“Deplorable” 19th-Century American Catholics and the 21st-Century Culture War

A review of Faith and Fury: The Rise of Catholicism During the Civil War (Ewtn Publishing, 2019) by Fr. Charles Connor

The abolitionists are wrong as to their point of departure. They begin, consciously or unconsciously, by assuming that the people of the United States are one people, not in the restricted sense in which they are so declared by the constitution, but in all senses, to the fullest extent, as much so as the people of France or England.

                                                                   — Orestes Brownson

Even if Father Charles Connor does not go far enough in challenging the utopian narrative of American liberal progress in Faith and Fury:  The Rise of Catholicism During the Civil War, his extensive, meticulous, and scholarly treatment of the period in question brings to light numerous facts which have generally been overlooked.  Indeed, if we use Father Connor’s rich account as a starting point, we may well go on to wonder whether the information he relates has been overlooked and glossed over precisely because it is extremely embarrassing to 21st – Century American Catholic educators and scholars.  Such people are in the habit of accomodating mainstream American sensibilities even at the cost of politically “sanitizing” and misrepresenting the Church’s history and heritage.

For even seminal figures like Archbishop John Hughes of New York prove utterly beyond the pale when viewed in light of mainstream sensibilities today, which would sharply condemn anyone who failed to be far enough on the “right side of history” with respect to the most sensitive issue of the War Between the States.  To be sure, “Dagger John” was, in his own words, “no friend of slavery,” and proved a staunch supporter of the Lincoln administration when war finally came.  On the other hand he was surely no friend of abolitionism either, as he denounced its  leaders as “infidels and fanatics,” and saw in the movement echoes of both Know-Nothingism and the Red Republicanism which had rocked Europe in 1848.  Not only did he see Nat Turner’s rebellion and John Brown’s raid as bloody terrorism, but he likewise condemned the abolitionist agitation from which Turner and Brown had drawn much of their inspiration.  Even if Hughes and other American bishops typically “condemned the slave trade, they were equally strident in their opposition to abolitionism and its anti-Catholic overtones.”

The discerning reader will find many other inconvenient and largely unknown facts lurking in this seemingly innocuous text.  How many Catholic history courses inform students about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s fanatically anti-Catholic father Lyman, who had “spelled out in detail the imagined specifics of a papal plot to gain control of Western territory and impose Catholicism’s fearful doctrines”?  How many Catholics have ever been told that during the postwar period the Union hero Ulysses S. Grant “effectively played the anti-Catholic card” during his presidential campaign?  By far the best part of Father Connor’s book lies in his use of original texts and extended quotations, however, for he thereby allows men of bygone eras to speak in their own voices:

“Most thankful I am,” wrote Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney of Maryland, “that the reading, reflection, studies and experience of a long life have strengthened and confirmed my faith in the Catholic Church, which has never ceased to teach her children how they should live and how they should die.”  Having established Taney’s religious stance, Father Connor highlights a surprisingly civil albeit frank private exchange between Tayne and the abolitionist minister Samuel Nott.  On his side of the debate, the author of the brief for the Dred Scott case emphasized that his convictions regarding the law, the Constitution, and even the institution of slavery itself were not based upon any personal disdain for those of African descent:

More than thirty years ago I manumitted every slave I ever owned, except two, who were too old, when they became my   property, to provide for themselves.  These two I supported in comfort as long as they lived.  And I am glad to say that    none of those whom I manumitted disappointed my expectations, but have shown by their conduct that they were worthy of freedom; and know how to use it.

According to Father Connor, Tayne’s archetypally “conservative Southern mind,” in no way prevented the judge from exhibiting “a fairness of mind that went beyond the blind racial prejudice frequently found in his era.”  More importantly, “few would question the sincerity of his Catholic faith.”  Through such disclosures the serious Catholic reader finds himself facing a realization that is simply unutterable in the public square today, which is that the antebellum South was populated and led by human beings rather than by deranged amoral sterotypes recruited from the villains’ gallery of Marvel Studios.

As for the actual war, Father Connor notes that American bishops aligned themselves by region.  As has been mentioned, Hughes adhered to the Union, even as Bishop Patrick Lynch of Charleston voiced the characteristic Southern sentiment regarding the slavery controversy:

We feel indignant, when the Northerners boast of their own fancied enlightenment, and declaim with vituperation against the horrors of Southern Slavery.  For we remember how, in the Convention of 1787, they opposed the immediate suppression of the traffic, how they engaged largely in it until 1808, and how even since then, vessels have gone forth from the Northern ports to transport slaves cruelly and illegally from Africa to Brazil and Cuba, whilst their owners at home talked pharasaically of Emancipation […] as long as it was pecuniarily profitable for them to hold slaves, there was not a word among them of Emancipation.

In his Dissertation on the American Civil War Martin J. Spalding of Louisville judged slavery to be an evil “left to us as a sad heritage by Protestant England”:

But how can we free ourselves of it without ruining our country and causing injury to the poor slaves themselves?  What can be done to free them in such a way as not to worsen their sad condition?…This is the real problem for which a wise and practical solution is very difficult: because then the Catholic religion, according to its spirit and its practice in times past, would first be able gradually to better their condition, instructing them in their Christian duties and at the same time inclining the hearts of their masters to compassion; and if they were sufficiently prepared for freedom, to emancipate them with the consent of their masters, at least without doing them violent wrong.

Spalding would later be promoted to Archbishop of Baltimore, while Lynch would serve as the Confederacy’s unofficial emissary to the Vatican.  And although the cautious Pius IX never offered formal recognition to the Confederacy, Confederate-Catholic relations were far warmer than many diocesean officials today would care to admit, as Father Connor explains:

The Vatican’s official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, and the Jesuit-edited La Civilta Cattolica had both expressed skepticism about the Lincoln administration’s aims and  motives.  Writers in both publications favored the continuation of the American union but expressed doubts about the administration’s genuine concern for the slaves, and the violence that could erupt if emancipation became a reality. While the latter publication did not carry the official weight of the former, the text of every issue was still read and approved by the Vatican Secretariat of State, and the pope himself met with the editorial board every other week to review plans for the forthcoming issue.  Given all this, historians have generally argued that Vatican and papal sympathies leaned toward the Confederacy.

Likewise, in a footnote Father Connor himself concedes that “the natural conclusion one would draw from the predominance of communication between Richmond and Rome is that Pius IX sympathized with the Southern cause.”

There is no reason to think that Blessed Pius IX had any special fondness for involuntary servitude, so whatever sympathy he exhibited toward the South must have been rooted in other causes, causes toward which Father Connor occasionally makes a few fleeting gestures.  With nationalism, liberalism, and socialist revolution rampant in 19th Century Europe, it is possible that the pope perceived forces at work in America which were analogous to those which had demolished much of Catholic France and would go on to devour the Papal States.  Consolidated, centralized, and progress-obssessed national governments went hand-in-hand with an anti-Catholic spirit, or at least so many Catholics thought.  So many of them sided with the South, even as a then-obscure political theorist named Karl Marx would send a letter of congratulations to President Lincoln following the latter’s 1864 reelection.

Although he himself clearly subscribes to a fairly conventional understanding of the issues at stake, Father Connor grants that slavery was not the only matter which led to the divisions of 1861.  “Another stressor was the Tariff of Abominations in 1828,” he notes, “which set the interests of the North, South, and an emerging West against one another.  Southern states generally opposed tariffs, which protected Northern industries from foreign competition while raising expenses in its own agrarian economy.”  It was this tariff crisis, not slavery, Father Connor observes, which prompted John C. Calhoun to elaborate his theory of states’ rights and nullification, a theory which many American Catholics found appealing, insofar as it looked to be a bulwark against the emergence of a monolithic Protestant superstate.  Moreover, it was the tariff which nearly provoked Calhoun’s South Carolina to secede thirty years prior to the Fort Sumter affair.

Returning to the question of the American Catholic historical consciousness, it is plain that men of goodwill simply cannot sit still as a temporal conflict which saw flaws and virtues on both sides gets recast as an apocalyptic Manichean battle between Absolute Good and Absolute Evil.  The book’s shortcomings and occasional blinkers notwithstanding, it must be said that Faith and Fury simply does not support the Manichean perspective regarding the war, for per the book’s thesis it is only because Catholics on both sides were able to keep their political differences in perspective that the American Church avoided schism and was able to emerge from the fires stronger than ever.  Those Catholics who are basically comfortable with American culture and where it seems to be headed need not think very long about Father Connor’s thesis, much less incorporate it into a critique of the prevailing civic mythology.  The rest of us have no choice but to do so.

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