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American Catholic History, continued

Before the 1808 Bull Ex debito Pastoralis Officii, the diocese of Baltimore included all the United States territory east of the Mississippi. The new diocese of Boston created after the bull included all of New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts. Massachusetts at that time included Maine, Rhode Island, and Connecticut! In 1810, Catholics in Boston numbered 720 persons according to parish registers of the Boston Cathedral. However, a 1818 report by Archbishop MarÆchal of Baltimore reported a total 100,000 Catholics east of the Mississippi, chiefly in Maryland and Virginia, and 52 priests to attend them. The bishop also found time to append and adopt regulations, including a severe censure to Catholics who attended Protestant services, and found it necessary to caution clergy and laity against receiving unfamiliar priests.

The new bishop of the Boston diocese, John Lefebvre Cheverus, was able to find time to issue an edition of the New Testament in French, which he had carefully revised, and "The Roman Catholic Manual", a collection of prayers and hymns.

In other areas of the U.S., Catholicism seemed to be blending into the American way of life. In 1832 a Catholic priest, Rev. Constantine Pise, was appointed chaplain of the United States Congress. But this was the last time a priest was to serve in that capacity. Economic issues of the early 1800's started a new attack against "foreigners", but was quickly focused on Catholic foreigners. The Protestant, an anti-Catholic newspaper (founded by the "Know-Nothings", a largely masonic group), was published and soon followed by hundreds of other local societies bent on hatred of foreigners and Catholics. When Bishop Francis Kenrick petitioned city officials because Catholic children were forced to use the King James Bible, the American Protestant Association was formed and declared that the "principles of popery" were "subversive of civil and religious liberty", and as a result they were uniting to defend themselves against these great exertions. This, and the growing popularity of the "Maria Monk" stories that started circulating in 1836, became responsible for increased attacks against Catholics. In 1842, the convent of the Ursuline Sisters in Massachusetts was burned. In 1844, rioters in Philadelphia burned two Catholic churches, killing thirteen and wounding many in the process. The riot lasted three days, and citizens who weren't directly involved did nothing to assist the victims.

In New York, events were handled quite differently. The fight over the civil rights of Catholics and the public school system caused Bishop John Hughes to take a stand, although he was threatened with a repeat of the violence done in Philadelphia. The bishop wrote a note to the city board and mayor simply stating he was aware of a large group of Masons getting together, and the bishop was simply informing them he had one thousand Irish men stationed at every Catholic Church - and they were armed. When asked by the city council to restrain the Catholics, the bishop merely suggested that the council should make sure the Catholics were not provoked. The threat was successful, with no loss of life or property. Hughes' example was followed with similar success in Philadelphia a few months later.

In-fighting between nationalities was also a problem in the Church. The Irish were antagonistic to the idea of being directed by French bishops and priests. The same problems existed with the French and Germans, Americans and the Irish, and the French and Spaniards.

All of these issues may have given some Catholics a reason to feel inferior as a minority group and increased their sensitiveness concerning the attitudes of outsiders toward their affairs. However, throughout history Catholics have been in the minority, yet have thrived despite the difficult circumstances. Ecclesiastics who have rebelled or left the Church throughout history had done so not because of the feelings or opinions of others, but because they themselves had chosen to rebel against the authority they had once freely sworn to submit to.

One ecclesiastic who began to have doubts about the level of authority of the Catholic Church Bishop Peter Kenrick, who opposed the Vatican I definition of papal infallibility, and was one of the last bishops to submit to the definition after the council. All forty-five American bishops attended. Peter felt that papal infallibility was only a theological opinion and could not be elevated to the level of a doctrine, even by a council.

Other compromises were attempted by other bishops, such as an idea by Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul of renting out parochial schools to local school boards for one dollar a year (which was prevented by more conservative bishops, who saw the possible danger to Catholic schools), as well as his consideration of producing a common edition of the Bible for both Catholics and protestants, which was rejected by Bishop Francis Kenrick (Bishop Peter's brother). Francis was considered the leading theologian in America at that time, although he soon became caught up in protestant theology.

The Syllabus of Errors of Pius IX in 1864 (which condemns Pantheism, Naturalism, absolute rationalism, indifferentism, and a host of other issues) came as a shock to American Bishops, much the same as the definition of papal infallibility did a few years later. In America, during an age that reveled in its freedom, the Church began to be viewed as a threat to modern progress, by continuing to subject members to its principles of authority in teaching and morals. However, up until this time, the freedoms exercised by Catholics in America were in complete accordance with the Catholic Church, and even included a Catholics free choice as to which side of the Civil War to sympathize with.

The Syllabus of Errors and later, the Apostolic letter Testem Benevolentiae show a much more experienced approach to the problem of living in harmony with other religions, an issue that the Catholic Church had experienced since the time of its' conception. The only comprimise the Church has ever officially maintained was that of allowing people to freely choose to adhere to the Catholic faith, or to deny it. If a Jewish person chose to remain jewish, they were allowed to live unharmed, but the Catholic faith was never avoided or changed in order to accomodate another religious principle. The first immediate objection to this fact might be for some to call to mind St. Peter's personal error, which was corrected at the Council of Jerusalem (Galatians 2:12) and did not affect doctrine.

The same decision by the Catholic Church was held in regards to every other religious profession that has appeared since the Ascension. The Church or its' members have acted very passionately against errors of the faith, and have had ecumenical councils to look at and define these questioned doctrines, and those who chose not to obey the decisions of the councils were excommunicated, or not considered Catholic.

You may read of a particular Catholic bishop, or another Catholic person who chose to act outside the common norm of Catholic belief, but these persons, even bishops, do not represent the Catholic Church when they step out of their boundaries.

Some American bishops chose to go outside of these bounds during the early history of the church in America, and their decisions began to set the pace for what are looked at today as "American Catholics".

In 1908, Pope St. Pius X declared in Sapienti consilio that America was no longer considered a missionary territory by the Holy See.

References for both pages on American Catholic History:

Documents in American Catholic History, ed. John T. Ellis, 1962.

American Catholicism, John T. Ellis

American Catholicism, Charles R. Morris

American Catholic Biblical Scholarship, Gerald P. Fogarty, S.J.