As a self-professed student of history, it has become evident that many times we can predict what is going to happen in the future, by analyzing our past conduct and decisions. With that in mind, I feel that a great divide in coming to the Catholic Church in the United States of America.
The year 2028 marks the 100th anniversary of the first Catholic to run for the office of President of theUnited States, Al Smith from New York. As he campaigned across the nation by train, he was welcomed to Oklahoma and Arkansas with a KKK cross-burning. One hundred years ago, all Catholics basically were considered a voting block, because the vast majority of us were poor and highly discriminated. Thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands changed their names and their church affiliation to escape that discrimination and hopefully be accepted fully into the “American dream.” Even, today, you meet many Arkansans who will tell you, “my grandparents” or “my parents” were Catholics.
We as Catholics have been used for political gain throughout the history of the United States as early as 1792, when Tammany Hall in New York began to realize the power of the Catholic voting-block in the city. Secret Catholic societies began to be established in heavy Catholic neighborhoods, more to protect themselves from “nativist” groups and gangs that viewed Catholics as “papists” (a derogatory term used to imply that Catholics were not “true” Americans). The political elite of New York established the first celebration of the 300th anniversary of Columbus’ landing in America in 1792, as parades and festivals were held, more to gain the Catholic political support than to celebrate the arrival of Catholicism to the shore of the Americas.
During the Revolutions of 1848, a huge influx of people from the German states began their escape from war-torn Europe, and began the immigration to the United States. These established many communities across the nation that became self-sufficient and very profitable, but isolated. They established themselves on farmland throughout Middle America, while the vast majority of Irish immigrants, escaping the Irish Potato Famine stayed in large cities on the east coast. During the war with Mexico, an entire brigade of American Irish Catholics, deserted and joined the Mexican Army. Why? They were not willing to stand for the discrimination and ill-treatment that they received from “nativist” soldiers. They, the San Patricio’s Brigade are immortalized, in a monument to their bravery protecting Mexico City. The entire brigade was killed. When the American Civil War broke out many German and Irish immigrants fought (mainly for the Union cause), because it offered them a steady salary, not because they were abolitionists.
By 1892, President Benjamin Harrison, issued a proclamation encouraging Americans to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ first landing the Americas. This again was a political ploy to gain the Catholic vote in the Northeast, especially the immigrant Irish vote. Columbus becomes the most famous “Catholic” in American history (even though he is currently vilified by many for the genocide of the native-Americans). He was/is taught in every classroom throughout the United States, not only bringing Christianity to the Americas but also establishing the Columbian Exchange. Should he be held responsible, or should the responsibility of the genocide of the indigenous peoples of the Americas be carried by all the people that can after him? That is more of a philosophical question. Every child, in the UnitedStates, grows up knowing that Columbus was the first European to make it across the Atlantic Ocean, establish settlements, which a hundred years later allowed for the establishment of British colonies that would become our great nation. It is no wonder why Father Michael J.McGivney chooses this hero as the namesake in 1882, to begin the largest lay-Catholic organization in the world, the Knights of Columbus, with a current membership reaching two million members worldwide.
During the political and economic crisis that led to the unification of Italy in 1870, more immigrant Catholics came to the United States. Most poor and even more did not speak English and became also unemployable, thus for many the only way to survive in the United States was to get involved in organized crime, even though the vast majority were hard-working and goal-oriented. That goal was to provide a better opportunity for their children, that same goal that continues today.
The instability, World War I, and disease throughout Europe, in the early part of the 20th century, brought hundreds of thousands of immigrants to the United States. This massive migration and diaspora of European communities became a perceived threat to many Americans. By 1920, the United States again takes up an isolationist policy, mainly because of its participation in World War I and refusal to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. We, as a nation lived through, again, a period of anti-immigration sentiment, and a surge in popularity of nativist organizations returns, especially a massive increase in membership of the Ku Klux Klan, which held rallies and marches on Washington D.C. The KKK used rhetoric to increase its membership by attacking Catholics, Jews, and African-Americans, referring to them as “threats” to the “American way-of-life.” Cross-burnings in front of Catholic Churches throughout the South became common, along with the well-publicized attacks on African-American communities, many in Arkansas, and the anti-Semitic movements of the German-American Bund (American Nazi Party) in the 1930s.
By 1937, to make sure that the theDemocratic Party can count on Catholic support, Columbus Day becomes a federal holiday. It was an obvious choice, Columbus was the only Catholic that was taught in every school and his accomplishments have been touted for centuries, even though in most schools his religious beliefs were never discussed. We, the United States are the only country in the world that celebrates Columbus Day, even though Columbus never set foot on any land that is part of the nation (except Puerto Rico and the U.S. virgin islands). Every other country in the Americas celebrates “The Day of the Discovery.” This again was a political move to make sure that Catholics continued to vote for the democratic candidate, which we did.
During the 1960s, many Catholics, including clergy, were attacked throughout the South for their support of equal rights for African-Americans. All of the civil rights marches had members of the Catholic clergy participate, as it was viewed as the correct/proper place for church leaders, throughout our Church. The election of John F. Kennedy was a pivotal point in the history of the United States, and yes it can be argued that women were the deciding block that elected him, becoming the first Catholic president, because he was young, handsome, and a war hero. Over the next 60 years, being Catholic has been more accepted or maybe just tolerated throughout the country. Now have, political parties attempt to divide us for their gain? Taking our traditional views and politicizing them to the point where our families cannot get along any more.
Fast-forward to today, a large number of Catholics have achieved the “American Dream” and moved into the upper Middle and the wealthy class in the United States, through education and other paths, including the establishment of small businesses that have grown into large corporations. This is the result of the work ethic that has been instilled in many of us by our immigrant roots. Now, we find ourselves divided, as many Catholics are viewing the immigrant population as a detriment to our nation, as was done in the 1920s. Many see the poor as something of a drain on our nation’s resources and the recent immigrants as a threat to “American Values.” This is not the first time in our history that this has taken place in our nation, as relayed above. But, it is the first time that the Catholics have been divided by wealth and the forces of fear. Fear of social, economic, and moral change, which of course is the fear of change in general. We see our youth and many life-long Catholicsstop practicing our faith, because of the hypocrisy that is seen everywhere. I say to you, my fellow Catholics, do not allow fear to divide our faith, it has survived through much worse times than these. Saint Pope John Paul II, used “be not afraid” on many occasions to influence and motivate our fellow Catholics to serve the Church and the faith, which continues to be much more important than our perceived worldly needs.
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