Segment from Catholics in America

Separation Anxiety

Historian Maura Farrelly sits down with host Brian Balogh to discuss Pope Leo XIII’s fears that the American way of life was creating dangerous and heretical thoughts among American Catholics.


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PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.


BRIAN: I’m Brian Balogh.


ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. Today, we’re marking the pope’s arrival in the US by exploring the history of American Catholicism. And much of that history revolves around the long road that American Catholics have traveled from a feared and targeted minority in the 19th century to a fully-integrated 1/5 of the US population.


BRIAN: And one plot point in that transformation is a Vatican encyclical at the turn of the 20th century. An encyclical is a papal letter sent to bishops of the church and released to the public at large. You might remember when Pope Francis made headlines this summer with an encyclical condemning inaction on climate change.


But in 1899, it was Pope Leo XIII who made headlines. His encyclical reprimanded American Catholics for what he called the heresy of Americanism.


MAURA FARRELLY: In its broadest sense, it meant an attitude that said, I have individual rights.


BRIAN: This is historian Maura Farrelly she says that Pope Leo feared American Catholics were being corrupted by living in a predominantly Protestant country. American culture, he felt, was too individualistic.


Throughout the 19th century, famous American priests like Isaac Hecker and Orestes Bronson had been imploring their flock to embrace American values. Pope Leo had a decidedly different take.


MAURA FARRELLY: The pope felt that this mentality that stresses your rights as an individual had the potential to create a number of what he called dangers. And so at one point in the encyclical he says, “These dangers– that is the confounding of license with liberty, the passion for discussing and pouring contempt upon any possible subject, the assumed right to hold whatever opinions one pleases upon any subject and set them forth in print to the world– have so wrapped minds in darkness that there is now a greater need of the Church’s teaching office than ever before, lest people become unmindful of both conscience and duty.”


BRIAN: That’s pretty tough stuff for Americans.


MAURA FARRELLY: Yeah. And if you think about those things that he’s concerned about, he describes the right to hold an opinion and to put it in print and share it with the world as a danger. That just grates on an American’s nerves. That grates on our nerves today. And it grated on the nerves of most Americans in the 19th century, as well.


BRIAN: So maybe this would help us from a modern perspective today understand a bit more. Who was the ideal American Catholic, as Pope Leo saw it?


MAURA FARRELLY: Yes. So basically, you were supposed to see your priest as your guider and your confessioner for pretty much every behavior that you engaged in, whether it was raising your family or casting a political vote. And what he was looking for was the kinds of Catholics who settled in Catholic neighborhoods and sent their children exclusively to Catholic schools, and, maybe, gravitated toward occupations that were also dominated by other Catholics, such that they would never really be mixing with Protestants and their dangerous ideas about individual rights.


BRIAN: But didn’t that just play into a lot of American prejudice against Catholics? Isn’t this just the kind of things that nativists were worried about?


MAURA FARRELLY: Absolutely, it did. And that’s why people like Orestes Bronson and Isaac Hecker– who, by the way, were native-born Americans who both used to be Protestants– that’s the reason they stood so staunchly against the Catholic Church’s teachings on the subject.


BRIAN: Aha. And what, specifically, were they saying to American Catholics?


MAURA FARRELLY: So Orestes Bronson, after he became Catholic, he started really paying attention to who made up the Catholic population. Who were his co-religionists now in the United States? And surprise surprise, he found out that they were a bunch of immigrants, primarily from Ireland.


And so he had a journal in which he would write frequently to his fellow Catholics. And he would urge them to change their behavior, and to stop being so parochial, and to stop being so deferential. He felt that the destiny– the true destiny– of America was to become Catholic, because he felt that Catholicism was the truth. It was right. It was just. It was what God wanted. But he also felt that Catholics themselves were not representing the Catholic faith very well in the United States.


BRIAN: And apparently, not representing it very well because they were listening to the word of the pope.


MAURA FARRELLY: Exactly. They were being the sort of Catholic that the pope was saying they should be. And Orestes Bronson was saying, no. You need to be a different kind of Catholic. You need to be an American Catholic.


BRIAN: Well, I could see why the pope would be a little upset about this.




BRIAN: Well, how did Catholics in the United States react to this encyclical?


MAURA FARRELLY: Well, the reality is that although there were a few very prominent Catholics who were advocating what the pope called Americanism, and were therefore being condemned by the pope, those prominent Catholics were in the minority. And the vast majority of Catholics at that point in time were not advocating the freewheeling qualities that people like Hecker and Orestes Bronson had been advocating. And so one of the ironies of the encyclical is that Catholics in America at the tail end of the 19th century were actually far less, quote, unquote, American as Leo is defining the term. But certainly, it was in the water in America.


BRIAN: There certainly was a danger of what he was worried about.


MAURA FARRELLY: Yes. Absolutely.


BRIAN: So what does this controversy about Americanism that we’ve been discussing, what does that reveal about being Catholic in America?


MAURA FARRELLY: I think it highlights some of the tension that exists naturally between a focus on the rights of the individual and a focus on the obligations to the community. And the American mentality is an extraordinarily individualistic mentality. And it is very much focused upon the rights of the individual, whereas the Catholic mentality is a communal mentality, and it is focused upon the obligations that people have to their community.


And so I think the Americanist crisis really highlights that struggle that Catholics in America had as Americans to be both good Catholics and good Americans. How do we reconcile these two aspects of our identity?


BRIAN: Thanks to Maura Farrelly, Professor of American Studies at Brandeis University. She’s the author of Papist Patriots– the Making of an American Catholic Identity.

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Note to Teachers:

This lesson focuses on the work of anti-Catholic groups to ensure Protestant domination. Understanding the impact made by individuals, groups, and institutions at local, national, and global levels both in effecting change and in ensuring continuity is key. Neither the Know Nothings nor the Ku Klux Klan could prevent participation by Catholics in American government. Despite tolerant attitudes expressed by American leaders, individual heroes seem to be lacking in this story. Change seems to have come about largely through the collective energies of Catholics in America who proved themselves to be American and Catholic.

There are a number of primary and secondary sources included in this lesson for students to analyze. Students will interrogate texts and artifacts and pose questions about the past that foster informed discussion, reasoned debate, and evidence-based interpretation. As they do so, they are asked to reach an understanding of the times that produced the sources and use the information gathered to formulate statements about the issues based on the evidence they have examined.

These lessons contain an abundance of information about the difficulties experienced by Catholics in America over three centuries. Used in their entirety, they show progress in America towards a more tolerant, inclusive nation, and at the same time, the lessons illustrate the difficulty of bringing about social change.