The Long, Strange Road to a Catholic America

There is a great deal of division among Catholics across the globe today regarding the way in which the hierarchy have dealt with the pandemic. Some feel that by closing churches and forbidding the Sacraments to the faithful, those bishops who have done so have betrayed the flock. Others believe that they are showing prudence in following the health directives of the secular power. This division is extremely bitter at the moment (though one might point out that the secular authorities who keep abortuaries open while ordering churches closed ought to be a mutual target of both sides). But this is certainly not the first time the Catholic Church in America has been severely divided—and this long before Vatican II.

The Church was certainly divided during the American Civil War—Father Abram Ryan was both a Confederate chaplain and the “poet-priest of the South,” while Father John Ireland was a Union chaplain and, later, the key leader of the Americanist heresy. There were Catholic units on both sides. When the war ended, the three-sided battle among Ultramontanes, Americanists, and those later called “Cahenslyites” commenced, with ultimate victory going to the second named.

Perhaps the most politically divided that the American Church has ever been was during the interwar period (1918–1941). This was tragically ironic, because some of the most original Catholic social thinking in modern times was being done in Europe and elsewhere, while, in the 1930s, the Depression made Americans so desperate that they were far more willing to hear alternatives to the status quo than perhaps at any time since the Civil War. Any imaginable nostrum—from Social Credit to Technocracy to Mankind United—was sure of a hearing, regardless of how strange or exotic. Had Catholic America presented a united front, history, and so our present, might be very different.

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To be fair, Catholic Americans were taking their lead from what appeared to be a great Catholic revival in Europe—but one that was itself filled with contradictions. Economic dislocation, the collapse of Austria-Hungary, and the Communist revolutions in Russia, Finland, Hungary, Bavaria, and elsewhere focused Catholic attention on those issues. In Italy, Pope Benedict XV removed the last strictures on Catholic political participation (imposed in 1870) which led to the formation of the Partito Popolare Italiano by the priest Servant of God Don Luigi Sturzo, a leading Catholic social theorist. In 1922, when Mussolini came to power, he made a tacit alliance with the Holy See, which led to the Lateran Pact of 1929.

The same decade saw Chesterton and Belloc in Britain, Mauriac and Maurras in France, and Catholic parties in every country in Continental Europe and Latin America where there were sufficient numbers to justify it. Bracketed between Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum and Pius XI’s Quas Primas and Quadragesimo Anno, Catholic thinkers attempted to apply the principles therein to the concrete issues their various homelands were confronted by. Some were monarchists and others republicans; some looked to agriculture and movement back to the land to regenerate society, while others wished to see economic and political life dominated by guilds and corporations uniting labor, capital, and sales. Personal freedom was the main interest of some, societal order of others. All wished to see the Faith set the tone for society and dominate education, public morals, and social issues.

The Spanish Civil War divided some, but the rise of the Axis broke ranks. Some saw in the rise of Hitler and Mussolini a chance to implement programs that had been impossible in liberal democracies, and so collaborated—only to find that their new friends had no interest in Catholic solutions and themselves denounced as collaborators. After World War II, those who survived usually had little or no influence left. But those who, for very similar reasons, chose the path of resistance found themselves joined by the Communists after the German invasion of the Soviet Union (those worthies had collaborated with the Nazis after the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact) and often enough shunted aside after or even during the war. A good chunk of these became the post-war Christian Democrats in Western Europe, whose influence waned precipitately after 1968.

These divisions were reflected among America’s Catholics. Leaving aside interesting folk like Wifrid Beaulieu, the Sentinelle, Pedro Villasenor, and Frederick Kenkel (whose interest in Catholic social teaching was directly inspired by their ties to the francophone, Hispanic, or Germanic nations), anglophone American Catholicism’s first organized effort at promoting the Church’s teachings in the political and economic spheres may be dated to 1919, and the Catholic Bishops’ Program for Social Reconstruction and the Pastoral Letter promoting the same. These lengthy documents linked private morality to public policy, and called for a much more radical Catholic effort—spearheaded by the laity—to transform the national social order. It was written primarily by Monsignor John A. Ryan, who became the bishops’ spokesman on social matters.

But how to put this ambitious program into practice? In 1922, Michael Williams, a Catholic revert who had led a life of extraordinary travels and adventures, assembled a group of influential Catholics—including Monsignor Ryan, Daniel Sargent, Ralph Adams Cram, Father T. Lawrason Riggs (the first Catholic chaplain at Yale), and George Schuster—as the Calvert Associates. Two years later, they launched The Commonweal, a Catholic magazine modeled on and intended to challenge such political-cultural journals as The New Republic and The Nation.

In 1926, the Ku Klux Klan burned down a Catholic church in Royal Oak, Michigan. Its outraged pastor, Father Charles Coughlin, took to the airwaves, becoming the then-famed “radio priest.” His messages were at first exclusively devotional, but they took a political and economic turn after the Depression hit in 1929. Father Coughlin began attacking Communism, which was getting a hearing by many as a result of the crash. He warned: “Let not the workingman be able to say that he is driven into the ranks of socialism by the inordinate and grasping greed of the manufacturer.” There was reason to fear this as the Communists had organized a hunger march on Washington in December of 1932, primarily for non-Communist unemployed workers. The Commonweal sent a young ex-Socialist convert named Dorothy Day to cover it. Whilst reporting, she met a French expatriate named Peter Maurin, and from that chance encounter would emerge both the journal and the movement called the Catholic Worker.

In the beginning, all of these more or less supported FDR and his New Deal, but Father Coughlin would become disenchanted with Roosevelt. He teamed up with Gerald L.K. Smith (who was the head of what was left of Huey Long’s movement after the “Napoleon of the Bayous” was shot) and Dr. Townsend and fought a losing election bid against the president in 1936, railed increasingly against the Jews, and was shoved off the airwaves after Pearl Harbor. Monsignor Ryan vehemently supported FDR in 1936, earning him the sobriquet of “The Right Reverend New Dealer;” he would give the invocation at FDR’s fourth inauguration. Williams at Commonweal became increasingly critical of the New Deal, and supported Franco in the Spanish Civil War. The result was a sort of palace coup. He and his supporters were basically deposed in 1938, and the magazine took a leftward turn from which it has not yet recovered. The Catholic Worker broke with Roosevelt over World War II, which it held (as with all modern technological wars) could not be a just war. This would continue with opposition to the anti-Communist struggle afterwards. The high-tide of Catholic political unity that had peaked with the election run of Al Smith in 1928 ebbed entirely.

As in Europe, the bright, brief interwar moment when it looked as though Catholic Action might transform society foundered. Despite their declared common adherence to Catholic social thought and the papal encyclicals, in the end this supposed unity was not as strong as their alliances with non-Catholic groups they considered “like-minded.” The Church hierarchy in America for the most part followed Monsignor Ryan’s lead in endorsing what had become the existing American social structure as in itself exemplifying Church teaching—and this alliance was cemented by the Catholic blood loyally shed during World War II against America’s enemies. As a result, Catholicism in the United States became as mainstream as it ever would be in the 1950s, a situation culminating in JFK’s election. But this respectability was purchased at the price of any kind of prophetic witness for the country, let alone its evangelization. We are still paying the price for this bargain today.

There would be a few efforts in the direction of independent Catholic Social Action in Eisenhower’s reign, but that is a story for another time.

Image: A man selling Father Coughlin’s newspaper Social Justice in New York City circa 1939

  • Charles Coulombe

    Charles A. Coulombe is a contributing editor at Crisis and the magazine’s European correspondent. He previously served as a columnist for the Catholic Herald of London and a film critic for the National Catholic Register. A celebrated historian, his books include Puritan’s Empire and Star-Spangled Crown. He resides in Vienna, Austria and Los Angeles, California.

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