PATRIOTIC LEADERS OF THE CHURCH

OSV, 2004

222 pages, $13.95

To order: (800) 348-2440

or catalog.osv.com

The United States and the Catholic Church share a long and fascinating history.

John Fink's Patriotic Leaders of the Church considers some of the most important moments in that history by spotlighting the lives of key Catholic leaders from the past three centuries.

Fink, a former president of Our Sunday Visitor and of the Catholic Press Association, focuses on “men who were both good Christians and good citizens; more specifically, they were good Catholics and good Americans.”

Noting that the patriotism of Catholics is not questioned today as it was in previous periods of our nation's history, Fink stresses that “we cannot fully appreciate the strides Catholics have made in our society without understanding the struggles many went through to achieve this.”

At the heart of the book is the belief that “it can be no accident that the greatest leaders of the Catholic Church in America have been among it greatest patriots.”

Fink presents mini-biographies of nine Catholics — all of them prelates or priests — who embodied a vibrant love for country and for the faith. Each sought to reconcile the two amid trying circumstances, often having to defend their loyalty to the Catholic Church to fellow citizens while explaining their love for the United States to authorities in Rome.

Among these was Archbishop John Carroll (1735-1815), considered the father of the Catholic Church in the United States and elected the first U.S. bishop on March 25, 1789, in a solemn conclave in Whitemarsh, Md. (Just a month later, George Washington became the first president of the fledgling country.) The unusual episcopal election took place, with the permission of Pope Pius VI, so as to avoid the appearance of a foreign power meddling in the affairs of the United States. It was just one of many unusual and sometimes tense moments between Catholic leaders in the newly formed republic and Vatican authorities who viewed the democracy of the New World as both novel and dangerous.

The fiery Bishop John England of South Carolina was, in 1826, the first Catholic clergyman to speak before the Legislature of the United States. When he was made bishop in 1820, the population of the United States was nearly 10 million, but less than 100,000 citizens were Catholic. Anti-Catholic sentiment ran strong and, not surprisingly, ignorance of the true nature of the Catholic faith was the norm. Bishop England would spend his life working to defend the Catholic faith and demonstrating that Catholics were supporters, not antagonists, of democracy.

These efforts occasionally led to questionable remarks, as when Bishop England stated that the institutions of the Catholic Church “are eminently republican.” Also prone to hyperbole were Archbishop John Ireland (1838-1918) and Cardinal James Gibbons (1834-1921), the latter telling President William Howard Taft: “You were pleased to mention my pride in being an American citizen. It is the proudest earthly title I possess.”

But, on the whole, these remarkable men walked a delicate line with boldness and wisdom, winning the admiration of even staunch Protestants without compromising their Catholic beliefs or identities.

Fink also looks at, among others, Father Isaac Hecker (“indirectly responsible” for the heresy of Americanism), Archbishop John Francis Noll (who battled tirelessly against anti-Catholicism), Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen (who dominated the airwaves in the 1950s), and New York Cardinal John J. O'Connor.

The book is well suited for students, apologists — and the American-history buff that ought to be in all of us.

Carl E. Olson is editor of Ignatiusinsight.com.