American culture has been closely tied to religion. Christianity, in its multitude of forms, has shaped the values and moral behavior of Americans and had a major influence on cultural and social developments. Roman Catholicism, alongside Protestantism, has played a crucial part in this process. Being initially introduced as a minor factor, it subsequently grew in both magnitude and significance, ending up among the most influential forces behind the shaping of American society, benefiting its social infrastructure, education, medicine, and democratic values.
We will write a custom Essay on Roman Catholicism in American History and Culture specifically for you
301 certified writers online
Roman Catholicism was present in America since the sixteenth century but started emerging as a formidable phenomenon only from the middle 1820s (Butler, Balmer, & Wacker, 2011) when first waves of Irish immigrants began arriving at the New World. By the end of the 1840s as much as two million Irish Catholics, driven from their homeland by both the changes in the agricultural sector and the Irish potato famine, has found their home in the USA.
They were soon followed by German immigrants in forties and fifties and Italians in the seventies. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the flow has reached such a massive scale that it has triggered the introduction of strict laws controlling immigration in the 1920s. Nevertheless, by that time, the percentage of Roman Catholics in the US is estimated at 17% of the population in 1906, compared to 10% in 1861 and only about 2% in 1790, before the immigration wave of the 19th century.
This has had an inevitable impact on the society of the time. Firstly, the Catholics were very different ethnically both among themselves and from the contemporary American population. The twenty-eight languages spoken among Catholics by 1916 illustrates the situation perfectly. (Butler & Stout, 1998). This has led to tensions or even open antagonism. For example, the Irish, being the first to arrive and speaking the same language as the Americans, had blended in relatively easily.
The Germans, on the other hand, had more trouble adapting to the new environment. For the Italian Catholics, the language gap was complicated by the fact that their understanding of Catholicism differed from the German or the Irish. The had not fully recognized the authority of the Pope, and their religious practices had been influenced in part by their ethnicity.
In the New World, they felt it was even more important to adhere to their tradition, preserving their carnivals on saints’ days. In this way, we can say the diversity of ethnic groups in the Roman Catholic World was the primary force that held their religion and community together, dictated by the need to preserve the national identity from the hostile environment. The immigrants, being at a disadvantage and having the obligations to the newly arrived Catholics, were also largely responsible for building the social infrastructure, including educational and medical institutions, which would ease the adaptation of the newly arrived brothers in faith. While being the direct value primarily to the Catholics, it subsequently had a social impact on a national level.
Another key factor in the process of solidifying the Catholic community was the rivalry of the antagonizing Christian denomination that was dominant in America at the time – Protestantism. While the internal rife was largely over by the end of the nineteenth century, the enmity of both Protestants and the general public was noticeable throughout the first third of the twentieth century.
The Ku Klux Klan has targeted Catholics alongside its other victims in the middle of 1910s, and the book American Freedom and Catholic Power by Paul Blanshard, published in 1949, has contributed to the alienation of the Roman Catholics though by that time it was on a far smaller scale than 30 years earlier. Thus, the external quality of the Roman Catholicism, characterized by ethnic and national diversity, has contributed to the endurance exhibited by the immigrants in preserving their faith.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the distancing and resistance gradually gave way to adaptation and incorporation into American culture. The ongoing hostility towards the community mentioned above was the major factor for this shift, as the immigrants struggled to show they were not that different from the Americans. Besides, by that time, the infrastructure they were building primarily for their own needs was noticeable enough on a state scale. For example, their system of private schools initially intended to help the children who did not speak English became the largest system in the world.
The same could be said about the medical establishment known as the Sisters of Mercy (Butler et al., 2011). The Catholic priests and people were heavily engaged in the social activities like labor struggles. Dorothy Day, a prominent Catholic convert and social activist, has contributed to building homes and shelters for the poor. The participation in the Civil War and later both World Wars also contributed to lessening the alienation.
In all, by the first third of the twentieth century Roman Catholics’ participation in the life of America was unmistakeable and much appreciated. Finally, the pressure of the Protestant church has yielded its results. Among the chief concerns of the Protestants was the fact that Catholic Church was canonical and could not embrace democratic values of the American society. Such concerns were not completely unfounded, but by the beginning of the twentieth century the strictness of the canon lessened noticeably, both as a reaction to the pressure from Protestants and as a natural effect of exposure to American values, especially on the younger generation.
The major breakthrough, however, came in the sixties. The Second Vatican Council, conducted by Pope John XXIII between 1962 and 1965, resulted in changes that defined the incorporation of Catholic Church into American Culture. The Masses were allowed to be said in local language instead of Latin, the authority of the Pope was lessened and distributed between local bishops, and, most importantly, the stance towards other Christian denominations has changed from distancing to searching for common grounds. This has led to the modernization of religion and the emergence of the new phenomena that are deemed as distinctively American today: the guitar masses and group confessions.
While one might argue the changes are not caused by Roman Catholicism but are rather a result of americanizing it, the fact that these changes were the result of Vatican II suggests that Catholic Church is at least partially responsible for the changes. In other words, the American society absorbing the Catholic society was also affected by this process.
Defining the process of social change and distinguishing cause and effect is a complicated process. Some of the changes brought to America by Roman Catholicism can be conclusively deemed as unique while others look more like the effect resulting from the exposure to American culture. However, the impact of Roman Catholic immigrants on America in both 19th and 20th century is unmistakeable, as it benefited the social infrastructure, education, medicine, and the general principles of American religion.
Get your first paper with 15% OFF
Butler, J., & Stout, H. (1998). Religion in American history. New York: Oxford University Press.
Butler, J., Balmer, R., & Wacker, G. (2011). Religion in American life. New York: Oxford University Press.