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NHC Home TeacherServe Divining America 20th Century Essay:

Roman Catholics and the American Mainstream in the Twentieth Century
Julie Byrne
Dept. of Religion, Duke University
©National Humanities Center
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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 way—and their own kinds of Catholicism—in the United States.

First Communion day, Holy Rosary Church
First Communion day
Holy Rosary Church, Washington, D.C., 1916
Courtesy Center for Migration Studies, New York
The most 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 immigration—and how for Catholic immigrants and their children, religion stood at the heart of those issues.

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 prove—to themselves and to others—that 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 population—earning 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 bishops—and 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 post–World War I social policy that was universally lauded by progressives.
Diary entry of an Italian American
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
Italian-American soldier
Courtesy Italian Tribune News

Parochial school children in a patriotic parade, New York, 1957
"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
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.

This widespread acceptance of Catholics into mainstream America was largely accomplished in
President John F. Kennedy
President John F. Kennedy, 1962
Courtesy National Archives /
John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library
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.

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 Church—making 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.
Folk mass, Cathedral of the Holy Trinity
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
Father Jeff Horejsi, 1999
Courtesy Diocese of New Ulm, Minnesota

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.

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.

Historians Debate

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 pre–Vatican 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.

Links to online resources
Related info in "Getting Back to You"

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."

Religious Liberalism and the Modern Crisis of Faith | The Rise of Fundamentalism | The Scopes Trial | Marcus Garvey | Roman Catholics and the American Mainstream | American Jewish Experience in the 20th Century | Islam in America | Religion in Post-World-War II America | The Christian Right |
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