"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Remembering Catholic liturgical patriotism in the early American Republic

Today is the first Sunday of Advent in the Christian liturgical calendar, a time when Christians begin to prepare for the celebration of Christmas. I thought it might be interesting at the start of this liturgical season to explore a bit the way the Catholic Church in the early American Republic incorporated patriotism for the new American nation into its ritual life.

One of the important religious developments in the early American Republic involved the rapid emergence of public toleration for Catholics, previously considered for the most part as members of a possibly seditious sect by the majority of American colonists. Anti-Catholicism was and is deeply engrained in American culture, not simply a relic of the colonial past but something powerfully affecting the present. As this older article from the LA Times points out, overt anti-Catholicism was part and parcel of American culture well into the 20th century:  When America feared and reviled Catholics.  (Hat tip to: Spirit Daily.)  And it is important to remember that anti-Catholicism wasn't just about speeches and anti-Catholic rhetoric in newspapers.  It involved violence, particularly in the South:
Religious fear on this scale had fatal consequences. Eighty-nine years ago in Birmingham, Ala., in the midst of this simmering anti-Catholic atmosphere, Father James E. Coyle was brutally slain. Coyle, a native of Ireland, had been sent to the United States to begin his priesthood. When he dared to stand up in defense of his faith, federal agents warned the bishop in Mobile about death threats on Coyle's life and pledges to torch his Birmingham church.
Such threats were not idle. During this same period, the popularity of the Ku Klux Klan exploded after it rebranded itself a "patriotic" fraternal organization dedicated to safeguarding America against the threat of Catholics, Jews and the immigrants flooding the country in unprecedented numbers. This new Klan attracted some of "the best men in town" — doctors, lawyers, judges, law enforcement officers, even clergymen.
On Aug. 11, 1921, one of those men — a Methodist minister, the Rev. Edwin R. Stephenson — brought a loaded gun to the porch of Coyle's home and shot him dead in front of a street full of witnesses. About an hour earlier, the priest had committed the apparently unforgivable act of marrying Stephenson's 18-year-old daughter to a practicing Catholic wallpaper hanger of Puerto Rican descent.
The KKK quickly circled its wagons around its initiate, raising funds for Stephenson's defense and hiring his lead attorney, a young future Supreme Court justice, Hugo Black. Black, it was hoped, might persuade a Southern jury to see Stephenson as the community's champion rather than a bigoted killer. Articles published in the Menace throughout the trial pounded the same theme, pitting one of the most potent worries of the day against justice itself.
You can guess the outcome. Stephenson walked out of the courthouse a free man, and he never so much as apologized. Black joined the Klan himself 18 months later and, with its support, was elected to the U.S. Senate.  Only years later did he calmly state that he did not share the Klan's beliefs and was no longer a member, after a reporter revealed his membership as he prepared to take his seat on the Supreme Court. Black survived the ensuing scandal.
Anti-Catholicism, as the article points out, was ingrained into the American experience during the 1920's, and it was a powerful force well into the 1960's throughout the culture.  Although still found in some corners of the the Left and in academia, anti-Catholicism is considerably weaker than it used to be within our culture -- something that we should all be thankful for.  Still, it is amazing to see how prevalent it was, that a Methodist pastor in the KKK would kill a Catholic priest, and then be acquitted thanks to the services of a lawyer, Hugo Black, who would later join the Klan and go on to become a U.S. Senator and a Supreme Court justice.  

While many of those present at the Founding of our country remained personally hostile to Roman Catholicism -- John Adams and Thomas Jefferson certainly spring to mind -- in the public square the federal government and most state governments observed a tolerant attitude towards the formerly despised religion. Part of this embrace was fueled by French support for the American Cause during the Revolution, part was fueled by the outstanding efforts of Catholic patriots to support the Cause during the war, and part was fueled by the idea of non-establishment that took root after the ratification of the current Constitution and the adoption of the Bill of Rights.

In addition to this embrace of Catholics, there was an embrace by Catholics of the new Republic. Freed from the legal disabilities and overt persecution that many Catholics had experienced in colonial America, the (then) tiny Catholic Church in America quickly adopted a very positive and patriotic attitude towards the new government. Nowhere can this embrace of robust patriotism be seen better than in the life and work of John Carroll (1735-1815), the first Roman Catholic bishop appointed in the United States, and a cousin to two signers of the Declaration of Independence. In 1791 while Carroll was Bishop of Baltimore (effectively the bishop of the entire United States at that time) he composed this prayer, which he ordered recited in all Catholic parishes after each Mass on Sundays:
We pray, Thee O Almighty and Eternal God! Who through Jesus Christ hast revealed Thy glory to all nations, to preserve the works of Thy mercy, that Thy Church, being spread through the whole world, may continue with unchanging faith in the confession of Thy Name. We pray Thee, who alone art good and holy, to endow with heavenly knowledge, sincere zeal, and sanctity of life, our chief bishop, Pope N., the Vicar of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the government of his Church; our own bishop, N., all other bishops, prelates, and pastors of the Church; and especially those who are appointed to exercise amongst us the functions of the holy ministry, and conduct Thy people into the ways of salvation.
We pray Thee, O God of might, wisdom, and justice! Through whom authority is rightly administered, laws are enacted, and judgment decreed, assist with Thy Holy Spirit of counsel and fortitude the President of these United States, that his administration may be conducted in righteousness, and be eminently useful to Thy people over whom he presides; by encouraging due respect for virtue and religion; by a faithful execution of the laws in justice and mercy; and by restraining vice and immorality. Let the light of Thy divine wisdom direct the deliberations of Congress, and shine forth in all the proceedings and laws framed for our rule and government, so that they may tend to the preservation of peace, the promotion of national happiness, the increase of industry, sobriety, and useful knowledge; and may perpetuate to us the blessing of equal liberty.
We pray for his excellency, the governor of this state, for the members of the assembly, for all judges, magistrates, and other officers who are appointed to guard our political welfare, that they may be enabled, by Thy powerful protection, to discharge the duties of their respective stations with honesty and ability. We recommend likewise, to Thy unbounded mercy, all our brethren and fellow citizens throughout the United States, that they may be blessed in the knowledge and sanctified in the observance of Thy most holy law; that they may be preserved in union, and in that peace which the world cannot give; and after enjoying the blessings of this life, be admitted to those which are eternal.
Finally, we pray to Thee, O Lord of mercy, to remember the souls of Thy servants departed who are gone before us with the sign of faith and repose in the sleep of peace; the souls of our parents, relatives, and friends; of those who, when living, were members of this congregation, and particularly of such as are lately deceased; of all benefactors who, by their donations or legacies to this Church, witnessed their zeal for the decency of divine worship and proved their claim to our grateful and charitable remembrance. To these, O Lord, and to all that rest in Christ, grant, we beseech Thee, a place of refreshment, light, and everlasting peace, through the same Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior. Amen.
While not technically a formal part of the Catholic liturgy in the United States, its repetition by each congregation after Sunday Mass resulted in it being a critical part of the Sunday worship experience of Catholics throughout the country. This prayer helped to both express and reinforce the patriotic feelings of Catholics in the new Republic. This in turn helped to cement a commitment to patriotism within the Catholic Church in America, a strong patriotism that helped to countered slanderous allegations of dual loyalty hurled at Catholics by nativists and other anti-Catholics all the way up to the election of JFK to the presidency.

1 comment:

Eric Rasmusen said...

Thanks for the story. I knew of Stephenson and Hugo Black separately, but not that Black's Klan connection includes defend Stephenson--- which I see as much much worse than just being a Klan member. Many people were Klan members who never did anything as bad as volunteering to defend a rapist.