Life is full of challenges, but before looking for a self-help book, look to the past, says Chris Shannon, professor of history at Christendom College in Front Royal. His new book, “American Pilgrimage,” examines the history of the Catholic Church in the United States. “The church is not just a set of teachings that we follow, it’s about being a people – the people of God,” he said. “Every era brings problems, but what we can do in every era is look back to see how our ancestors coped with life. Try to recreate the best of it in our time.
Learn about some of the challenges the church has faced from inside and out over the centuries.
Ethnic tensions within the Church
In the early years of the United States, Catholics were generally English-speaking Irish Americans. But from the 1870s to the 1920s, millions of immigrants from countries like Poland and Italy brought their languages and customs to the Catholic Church in the United States. The newcomers have frustrated Irish American efforts to foster a unified church, Shannon said. “The Irish wanted them to be one-sided – like the Irish had worked being Catholics,” he said. “It was feared that the differences in ethnic diversity would make the Church appear more foreign and this only added to the pre-existing anti-Catholic hostility.
Established Catholics were put off by some of the more emotional and publicly expressive devotions such as the Our Lady of Mount Carmel festival held in New York by immigrants from southern Italy. Some clergy believed that the showy displays also did not translate into regular church attendance or tithing.
Dioceses built more churches for arriving immigrants, but cultural divisions complicated matters. “Ethnic groups claimed their own ethnic or ‘national’ parish even when a geographic parish already existed,” Shannon writes. For example, in South Bend, Ind., the Poles built their own parish church, St. Hedwig, directly across from St. Patrick’s Church.
German Catholics, many of whom had been in the country longer, particularly resented the largely Irish episcopate. “In 1886, the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee traveled to Rome to submit a formal, written protest, known as the ‘Abbelen Memorial,’ demanding that ‘German parishes be entirely independent of Irish parishes’ “, wrote Shannon. Rome did not accept it.
Some Polish Catholics split off, forming the Polish National Catholic Church. “Even at its peak, the Polish National Catholic Church never attracted more than 5 percent of Poles to America, but its existence has been a constant reminder of the schismatic potentials of ethnicity,” Shannon said.
Anti-Catholic prejudice flared up throughout the 1800s, sometimes through political movements, such as the nativist Know-Nothing party, and sometimes violently. A flashpoint was education. In public schools, teachers read the King James Bible – a translation of the Bible that Catholics oppose. Demands that Catholic students be allowed to leave the classroom during daily reading have been seen as an attack on the Bible.
When the Archbishop of Philadelphia successfully negotiated this concession in 1884, tensions were stirred and an anti-Catholic rally turned violent. The shootings lasted three days, St. Michael’s Church and St. Augustine’s Church were burned down and several people were killed.
Some Catholics believed the solution was to create more parochial schools. But that approach was also threatened when a law was passed in Oregon requiring all children to attend public school. The Knights of Columbus, which had become a de facto anti-defamation league, writes Shannon, directed funds to the legal defense team working on the Oregon case and other challenges to Catholic schools nationwide. In 1925, the Supreme Court in Pierce v. Society of Sisters struck down Oregon’s compulsory education law.
A new suburban paradigm
In the decades following World War II, the suburb grew and flourished. Popular television shows such as “Leave It to Beaver” celebrated suburban life. Many Catholics have left their urban enclaves for the suburbs, creating a new dynamic between them and their community of faith.
“The Catholic Church, unlike American Protestantism, traditionally understood faith as first communal, then individual; the almost separate world supported by the vast infrastructure of the urban parish was a testament to this belief,” Shannon wrote. “The suburbs cut Catholics off from this world and placed them in a social setting where they mingled much more freely with non-Catholics. The sprawl of suburban subdivisions and reliance on the automobile made the walkable parish ghetto impossible. In some ways, the distinctive neighborhood culture has been replaced by popular culture.
Shannon believes these and other societal changes still challenge Catholic communities. “Faith without culture is dead and Catholic culture must be rooted. For me, the good old days were when people had communities. They recognized their dependence on each other and found their strength in mutual dependence,” he said. “This most fundamental truth is perhaps the most difficult to communicate to middle-class, suburban Catholics who have materially benefited from rootless economic mobility.”
But there is still hope for Catholics in modern suburbs if they look for ways to nurture the community, Shannon said. “Communities (urban, ethnic) have taken root in the least likely places – you’re uprooted from rural Poland and you’ve fallen into Chicago. At first glance, it doesn’t look like rich soil to carry on traditions,” he said. “But they succeeded.”