By Joe Craig, Park Ranger
Check any news outlet, and you’ll be assaulted by the ongoing tragedies of the Middle East. Cruel civil wars, sectarian genocide, and ethnic cleansing have forced millions to flee. Many have sought refuge in Europe, and some seek entrance to the United States. The admission of even a small number of people from the Middle East has sparked controversy, based upon painful memories of the September 11, 2001 attacks and fears of infiltrating terrorists.
Considering the emotional dimensions of the immigration issue on all sides, such reactions really shouldn’t be unexpected. The need for national security and the human urge to help others in need are not necessarily mutually exclusive but in a complicated world rife with complicated situations, many desire that something be reduced to yes and no; either, or.
Recently, amid the national controversy about immigration, a Catholic priest at a nearby parish used the pulpit to denounce efforts to bar Muslim refugees from entering the United States at the 10 a.m. Mass. At the 5 p.m. Mass, a reprise of his sermon provoked a (vocal) clash between members of the congregation.
That such raw feelings about a particular religious group should erupt in a Catholic Church is not without irony. After all, Catholics were made to feel unwelcome in the United States for much of its history. Their history in Britain and the United States has often been that of a despised minority, ever under suspicion by their neighbors who felt Catholics could never be good Britons or Americans.
This suspicion of Catholics is not limited to the distant past. The rise of John F. Kennedy caused great concern for some Americans. One of Saratoga NHP’s stellar volunteers related how Protestant family members worried in 1960 that US Catholics were arming themselves, ready to seize the country for a Papal takeover beginning with Kennedy’s election. It is quite a marked contrast with the effusive greeting given to Pope Francis I during his visit in 2015.
Fear and loathing of Catholicism for England and her “offspring” goes back to the Reformation power struggle between Pope Clement VII and Henry VIII. Henry proclaimed himself head of an English Church and that anyone backing the Pope’s claim to religious sovereignty was a dirt bag traitor. The Papacy and their supporting European powers (notably France and Spain) became symbols of dangerous foreign influences and absolutism which threatened English “liberties”.
The English Reformation survived, but further afield, things were often grim for Protestants. Loathsome atrocities against Protestants on the European Continent in the 1500’s most notably France’s “St Bartholmew’s Day Massacre” in 1572 lost none of their shock in the telling and re-telling. Indeed, the volume Actes and Monuments, popularly called Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, (1563), the grisly treatment and deaths of Protestants by the Roman Church were recounted in pious horror, and the book became a best seller for years.
This, of course, translated into a lousy time for Catholics in England. They were denied the freedom to practice their version of the Christian religion, faced confiscation of their property, paying burdensome fines to avoid participating in an “heretical” church and other harassment. Such treatment would rankle anyone, and some decided upon desperate action.
In 1605, members of the Catholic gentry were accused of attempting to blow up Parliament during a Royal Visit. The plot was uncovered and 10 of the conspirators were hideously executed. Ensuing legislation made it even more difficult for Catholics to practice their faith in the land of “English liberty” and were seen as little more than agents trying to bring on foreign domination.
Throughout the 1600’s the fear of all things Catholic permeated English (and British) politics. The “Pilgrim Fathers” and Puritan Migration to New England during the first quarter of the century were reactions to the pressures (or persecution) of a “popish” Church of England. Catholic powers on the continent of Europe, for their part, did nothing to quell Protestant apprehensions with the continuing operation of the Holy Office [Inquisition] and episodes like the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 effectively outlawing Protestant worship in France.
In Britain, the strains of political/religious strife cost two English kings their jobs. King Charles I discovered that having a French Catholic wife was a political liability and along with his own bumbling, led to his beheading on 31 January 1649. His son, James II (r. 1685-1689), made no secret of his being Catholic and was forcibly replaced by his son-in-law and daughter, William and Mary, in the Glorious Revolution, an event seen ever after as a triumph of Protestantism and “Liberty” in Britain.
But of course with the 1700’s the Reformation bigotry and nastiness gave way to the Enlightenment, where everyone was too busy learning about Natural Philosophy (science) to worry about someone else’s religion. Right?
Granted, the horrifying Wars of Religion of the 16th and 17th centuries had caused the European powers to reassess using the Christian Gospel as pretexts for killing each other. Being extremely resourceful, they made full use of other notions. Religion was still invoked, but it was no longer the central reason for conflict; used more as propaganda deepening the dividing lines of “us” and “them”.
For Britain and in her North American colonies series of dynastic and economic wars from 1689 through 1763 the enemy was France. France was not only a rival in the scramble for power, but was quite Catholic and absolutist in its monarchy. Magnified by alliances with the Native people, Catholicism was a real and imminent danger for generations of New Englanders lasting until France was ejected from North America.
The riff that developed between Britain and her North American colonies is famously depicted as a dispute over taxes. Clumsy attempts to levy and collect taxes certainly won no friends, but the Quebec Act of 1774 not only allowed (French) Catholicism to continue, unimpaired, but prevented “godly” ministers from New England who wanted to begin “preparing the way for carrying the pure Religion of the Gospel, free from Popish superstition and Pagan idolatry, to the ends of the American Earth’. It also extended the province of Quebec southward denying those lands to New Englanders and seemed to make the province a jumping off point for a Popish invasion. New Englanders were simultaneously enraged and frightened.
A remonstrance presented to the Military Governor of Massachusetts, 17 September 1774, set forth a list of grievances. Number 10 noted their reactions to the Quebec Act:
“…That the late act of parliament for establishing the Roman Catholic religion and the French laws in that extensive country, now called Canada, is dangerous in an extreme degree to the Protestant religion and to the civil rights and liberties of all America, and therefore, as men and Protestant Christians, we are indispenubly [sic] obliged to take all proper measures for our security….”
The province of Quebec was nothing less than a Catholic dagger aimed at the breast of American Protestant Liberty:
“That the establishment of French laws and Popish religion in Canada, the better to facilitate the arbitrary schemes of the British Ministry, by making the Canadians instruments in the hands of power to reduce us to slavery….”
Worse, still, what if Great Britain decided to make it a State Religion…then where would the “godly” (slave trading, smuggling, and violent) American Protestants be? The answer looked grim:
“…Suppose in some future day Great Britain, intoxicated, by a lust for innovations, dazzled with the overflowings of power, unchecked by her own sentiments, or our cries and groans, which would never reach her, should pass a law tolerating the Papistical religion in all the English Colonies; suppose she should advance one step further, and establish it with disqualifications and penalties, (the transition being easy from one to the other.) To submit to such a law would be betraying our religion, to oppose treason and rebellion, the consequence of which would be loss of life, confiscation of goods, corruption of blood, and a reducing to beggary wives and children. I do not mention this as what would probably take place: it is enough that it is possible. The established religion of the Nation has been repeatedly changed. What has been may again be. The claim of Parliament is to legislate for us in all cases whatever. If she establishes this claim, we are slaves; I speak it with anguish — we are miserable! 
To New Englanders, “persecution” was Catholicism’s middle name. The atrocities of the 17th Century were linked to the events of the 1760’s and employed to smear contemporary British colonial administrators:
“Nay the bloody Marquis of Antrim, who encouraged and headed the Irish Papists in the massacre [ca. 1641], when they murdered almost all the Protestants of Ireland, was acquitted by the express order of his Majesty. Now there cannot be worse men in this world than the Marquis of Antrim, Lauderdale, Hutchinson and Bernard.” 
Interestingly, pro-British partisans invoked the spectre of Catholic absolutism in their arguments against Independence. A writer calling himself Cato claimed that only the British Crown could protect American colonists from the evils of Catholic Powers:
“It could scarce have been imagined that the author of Common Sense, after telling us that “the blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature, cries, ‘ tis time to part” — eternally to part — from the limited monarchy of Great Britain, (whatever future terms might be offered us,) would so soon have recommended to us a new alliance with the arbitrary monarchs of France and Spain. Bloody massacres, the revocation of sacred edicts, and the most unrelenting persecutions, have certainly taught American Protestants (and especially our German brethren) what sort of faith we are to expect from Popish Princes, and from nations who are strangers to liberty themselves, and envy the enjoyment of it to others.” 
If there was one thing both sides seemed to agree upon was that Catholicism was an anathema to British and American Liberty. Even anarchic mobs of the Gordon Riots in London, summer of 1780 had “No Popery” as their rallying cry as they burned, looted destroyed and generally scared the hell out of the British government.
A real complication came when the United States entered into an alliance with the ancient enemy, Catholic France. This alliance of “odd bedfellows” materially aided the American Independence, but gave some supporters second thoughts.
When Benedict Arnold had changed sides in 1780, he attempted to recruit other malcontented individuals from the Continental Army. In his verbose proclamation, the French Alliance came up for examination. France was “grasping” and Americans were in danger of becoming “vassals of France”.
Worse still, being aligned with France meant that the Americans were consorting with Catholics:
“Do you know that the eye which guides this pen lately saw your mean an d profligate Congress at mass for the soul of a Roman Catholic in Purgatory, and participating in the rites of a Church, against whose antichristian corruptions your pious ancestors would have witnessed with their blood.” 
When the radical rebels of New England and supporters of “government” both use them as examples of repression, Catholics really were personae non gratia. They just couldn’t catch a break.
What were Catholic leanings during the Revolutionary Era? Like pretty much every other grouping, they were found on both sides of the question of Independence. American Catholics today can boast of the service of Commodore John Barry, or the work of Charles Carroll (of Carleton). Other Catholics remained loyal to Britain and served in combat units (The Volunteers of Ireland, et alia).
At this point of the narrative, it becomes customary to point out that the evils in the past were soon changed and that Catholics became model citizens and freed from the stigma of being, well, Catholic. Sadly, this was not so: backlash against Catholics mounted in the 19th Century. The Nativist or “Know-Nothing” movement of the 1840’s showed Americans could get really intolerant of faiths that were perceived to be “foreign”. Cartoonist Thomas Nast, who invented the modern version of Santa Claus, the Republican Party Elephant and the Democratic Party Donkey, drew viciously anti-Catholic cartoons in the latter half of the 1800’s. And on and on.
Eventually, Catholics were perceived to be a bit more palatable and mostly accepted in the US. But a strain of fear and loathing lurking beneath the surface of the American character does burst through at different times, and was part of the landscape during the War for Independence.
[Many thanks to Park Ranger Bill Valosin for his insight and suggested edits]
- Memorial of Ebenezer Hazard of New-York, To the Honourable the General Assembly of the Colony of CONNECTICUT, now convened at HARTFORD [May 1775]
- SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 17, 1774, A. M. The Resolutions entered into the delegates from the several towns and districts in the county of Suffolk, in the Province of Massachusetts-bay, on Tuesday the 6th instant, and their address to his excellency Govr. Gage, dated the 9th instant
- To the Honourable FREDERICK SMYTH, Esquire, Chief Justice of the Province of NEW-JERSEY:
The Address of the Grand Jury for the Body of the County of Essex, at a Court of Oyer and Terminer and General Gaol Delivery, held at Newark, in the said County, the first Tuesday in November, 1774.
- To the inhabitants of the Massachusetts-Bay V Boston, March9, 1775
- Remarks on the proposed American Compact New-York, April 18, 1775
- Cato to the People of Pennsylvania Letter V 
- By Brigadier-General Arnold, A Proclamation