Spotlight Archive

Catholic bishops, institutions, and businesspeople have been in the headlines lately because of their conscientious objections to government regulations and mandates concerning issues such as contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage. This conflict is only the most recent chapter in the turbulent history of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the American state.

Jesus articulated the basic principle of church-state relations when he instructed his followers to "give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's" (Mk 12:17). Applying this principle, Catholic teaching has always recognized an indispensable role for government in human affairs and instructed the faithful to honor political authority, but it has also insisted that the power of the state has limits and that the freedom of individuals, the Church, and other instituitons must be respected by political officials (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 2234-2246).

When Catholics established the Maryland colony in 1634, they set up a regime uniquely observant of religious liberty. This was as much to protect Catholic freedom to worship as it was reflective of any deep commitment to the principle of toleration, but in any case the experiment did not last. Soon the situation of Catholics in Maryland was as it stood in the other colonies (except Pennsylvania): ranging from reluctant and discriminatory tolerance to outright prohibition and persecution.

Notwithstanding this inauspicious beginning, the Revolution and its aftermath brought relief from legal suppression of Catholicism. Gradually, restrictions on Catholic voting and officeholding were revoked throughout the states and Catholics began to gather political power. Already by the early nineteenth century a handful of Catholic individuals had played important roles in governmental matters, including Charles Carroll, Daniel Carroll, and Thomas Fitzsimons.

As Catholic immigration increased in the middle of the nineteenth century, Catholics became increasingly influential in politics. At the same time, the rising profile of the Church spurred some Americans to seek to use the state to constrict the freedom of Catholic institutions. The Know Nothing movement, which was motivated by a mixture of nativism and anti-Catholicism, saw electoral success in the 1850s in a number of states, most notably Massachusetts. Know Nothings were involved in violent confrontations between Catholic immigrants and native non-Catholics in cities such as Louisville, New York, and Cincinnati. Still, anti-Catholic forces did not accomplish much by way of actual legal restrictions on the basis of religion; the tradition of religious toleration in the U.S. was already too strong to permit it.

The latter decades of the century were a golden age for Catholics in politics. William Russell Grace became the first Catholic mayor of New York in 1880, and Hugh O'Brien earned the same distinction in Boston five years later. Following a recurring pattern, however, with greater Catholic influence came more vigorous efforts to limit Catholic power. The American Protective Association was founded in Iowa in 1887 for the express purpose of minimizing Catholic political influence. Like the Know Nothings, APA activists succeeded in affecting some political races but did not not achieve any lasting success. At the same time, some of the APA's tenets, such as the strict prohibition of the use of state funds by religious groups--a stipulation directly primarily toward eliminating any government support for Catholic schools--can be seen as enduring causes of anti-Catholic and church-state separation organizations through the twentieth century and beyond.

Animus against Catholic schools was one of the chief markers of anti-Catholicism in the 1920s, a period of significant contention between Church and state. In 1922, the voters of Oregon passed a law designed to eliminate Catholic schools; it was overturned in the courts in a decision confirmed by the Supreme Court in 1925. Immigration controls were enacted in large measure to try to slow the growth rate of the Catholic population. Al Smith, the first Catholic major party candidate for the presidency, was defeated by Herbert Hoover in an election that featured much deplorable anti-Catholic rhetoric. The Catholic bishops also undertook an organized campaign to defeat the creation of a proposed federal department of education, viewing the measure as a step toward government infringement on parental and religious rights concerning the education of children.

Contention faded and collaboration expanded in the 1930s as Catholics voted in large majorities for Franklin Roosevelt and were rewarded with a place at the table of federal government. Lay Catholics such as James Farley and Joseph Kennedy held posts in the Roosevelt Administration, and even priests—John A. Ryan and Francis Haas most prominently—were invited to participate on government boards and to fill symbolic roles such as offering the invocation at the president's inauguration.

Although John Ryan served in the Roosevelt Administration, his scholarly writing reflected the traditional Catholic view that the American situation of separation of church and state was imperfect and that Catholics should seek, if circumstances were appropriate, government favor toward the Catholic Church. This was the kind of theory that made many Americans nervous, and provided fodder for anti-Catholic authors such as Paul Blanshard, whose American Freedom and Catholic Power (1949) argued that Catholicism and democracy were inherently incompatible. Around the same time, a pair of Supreme Court decisions affirmed the ambivalent and complicated nature of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the American state. In Everson v. Board of Education in 1947, the Supreme Court validated the use of government funds to transport parochial school students. The following year, however, in McCollum v. Board of Education, the "wall of separation" that the justices had invoked in Everson led them to abrogate an arrangment that permitted Catholic public school students to receive religious education during school hours.

By the late 1940s there was a significant shift occurring among come Catholic intellectuals concerning the the theology of church and state. Leading the way was John Courtney Murray, S.J., who argued that the conventional view that church-state union was "ideal" had to be modified in historical situations of religious pluralism. Murray's speculations were controversial and, at the behest of Roman authorities, he was silenced on the matter for a time. Yet his essential argument would be ratified by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council in the Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humanae, 1965).

In the minds of many American Catholics, Vatican II's statements on religious liberty confirmed what they had already experienced: the Church could not only enjoy freedom but thrive in a place like the United States, where separation of church and state was enshrined in the Constitution. That experience had been confirmed when anti-Catholic efforts in 1960 to link Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy to the old Catholic view of church and state failed and Kennedy became the first Catholic president. Some perceptive observers noted even at the time, however, that Kennedy's need to distance himself from his Church and to loudly endorse an "absolute" separation of church and state indicated that Catholicism was not yet accepted on its own terms. Kennedy's denial of any role for the influence of the Church or the clergy on public policy showed that, although a Catholic could be part of—even the leader of—the American state, the relation between Church and state remaind fraught with tension.

The historical Catholic fears of overreaching state power in education remained, but new concerns arose for some Catholics in the 1960s and 1970s. Anti-war activists such as Dorothy Day and Daniel and Philip Berrigan felt that their religious views not only precluded cooperation with a state that waged war without good reason in southeast Asia, but demanded that they act to thwart that war effort. Many of the same Catholics also joined in the Civil Rights Movement, protesting racially discriminatory laws on voting and segregation of public institutions.

Although Catholics, including priests, sisters, and bishops, were present in the anti-war and civil rights movements, Catholics were not the most prominent group. In contrast, the Catholic Church took a leading role in the fight against government policy in another area during the 1970s: abortion. A Catholic Representative, Henry Hyde, proposed one of the most significant pieces of legislation concerning federal abotion policy, which prohibited the federal government from funding abortions.

In the closing decades of the twentieth century, Catholics continued to be represented well in government, comprising a signficant proportion of the Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike. Perhaps most striking, by 2009, six of nine Supreme Court justices were Catholic. Even so, tension between church and state continues: the HHS mandate prompted lawsuits from numerous Catholic businesses, universities, and religious orders and Catholic charities have been forced out of the adoption process for their refusal to place children in households headed by same-sex couples. Catholics have long since ceased to see themselves as second-rate citizens, but the problems to be confronted when trying to live the faith publicly in a pluralistic nation have not disappeared.

Posted January 2014
Photos, from top: Colonial Maryland, courtesy of (public domain); Al Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt, courtesy of National Archives and Records (unrestricted); John F. Kennedy's Address to the Nation on Civil Rights, courtesy of National Archives and Records (unrestricted)

Sources and Further Reading

J. Hitchchock, "The Myth of the 'Wall of Separation'"

J. McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom: A History

J. Quinn, "John Courtney Murray, SJ: The Man JFK Didn't Understand"

D. Slawson, The Department Of Education Battle, 1918-1932: Public Schools, Catholic Schools, And The Social Order