Although Roman Catholics were not the first Europeans to set foot in what would be the American colonies, it was not long before they made their presence felt on the other side of the Atlantic. Since their first arrival in 1513 in what became Florida, Roman Catholicism has become the largest Christian tradition in the United States with 25.6 million members.
During its history in America, the pendulum of influence in the Church’s governance has swung from active lay participation to strict control by the clergy, and back again. Although hindered in its growth by its connection with the more traditional European church and the pope, the American church continues its allegiance to, and guidance from the see in Rome.
Arrival in America
The first Roman Catholics to enter the American colonies settled in Maryland in 1634. They were under the control of the Vicar Apostolic of London, but the American Revolution made that arrangement untenable. John Carroll, who had been serving as the Superior of Catholic Missions for the United States, wrote to Rome in 1785. Realizing the negative effects of a state-controlled church, Carroll endorsed the separation of church and state. He believed in a more private and personal piety than public, clerically led, devotional services. Rome acceded and Carroll became Bishop of Baltimore in 1791.
The church also exemplified an uncommon level of religious toleration in the face of the Puritans` extremely restrictive beliefs, but Catholics comprised less than one percent of the population during the American Revolution. When the laity manifested a reluctance or refusal to participate in the operations of the church and their own private worship, Carroll later stressed leadership from the clergy, American bishops and the bishops in Rome.
French missionary efforts that penetrated northern tier regions clear to Oregon, and the Spanish discovery and colonization of the Americas, especially regions that would become southwestern states, left a deep Catholic imprint on the future country. For instance, near the Pacific Coast, Franciscan monk Junipero Serra established a system of missions beginning with San Diego, California, in 1769. He induced Native Americans to abandon their traditional lifeways and convert to Roman Catholicism. His agenda also included expanding Spanish landholdings.
Lay and clergy members
The Catholic Church, the most hierarchical of all Christian traditions, maintains a complex system of clergy and laity. Deacons, priests, and bishops comprise the ordained clergy, who are members of the diaconate, the presbyterate, and the episcopate. Among the hierarchy of bishops, there are metropolitans, archbishops, patriarchs, and the pope, who is the bishop of Rome. Cardinals are nearly always bishops, but that was not always the case. Some cardinals in the past were nonordained prelates. Unless they originally received Holy Orders to the diaconate, they were not part of the clergy and could not administer the sacraments of the church. Among those typically nonordained and considered to be part of the laity are nuns, friars, and religious brothers and sisters.
As part of the reforms handed down by the Second Vatican Council (1963 to 1965), the laity have since taken a more active role in church activities and worship services (Mass). Before being ordained a priest, canon law currently requires an education of two years of scholastic philosophy and four years of theology. Dogmatic and moral theology, the Holy Scriptures, and canon law must be studied at a seminary.
As more stringent adherence to Catholic doctrine began to be required, the once-sanctioned, peculiar practices within monasteries and convents became limited. In contrast to others in the liturgical family, Catholic clergy are not allowed to marry.¹
Practices and rituals
As a part of the liturgical family of churches that adheres to a set form of ritualistic worship practices, the Roman Catholic Church celebrates seven sacraments throughout their members’ lives, whereas more recent Christian denominations usually celebrate only two. From the beginning of an adherent’s life with Baptism, through the end with the Last Rites, the church recognizes other such significant landmarks of an adherent’s life with Confirmation, marriage rites, and ordination through Holy Orders for those who are so called. By weekly and even daily distribution of the Eucharist (Communion), Catholics maintain a strong moral universe. In addition, the church includes an opportunity for its adherents to be absolved of their sins, through the Sacrament of Confession.
Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church became a stabilizing influence during the Medieval Period. As such, it incorporated a variety of members from all over Europe who held beliefs unlike those within the Church. Monasteries and convents were established to serve their specific needs or practices. In an effort to include all Europeans in the Roman Catholic Church, it also made allowances for, rather than excommunicate, those who transgressed canon law.
However, at the Vatican Council of 1869 through 1870, the pope was given primary authority over every Catholic diocese. Also, the church became less tolerant of adherents with specialized needs and practices. Many left the church or were excommunicated, owing to those differences and transgressions.
Clergy tighten the reins in the 1800s
Unlike the European Roman Catholic tradition, American laypeople were encouraged to participate in the services in the American church. However, as the church evolved through the 1800s, power and authority were directed back to its hierarchy. Accustomed to the leadership role the clergy played in the European Church, immigrants did not involve themselves in its operation. They handed over to the local priest many of their opportunities to help guide the church. Also, according to U.S. laws, a bishop could consider himself a “corporation sole;” therefore, church property was often listed in the bishop`s own name.
Church of the immigrants
With increased immigration during the middle of the 19th century, the church in America became the “Church of the Immigrants,” whose members clung to the traditions of their ancestry even though they were strongly encouraged to change. Rather than rushing to be Americanized, Catholics instead established their own schools — especially after states passed laws requiring all children to attend. Values and customs they deemed necessary for rearing their children were taught and reinforced in those schools. As part of their value on cultural and social collectivism, they also established such church organizations as the Rosary Society, Confraternity of the Sacred Heart, Knights of Columbus, that publicly expressed an earnest devotion to one’s faith. By the end of the 19th century, many adherents spent their entire lives centered around the church because it provided for their “spiritual, recreational, educational and charitable interests.”
Having little contact with Roman Catholicism, except in Maryland and Louisiana, most African-American churches were overwhelmingly Protestant. Some blacks, however, did become Catholic, but because of discrimination, they maintained such segregationist practices as the two separate communities of black nuns: the Oblate Sisters of Providence in 1829 and the Holy Family Sisters in 1842. The first black American priest, James Augustine Healy, was ordained in 1854.
As parish priests assumed a more dominant role in the church, they were expected to be the “cult leader, confessor, teacher, counselor, social director, administrator, recreation director, social worker,” and other roles. By the mid-19th century, lay participation was frowned upon and even condemned for resisting the hierarchical structure of the church. Because of their preoccupation with Catholic culture and their willingness to accept and defer to priestly authority, adherents did not participate in local politics. Out of a fear of inciting anti-Catholic sentiment² from some of their Protestant neighbors, parishes took on the role of protector. The only difficulties in yielding to ecclesial authority occurred at ethnic parishes where the priest was not of the same ethnic group as his parishioners.
Toward the end of the 19th century, when many Protestants enthusiastically embraced such social reforms as the Temperance movement and improvements in the labor conditions of those in industrial jobs, Catholics chose to remain uncommitted. It was the rare priest or bishop who encouraged union organization or supported labor reforms. The church did, however, provide for the working poor among their communicants.
Modernization during the 1900s
By the middle of the 20th century, typical Catholics no longer saw themselves as immigrants in a hostile country. Even as immigration from Latin America and the Caribbean increased, most American Catholics had no memory of the Mother Country or the immigrant outlook. The fear of anti-Catholic backlash no longer kept them from becoming involved in politics or social activism. Having elevated their status in society through good education, occupational success and the accumulation of wealth, Catholics began to wield power in politics and society. Traditionally conservative socially, they set their own reform agenda through such groups as the National Catholic Welfare Conference.
With the election of Catholic John F. Kennedy to the White House, Catholics felt more confident politically. Churches no longer felt the need to shelter their adherents from a society that would discriminate against them. Support of their social and political platform was given to them by Pope John XXIII and the reforms brought about by the Second Vatican Council. The pendulum of laity participation in the operation of their parishes swung in the other direction. Forming church councils, the laity participated in molding policy for the American church.
The laity also assisted in filling a need in their parishes when vocations to the priesthood declined. With most readings printed in English, and the priest not only facing his congregation at the altar, but also praying with them instead of for them, the laity felt included in the new ways of parish life. Programs that catered to the needs of a more confident and participatory congregation were established. Catholic revivals and such group-oriented programs as Marriage Encounter became popular.
With Catholics` newly found strength and influence, especially when Kennedy became president, it is no wonder that many Americans were concerned that the pope would influence American politics. Kennedy attempted to allay that fear in an address given to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in September 1960, when he stated, “I believe in America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the president — should he be Catholic — how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote... .” To this day, however, some Protestant Americans continue to nurse that concern.
American Catholics began to feel not only freer, but obligated to speak out against some of society’s inequities. Such was their vigor for change and restoration of American traditions and implementation of Catholic principles, that clergy and laity strongly supported the Civil Rights movement and a few were strong advocates for peace in their criticism of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. As part of that demand for Christian morality, they also became the leading voice of a person’s "right to life" — including that of the unborn.
Controversy involving clergy members
Throughout the ages, Roman Catholicism has been accused of indiscretions involving members of the church, and wielding its political power over local authority. In the 20th century, accusations and convictions of sexual abuse against children were increasingly documented. While not all cases stood up to scrutiny, many charges of abuse within churches, church-run schools, and orphanages, have been lodged and legally prosecuted. Some dioceses have been bankrupted by losing such cases. Prior to the exposure of clergy involved in sexual abuse of children in the United States in the 1990s and early 2000s, the European church had suffered such scandals as early as the 1950s.
While there is little evidence to prove that pedophiles join the Catholic priesthood as a cover for those activities, it has been charged that the lack of disciplinary action by bishops towards abusive clergy members has perpetuated the problem. Homosexuality within the clergy also has supposedly been perpetuated by the same means. Although homosexuality is against church laws, some clergy have suggested that one of its causes is that little has been done to prepare priests for a lifetime of celibacy.
Social activism and increased involvement in church operations by the laity presented by the “new Catholicism” could divide the American and the larger church. The cultural divide between the worldwide church and its American brethren continues to widen as Americans become increasingly critical of the Holy See`s stance on such issues as birth control, abortion, and women in the priesthood. Some within the church have expressed strong opposition to the influence the laity currently enjoys in church operations. American Catholics in general are opposed to severing its ties with the see in Rome, but their future allegiance may also be strained by decrees from the new pope, Benedict XVI, whose conservatism diametrically opposes the social stands many Catholic Americans have taken.
¹Married clergy who convert to Roman Catholicism from another denomination, e.g. the Episcopal Church, are sometimes allowed to become Catholic clergy.
² For instance, early 1900s Protestant evangelical revivals generated a "No Popery" crusade, and a favorite children`s game was "Break the Pope`s Neck."
---- Selected Quotes ----
Quotes regarding The Roman Catholic Church.
By Alfred E. Smith
I summarize my creed as an American Catholic. I believe in the worship of God according to the faith and practice of the Roman Catholic Church. I recognize no power in the institutions of my church to interfere with the operation of the Constitution of the United States or the enforcement of the law of the land. I believe in absolute freedom of conscience for all men and in equality of all churches, all sects, and all beliefs before the law as a matter of right and not as a matter of favor. I believe in the absolute separation of church and state and in the strict enforcement of the provisions of the Constitution of the United States.
Article in The Atlantic magazine
By John Adams
Indeed, Mr. Jefferson, what could be invented to debase the ancient Christianism which Greeks, Romans, Hebrews and Christian factions, above all the Catholics, have not fraudulently imposed upon the public? Miracles after miracles have rolled down in torrents.
Letter to Thomas Jefferson, December 3, 1813
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