The Conversion of America to Catholicism: What’s the Holdup?

“The conversion of America to the one, true Church.” This is a stated part of our community’s charism, one that provokes reactions. Even omitting the frank “one, true” part, and rendering it the more nondescript “we wish to convert our nation to Catholicism,” makes some people — nominal Catholics included — stare in disbelief. They do so because, whether or not they can articulate it, they have come to believe that an all-pervasive pluralism is America’s strength. Take away that pluralism, including the religious variety, and America is no more.

But the conversion of America — to Catholicism — is not a goal we made up. It is an idea, and a pursuit, with deep roots. Before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, the Spanish had a diocese full of Catholic Indians in Florida and Champlain planted the Catholic Cross with the French Lilly in Quebec. They clearly wanted to bring the Faith to the natives and to claim the whole New World for Christ the King. Besides the thousands of missionaries who accompanied European explorers in colonial days, there were movements in these United States, after the founding of the Republic, which sought to bring all Americans into Catholic unity. There were Catholics — clerics, religious, and lay — as well as Catholic associations and institutions, who made this pursuit their own.

Astute readers have no doubt noticed that, of late, our web site has been profiling some of the people who made America’s conversion a goal: Christopher Columbus, Father John Thayer, Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, Father Michael Mueller, and Father Demetrius Gallitzin. To these, we can add figures who have long been promoted on our site: Orestes Brownson, Saint Rose Philippine Duchesne, Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, The Eight North American Martyrs, The Barber Family, Saint Katharine Drexel, Pére Marquette, Saint John Nepomucene Neumann, and Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos.

Many more names can be added to these. With the help of God, we will feature more American apostles in the months and years to come.

Besides the individuals who have been treated in our pages, we have featured general historical articles on Catholic America, such as the contributions of Mr. Gary Potter: Catholicism and the Old South, and When America Was Catholic.

I said that there were organizations which sought a Catholic America. What are some of these? Besides all the ancient orders and modern international congregations that contributed in some way, there were uniquely American communities working for this end: The Paulist Fathers, The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People (the original full name of Saint Katharine Drexel’s congregation), the Friars of the Atonement (founded by Father Paul of Graymoor), and the Josephites.

International associations of the faithful also had America’s conversion as a purpose, such as the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, the International Catholic Truth Society (with its U.S. headquarters in New York), and, by extension of its actual purpose, the Apostleship of Prayer. Uniquely American associations formed for evangelizing our nation would include: The Catholic Missionary Union, the Catholic Church Extension Society, the Catholic Unity League, the National Converts League, the League for Prayer for the Conversion of America, and St. Joseph’s Society for Negro Missions.

I make no pretense that these lists are near complete.

All these people, all these organizations, all this time. One question offers itself — screams, in fact — to be answered: What’s the holdup?

Obviously, God’s grace, and God’s predestination — two “pure mysteries” of our Faith — cannot be so quantified that we can answer that question in terms of sheer supernatural causality. Taking God’s generosity and will to save men as a given, and reverently leaving those mysteries aside for now, we have to speak in terms of secondary causality, that is, the human failures which have held up America’s conversion.

Americanism. In When America Was Catholic, Gary Potter does a wonderful job of showing how the English, and then Anglo-American, Protestants did their best to reverse the Catholic gains that had been made in colonial days. But what of the Church’s children? Did they combat that influence? Did they even try? Alas, they were all too often content with fitting in, busying themselves more with making Catholicism American than with making America Catholic. Take Bishop Carroll. He became a sort of type of the American ecclesiastic. Here, I borrow from a footnote in my recent article on Father Thayer:

While it would be more than a hundred years before Leo XIII condemned Americanism as a heresy, Bishop Carroll already seemed to desire “the Church in America to be different from what it is in the rest of the world” (Leo’s words in Testem Benevolentiae). Carroll agitated for a vernacular liturgy, bishops elected by their people (no “foreign” appointments from Rome), and a pope with little practical authority over the Church. He also crossed the Bishop of Quebec, the saintly Bishop Briand, by escorting Benjamin Franklin there on an anti-English embassy that failed. (Recall that our Puritan forefathers had seriously offended the Catholic Québécois by declaring England’s toleration of the Faith there to be an “intolerable act”!) Perhaps most damning of Carroll’s integrity as an ecclesiastic is this fact, related in the New Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 6: “The papal condemnations of Freemasonry were not promulgated in the American colonies by Bishop John Carroll. In fact his brother Daniel was an active Mason and a practicing Catholic. Bishop Carroll wrote to a layman in 1794 regarding the lodge question: ‘I do not pretend that these decrees (against Freemasonry) are received generally by the Church, or have full authority in this diocese.'” Thus was established, early on, the American tradition of ignoring Roman decrees.

The Paulists. The Americanism presaged by our first bishop would later blossom into our very own national heresy. It would, at least in part, undermine the work of several of the organizations I named above. The Paulists, who could not have been more explicit in their aim of wanting to convert America to Catholicism, were founded by Father Isaac Hecker, arguably the papa grande of Americanism. His early Paulist collaborators took a liberal position on no salvation outside the Church and engaged in public controversy on this issue against Father Michael Mueller. The Paulist missionary, Father Walter Elliot, was their champion against the German Redemptorist in a battle published in the pages of James McMaster’s New York Freeman’s Journal. (McMaster himself was a charmingly pugnacious convert who capably fought for the Catholic cause.) It was Father Elliot’s biography of Father Hecker, in French translation, that caught the attention of the Holy See in the matter of Americanism. It led to Americanism’s condemnation.

Father John R. Slattery. Another case in point: The Josephites, also mentioned above, were the priestly community attached to the St. Joseph’s Society for Negro Missions. Their work was noble in many respects and doubtless they had and have good men in their ranks. (They still run a school in my native New Orleans, St. Augustine’s, which educated tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of poor Negroes and kept them Catholic.) But the history of their founder, whom the Americanist Cardinal Gibbons entrusted with his mission, underscores the corrosiveness of Americanism. Father John R. Slattery was the American Superior of the Mill Hill Fathers, an English congregation. As Father Hecker had left the German-dominated Redemptorists to establish something more American, Father Slattery founded a more American community, whose work was among Negroes in the South. He was scandalized by racism among ostensibly devout Southern Catholics. (Imagine sin scandalizing a priest!) He was further scandalized (in the proper sense of the word) when he came under the influence of higher biblical criticism and evolutionary theory. Father Slattery became an overt Modernist, and formally defected from the Church.

Father Slattery would not be the only Americanist to walk out of the Church after the condemnations of Modernism. In 1908, soon after Saint Pius X’s strongest measures against the heresy, Father William Sullivan, a Paulist from Boston, became a Unitarian minister.

Pope Leo’s Reaction. The Americanists, even those who wanted to convert America, so soft-peddled the faith once given to the saints, that they produced something incapable of really converting the country. In Testem Benevolentiae, Pope Leo XIII rebuked the Americanist approach to dogma: “certain topics of doctrine are passed over as of lesser importance, or are so softened that they do not retain the same sense as the Church has always held.”

Sound familiar? “No salvation outside the Church? — That depends on how you define every single word in that statement, including the definite article!”

In condemning the Americanist approach to evangelism — important when we consider the conversion of America — Leo XIII notes that, “the way and the plan which Catholics have thus far employed to bring back those who disagree with them are proclaimed to be abandoned and to be replaced by another for the future.

A species of superficial Anglo-American pride had crept in and was undermining the ancient Faith. It must be recalled that the Church, a wayfarer in this world, fit into only those civil societies that it had forged. While she can live at peace in any society that wants peace, Christ’s Bride did not fit into the ancient Roman world or the Germanic world or the Slavic world, not until she had refashioned them through the Gospel. This arduous labor of missionaries, monasteries, scholars, and statesmen produced Christendom. To Archbishop Ireland and Bishop Keane — two notable Americanists — America was simply better than Europe, better than Christendom. With our democratic, enlightened separation of Church and state, we had surpassed the Old World. The Church, they thought, ought to accommodate herself to this order of things. Pope Leo’s retort was that the Americanists were “insufficiently respectful of aspects of Catholicism which they dismissed as outmoded.”

There are other causes, intellectual and moral, of the holdup on America’s conversion, but most of them are at least implicit in Americanism: liberalism, indifferentism, and a general dogmatic, liturgical, and devotional minimalism. We should more closely explore these and other causes in subsequent editions.

Unsung Heroes. There were those who bucked the Americanist trends, men and women who should be celebrated. Some have been named here. Additionally, we can point to the German immigrants — including clergy, but also the prominent layman, Peter Paul Cahensly — who resisted Americanism. While the leading Americanists were Irish, there were notable Irish Bishops who resisted them, quite openly. One was Bishop Bernard McQuaid of Rochester, New York, who opposed the liberalism of Bishop Keane’s Catholic University of America. Another was Archbishop Michael Corrigan of New York.

Our nation is now so far in the sinkhole of moral degradation that its conversion will be miraculous. But even miracles don’t happen unless there is enough good will (see Mark 6:4-5 and Matt. 13:57-58). Therefore, we must constantly strive to grow in our own spiritual lives as we pray and work for a Catholic America.

  • Thomas

    “It was Father Elliot’s biography of Father Hecker, in French translation, that caught the attention of the Holy See in the matter of Americanism. It led to Americanism’s condemnation.”

    The did the Holy See think that Father Hecker was an Americanist heretic? (material heretic?)

  • Good question. I believe that even that would be a strong wording of the case. They — at least, Leo XIII — were probably thinking that Father Hecker was well-meaning but very misguided by some of the prevalent principles aired about in the American society of his day.

    There was no condemnation of Father Hecker personally. The condemnations were against the errors. To say “the Holy See thinks” is a little deceptive. Who’s thinking? The Pope, the Secretary of State, the Head of the Holy Office? They might have divergent opinions. There were probably elements in the Holy See who were, like the French clergy opposed to Hecker, willing to call him a heretic. But what the Holy See officially “thinks” is what comes out in magisterial documents, and Testem Benevolentiae took a much softer line, whether for prudential reasons, or some other concern.

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  • guest

    “But the conversion of America — to Catholicism — is not a goal we made up. It is an idea, and a pursuit, with deep roots. Before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, the Spanish had a diocese full of Catholic Indians in Florida” — I recall reading that before the Spaniards there was a diocese created in Northeast North American/Greenland around the time of the Vikings.

  • Dear guest: I have never heard of a Scandinavian diocese, but there was a settlement in North America called Vinland — land of the vines. I have read that these Catholic Norsemen named it so because grapes could be grown there — an important detail for any Catholic since fermented grapes give us part of the matter for the Eucharist.

    You can read about Vinland here:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2000/12/19/science/did-the-vikings-stay-vatican-files-may-offer-clues.html

    http://www.canadianmysteries.ca/sites/vinland/whereisvinland/leif/3843en.html

    http://www.canadahistory.com/sections/documents/explorers/lieferickson.htm

    … and probably on WikiPedia!