In the course of the twentieth century, the face of Roman Catholicism in America changed again,
almost as dramatically as it had in the nineteenth century. In the nineteenth century, the
change was predominantly demographic, as Catholic immigration added to church ranks
thirteen million from far-flung corners of the world. In the twentieth century, the change was
largely socioeconomic, as the children and grandchildren of Catholic immigrants began to
make their own wayand their own kinds of Catholicismin the United States.
important thing to convey to your students is how issues of family structure, gender roles, social
status, and national heritage unfolded through the generations after immigrationand how for
Catholic immigrants and their children, religion stood at the heart of those issues.
First Communion dayCourtesy Center for Migration Studies, New York
Holy Rosary Church, Washington, D.C., 1916
When immigration restriction laws were passed in the early 1920s, Catholic communities were
relieved of the great pressure to deal with so many immigrants' basic needs, but they confronted new
pressures to proveto themselves and to othersthat Catholics could be as "American" as
anyone else. Have the students imagine the issues that would face the children of immigrants;
certainly the students' own conflicts with parents and authority can help generate answers. The
Catholic children may have been influenced by ideas from their neighbors, or at school, or in the
papers, that challenged or changed their ideas of what was desirable or good. Maybe hanging
out with the Protestant kids was not so bad after all. Maybe having a hamburger on Friday was
not such a great sin after all. More importantly, maybe a Catholic daughter doesn't really want
to grow up to be like her mother; maybe a Catholic son doesn't want to do the same kind of
work as his father. Then put the shoe on the other foot: what would the range of parents'
feelings on such changes likely be?
Sometimes this new pressure to conform expressed itself in interethnic rivalry among Catholics.
For example, to the Irish, who spoke English and had often arrived earlier than other groups,
"fitting in" with mainstream America seemed natural and attractive. They actively pursued the
jobs, clothes, and home decorations that would assimilate them to the wider American
populationearning themselves a reputation as "the lace-curtain Irish." But for the late-coming
Italians, it was much more important to emphasize a vital "Sicilian" or "Neapolitan" identity over
a newer "American" one. The Italian neighborhoods maintained Old World traditions, such as
parades and carnivals for saints' days, that flew in the face of the American taste for simplicity
and modernity. The self-conscious Irish were embarrassed by their fellow Catholics. Many Italian
parishioners wrote to their bishopsand sometimes even to the pope!to complain that their
Irish pastors had threatened to cancel their traditional celebrations and were interfering with the
raising of their families in proper Italian fashion.
Other times the pressure to Americanize came from the external world. Anti-Catholic prejudice
was alive and even rejuvenated in some quarters in the twentieth century. Protestant
"fundamentalists" and other new Christian denominations revived anti-Catholicism as part of an
insistence on "original," pre-Rome Christianity. The Ku Klux Klan resurgence in 1915 included
Catholics along with blacks and Jews as victims of their hate attacks. As late as 1949, a bestseller called
American Freedom and Catholic Power by Paul Blanshard argued, again, that the Catholic
religion undermined the basic tenets of American society.
Yet the gradual assimilation of Catholics into the mainstream of American life was perhaps
inevitable with the passage of time and generations. Assimilation also got several big boosts from world and Church events.
- First, Catholics served their country fighting in two world wars in the first half of the twentieth century, after which their patriotism could not so easily be called into question.
- Second, "mainstream" Protestant religion was becoming increasingly progressive
and liberal; as Will Herberg argued in 1955, it was becoming more important to "American identity"
to have SOME religion rather than any particular religion. Catholicism and Judaism, Herberg
wrote, had woven themselves into a triple-threaded "mainstream" with Protestantism.
- Third, the
Church itself started to gain a reputation for social responsibility and public leadership. Catholic
people and priests were heavily involved in labor struggles for decades; Dorothy Day and other
Catholics interested in social justice opened homes and shelters for society's poorest poor; and
the Catholic bishops' national conference published a plan for postWorld War I social policy
that was universally lauded by progressives.
Courtesy Center for Migration Studies, New York
Diary entry of an Italian American
December 7, 1941
I am Italian Born.|
Thank you, Uncle Sam,
for giving me a home
and letting me become an
I am proud to be one of you
And I Shall help in every
possible way to keep America
on top of the World.
American [Citizen?] A. Cesare
|An Italian-American soldier
New Jersey, ca. 1918
Courtesy Italian Tribune News
By the end of the 1950s, most Catholics saw little conflict between being Catholic and American at the same time, and most Protestants had
stopped thinking that way too. The most visible forms of discrimination against Catholics in the
national press, housing, and banking had all but disappeared. Historian of American religion
Grant Wacker has rightly called this wholesale change in Catholic-Protestant
relations the single
biggest social transformation in twentieth-century America.
"Being Catholic and American at the same time"
Parochial school children in a patriotic parade
New York, 1957
Courtesy Center for Migration Studies, New York
This widespread acceptance of Catholics into mainstream America was largely accomplished in
the postwar era, but two major events of the 1960s brought the trend to completion. In 1960,
John F. Kennedy was elected president of the United States. Kennedy was an immigrant
success story, the grandson of an Irish Catholic immigrant who had worked his way up from
pennilessness to riches. The last Catholic to run for president had been Al Smith, who lost the
race in 1928 due largely to anti-Catholic hysteria. After that, it was conventional wisdom that a
Catholic could not win the presidency. Yet Kennedy, a youthful, vigorous, charismatic man, not
only won the presidency but became an icon for a whole country who saw his leadership as a
chance for a new hopeful and optimistic era. When Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, many
people, Protestant and Catholic, felt that the country itself had died.
President John F. Kennedy, 1962
Courtesy National Archives /
John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library
The other event of the 1960s that brought Catholics completely into the American mainstream
was the Second Vatican Council. This was an international council of bishops called by Pope
John XXIII to Rome between 1962 and 1965 for the purpose of "updating" the Churchmaking
its traditional doctrines and rituals relevant for the modern world. For example, the Church had
traditionally celebrated weekly Mass everywhere in the world in Latin, the ancient language of
Rome; now the bishops felt it was time to say Mass in the local vernacular. Likewise, the
Church had traditionally emphasized Roman authority in all matters; now much more decision making power was delegated to local bishops and lay councils. But perhaps the most important
change decided upon at Vatican II had to do with Catholicism's official position towards other
Christian religions. Whereas before the Church had always cautioned against associating too
freely with non-Catholics, now the bishops called upon Catholics to "build bridges" with their
Protestant brothers and sisters toward common goals.
As with any decision made by the few for the many, not all Catholics liked everything about
Vatican II. In America, the changes coincided with unprecedented social turmoil to create an
especially volatile decade for Catholics. Kennedy's assassination was followed by the killing of
Martin Luther King, Jr. and another Kennedy son, Robert; civil rights demonstrators and student
protesters were attacked by police; Malcolm X was murdered; American involvement in Vietnam was becoming unpopular; racial riots were breaking out in the cities.
People who weren't
directly involved in these activities still watched the news on television at night; everyone began
to feel as if the country was falling apart. Catholics went through these upheavals with the rest
of Americans. But for them, the comforts of old-time religion were also being pulled out from
under their feet. Priests were leaving their posts in droves; sisters abandoned their habits for
jeans. "High church" bells, incense, colorful vestments, and majestic music were no longer in
vogue; "guitar masses," hippie priests, and group confession became common. In the space of
ten years, many Catholics no longer recognized their former Church.
The folk mass initiated by young church members in this Roman Catholic diocese became the most attended mass in the congregation, with standing room only.
Cathedral of the Holy Trinity
New Ulm, Minnesota, 1974
Courtesy National Archives
Father Jeff Horejsi, 1999
Courtesy Diocese of New Ulm, Minnesota
A lot of Catholics had already thought change in the Church was long overdue and still
inadequate. But others missed the Latin Masses now said in English and old satisfying devotions
to the saints. These different reactions to the Vatican Council changes precipitated a break
between "liberal" and "conservative" Catholics that divides the American Church and its
members to this day. Liberal and conservative Catholics worship together and both maintain
fidelity to the universal Church. But they disagree about who has the authority to say what it
means to be a good Catholic. Liberals emphasize Vatican II principles that allow the conscience
of individual Catholics the final say in their religious decisions. They understand birth control,
second marriage, premarital sex, and abortion as issues Catholics can make their own decisions
about, and many believe the Church's updating did not go far enough to make women equal
members of a Church that restricts the priesthood to men. Conservatives insist that Catholics'
consciences should still be formed in large part by the precepts of the Church under the
authority of Rome. The pope's pronouncements, they believe, are to be taken as the final
authority without question. The current pope backs them up. John Paul II is a "modern"
activist pope who travels the world, writes bestsellers, issues compact discs of prayers, and shakes hands with folksinger Bob Dylan at a Church-sponsored rock concert, but he
is conservative in his understanding of Church authority.
While the story of the Catholic "arrival" in the American mainstream is the main story of
American Catholicism in the twentieth century, it is important to remember that immigration of
Catholic people continued throughout the century, especially after 1964, when immigration laws
were once again relaxed. Catholics from Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Mexico, Belize, Colombia, Zaire, Ivory Coast, Cape Verde, the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, and many other countries have come to this country in the last fifty years. Hispanics currently
constitute the fastest-growing and arguably the most vital Catholic population in the United
States. These new arrivals benefit from Catholicism's established position in American society,
but in many ways, they are now dealing with some of the same frustrations that the
nineteenth-century immigrants faced. Whereas European immigrants in the nineteenth century
faced discrimination based on religion and class, immigrants from the so-called "Third World"
in the twentieth century face discrimination based on class and race. Sometimes even leaders of
their own Church discriminate against them, devaluing the unfamiliar styles of Catholic ritual
and beliefs that grew up in the colonial and postcolonial contexts of the Caribbean, Mexico,
South and Central America, Africa, and Asia. So when we say that Catholics have "arrived" in
the twentieth century, we're really talking about the descendants of nineteenth-century
immigrants. In many ways, the American Catholic Church has not gone "mainstream" at all; it
is presently more ethnically diverse and politically complex than it has ever been.
Definitive scholarship on twentieth-century Catholicism has only recently gotten under way, and
the newness of the field makes it very active and exciting. Major studies by Dolan, Carey, and
Hennesey in the 1980s and '90s establish the ways American Catholicism "came into its own" in
the twentieth century. Dolan and Appleby see Catholic mainstreaming and liberalization as the
delayed fulfillment of the promise of the earlier, late-nineteenth-century movements
"Americanism" and "modernism" that were peremptorily crushed by the antimodernist popes.
To them, "Americanizing," "assimilation," and "modernizing" were good and necessary
developments if Catholicism was to remain viable in the American context.
From an apologetic standpoint, some recent studies have questioned the idea that "assimilation"
or "Americanization" was the natural or inevitable movement of Catholicism. In these scholars'
reading of history, the Catholic Church's current social cachet is less an indicator of success than
a symptom of moral accommodationism and spiritual lethargy. These works seek to restore to
sight the alternative "works of mercy" Catholicism practiced by several groups of religious and
laypeople committed to social justice (Baxter, Fisher). Another group of scholars questioning
the concept of "assimilation" does so by tracing the rise of conservative Catholic groups who think the Church has become "soft" but look for solutions in preVatican II Catholicism
or in a melding of Catholicism with conservative politics (Appleby, Carey).
From a sociohistorical perspective, other historians have complicated the notion of a rehomogenized or mainstreamed American Catholicism by documenting specific Catholic groups.
They argue that the very notions of "Americanization" or "assimilation" are called into question
in accounting for the wide variety of belief, practice, national origin, ethnic/racial makeup, and
socioeconomic status in actual Catholic communities. Likewise, many local communities
challenge easy definitions of "conservative" and "liberal" Catholics. Some are liturgically
radical and politically conservative, such as Catholic charismatic groups; other groups are
socially radical and religiously conservative, such as many Latino Catholic communities.
Julie Byrne is Assistant Professor of Religion at Duke University, specializing in American religious history (20th-century U.S. religion, Catholicism, race, gender, and theory). She is the author of O God of Players: The Story of the Immaculata Mighty Macs (2003), a study of a Catholic girls' college basketball team as "lived religion," and is completing her next book, The Other Catholic Church, on independent Catholic traditions in the United States.
Address comments or questions to Dr. Byrne through TeacherServe "Comments and Questions."