Category: history

Immigrants’ Catholicism was once viewed as a threat to America

Pope Pius IX

Pope Pius IX

Happy start to the conclave! As two Irish-American cardinals go in as outside contenders to be the next pope, now is a good time to remember that Catholic immigrants from Ireland (and elsewhere) used to be viewed by a substantial number of Americans as threats to the country whose entry should be severely restricted.

Today, America is about a quarter Catholic, and Catholics exist easily within mainstream society. In the mid-19th century, though — when Americans viewed the world as divided between republics and monarchies — Irish and German Catholics, with their monarchical and pope-following patterns of mind, were thought to be unsuited to be citizens of the American republic. Adding to this existing suspicion of Catholics (exacerbated by waves of Catholic immigration) was the impression that Pope Pius IX had suppressed the republican revolutions of 1848.

The Know-Nothings capitalized on this sentiment and advanced these ideas, becoming a major force in American politics and voicing urgent appeals to curtail immigration because of the Manchurian Catholics undermining American virtue. (Some members also occasionally violently attacked both native-born and immigrant Catholics.) Near the movement’s high ebb in 1856, it nominated the former president Millard Fillmore for president. Fillmore was traveling in Italy when he received the nomination, and when he returned to campaign bemoaned what he saw:

Italy with its sunny skies is a delightful region. Oh, that it had a government like ours and a people to maintain it. There are points of resemblance between the two bays [Naples and New York], but when you look at the waters and the surrounding scenery, the comparison ends. When I entered that city I was surrounded by swarms of beggars, but I no sooner stepped on shore here than I was surrounded by thousands of freemen. … Rome is in decay. Venice once shone forth with more commercial splendor, perhaps, than New York does now; but where is it, and what is Venice now but a waste in the midst of the ocean?

Accompanying these musings on the old world, he demurely put his position on immigrants like this:

I would be tolerant to men of all creeds, but would exact from all faithful allegiance to our republican institutions. But if any sect or denomination, ostensibly organized for religious purposes, should use that organization, or suffer it to be used, for political objects, I would meet it by political opposition.

More blunt was the minister Thomas King of Boston, who called Catholicism “the ally of tyranny, the opponent of material prosperity, the foe of thrift, the enemy of the railroad, the caucus, and the school.”

Catholicism abated as a political issue only in the 20th century, sometime around when John F. Kennedy essentially promised not to take dictation on policy from the pope. Regarding current Hispanic immigration, one of the more regrettable moments in Samuel Huntington’s later career was to obliquely refer to Hispanics as threats to the American Protestant work ethic. He died before the casual yet obvious observation that many Hispanic immigrants are hard workers was supplemented by all those studies showing Mexicans work more on average than anyone else in the world.

It’s worth noting how accepted Catholicism is in American life now. Over time, immigrants add to what we regard as “American,” and the reasons why people in the past were so concerned are forgotten.