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Catholicism in the United States

Summary and Keywords

The Catholic Church has been a presence in the United States since the arrival of French and Spanish missionaries in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Spanish established a number of missions in what is now the western part of the United States; the most important French colony was New Orleans. Although they were a minority in the thirteen British colonies prior to the American Revolution, Catholics found ways to participate in communal forms of worship when no priest was available to celebrate Mass. John Carroll was appointed superior of the Mission of the United States of America in 1785. Four years later, Carroll was elected the first bishop in the United States; his diocese encompassed the entire country. The Catholic population of the United States began to grow during the first half of the 19th century primarily due to Irish and German immigration. Protestant America was often critical of the newcomers, believing one could not be a good Catholic and a good American at the same time. By 1850, Roman Catholicism was the largest denomination in the United States.

The number of Catholics arriving in the United States declined during the Civil War but began to increase after the cessation of hostilities. Catholic immigrants during the late 19th and early 20th centuries were primarily from southern and Eastern Europe, and they were not often welcomed by a church that was dominated by Irish and Irish American leaders. At the same time that the church was expanding its network of parishes, schools, and hospitals to meet the physical and spiritual needs of the new immigrants, other Catholics were determining how their church could speak to issues of social and economic justice. Dorothy Day, Father Charles Coughlin, and Monsignor John A. Ryan are three examples of practicing Catholics who believed that the principles of Catholicism could help to solve problems related to international relations, poverty, nuclear weapons, and the struggle between labor and capital.

In addition to changes resulting from suburbanization, the Second Vatican Council transformed Catholicism in the United States. Catholics experienced other changes as a decrease in the number of men and women entering religious life led to fewer priests and sisters staffing parochial schools and parishes. In the early decades of the 21st century, the church in the United States was trying to recover from the sexual abuse crisis. Visiting America in 2015, Pope Francis reminded Catholics of the important teachings of the church regarding poverty, justice, and climate change. It remains to be seen what impact his papacy will have on the future of Catholicism in the United States.

Keywords: Catholicism, immigration, women religious, Vatican II, John Carroll, trusteeism, anti-Catholicism, missions

Colonial Catholicism

The history of Catholicism in the United States does not begin with the thirteen English colonies but rather with Spanish and French explorers and settlers. Spanish settlements, many of them located throughout what is now the western part of the United States, included Santa Fe, New Mexico (1609); San Antonio de Valero in Texas (the Alamo), founded in 1718; and a string of missions in California established under the leadership of Franciscan Friar Junípero Serra (canonized in 2015), who arrived in San Diego in 1769.

Conquest and conversion went hand-in-hand in the Spanish missions; by instructing the Indians in Christianity and claiming land in the New World for their Crown, Spanish explorers believed they would surely receive salvation.1 The missions, which housed converted Indians within an enclosed geographic area in order to separate them from non-Christians living outside, were viewed as a way to accomplish these goals. Many of the California missions were rather large, sometimes housing over 1,000 Indians who provided free labor for the colonists’ economic ventures. Although the Spanish considered the missions a success from a religious and economic perspective—claiming that about 54,000 people were converted over 65 years—infant mortality and disease took their toll on the North American native population.

The French were never as strong a missionary presence in North America as the Spanish, but Jesuit missionaries from that country worked among native people in Canada and what is now northern New England, New York, and Michigan, and throughout the Mississippi Valley. Although the French shared Spain’s view that any settlement should include both economic and religious elements, they did not establish permanent missions, preferring to live and minister within the villages of a particular group, at times even moving from place to place along with the Indians. By the 1680s the most active era of French missionary efforts had ended, the result of both lack of interest in France and a series of conflicts with the English.

Isaac Jogues (1607–1646), who ministered among the Hurons in Michigan and northern New York, is perhaps the most well known of the French Jesuits. He was captured by the Iroquois, a rival tribe, but escaped and returned to his native country. Two years later Jogues returned to what was then New France and was martyred while working to convert the Iroquois in the area around Albany, New York. Isaac Jogues was canonized in 1930 along with seven other missionaries killed by Indians, a group known as the North American martyrs.2

The most famous of the Indian converts was Kateri Tekakwitha (1656–1680), who was baptized in 1676. After her conversion, she formed a group known as the Slavery of the Blessed Virgin. Members of the society fasted for long periods of time and allowed themselves to be exposed to frigid weather in order to practice self-sacrifice. Kateri Tekakwitha died at the age of 24. She was beatified in 1980 and canonized in 2012. She is the first Native American to be named a saint by the Catholic Church.3

The most significant French Catholic presence in what is now the United States began when colonists settled in Biloxi, Mississippi, in 1699. The city of New Orleans, however, founded in 1718, quickly established itself as the colony’s principal settlement. At the request of Commissioner Jacques Delachaise, twelve Ursuline sisters arrived in the Crescent City from France in 1727. Delachaise hoped that these women religious would administer a hospital, care for the colony’s orphans, and perhaps even minister to women working as prostitutes who had made their way to the colony. The Ursulines’ primary commitment was to the education of young girls, but Superior Marie Tranchepain (1680?–1733) entered into an agreement that called for the community to work outside of its traditional ministry. Although they served as nurses, the sisters were also accepting boarding students within three months of the establishment of their convent. These students were the first to attend what is now Ursuline Academy, which in 2015 remains the oldest continuously operating school for girls in the United States.4

The presence of Catholics in the British colonies can be traced to the arrival of the Ark and the Dove in southern Maryland in 1634.5 George Calvert (1579–1632), a successful British politician, convinced King Charles I to grant him a charter for a colony to be located north of Virginia but died before the agreement was finalized. His son, Cecil Calvert (1605–1675), received the actual charter in 1632 and began the work of establishing Maryland, named in honor of Charles I’s wife. The Catholic presence in the colony was strengthened by Jesuits hoping to “devote themselves to procuring the conversion and salvation of the barbarians,” as well as ministering to the spiritual and sacramental needs of English Catholic settlers.6

James O’Toole has correctly characterized this era of Catholicism in the United States as the “priestless church.”7 Most Catholics living in the thirteen English colonies had little access to the Eucharist, the central component of Catholic liturgical and sacramental life. As a result, Father John Cheverus (1768–1836), who would be named the first bishop of Boston in 1808, offered a small group of Catholics living in Maine some suggestions as to how they might participate in spiritual activities when no priest was available to celebrate Mass—such as communal prayer and scripture reading—and reminded them of the importance of providing their children with a solid religious education. When priests visited Catholics living in remote areas, they not only offered Mass, but heard confessions, baptized babies and children, officiated at weddings, and provided spiritual counsel to those in need.8

Catholicism in a New Nation

When the American Revolution ended in 1783, the Catholic Church in the United States found itself in need of a spiritual leader who was not connected to the church in England, and asked for the appointment of a cleric with the authority to administer confirmation and ordain priests. In 1785, Father John Carroll (1735–1815) agreed to serve as superior of the Mission in the United States of America. Shortly after accepting his new position, Carroll reported to ecclesiastical leaders in Rome on the state of Catholicism in the new nation. There were, he noted, approximately 15,800 Catholics living in Maryland (included in this number were 3,000 slaves); 7,000 Catholics lived in Pennsylvania, and another 200 could be found in Virginia. In addition, Carroll had heard there were about 1,500 Catholic New Yorkers, as well as a number of others living in the Mississippi Valley. Even though some Marylanders were considered wealthy, most Catholics in that state and in Pennsylvania were poor farmers.

The new superior was especially concerned about the quality of religious practice among those Europeans who had recently immigrated to the United States, as well as the influence of Protestants on Catholics who did not have regular access to the clergy. Of the twenty-one priests ministering in the United States—nineteen in Maryland and two in Pennsylvania—five were over 60 years of age, and Carroll worried that the lack of priests would cause Catholics to drift away from their church if they were unable to attend Mass on a regular basis. In addition, very few Catholics were paying attention to the fact that children and slaves were in desperate need of religious education.9

Shortly after Carroll’s appointment, priests serving in the United States petitioned Pope Pius VI (pope 1775–1799) to separate the U.S. church from the London diocese. The clerics also asked that their bishop be elected “instead of being appointed by a foreign tribunal which would shock the political prejudices of this Country.”10 The pontiff agreed, and in 1789 John Carroll was elected bishop of Baltimore; the diocese encompassed the entire country. Carroll continued to address the priorities he had identified as superior of the mission, including cultivating a native clergy and promoting Catholic education. The first steps toward accomplishing these goals took place when four Sulpician priests arrived in the United States in 1790 and established St. Mary’s Seminary; Georgetown Academy—which evolved into Georgetown University—was founded in 1791.

As bishop, Carroll was committed to the growth and development of the American church, which included founding and staffing schools and hospitals, and he hoped that European women religious would be willing to send members of their congregations to work in these institutions. The bishop welcomed the four Carmelite nuns who arrived in Port Tobacco, Maryland, in 1790, but he was less than enthusiastic about the presence of this contemplative congregation in the United States. He needed teachers, not nuns whose primary ministry was prayer.11 Carroll expressed this concern in a letter to his friend, Charles Plowden, noting that although “Mr. Chas. Neale of Antwerp [the nuns’ confessor] is eager to introduce Teresians (Carmelites), I wish rather for Ursulines.”12

Carroll’s hope for a religious congregation dedicated to active ministry began to be realized when Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton (1774–1823), a recent convert to Catholicism, joined with four other women to form the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph in 1805. In 1809, the sisters established St. Joseph’s Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland, where they taught both boarding and day students, but quickly demonstrated their willingness to serve the church in a variety of ministries. They began working with orphans in Philadelphia in 1814, and nine years later assumed responsibility for the Baltimore Infirmary. By 1830, eight congregations of women religious—including the Oblate Sisters of Providence, an African American community—were ministering throughout the country.13

Wrestling with Democracy

By the time of John Carroll’s death in 1815, the Catholic Church in the United States had grown considerably since his appointment as superior of the American mission. The growing number of Catholics led to the creation of four new dioceses in 1808—Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Bardstown (Louisville), Kentucky—and Baltimore was raised to an archdiocese. At times, this growth led to tensions between the number of priests now serving as pastors and lay trustees who had historically held important leadership positions in their local churches. Charles Morris wrote that “Lay trustees of Catholic churches, particularly in the earliest days, pretty much acted like Protestants: they managed the money and the property, and, as often as not, hired and fired pastors.”14 In the early 19th century, these trustees were not afraid to make their views known to the local bishop. The trustees of Old St. Mary’s Church in Philadelphia, for instance, complained that they should not have to support or obey those priests who “are a disgrace to our religion, to us, to themselves and those who send them.”15 In addition, trustees sometimes found themselves vehemently disagreeing with a pastor, or even a bishop. John Hughes (1797–1864), who served as bishop and archbishop of New York from 1842 until 1864, solved this problem by not allowing trustees in New York parishes any voice in choosing their pastors, but he did grant them limited authority in financial matters. As the Catholic population increased, and Hughes established new parishes and schools, he simply placed them in his own name, eliminating the need for trustees.16

The large number of immigrants arriving in the United States during the first half of the 19th century altered the look of American Catholicism. Between 1820 and 1840, more than 260,000 Irish men and women arrived in the United States, and the potato famine drove another million people out of Ireland between 1846 and 1851. German Catholics also arrived in fairly large numbers; about one and a half million settled in the United States prior to 1860.17 The number of immigrants was so great, that by 1850 Catholicism was the largest single denomination in the United States.

As Catholic immigrants arrived in America, it seemed to their Protestant neighbors that they were a threat to the very fabric of society. The newcomers were often extremely poor and illiterate, and they seemed overly fond of alcohol—even on Sunday. At times, this nativism manifested itself in violent displays of anti-Catholicism. Perhaps the most well known example of anti-Catholic violence in the antebellum period was the attack on the Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts, in 1834. The events leading up to the eventual destruction of the building began when Sister Mary John (Elizabeth Harrison), an overworked music teacher, decided to leave the convent and seek shelter at the home of a student’s family. She returned to her community the following day, but residents of Charlestown were not convinced she was free to make her own decisions, and news of the “escaped nun” spread rapidly through the community. When a local official visited the convent to warn the sisters about the negative sentiments being expressed by their neighbors, Sister St. George, the superior, responded in a less than friendly manner. “You may fetch your mob,” she informed her visitors, “the Bishop has twenty thousand of the vilest Irish, who might pull down your houses over your heads—and you may read your riot act till your throats are sore, and you cannot quell them—you . . . will have your houses torn down over your heads.”18

Tensions increased even further when Lyman Beecher, a prominent Protestant minister, preached three anti-Catholic sermons throughout the city. An educated Protestant ministry was necessary, Beecher proclaimed, because “the Roman Catholics of Europe seem to be seeking an asylum for the contentions and revolutions of the old world and a site for the palace of the Pope and the Romish Church in the Great Valley of the Mississippi.”19 The following evening, an angry mob gathered outside the convent. After several conversations with Sister St. George, they began throwing rocks and bricks, and eventually set fire to the building. The Ursulines and their students escaped unharmed, but the school and convent were never rebuilt.

By the 1830s, the issue of slavery was dividing the country, but very few Catholics were active abolitionists. Although Catholic theology did not consider slavery to be essentially sinful, some American bishops, such as Francis Patrick Kenrick (1796–1863), taught that both masters and slaves had rights and responsibilities. Slavery was acceptable, Kenrick argued, but “slaveholders did not have the right to treat slaves as property or animals.”20 In addition to receiving adequate care, slaves were to be provided with a religious education, and had a right to marriage and a family. Catholic slaveholders in the South, however, never embraced Kenrick’s moral and theological teaching on the subject of slavery.

American Catholics fought for both the North and the South during the Civil War. Irish Catholic southerners supported the Confederacy and formed a brigade of the first Virginia infantry, engaging in combat at the Battle of Bull Run. Approximately 150,000 Irish and 175,000 German Catholics fought for the Union, but not all northern Catholics were willing to serve in the Union Army. Shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg (1863), draft riots erupted in New York City. The Irish Americans participating in the riots not only believed that they were being conscripted into the Army in greater proportion than other groups, but many of them disliked African Americans because they had accepted jobs replacing striking longshoremen. During the riots—which lasted for four days—105 people were killed, African Americans were attacked on the streets of the city, and an orphanage for black children was burned.21

Catholic and American

Immigration, which had slowed during the war, began to increase when hostilities ceased. Approximately 5.2 million people arrived in the United States during the 1880s. Irish and Germans were joined by people from southern and eastern Europe, including Italians, Poles, Lithuanians, Slovaks, Czechs, and Russians, as well as immigrants from Asian countries.22 The church in the United States found itself struggling to meet the physical and spiritual needs of the new immigrants, and as a result, “the American Catholic landscape [became] crowded with churches, schools, hospitals, orphanages, social welfare agencies, and devotional societies organized along ethnic lines and sustained by immigrants and their families.”23

Catholic immigrants from southern and eastern Europe often found themselves unwelcome in the parishes dominated by Irish and Irish American priests and laypeople. It was not unusual for an Irish pastor to require a Mass in which the sermon was preached in Italian, for instance, to be held in the church basement at an inconvenient time. National parishes were established in order to rectify this situation. In a national parish, Catholic immigrants from a particular country could recite their confession, listen to a sermon, and sing favorite hymns in their native language. If a school was connected to a national parish, the children were taught English as part of the curriculum. During the 1917–1918 school year at St. Hedwig’s School (Polish) in Toledo, Ohio, second graders received catechism lessons in Polish, but English was used in arithmetic; both Polish and English were spoken during writing, spelling, and reading classes.24

Pope Leo XIII (pope 1878–1903) was especially concerned about the conditions in which Italian immigrants were living, and he encouraged priests and sisters to become involved in ministries devoted to improving both the immigrants’ material and spiritual well-being. Italian bishop Giovanni Scalabrini (1839–1905) demonstrated his support of the pontiff’s views by founding the Congregation of the Missionaries of St. Charles, better known as the Scalabrinian Fathers and Brothers, in 1887. The original mission of his religious congregation was to support and maintain the faith of Italian immigrants in the New World. Both Scalabrini and Leo XIII encouraged Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850–1917), a young Italian woman seeking to establish a congregation of women religious devoted to missionary work, to focus her attention on the United States.25 Cabrini heeded the advice, and along with six other Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, she boarded a ship bound for the United States in March 1889. The sisters immediately began working with Italian immigrants living on the Lower East Side of New York, and within five years had founded the city’s Columbus Hospital. The congregation rapidly expanded its work beyond New York City, founding schools, hospitals, and orphanages throughout the United States. Cabrini, the first American citizen to be named a saint, was canonized in 1946.

Eastern and southern Europeans celebrated their faith in ways that differed from Irish and Irish American Catholics. One example of the way in which immigrants blended the customs and devotions of the Old World with those they found in their new home was the Italian and Italian American festa, an expression of devotion that became a part of parish life in the United States. Robert Orsi’s groundbreaking study of the Italian festa in East Harlem dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel illustrates the importance these practices have played, and continue to play, in American Catholicism. During the early years of the festa, Orsi notes, the event “was a brave declaration of presence, proclaiming to Irish and German Catholics and to American Protestants that the Italians had arrived and would do things their way.”26 Although those who stood outside of the tradition often viewed the festa as nothing more than a street fair, James T. Fisher claimed that it “represented a communal reaffirmation of shared bonds of faith and ethnicity.”27 The devotion of Italians and Italian Americans—and now Haitians—to Our Lady of Mount Carmel is demonstrated annually when people travel to East Harlem to celebrate the feast inside and outside of the church building in which the statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is housed.

African American Catholics also struggled to find a place in the church. In 1866, shortly after the end of the Civil War, the Second Plenary Council, a gathering of bishops from around the country, was held in Baltimore. One of the Council’s agenda items concerned the implementation of an organized ministry to the recently emancipated African American Catholic population. The bishops were bitterly divided on the subject, and the result was that decisions regarding black Catholics were left to the discretion of the local ordinary. African American Catholics received little attention from their church until Katharine Drexel (canonized in 2000) founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People—generally known as the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament—in 1891. The congregation developed a ministry to African Americans and Native Americans; Drexel and her sisters also founded Xavier University in New Orleans in 1915, the only black Catholic university in the United States.28

During the 1880s, a debate ensued among the American hierarchy concerning a number of issues related to the church and U.S. society. One side, consisting primarily of “liberal” Irish American bishops and priests, led by St. Paul Archbishop John Ireland (1838–1918), argued that the tenets of Catholicism were fully compatible with American democracy. Under the leadership of Archbishop Michael Corrigan of New York (1839–1902), their opponents, a group of Irish and German American prelates who were considered “conservative,” worried what would happen to the church—the institution and the people—if it attempted to accommodate itself to modern thought and culture. If this were to happen, these bishops believed, American Catholics were in danger of losing their souls.

Ireland and those who supported him believed that they were more enlightened than their conservative confreres and attempted to persuade Pope Leo XIII and other Vatican leaders to agree with their positions. One area of disagreement involved labor unions. In 1885, the church condemned the Knights of Labor in Canada, defining it as a secret society. Some members of the hierarchy hoped the pope would offer a similar negative opinion of the Knights in the United States. Baltimore’s Cardinal James Gibbons (1834–1921), who tended to agree with the liberal faction, argued that the organization, whose membership was primarily Catholic, should be permitted, and the church itself should support the working classes. Gibbons was successful, and Leo XIII chose not to condemn the society.

A second controversy that erupted concerned the establishment of a Catholic university in the United States, a proposal that was opposed by the conservative forces among the hierarchy. Despite their concern, the Catholic University of America received papal approval, and was established in 1889. Bishops opposed to the university, however, refused to contribute to its support, which led to financial struggles during the first several decades of the university’s existence.

Other issues that divided the hierarchy included the establishment of parochial schools, participation in religious events considered nondenominational or Protestant—such as the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions—and the appointment of an apostolic delegate to the United States. Perhaps the most difficult problem to resolve, however, concerned a disagreement over the benefits of the American system of separation of church and state. “On this issue,” Patrick Carey wrote, “Rome was, from the start, clearly on the side of the conservatives.”29 Although many liberal bishops believed that separation of church and state was of great benefit to Catholicism in the United States, Leo XIII did not agree, and in 1895 issued an encyclical entitled Longinqua Oceani. The pontiff acknowledged that separation of church and state had clearly helped U.S. Catholicism but warned supporters of this idea that the best situation for the Catholic Church in any country, including America, was to have some sort of special status that placed it above all other religious denominations.30

U.S. Catholicism in the 20th Century

During the late 19th century, the Catholic Church experienced significant growth, which was reflected by the addition of twenty-six dioceses and two archdioceses between 1880 and 1904. The church had become more financially viable and had developed an extensive network that included churches, schools, child-care facilities, and other charitable institutions. Pius X (pope 1903–1914) recognized the changing shape of the U.S. church in 1908, when he stated that it was no longer to be considered “mission territory.”

Some Catholics became prominent representatives of their church as they offered responses to the social and political issues that emerged during the first half of the 20th century. Monsignor John A. Ryan (1869–1945), known as “Right Reverend New Dealer,” received a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Catholic University of America (CUA). Ryan was greatly influenced by Rerum Novarum (“On the Condition of Labor”), Leo XIII’s 1892 encyclical that addressed the rights of workers and the responsibilities of business owners, and as a faculty member at CUA offered courses in sociology, moral theology, and industrial ethics, a combination of disciplines that exemplified his concern for blending economics and ethics in a systematic way. His first book, A Living Wage (1906), promoted the idea that all men had the right to a living wage, which Ryan believed should be enough to support an individual and his family. Distributive Justice: The Right and Wrong of Our Present Distribution of Wealth (1916) argued for an equal distribution of wealth, as well as a minimum wage for all workers. Three years later, Ryan served as the primary author of “The Bishops’ Program of Social Reconstruction,” which set forth the economic and social agenda of the U.S. bishops in the years immediately following the end of World War I.31

Ryan was an unabashed enthusiastic supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. On the other side of the spectrum stood Father Charles E. Coughlin (1891–1979). A priest in the Archdiocese of Detroit, Coughlin spent most of his career at the National Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Michigan. In 1926, Coughlin began a one-hour-a-week radio broadcast in order to offer a Catholic response to a cross burning on the grounds of the shrine by the Ku Klux Klan. His program was picked up by CBS, and in 1930 Coughlin’s programs began to focus on political subjects, including communism, the Soviet Union, and capitalism. Although he supported Roosevelt during the 1932 presidential campaign, Coughlin turned against the president because he did not believe his proposed reforms were doing enough to solve the country’s economic problems. After Roosevelt’s landslide re-election in 1936, the “radio priest” began to voice his support for the fascist governments in Germany and Italy, and his broadcasts became increasingly anti-Semitic. In 1942, his controversial public statements and activities led Detroit Archbishop Edward Mooney to order Coughlin to limit his work to that of a parish priest. Coughlin complied and ministered at the Shrine of the Little Flower until his retirement in 1966.32

Dorothy Day (1897–1980), perhaps the most important Catholic figure of the 20th century, represents the most radical way of demonstrating that Catholics needed to live the teachings of their church. Along with Peter Maurin (1877–1949), Day founded the Catholic Worker movement in 1933, the same year that they began publishing a newspaper with the same name. According to Jay P. Dolan, Day and Maurin sought to return God to the world by “advocating a more personalist style of faith rooted in the practice of voluntary poverty, love for the distressed, and a gospel of nonviolence.”33 They promoted their philosophy through both the newspaper and houses of hospitality, but Day was also actively involved in movements to change society, including demonstrating against the production of atomic and nuclear weapons and advocating for the rights of farm workers.

Other Catholics found ways to address the issues of the 20th century, including the Great Depression. The St. Vincent de Paul Society, for example, attracted laymen interested in assisting those in need of basic necessities. Founded in St. Louis in 1845, the society quickly spread to parishes throughout the Midwest and other parts of the country. James O’Toole notes that although the members of the St. Vincent de Paul societies were motivated by humanitarian principles, there was also a religious component to their work, which was based on the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.34

Transformation of U.S. Catholicism

Urban Catholics joined other Americans in a migration from cities to suburbs during the years following World War II, a move that would change both the church and its people. Priest-sociologist Andrew Greeley (1928–2013) described the Catholic suburbanite in 1958 as a “successful, educated, and independent man . . . [who] prides himself on the fact that he is a free American and makes his own decisions.” Greeley firmly believed that this movement from urban to suburban areas would finally lead U.S. Protestants to accept their Catholic neighbors as “real” Americans. “The ghetto walls are crumbling,” he rejoiced, and “[t]he old national parishes are breaking up.”35

Suburbanization did somewhat change the way in which Catholics and Protestants related to each other, but it was the 1960 election of John F. Kennedy as president that signified how far American Catholics—who now numbered 42 million—had come since the 19th century. The socioeconomic status of Catholics had improved since the end of World War II; by 1966, Catholics had completed more years of education than other groups and often reported earning more money than non-Catholics.36 Although white male Catholics serving as heads of households were only 80 percent as likely to be employed in a professional or managerial position as white male non-Catholic heads of households, by 1976 even this distinction was erased, as Catholics continued to move into occupations defined as white-collar.37

American Catholicism underwent a dramatic transformation as a result of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965). Most Catholics first experienced liturgical changes approved by the Council on the first Sunday of Advent, 1964. Mass celebrated in local parishes on that day followed the guidelines set forth in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium), promulgated in 1963. Parts of the liturgy, such as the Gloria and the Our Father, were recited in English (by 1969, English was the only language used during the Mass); the priest no longer had his back to the people but faced the congregation; and the laity were encouraged to participate in the Mass by responding to the celebrant, rather than silently reciting the rosary or other devotional prayers. Over the next several years, other liturgical changes were implemented. Along with the New Testament epistle and gospel, a reading from the Old Testament was added, and the sign of peace, when members of the congregation turn to each other and offer greetings or wish those around them “peace,” was instituted. All of these changes meant that laypeople participated in the Mass more than ever before.38

“The Declaration on Religious Freedom” (Dignitatis Humanae), promulgated in 1965, would have a great effect on U.S. Catholicism because it “ratified the separation of church and state not merely as a fait accompli but also, with reservations, as an ideal.”39 Under the leadership of John Courtney Murray, SJ (1904–1967), Vatican leaders were finally convinced that religious freedom was preferable to an established religion supported and endorsed by the state. One result of the Declaration was the increased participation of Catholic clergy and laity in ecumenical activities.

Despite changes to the ways in which Catholics worshiped and new views on religious liberty, Vatican II failed to address the use of artificial contraceptives, an issue that was of utmost concern to U.S. Catholics. Abstinence and natural family planning—also known as the rhythm method or Vatican roulette—were the only acceptable ways for a couple to limit the number of children in a family, and many Americans hoped that the church would recognize the validity of new effective forms of birth control. Prior to making any decision on this very controversial topic, Pope Paul VI (pope 1963–1978) appointed a commission, which included married couples, theologians, and physicians, to conduct a study of the subject that culminated in a report to the pontiff. The majority, including Americans Pat and Patty Crowley, favored a change in the traditional teaching, but a minority of members believed that any alteration would imply that the church’s traditional stance had been wrong. Three years after the close of the Council, Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life, 1968), upholding the church’s teaching on birth control. Reaction to the encyclical was “swift and overwhelmingly negative among American laypeople.”40 Many Catholics simply disregarded the encyclical, and chose to make informed decisions on the size of their family based on economics and personal choice.

Catholicism in the Contemporary World and Future Challenges

American Catholicism of the late 20th and 21st centuries reflects changes that affected both church and society during the years following Vatican II. The demographics of Catholicism, for instance, shifted dramatically. No longer concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest, the dominant centers of the Catholic Church were now found in the West and Southwest. In addition, the role of priests and women religious was impacted by a decrease in the number of Catholics entering religious life after 1965. In that year, 58,000 priests were ministering to U.S. Catholics, and the number ordained annually outpaced those who had died or left the priesthood during any given year. By 1971, the number of newly ordained barely equaled those who had left, and in subsequent years the men who left outnumbered those ordained. As retirements and deaths took their toll, more and more parishes found themselves with a reduced number of resident priests, or even worse, no priest at all.41

Women religious had been especially impacted by several documents produced by the Council. Lumen Gentium (1964) and Gaudium et Spes (1965) not only called sisters to work with the poor in cooperation with clergy and laity, but no longer placed priests and bishops above the laity, and defined the church as the “people of God.” When read in combination with Perfectae Caritatis (Perfect Love, 1965), which was the Decree on the Renewal of Religious Life, sisters and nuns believed that they were being encouraged to “return to the original inspiration behind the founding of their communities and infuse that spirit into their contemporary lives and ministries.”42 Some ways in which religious congregations implemented the decrees of the Second Vatican Council included modifying or abandoning their distinctive dress and adapting the rule, which had governed religious life for centuries, to meet the needs of their members actively involved in ministries in the contemporary world. Restrictions on listening to the radio and watching television were relaxed or lifted, and some sisters began to choose to live outside of traditional convents in order to be closer to those with whom they worked. Despite these changes, congregations of women religious also experienced a decline in numbers beginning in the mid-1960s. In 1965, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, approximately 180,000 sisters and nuns ministered in the United States. By 2014, the number of women religious was about 50,000, a decrease of 72 percent.43

This decline would have serious implications for the future of parochial education in the United States. Although the number of parochial schools increased during the years immediately following World War II, this growth began to slow during the late 1960s as a number of parents chose to enroll their children in public schools. As the number of available sister-teachers decreased due to declining numbers and the decision of many women religious to move away from a primary ministry of education, pastors were forced to hire lay teachers, which increased the cost of staffing and administering schools.44

The passage of the Hart-Cellar Act in 1965 allowed immigrants from Asia and Latin America to enter the United States in greater numbers than ever before. The Catholic Church was faced with an influx of new immigrants, but this time they came from Honduras, El Salvador, Haiti, and Vietnam, rather than from Italy or Poland. Hispanics, including Mexicans, Guatemalans, and Dominicans, constituted one of the larger groups among the newest Catholics to arrive in the United States. Parishes responded to this influx of Catholics by celebrating one or more Masses in languages other than English each week, but rising costs and changing demographics made it difficult to provide the same number of schools and churches that had been a part of the American landscape in the past. The way in which the Church interacts with its Latino and Latina members and their response will clearly shape American Catholicism in subsequent decades.

The sexual abuse scandal began to be reported in the press during the mid-1980s and gained national attention in January 2002, when the Boston Globe reported crimes committed by Revs. James Geoghan and Paul Shanley, and the church’s cover-up of their behavior. It seemed that every time Catholics opened a newspaper another incident of clergy sexual abuse and its cover-up by diocesan leaders was being reported. The responses of lay Catholics varied, but many were upset and angry, and some began calling for a change in the way in which the church was governed. Voice of the Faithful (VOTF), an organization founded to express the concerns of the laity and to work for change, eventually grew to about 30,000 members. How Pope Francis and members of the American hierarchy respond to incidents related to sexual abuse that have not yet been resolved will impact the future of U.S. Catholicism.

In September 2015, Pope Francis visited the United States for the first time. During his time in Washington, D.C., New York City, and Philadelphia, he was welcomed by Catholics and non-Catholics from around the country, many of whom traveled hundreds of miles to get a glimpse of the “people’s pope.” The U.S. Catholics coming together to welcome Pope Francis were deeply divided on several issues, including same-sex marriage, capital punishment, the role of government and the church in assisting the poor and dispossessed, and the appropriate responses to climate change. They also disagreed on concerns that are internal to their church, such as women’s ordination and the possibility of divorced and remarried Catholics being granted access to the Eucharist. Some of the faithful who disagreed with church positions have spoken with their feet, no longer attending Mass and receiving the sacraments. Others have chosen to remain within the institutional structure and work to change church positions on some issues. The ways that Pope Francis and future ecclesiastical leaders respond to these issues will contribute to the shape of the Catholic Church in the 21st century, but American Catholics will continue to worship, pray, and practice faithful citizenship as they have since their earliest days in the United States.

Discussion of the Literature

The study of Catholicism in the United States traditionally focused on the “great man” (or woman) approach to history. Scholars produced biographies of bishops and diocesan histories that often extolled the subject’s contribution to the building of the American church. Histories of religious congregations were written from the perspective of superiors, all of whom were hailed as strong and compassionate leaders. Very little critical analysis is found in these monographs and essays, but they are a valuable starting point for getting a sense of the key players and events in the story.

Scholars working in the area of American Catholicism have moved away from this approach. Those engaged in writing about bishops, dioceses, and religious congregations no longer write from a hagiographic perspective. Bishops, for instance, are examined from a critical-biographical lens, and they are revealed as leaders with both strengths and weaknesses. Histories of religious congregations do not focus on major superiors to the exclusion of others but look at the members and the work of the community.

American Catholic studies in the 21st century is moving in a number of directions, only several of which can be discussed in this brief article. A broad theme found in some of the current research centers on the ways in which Catholics have interacted with movements outside of—and sometimes hostile to—their church. Catholic interactions with Communism, the civil rights movement, and the anti-war movement, for instance, offer insight into the way the church responded to the larger culture. A second major area of interest is in the general area of Catholics and race. Although some work has been published on the history of African American Catholics, more study is needed before a comprehensive history of black Catholics is available. Research is also currently being produced on how American Catholic leaders responded to issues related to race in both the church and the larger society. In addition, Catholic scholars have begun to look closely at the ways in which racism was manifested in the church itself, including parishes, religious congregations, schools, and child-care institutions. A third subject that seems to be of great interest to scholars is the study of women religious. The Conference on the History of Women Religious, founded in 1988, holds a triennial meeting that draws scholars from all over the world. A final area in which scholars of Catholicism are working can be broadly described as interdisciplinary; the disciplines of psychology, sociology, and ethnography, for instance, have helped those working in American Catholic studies come to a better understanding of their subjects.

Lay Catholics as a general subject is currently receiving a good deal of scholarly scrutiny. In the past, the laity received little attention, as scholars focused almost all of their attention on the institution and its leaders. Historians are now asking questions such as: How did lay Catholics understand prayer—both as individuals and as members of a larger church? In what way did lay Catholics view themselves in relation to the institutional church? And, how did their interaction with popular culture (film, art, and literature) impact their Catholic identity?

Recent scholarship has also focused on the study of gender and its place in American Catholicism, but more remains to be done. Work is just beginning, for instance, on the subject of men and masculinity. A paper presented at the 2016 meeting of the American Catholic Historical Association entitled “‘You’ll Notice Our Boys Are Real Men’: Masculinity and American Catholic Difference in Catholic Boy Magazine, 1948–70,” is an example of research being conducted in this area.

There are at least three areas within American Catholic studies that need more scholarly attention. First, much more research is needed on U.S. Catholicism in the years following World War II (suburbanization, Vatican II, and the decline of Catholic culture, for example). Second, historians and sociologists have found it very difficult to produce scholarship on the priesthood in the United States. There is no central archival repository containing the records of U.S. clergy, and the records that do exist are often closed to researchers because of issues related to confidentiality. In addition, seminary education was not always uniform, and governance of priests varied from diocese to diocese. More published work on the many issues related to Catholic clergy will shed new light on American Catholicism. The third topic is the sexual abuse crisis, which is difficult to research and write about for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the archival material is currently inaccessible and will be for some time. It will, however, be impossible to recount the history of the church in the 21st century without referring to this piece of U.S. Catholic history.

Primary Sources

There are a multitude of archives in the United States with extensive holdings related to Catholicism. Every diocese and archdiocese maintains an archive containing collections relevant to the church in that particular locale. The quality of the collections varies, but major dioceses, including Boston, New York, Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, contain a good deal of material and are open to researchers. Most diocesan archives contain the papers of bishops, as well files related to parishes and other institutions located within the diocese, such as orphanages and hospitals. The Archdiocese of Baltimore Archives, for instance, houses the papers of Archbishop John Carroll, as well as parish annual reports and correspondence files.

Scholars engaged in research related to women and men religious should first contact the archivist of the congregations in which they are interested. Some religious communities’ archives are not well maintained, and others are not open to outside researchers. There are, however, a number of excellent repositories staffed by professional archivists. Some examples of archives holding the collections of congregations of women religious include the Daughters of Charity, the congregation founded by Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, located in Emmitsburg, Maryland; Sisters of Charity New York; and the Sinsinawa Dominicans. Archives maintained by congregations of men religious include the Redemptorists of the Baltimore Province and the Brothers of the Christian Schools District of Eastern North America. The Maryknoll Mission Archives houses material related to the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America (priests and brothers), the Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic, and Maryknoll lay missioners. Scholars interested in the history and ministry of U.S. Catholic religious and laypeople serving as foreign missionaries should examine the collections housed in this repository for material related to their specific topic. Those interested in a specific religious community can usually find contact information for the archives by accessing the congregation’s website and following the appropriate links.

Several universities maintain archives that contain important collections related to American Catholic life and history. The American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives of the Catholic University of America contains extensive collections related to Catholicism in the United States, including the papers of Terence Vincent Powderly (Knights of Labor) and Monsignor John A. Ryan, as well as material related to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. In addition, researchers will find the papers of the various departments of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Charities USA. The University of Notre Dame Archives contains material related to several U.S. dioceses and archdioceses (including Baltimore, New Orleans, and Chicago), as well as collections related to the Second Vatican Council, such as the papers of Detroit’s Cardinal John Dearden. The Special Collections Division of Georgetown University houses the Maryland Province Archives of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Historians specializing in the colonial period will be especially interested in this collection because it contains material dating to 1638. Marquette University Special Collections and University Archives contains a number of collections of interest to U.S. Catholic historians, including Native Americans and the Dorothy Day–Catholic Worker collection. Marquette has also produced a guide to Native American collections that are held at other libraries and archives.

Material related to private academies, hospitals, and child-care institutions—such as orphanages—might be located in either diocesan archives or the repositories of the religious congregation that staffed and administered the institution. At times, the process of determining where these records are housed can be complex. If one religious congregation, for example, withdrew from a particular ministry and was replaced by another community, the records might be found in either community or the diocese in which the institution is located.

Material related to American Catholicism may also be located in archives that are not related to the church in the United States, and researchers should contact appropriate municipal and organizational repositories to determine if they house collections that may be relevant to their work.

American Catholic History Classroom (American Catholic History Center and University Archives, the Catholic University of America).

Catholica Collection (Villanova University).

French and Spanish Missions in North America.

The Vatican Library.

CCRA Digital Collections (selected list of digital collections held by members of the Catholic Research Resources Alliance; this list is continually updated).

Further Reading

In addition to the secondary sources found in the notes, the following books will be useful to those interested in U.S. Catholicism.

Anderson, Emma. The Death and Afterlife of the North American Martyrs. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

    Appleby, R. Scott, and Kathleen Sprows Cummings, eds. Catholics in the American Century: Recasting Narratives of U.S. History. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

      Bonner, Jeremy, Christopher D. Denny, and Mary Beth Fraser Connolly, eds. Empowering the People of God: Catholic Action before and after Vatican II. New York: Fordham University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

        Carey, Patrick W. People, Priests and Prelates: Ecclesiastical Democracy and the Tensions of Trusteeism. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987.Find this resource:

          Coburn, Carol K., and Martha Smith. Spirited Lives: How Nuns Shaped Catholic Culture and American Life. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.Find this resource:

            Cummings, Kathleen Sprows. New Women of the Old Faith: Gender and American Catholicism in the Progressive Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.Find this resource:

              Curran, Robert Emmett. Shaping American Catholicism: Maryland and New York, 1805–1915. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2012.Find this resource:

                Davis, Cyprian. The History of Black Catholics in the United States. New York: Crossroads, 1995.Find this resource:

                  Dolan, Jay P. The Immigrant Church: New York’s Irish and German Catholics, 1815–1865. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992.Find this resource:

                    Farrelly, Maura Jane. Papist Patriots: The Making of an American Catholic Identity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

                      Gleason, Philip. Contending with Modernity: Catholic Higher Education in the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.Find this resource:

                        Massa, Mark S. The American Catholic Revolution: How the Sixties Changed the Church Forever. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

                          Matovina, Timothy. Latino Catholicism: Transformation in America’s Largest Church. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

                            McCartin, James P. Prayers of the Faithful: The Shifting Spiritual Life of American Catholics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

                              McGreevy, John T. Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Urban North. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.Find this resource:

                                Miller, William. A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement. 2d ed. Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

                                  O’Brien, David J. American Catholics and Social Reform: The New Deal Years. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.Find this resource:

                                    Reher, Margaret Mary. Catholic Intellectual Life in America: A Historical Study of Persons and Movements. New York: Macmillan, 1989.Find this resource:

                                      Tweed, Thomas A. America’s Church: The National Shrine and Catholic Presence in the Nation’s Capital. New York: Oxford, 2011.Find this resource:


                                        (1.) James T. Fisher, Communion of Immigrants: A History of Catholics in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 4.

                                        (2.) See Fisher, 10–11.

                                        (3.) For information on Kateri Tekakwitha, see Allan Greer, Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

                                        (4.) See Emily Clark, Masterless Mistresses: The New Orleans Ursulines and the Development of New World Society, 1727–1834 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 27, 43–53.

                                        (5.) See Jay P. Dolan, The American Catholic Experience: A History from Colonial Times to the Present (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985), 69.

                                        (6.) Quoted in Dolan, The American Catholic Experience, 77.

                                        (7.) See James M. O’Toole, The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 2010.

                                        (8.) See O’Toole, 12–14.

                                        (9.) See S. J. James Hennesey, American Catholics: A History of the Roman Catholic Community in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 73–74.

                                        (10.) Quoted in Dolan, The American Catholic Experience, 106.

                                        (11.) See Margaret M. McGuinness, Called to Serve: A History of Nuns in America (New York: New York University Press, 2013), 23–24.

                                        (12.) John Carroll to Charles Plowden, May 26, 1788, in Thomas O’Brien Hanley, S. J., ed., The John Carroll Papers, vol. 1, 1755–1791 (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1976), 312.

                                        (13.) See McGuinness, Called to Serve, especially chap. 1, for a discussion of the early history of women religious in the United States.

                                        (14.) Charles R. Morris, American Catholic: The Saints and Sinners Who Built America’s Most Powerful Church (New York: Random House, 1997), 74.

                                        (15.) Quoted in Hennesey, 94.

                                        (16.) Morris, 75.

                                        (17.) Dolan, The American Catholic Experience, 128, 130.

                                        (18.) Quoted in Nancy Lusignan Schultz, Fire and Roses: The Burning of the Charlestown Convent, 1834 (New York: Free Press, 2000), 11–15.

                                        (19.) Quoted in Schultz, 165.

                                        (20.) Patrick W. Carey, The Roman Catholics in America (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996), 43.

                                        (21.) See Fisher, 55–56.

                                        (22.) O’Toole, 98.

                                        (23.) O’Toole, 95.

                                        (24.) See Sarah E. Miller, “‘Send Sisters, Send Polish Sisters’: Americanizing Catholic Immigrant Children in the Early Twentieth Century,” Ohio History 114 (2007): 53–54.

                                        (25.) Leo XIII is reported to have responded to Cabrini’s desire to work in China by responding, “Not to the east, but to the west. . . . The institute is still young. It needs resources. Go to the United States. There you will find the means which will enable you to undertake a great field of work.” Quoted in Mary Louise Sullivan, MSC, Mother Cabrini: “Italian Immigrant of the Century” (Staten Island, NY: Center for Migration Studies, 1992), 45.

                                        (26.) Robert A. Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), 182.

                                        (27.) Fisher, 75.

                                        (28.) For a recent biography of Katharine Drexel, see Cheryl C. D. Hughes, Katharine Drexel: The Riches-to-Rags Story of an American Catholic Saint (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014).

                                        (29.) Carey, 58.

                                        (30.) For a full discussion of what is often referred to as the Americanist Controversy, see Carey, chap. 4.

                                        (31.) See Francis Broderick, Right Reverend New Dealer: John A. Ryan (New York: Macmillan, 1963) for a biography of Ryan.

                                        (32.) See R. Charles and S. J. Gallagher, Vatican Secret Diplomacy: Joseph P. Hurley and Pope Pius XII (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), chap. 3, for an excellent discussion of the controversy surrounding Coughlin.

                                        (33.) Jay P. Dolan, In Search of an American Catholicism: A History of Religion and Culture in Tension (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 155.

                                        (34.) See O’Toole, 153–155.

                                        (35.) Quoted in Margaret M. McGuinness, “Let Us Go to the Altar: American Catholics and the Eucharist, 1926–1976,” in Habits of Devotion: Catholic Religious Practice in Twentieth-Century America, ed. James M. O’Toole (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004), 207.

                                        (36.) S. Mark and S. J. Massa, Catholics and American Culture: Fulton Sheen, Dorothy Day, and the Notre Dame Football Team (New York: Crossroad, 1999), 203.

                                        (37.) Robert Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988), 86.

                                        (38.) O’Toole, 204–209.

                                        (39.) Peter McDonough, The Catholic Labyrinth: Power, Apathy, and a Passion for Reform in the American Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 14.

                                        (40.) O’Toole, 242.

                                        (41.) See O’Toole, 237–238.

                                        (42.) Margaret M. McGuinness, Neighbors and Missionaries: A History of the Sisters of Our Lady of Christian Doctrine (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012), 149.

                                        (43.) “Frequently Requested Church Statistics,”Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, accessed September 29, 2015.

                                        (44.) See Harold A. Buetow, Of Singular Benefit: The Story of Catholic Education in the United States (New York: Macmillan, 1970), 285–286.