Prelates and Presidents: 2 Books Offer Deep Dive Into US Catholic History

BOOK PICKS: Just in time for Presidents’ Day, take time to learn about the epic history of Catholicism in America.

The times of Presidents Washington, Lincoln and Reagan are chronicled in recent history books via a Catholic lens.
The times of Presidents Washington, Lincoln and Reagan are chronicled in recent history books via a Catholic lens. (photo: Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart; portrait of Abraham Lincoln, taken on Nov. 8, 1863, 11 days before his famed Gettysburg Address, by Alexander Gardner; Ronald Reagan meets with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, on June 7, 1982. / Public domain)

Toil and Transcendence: Catholicism in 20th-Century America

Father Charles Connor

EWTN Publishing, 2020

400 pages, $19.95

To order: TOIL & TRANSCENDENCE | EWTN Religious Catalogue

American Pilgrimage: A Historical Journey through Catholic Life in a New World

Christopher Shannon

Augustine Institute-Ignatius Press, 2022

580 pages, $34.95

To order:

Just in time for Presidents’ Day, take time to learn about how presidents interacted with Catholics.

Father Charles Connor, a theologian and historian who was ordained in the Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania, and is a popular EWTN host, focuses much of his narrative in Toil and Transcendence: Catholicism in 20th-Century America on the relationships between U.S. presidents, from Grover Cleveland to Ronald Reagan, and leading members of the hierarchy, from Baltimore Cardinal James Gibbons to Cardinals Joseph Bernardin of Chicago and John O’Connor of New York. Thus, major events like World Wars I and II, the Great Depression, The New Deal, the Cold War and others are seen mostly at the highest levels of decision-making and reaction.

Some of Cardinal Gibbons’ contacts with U.S. presidents were better than others: Theodore Roosevelt (“T.R.”) was always ready to defend Catholics’ religious rights from the time he was the police commissioner in New York City to his presidency. Relations with President Woodrow Wilson were considerably cooler: “Chilly Wilson” had “anti-Catholic views” (p. 107) and rejected Pope Benedict XV’s peace plans in 1919 at the end of World War I. When Cardinal Gibbons died in 1921, President Warren Harding sent a letter of condolence and praise, commending him as a fine citizen and Churchman (p. 133).

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four presidential victories, his efforts to aid recovery from the Great Depression, and his role as commander-in-chief during World War II provoked various Catholic responses. The radio priest Father Charles Coughlin, who promoted anti-communist and anti-Semitic views, first supported then protested against Roosevelt’s New Deal and other policies. The archbishop of New York, Cardinal Francis Spellman, remonstrated against Allied bombing of Vatican City in 1943 and 1944, especially since the Holy See was considered neutral.

Both Roosevelt and his successor, President Harry Truman, tried to establish diplomatic relations with the Holy See, but anti-Catholicism at the time meant, as Father Connor relates, that it would take 30 more years for it to happen.

The relationship between President Reagan and Pope St. John Paul II receives due coverage (pp. 344-358). Father Connor also describes the negotiations between Cardinal Bernardin and the Reagan administration regarding the U.S. bishops’ 1983 pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace” (pp. 358-360), concluding his survey of contacts between prelates and presidents with the appointment of William Wilson as the first U.S. ambassador to the Holy See in 1984.

With Toil and Transcendence, Father Connor brings his historical trilogy of the Catholic Church in the United States of America to a close. The first two volumes were Pioneer Priests and Makeshift Altars: A History of Catholics in the Thirteen Colonies (2017) and Faith and Fury: The Rise of Catholicism During the Civil War (2019). All three books display a smooth and detailed narrative style, highlighting important historical characters and using substantial quotations from secondary sources, appropriately footnoted. While none of these books have indexes, there are extensive bibliographies.

In American Pilgrimage: A Historical Journey through Catholic Life in a New World, Christopher Shannon, an associate professor of history at Christendom College, goes back further in time with a wider geographic range than Father Connor.

Shannon examines 16th- through 18th-century colonizing and missionary efforts by Spain, France and England in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres of the New World. This book provides an index but no bibliography or maps (which would have been helpful), but Shannon’s text is footnoted, citing both primary and secondary sources.

The Seeds

Readers should not be surprised at the complexity and deliberate detail Shannon uses to narrate the colonial period in “Part I: Seeds.” He neither exculpates nor condemns Christopher Columbus; even Bartolomé de Las Casas, so often cited as the great defender of Indigenous peoples’ rights, has to have his faults pointed out to him, as a Dominican confessor refuses to absolve the Franciscan friar in the confessional “on the grounds that [Las Casas’] pursuit of riches was causing him to neglect his duty to instruct Natives in the faith” (p. 31).

Shannon paints Hernán Cortés as the surprise hero of evangelization in New Spain. He notes that within “the mixing of the sacred and profane” in that conqueror and governor, there was great devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe (referring to the statue and shrine in Extremadura, Spain) and “deep Christian convictions” (p. 45).

Language, customs, pagan gods and beliefs, illness brought by both soldier and priest, and other obstacles stood in the way of evangelization and conversion. The pages dedicated to St. Junípero Serra, so hotly debated and condemned in recent years, describe the “quasi-monastic discipline” (p. 70) of the California Missions, combined with great beauty in the churches, the use of chants and hymns, and plays dramatizing the Nativity of Jesus and the visit of shepherds to create a cultural Catholicism of richness and humanity.

From Franciscans and Dominicans in New Spain, there were the Jesuits in New France, as French monarchs sent out explorers to North America.

The “Golden age of the Jesuit mission of the 1630s and 1640s” (p. 85), creates such “a wild frontier feel” that even the “otherwise anti-Catholic, Anglo-American Francis Parkman would find them inspiring” (p. 94). Shannon explores the linguistic and liturgical efforts of the great Jesuit martyrs (Jogues, de Brébeuf, Lalemant and companions) and concludes the story of northern New France with the examples of St. Kateri Tekakwitha and missionary sisters such as Marie de l’Incarnation, Jeanne Mance and Marguerite Bourgeoys.

Shannon also explores French colonizing and missionary efforts in what Thomas Jefferson would later purchase in 1803, along the Mississippi to New Orleans. The fall of New France and the Quebec Act provide important segues to a different set of issues between French Catholics and English conquerors and rulers. The “acquisition of French Catholic Canada” forced the English “to consider two equally undesirable alternatives” (p. 143).

Because forcing English Catholics to become Anglicans had not succeeded after more than 200 years of penal and recusant laws, imprisonment and martyrdom, England chose to tolerate Catholicism in Quebec in 1774. That decision signaled weakness to Anglican and dissenting Protestants in the New England colonies and would play a role in the American Revolution.

Chapter 3 on “England” covers the Maryland Experiment of the Lords Baltimore, George, Cecil and Leonard to create a community of religious tolerance, the patriotic efforts of Charles Carroll of Carrollton before and after 1776, and the enduring anti-Catholicism of the founders of the United States of America. John Adams’ reaction to attending a Catholic Mass in Philadelphia in 1774, though complimentary in some ways, is illustrative of the Protestant elites’ fear that Catholicism might inveigle people unaware of what he saw as the Church’s hatred and denial of freedom and reason (see p. 187).

The pages on “John Carroll and the Building of the Catholic Church in the United States” (pp. 191-203) deserve and reward attentive reading.

The first bishop, then archbishop, of Baltimore had a “vision of a suitably ‘republican’ Catholic Church” (p. 195). As Shannon notes, his vision might have anticipated “the later notion of the separation of Church and State,” but Carroll also hoped to avoid the control of the Church by the state — the “often servile dependence” of the Church on “the Catholic kings of Europe” (pp. 195-196) that the reader might recall from the chapters on New Spain and New France.

Fruits of the Seeds

In Part II, Shannon provides the same level of detail and interpretation as the Catholic Church in the United States grew through Irish, German, Italian and Polish immigration. Irish priests dominated parish life in most of the population centers, and divisions within (Germans, Italians and, particularly, Poles, maintaining their ethnic and devotional traditions and languages) and without (battles with government authorities over elementary and secondary education). The constant “pan-Protestant appeal of anti-Catholicism” (p. 286) leads to one of the most dramatic events of that era: the 1834 burning of the Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts.

There’s also conflict and confusion between the Catholic Church in the U.S. and the Vatican in the controversy over “Americanism” (pp. 301-309). The efforts of the Knights of Columbus to fight off the Nativism of the Ku Klux Klan and the reaction to the presidential campaign of New York Gov. Al Smith again exposed knee-jerk “anti-Catholic hysteria.”

Overlapping Narratives

By now, both books are in parallel chronologically. Father Connor begins his book on 20th-century Catholic history in the late 19th century, as he focuses on certain social, political and economic theories in the background of the growth of the Catholic Church in the U.S. When he picks up one of those trends, the growth of labor unions, he demonstrates his great ability to tell a story and delineate the characters in that story.

Both Shannon and Father Connor include the controversy over the Catholic Knights of Labor, but Father Connor provides the drama and personal conflict.

As founder of the Knights of Labor, an organization of Catholic workers, Terrence Powderly encounters the suspicion that he is a Mason and is thrown out of Sunday Mass and threatened with a horsewhipping when he tries to go to confession at St. Peter’s Cathedral in Scranton. Then, as mayor of Scranton, he “has some rather unpleasant encounters with Bishop William O’Hara.” When he refuses to kneel down and ask the bishop’s pardon, Bishop O’Hara tells him to “leave his house.”

Powderly responds by telling the bishop he is “but a tenant here” “as a servant of God” — because the Catholic laity of Scranton paid to have the house built, it was their house (pp. 25-27). That kind of narration makes it hard to put the book down. Fortunately, Cardinal Gibbons intervenes with the other bishops in the United States and with the Vatican to prevent the condemnation of the Knights of Labor.

Even interracial sports make an appearance. On June 21, 1925, the Wichita Monrovians, an African-American team, won an exhibition baseball game (10-8) against Wichita Klan No. 6 — with “two white Catholics as officials, ‘Irish’ Garrety and Dan Dwyer” (“Beating the Klan: Baseball Coverage in Wichita Before Integration, 1920-1930,” Brian Carroll, 2008 Baseball Research Journal).

Father Connor does not ignore Catholic contributions to culture by authors like Frances Parkinson Keyes and Phyllis McGinley, nor educators and evangelists like Msgr. John Tracy Ellis and Archbishop Fulton Sheen. Both Dorothy Day and William Buckley receive their due recognition.

He also tackles perennially controversial events, like the McCarthy hearings, John F. Kennedy’s address to Protestant ministers in Houston during the 1960 presidential campaign, the reaction to Humanae Vitae and the Second Vatican Council, with finesse and balance.

Liturgical Seasons in 20th-Century Catholicism

In Part III of American Pilgrimage, Shannon considers themes and issues according to three liturgical seasons: Lent, Ordinary Time and Advent. These seasonal chapters recount the disruptions before, during and after the Second Vatican Council in Catholic American families, parishes and other institutions.

If readers are middle-aged or older, they will remember experiencing some of these issues: liturgical changes, Humanae Vitae, the first signs of the growing priestly and episcopal sex-abuse scandal and crisis, social-justice issues (including civil rights and migrant worker protections), the Vietnam War, the pro-life cause, etc. Like Father Connor, Shannon provides both pertinent details and cogent analysis for the reader to consider.

Both of these books reward close and thoughtful reading, as their authors have firm grasps of their subject matter and sure, though distinctive, methods of interpretation and analysis.