The Roman Phase 1850-1960


The Roman reaction against American inculturation is swift and harsh.

John Carroll is informed that he will not be consulted on the choice of future American bishops and that there will be no further clergy elections of their bishop. Some twenty years after John Carroll's brave experiment on election of bishops, four new dioceses are created and bishops appointed in Bardstown, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, without consultation with Carroll or with clergy. The trustee system is ended and the ownership of all parish property is transferred to the bishop.

Pope Leo XIII directs two negative encyclical letters against the American Church.

The first of these, Longinqua Oceani (1895) rejects the American separation of Church and State and makes it clear that this is a "very erroneous" arrangement even for the United States. The encyclical notes with horror that "State and Church…in America" are "dissevered and divorced." Rome will at best tolerate this experiment in America but only until Catholics are a majority. At that point, American Catholics must press for a union of Church and State and for the marginalization of all Protestant Churches. The encyclical calls for a "submissive spirit" from the clergy and for "obedience from the laity."

The second letter, Testem Benevolentiae (1899) took direct aim at American Catholic culture. It found American Catholics:

  • too eager to accommodate doctrine to modernity (change)
  • too willing to think and say whatever they wish and indeed to express these thoughts too readily in print (free speech)
  • too individualistic and too willing to rely on the direct influence of the Spirit in their spiritual lives rather than following the "well-known path" laid out by the Church (conscience)
  • too enamored of active and practical virtues, to the neglect of passive and contemplative values (pragmatism)
  • too dismissive of vows and formal religious life (initiative)

    The encyclical condemns these characteristics as "Americanism," a general tendency to suppose that the "Church in America" can be "different from" the rest of the world.

    Cardinal James Gibbons objects to the encyclical in a sharp letter to the Pope on March 17, 1899.

    If one looks carefully at the encyclical letter Testem Benevolentiae, the five criticisms of Leo XIII go to the heart of American culture. He dislikes, as we have noted: change, free speech, conscience, pragmatism and initiative.

    The submissiveness De Tocqueville observed and the Roman critique of America advanced even further because of the massive influx of immigrants. The immigrants were less adept with the American system. They did not, for the most part, have English as a native language; as Catholics, they cared less about an active voice in governing their Church than in surviving. A ready group of bishops moved in a sternly conservative direction, with Roman support.

    The Roman Phase stresses submissiveness, the papal critique of America and service to the immigrant community. In fairness, it must be noted that many conservative and even repressive bishops organized assistance for Catholic immigrants that was often healing and life-saving. A great deal of social justice work was expended on behalf of vulnerable and frightened immigrants. But these bishops, in turn, and many priests, insisted on absolute power and total obedience. They were brilliant organizers but also men of narrow theological vision. They tended to be belligerent, more impressive in conflict than in their capacity to reconcile.

    John Hughes, Archbishop of New York, is typical. He dismantles the trustee system in St. Patrick's Cathedral, boasting, "I made war on the whole system." He added that "Catholics did their duty when they obeyed their bishop." Even more ominously, he warns: "I will suffer no man in my diocese that I cannot control."

    Rome kept up the pressure. In Vehementer Nos, Pius X writes: "…the one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led and, like a docile flock, to follow their pastors…"

    This Roman Phase was strongly hierarchical. It instilled a sacramental reverence for Church authority, a sense that Christ was present in every official decision. The laity were to receive authority the way they would receive sacraments. Obedience became a central, defining virtue, a mark of holiness, an indispensable condition for approval and promotion. Dissent was treasonous, diagnosed as a pathology. Initiative withered. This Church gave safety to its compliant members but if filled them with a sense of paranoia and suspicion of everything that was not Catholic. It seemed a very long time ago indeed when democracy and open discussion were promoted in Catholic Church circles.

    Nonetheless, immigrant Catholics found a harbor of safety in the ghetto they built with their language, culture and Catholicism. Within these enclaves, three objectives were of paramount importance.

    The first of these was education and the construction of a massive and expensive private school system. There was a general fear of American culture and public life, a distrust of American universities, the New York Times, non-Catholic writers, and Protestant crusades such as the abolition of slavery, the women's suffragette movement, prohibition of alcohol, birth control, socialism. To many Protestants, Catholics seemed immoral, favoring slavery and alcohol and gambling, resisting a woman's right to vote and social reforms, using language against Margaret Sanger and birth control that was as incendiary as the language now used against legal abortion.

    In fairness, it is important to observe that the Protestant majority did not always make things easy for Catholics. It could be discriminatory, even savage. In 1834, a Catholic convent was burned to the ground in Charleston, Massachusetts; in 1850, the Know Nothing Party was founded with a virulent anti-Catholic agenda.

    Protestants were terrified of the papacy, now claiming infallibility for itself, and of the escalating number of obedient Catholic immigrants flooding the country. American bishops were trained in Rome and regularly traveled there for consultations with the Pope. Catholics fed these fears with huge parades like St. Patrick's Day and Holy Name extravaganzas. These were Eucharistic Congresses which brought Vatican and foreign Church dignitaries in flamboyant dress and with aristocratic titles.

    The Catholic school system never became as large as the hierarchy wanted. There never was a school for every parish. The American bishops meeting in the Baltimore Councils threatened Catholic parents with the denial of sacraments if they did not send their children to Catholic schools. Nonetheless, most Catholic children went to public schools. Even so, the Catholic school system became the largest private educational enterprise in the history of the world. It trained five million elementary students at its height. This system was complemented with thousands of high schools and hundreds of colleges and universities.

    The Catholic school system did a great deal of good, certainly, but it was under the strict control of the pastor and this frightened non-Catholics. It pulled thousands of Catholic teachers out of the public school system where they would have had to contend with greater diversity. It paid its lay teachers one-third the salary of their public school counterparts and it gave multitudes of women religious virtually no pay at all. The system both inspired and exploited women; it gave lay teachers a noble calling but it allowed them no rights.

    I stated a moment ago that there were three paramount objectives of this Roman Phase. The first of these was education; the second was the development of a piety that was sentimental, at times superstitious, and always submissive. Once again, here also, not everything about this was bad.

    The life of Catholic immigrants was harsh, even cruel. People of enormous courage came to these shores, leaving their families and countries of origin often forever, struggling with language and culture, with menial jobs and unfair class and religious discrimination.

    Sentimental piety brought comfort to many; quasi-superstitious practices, a relic or a scapular, gave a measure of control or protection; submissiveness seemed fitting (give us a church and a school, a network of friends, a sense God cares for us and we will obey in any way you wish).

    This piety, nonetheless, fed, consciously or not, into the ecclesial politics of the hierarchy. It kept Catholics from organizing national lay congresses; it eliminated the last vestiges of the trustee system; it took away the will and the desire for democracy in the Church; and, it crushed dissent. It gave the hierarchy legions of docile voters who could be marshaled against political adversaries. It provided enormous economic clout to church officials who could boycott and censure films and books they did not favor. It garnered massive sums of money that bishops could use as they saw fit, with no meaningful accountability. The truth became a casualty through all of this. Cardinal John Henry Newman once observed that "piety and power make life difficult for truth."

    The third paramount objective was recruitment for formal ministry. At its height, in the 1960's, the American Catholic Church had some 300,000 women religious, priests and seminarians. That number is currently some two-thirds less, with a much larger Catholic population and a much older corps of canonical ministers.

    During the Roman Phase, the crowning achievement of the Catholic Church in this country was tied up with ministerial vows and ordination. Priests were called "other Christs" and nuns were described as angelic and saintly.

    Marriage was considered an inferior vocation; lay life was a second-rate way to be a Christian. The juggernaut of a Catholic educational system, a submissive piety, and a denigration of marriage left Catholic laity with a diminished sense of their value and worth and with the conviction that the Church belonged to the bishops and pope.

    Let me add, however, that the success of institutional Catholicism was stunning; no other national Church in the modern world equalled the power, wealth and organization of the American Catholic Church. It also did an enormous amount of good. Its schools and hospitals, its rituals of healing and its parishes with their sense of belonging, its willingness to demand better working conditions and its insistence that Catholics must be American and must not press for the union of Church and State, all this was admirable. All this gave people meaning at times and it strengthened the life of this nation. Such a Church gave us Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton although, we must add, it resisted the former and silenced the latter.

    There were costs, however, and as Catholics became educated and autonomous, they were no longer willing to pay them. It was a remarkable system but it favored an aristocratic few and it eventually destroyed the freedom and dignity of people to an extent that assured its demise.

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