An Individual Religious History: Roman Catholicism

Kristy Slominski/Michigan State University


            Religion is a moral framework, a compilation of beliefs, and a sense of personal identity for many Americans. My family would not hesitate to associate themselves with the Roman Catholic tradition that has undeniably affected our way of life. In identifying with the institutional Catholic faith, we are connecting to the larger picture of Roman Catholicism and its historical presence in the United States. In order to understand its role in society and my family, one must follow its past interactions within American religious history.

            The principals that set Roman Catholicism apart from other religions have been the foundation of much debate.  The Catholic Church presents the Bible as the revealed word of God that is to be interpreted by church administrators.  By following the rules of the priest, pope, and institutional church, Catholics believe to be submitting to the authority of God.  Catholicism is not as easily divided as Protestantism because there are universal Catholic morals. As stated in the First Vatican Council’s Doctrine of Papal Infallibility, the teachings of the pope are considered absolute truth. Seven holy sacraments are also in Catholicism: five representing border crossing moments and two aiding in the course of faith.[1]

            Catholicism arrived in America as the only form of western Christianity.  It dates back to the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492, sailing under the flag of Catholic Spain. The first permanent settlers were Spanish Catholics, who spread from California to Florida.  Following them were the French Catholics in the 17th century, who settled from Maine to Michigan and along the Mississippi River. Along with the exploration of interior America, Catholic missions were established and efforts made to convert Native Americans. With the arrival of more and more European settlers, Catholicism came to be one among America’s three forms of Christianity.[2]    

Protestants grew to overwhelm the Catholics in number and influence.  Early independence advocate Charles Carroll was an exception to this trend, being the wealthiest man of his time and the only Catholic in 1776 to sign the Declaration of Independence. Catholics were also strongly present in Maryland, which was proclaimed a Catholic colony (Queen II 621).  

Immigration from Europe changed the ethnic diversity of American Catholicism. The first wave of Catholic immigration involved 300,000 Irish and French in the 1830s.  In the 1860s three million German and Irish Catholics came to America as a result of the potato famine in Europe. Because the Catholic Church in Ireland had supported the Irish during the potato famine, large numbers of Irish Catholic immigrants were loyally devoted to serving the church. This devoted service led to their rise into the influential hierarchy of the churches and their domination of Catholicism in eastern American cities. The better-educated German Catholics proceeded in smaller groups to the Midwest. New immigrants from southern and eastern Europe arrived between the 1880s and World War I, with Italian Catholics settling on the east coast of the US and the Polish Catholics colonizing the Midwest.[3]

Tensions within the American Catholic Church were caused by the range of diverse national churches.  Power issues and education levels could have been among the reasons for the dislike between the German and the Irish Catholics.  Maintaining cultural distinctions was addressed by German Catholic businessman Peter Cahensly in 1871 when he stressed the importance of aiding German settlers by providing German priests for their congregations.  This movement, known as Cahenslyism, also proposed that services should be presented in the mother-language of the immigrant.  Polish Catholics also attempted to preserve their language in church ceremonies, as well as acknowledge nationally-unique saints like the Black Madonna. A strong sense of nationalism caused some Polish Catholic parishes to form the traditionalist National Church of America. [4]

Beyond internal ethnicity tensions, external problems existed between Catholics and other denominations. This issue, known as pluralism, dealt with them as a religious minority.  The anti-Catholicism that resulted from the stereotypes of the Irish as drunken and lazy reflects one reaction of the pluralistic society.  Protestants also feared Catholics as an alien, untrustworthy group because they put authority into a foreign leader, the Pope. This distrust and fear of Catholic anti-Americanism was called nativism. It led to behaviors such as the 1834 burning of a convent in Charleston, Massachusetts, as well as the spreading of negative priest myths.  Groups that expressed nativism were the American Protestant Association in 1842, the Know-Nothing Party of 1854, the American Protective Assoc. of 1887, and the Klu Klux’s Klan that thrived in the 1920s.[5]  They also attempted to eliminate the effects of Cahenslyism by prohibiting German and Polish language in schools. [6]

By the 1920s, two in every nine US citizens were Roman Catholic, with 3 million of them being Italian and Polish Catholics.  Immigration restrictions were then put into action and the Catholic population decreased.   Many Catholics were isolated in the 1920s from society by their exclusive use of catholic resources, like social club, schools, and magazines. The pressure from society to conform to American values was increasing.  This Americanization, as well as a push for Catholic Labor Unions, although condemned by the Pope, was encouraged by such Americanists as James Cardinal Gibbons. [7]

American wars have had positive effects on reversing nativist distrusts. The Civil War, although splitting the Catholics initially on the issue of slavery, unified them in the end and allowed them to prove their American loyalty.  World War I showed them serving their country again as soldiers, and in 1917 the National Catholic War Council was created as an organization dedicated to social and political work dealing with issues of the war.  Catholic involvement in World War II reinforced the idea that Catholics can be loyal to both their country and their faith, and they returned from the war under less pluralistic suspicions. [8]

Also attributing to the Americanization of Catholics was their role in leadership and social action. After the stock market crash in 1929, the economic depression led to a National Catholic Welfare Conference in which social policies were constructed. These policies were later used to support the New Deal national policies made by Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Catholic Workers Movement emerged with figures like Dorothy Day, who engaged in social action through developing homeless shelters and adopting voluntary poverty, along with Charles Coughlin, who called for massive government involvement.  The last idea that led to Americanization was the view of the country as a religious melting pot, enforced by the liberal progressive book “Protestant, Catholic, Jew” by author Will Herberg in 1955.[9]

Catholics were slowly accepted into mainstream society. From the end of WWII until the 1960s, federal funding for catholic colleges increased education levels and led to less Catholic isolation. The television created a universal concept of the American, and the Catholic spokesman was accepted in this image. A milestone for American Catholics occurred when the nation recognized a catholic as not only an average citizen, but rather as a leader.  The election in 1960 of youthful and optimistic John F. Kennedy into the Presidency of the United States created the ultimate Catholic spokesperson and American icon. [10]

From 1962-1965, Pope John XXII announced a series of changes to update the Catholic Church. These updates, known as aggiornamento, were presented at the Second Vatican Council in Rome and caused strong reactions among clergy and parishioners.  One of the attempts to make traditions and rituals relevant to the contemporary world included the switch from Latin in services to using the congregation’s native language. The other large issue addressed was the Catholic relationship to other world religions.  By recognizing the similar goals of Protestant and Eastern Orthodox religions, the Pope announced that Catholics should create connections to the other branches of Christianity. Other traditions, like meatless Fridays, were abolished in this spirit of progression.[11]

The mixed reactions of the Catholics led to divisions among themselves.  Some embraced the changes that the Second Vatican Council brought to their practices and pursued more individual freedom. These Liberal Catholics used music to reflect the change in attitude, playing guitars and singing lively songs during mass.  Some clergy traded robes for casual attire, while other Liberal Catholics debated the taboo topics of premarital sex, divorce, contraceptives, and women priests. Some women, who thought that the Church had not gone far enough in their updating, began studying religion in Episcopal schools where they were allowed admission.

With assassinations, student protestors, and a Golf War affecting the US in the wake of the Second Vatican decisions, some Catholics felt that they were denied the familiarity of their old traditions amid social turmoil. These Traditionalists Catholics did not agree or accept the rulings of Pope John XXII.  In 1968, Pope Paul VI leaned toward their position when he denied the usage of contraceptives in the official statement “Humanae Vitae.”  The institution was not going to adapt to the modern consensus on the issue of interfering with the procreation effects of intercourse.  Another group of Catholics, representing a compromise between liberal and the traditionalist ideals, were the Conservatives. They believed that individual choices should be guided by the authoritative decisions of the Pope.[12]

The 1960s marked a recession in African American Catholics. African Americans in Catholicism date back to slavery, where only minorities of slaves were converted because Catholicism was not influential in slave states.  Due to the strict authoritative structure of the Catholic Church, many Africans resisted converting. Those that did left historical markers, like the communities of black nuns in 1812, and the first black Catholic newspaper in 1886.  The twentieth century showed growing number of African Americans in American Catholicism, except for a decline in the 1960s in correlation to the decline in parochial schools.  In 1985, Caribbean immigrants and African Americans seeking Catholic school education joined the black Catholic community.[13]

The 1960-1970s were undoubtedly times of change.  The Charismatic Catholic Movement made itself known during this time.  As individualism in morality grew, this group adopted Pentecostal values of spiritual experiences like glossalalia. In 1964 the immigration laws were relaxed. Latino Americans became the fastest growing Catholic group and brought with the incorporation of their patron saint of Mexico, the “Virgin of Guadalupe”, into their traditions.  By 1970, there were nine million Spanish-speaking Catholics in America, and Latinos had replaced the Irish as the majority ethnic group in American Catholicism.[14] 

 With this background information, I am able to fit my family into these historically- significant trends.  Our affiliation with the American Roman Catholic Church traces back to the immigration of my Great-great-grandparents from Poznan, Poland to Detroit, Michigan in 1912. This coincides with the large immigration of Polish to the Midwest between the 1880s and World War I. Although none of my ancestors joined the Polish Catholics that formed the National Church of America, they did show strong signs of nationalism by continuing to speak Polish in their home. My Grandparents continued this ethnic pride by moving to Posen, Michigan, an area largely populated with Polish Catholics, and incorporating the Polish “Black Madonna” into prayer rituals.  My Grandma attended a Catholic School in which Religion class was taught in Polish and the masses were always said in Latin. She associated herself with the Conservative Catholics because she supported the actions of Vatican II and still believed in the authority of the Pope to set limits on individual choices.  She strongly supported the switch from Latin to English during prayer services because she said that it was a treat to finally understand what it was she was hearing.

            My immediate family and I today would associate ourselves with the liberal end of the Catholic spectrum as we continue to disagree with the control the Pope holds over its institutions.  We support the Second Vatican II decisions to allow us to hear English masses and accept the common ecumenical goals between Christian faiths.  We disagree with prohibiting contraceptives because of impracticality in our modern world and the importance of restricting unwanted births. We also disagree with restrictions the Pope has implemented on academic freedom in its Catholic colleges.  Recent issues of sexual scandals among our priests have affected our hometown and caused us to doubt restrictions held on Priests to marry.  While still believing in the sacraments and many of the Catholic interpretations of the Bible, we disagree with the Catholic priority for tradition over equality, particularly regarding their exclusion of women from hierarchy positions.         

            In the United States today one in every four citizens are Roman Catholic.  Being a Catholic now entitles something very different then it did in past year.  In order to understand the role of Catholics in today’s society, it is imperative that we examine their historical trends. As the world continues to progress, it will be interesting to see how the face of American Catholicism will update, resist or compromise as it has on so many occasions in its past.

Works Cited

Albanese, Catherine. “Roman Catholicism.” America, Religions, and Religion. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1999.

Dr. DeRogatis. “Roman Catholicism in America.” and 22 Oct. 2003.

Gaustad, Edwin Scott and Philip L. Barlow, eds. “Roman Catholicism.” New Historical Atlas of Religion in America. New York: UP of Oxford, 2001.

Lippy, Charles H. and Peter W. Williams, eds. “Roman Catholicism.” Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience: Studies of Traditions and Movements. New York:

Scribner, 1988. Vol. 2.

Queen II, Edward L., Stephen R. Prothero and Gardiner H. Shattuck, Jr., eds. “Roman Catholicism.” The Encyclopedia of American Religious History. New York: Facts of File, 1996. Vol. 2.



[1] DeRogatis, Dr. Amy. “Roman Catholicism.” MSU, 29 Sept. 2003.

[2] Queen II, Edward L. “Roman Catholicism.” The Encylopedia of American Religious History. NY: 1996. 619-620.

[3] DeRogatis, Dr. Amy. “Roman Catholicism.” MSU, 29 Sept. 2003.

[4] Albanese, Catherine. “Roman Catholicism.” America, Religions, and Religion. CA: 1999. 74-76.

[5] DeRogatis, Dr. Amy. “Roman Catholicism.” MSU, 29 Sept. 2003.

[6] Lippy, Charles H. and Peter W. Williams, eds. “Roman Catholicism.” Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience: Stadies of Traditions and Movements.  NY: 1988. 372.

[7] Queen II, Edward L. “Roman Catholicism.” The Encylopedia of American Religious History. NY: 1996. 625-626.

[8] Queen II, Edward L. “Roman Catholicism.” The Encylopedia of American Religious History. NY: 1996. 628-630.

[9] DeRogatis, Dr. Amy. “Roman Catholicism.” MSU. Oct. 22, 2003.

[10] DeRogatis, Dr. Amy. “Roman Catholicism.” MSU. Oct. 22, 2003

[11] Queen II, Edward L. “Roman Catholicism.” The Encylopedia of American Religious History. NY: 1996. p.630.

[12] DeRogatis, Dr. Amy. “Roman Catholicism.” MSU. Oct. 22, 2003

[13] Gaustad, Edwin Scott and Philip L. Barlow, eds. “Roman Catholicism.” New Historical Atlas of Religion in America. NY: 2001. p.68.

[14] DeRogatis, Dr. Amy. “Roman Catholicism.” MSU. Oct. 22, 2003

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