-word telegram to the Pope: “Unpack.”
For all of their internal differences, several factors united immigrant Catholics from the beginning, not the least of which was their Catholic identity. Newly arrived in America, many unskilled or semi-skilled, most speaking a different language, all social, economic, political and religious outsiders in a society dominated by Protestant money and power, their Catholicism constituted an important part of their identity and a source of solidarity.
At the same time, they were eager to confirm that they were really American. This meant overcoming suspicions that their first loyalty might be to Rome, perceived by many Americans as a foreign power that could undermine Catholics’ commitment to their adopted homeland. At every opportunity they demonstrated their loyalty to America.
The bishops were equally anxious to demonstrate their loyalty. They expressed this clearly at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884: “We think we can claim to be acquainted with the laws, institutions and spirit of the Catholic Church, and with the laws, institutions, and spirit of our country,” they declared,
and we emphatically declare that there is no antagonism between them. A Catholic finds himself at home in the United States, for the influence of his Church has constantly been exercised in behalf of individual rights and popular liberties. And the right-minded American nowhere finds himself more at home than in the Catholic Church, for nowhere else can he breathe more freely that atmosphere of Divine truth, which alone can make us free.
Yet such efforts did not bring Catholics into the mainstream or greatly reduce the obstacles they faced. The influential and established Protestant population that dominated politics, industry, education, and commerce kept Catholics—most of whom were not only Catholics but immigrants or the children of immigrants—at a distance, forcing them to create a separate subculture that would provide them with an identity, mirror the larger culture, and offer them the opportunity to belong to organizations ranging from the explicitly religious to the quasi-secular.
This Catholic subculture gave birth to organizations like the Catholic Economic Association, the Catholic Physicians’ Guild, the National Catholic Education Association, the National Council of Catholic Nurses, and the American Catholic Psychological Association. Writers and others could join groups like the Catholic Writers’ Guild, the Catholic Press Association, the Catholic Broadcasters Association, and the Catholic Book Publishers Association.
Catholic academics formed the American Catholic Philosophical Association, the Catholic Anthropological Association, the American Catholic Sociological Society, the American Catholic Historical Association, and the Catholic Poetry Society of America. For the working person, Catholics created the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists.
Catholics also created social organizations like the Knights of Columbus and women’s organizations such as the National Council of Catholic Women. Young people, excluded from or refrained from joining the YW or YMCA, joined the Catholic Youth Organization.
Catholics were not welcome in the prestigious private universities that served an economically and socially elite Protestant population. Catholic women’s and men’s colleges, most founded and staffed by religious orders, rapidly grew up as an alternative, catering to parents raising the first generation Catholics to receive a college education.
Things had changed by the beginning of World War II. Catholics felt less pressure to prove their patriotism as their numbers, influence, and acceptance grew. Although the church maintained neutrality as long as it could, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Catholics enlisted in the military in large numbers.
From 1940 to 1960, aided by the post-war baby-boom, the Catholic population doubled. The 1950s saw the largest expansion of schools and churches since the Council of Baltimore. As the population moved to the suburbs, the Catholic Church expanded its land holdings, physical plants, and programs. Students matriculated at Catholic colleges and universities in unprecedented numbers.
Catholics were assimilating into American society, becoming wealthier, better educated, and geographically diversified. The majority were no longer immigrants. They had increasing opportunities in business, government, entertainment, education, and industry. They did not hold sway on the top echelons of the professions, but doors were opening that would change the economic, professional, and social status of the rising generation. They matriculated at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. The gap between Protestants and Catholics was narrowing.
The public answer to the question of whether or not a person could be a good Catholic and a good American was, finally, a resounding yes. Prominent Catholics showed unhesitating willingness to support the country.
When asked at his nomination hearing in 1956 if he might follow the Pope over the requirements of his oath to uphold the Constitution, William J. Brennan, Jr., responded “[W]hat shall control me is the oath that I took to support the Constitution and laws of the United States and so act upon the cases that come before me for decision that it is that oath and that alone which governs.”
A few years later, while running for president, John F. Kennedy would have to make a similar disclaimer during a speech to the Texas Baptist Ministerial Association, reassuring his audience and all Americans that his Catholicism would not interfere with his duties.
This cohesive subculture diminished as Catholics have been increasingly assimilated into the larger culture. American Catholics today make up 23 per cent of the American population. Their income and education level stands above the national average. They rank in the highest echelons of business, government, entertainment, and education. Six current members of the Supreme Court are Catholic, as are almost one-third of the United States Congress.
It took over three centuries for Catholics to receive respect and full equality in America, and the country should not repeat this failure with our Muslim citizens. They deserve the protection of the law and the respect of the majority, and access to all the opportunities American society affords. Those of us in the majority—especially those of us whose ancestors suffered from religious prejudice—should all learn from our prejudice-filled past the costs of bigotry and more readily welcome the religiously other as fellow Americans.
Chester Gillis is dean of Georgetown College and a professor of theology at Georgetown University. His most recent book is The Political Papacy.