A new wave of immigrants arrived in the United States in the last third of the 20th century. At the head of this wave were those who came from Cuba in 1960 to escape Fidel Castro's oppressive regime. Massive immigration had ceased in 1924 with the passage of the National Origins Act, which limited the number of immigrants and largely favored those from northern and western Europe. Latin Americans, however, were exempt from the law's provision. The need for farmworkers and other laborers kept the door open to them. Political turmoil and economic stagnation marked Latin America all through this century, sending many immigrants northward. The rise of Castro added to the flow.

Melchor and Maria Louisa Gaston and their extended family of more than 80 relatives left Cuba in 1960 and settled in Florida with 400,000 other Cubans. They hoped to return in several months, as soon as the trouble was over, but the months extended to a year, then several years, until they knew they would never return to their beloved homeland. In the meantime, the family became a part of the fabric of America.

Hispanics were part of the Church in the United States well before European Catholics would swell membership beginning in the 19th century. Many arrived in what became the United States before the first English-speaking Catholics arrived in Maryland in 1634. Today, on the doorstep of a new century, the Church in the United States is becoming increasingly Hispanic. In recent years, the country has seen a significant influx of Catholics from Vietnam, Haiti, Poland and other places marked by persecution, economic hardship or both.

Teaching the Truths

Across the generations, the Church has played an important role in helping the children of immigrant Catholics enter mainstream society. It has done this, in large part, through its schools. When most people think of the teaching ministry of the Church, they think of Catholic schools. But it is more than schools. From the classroom to the pulpit, from the Catholic press to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Church teaches. Her teaching is more than reading, writing and arithmetic, and science, medicine and law. At the core of her teaching ministry is instruction on living as disciples of Jesus, with that call's many facets and dimensions.

The Jesuits in Maryland began the first Catholic schools in the English-speaking colonies for the sons of Catholic landowners. These schools were later banned when a new Puritan majority in Maryland revoked the Act of Toleration in 1654, five years after it was passed. Later, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774-1821) established several Catholic schools and St. John Neumann (1811-1860) is credited with establishing the Catholic school system in Philadelphia.

The Church entered the ministry of education in a systematic way in order to save Catholic immigrant children from the Protestant public school system. Spurred on by the 1884 Plenary Council of Baltimore, which mandated a Catholic school in every parish (which was never enforced), by the 20th century, the Church (and, in many cases, religious orders) established schools at all levels from preschool to postgraduate. Catholic education for Catholic children was considered so much a part of Catholic life that parents who did not send their children to the schools were considered lax, or worse.

Teaching orders of women and men concentrated their efforts on Catholic schools. Orders of men and women religious came from Europe to teach the children of immigrants. Other orders, such as the Sisters (or Daughters) of Charity in Maryland and the Sisters of Loretto in Kentucky, were homegrown on American soil. Many established their own schools or, more often, staffed parochial schools. The number of schools and their enrollment peaked in the mid-1960s, then underwent a significant decline in the post-Vatican II years. Since the late 1980s, Catholic elementary and secondary education has been making a comeback, with increased enrollments and new schools being established in recent years, particularly in the South and Southwest.

High Aims for Higher Ed

At the level of higher education, colleges such as Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. (1789), and Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg, Md. (1808), were two of the first established. Much growth occurred in the 19th century. But of the more than 230 Catholic colleges and universities in existence in 1999, many were established in the 20th century. Even in recent years, new Catholic colleges are being founded — including Thomas Aquinas College in California (1971), Christendom College in Virginia (1977) and the College of Corpus Christi in Texas (1998).

Despite their many and varied contributions, Catholic higher education institutions were often criticized, even by Catholics, as second-rate when compared to many public and private non-sectarian institutions. They were seen as one of the reasons for the anemic state of Catholic intellectual life in the United States in the 1950s. Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, a noted Church historian at Catholic University, made his own devastating critique in 1955. A growing chorus of criticism over a number of issues led a number of Catholic educators to meet in 1967 in Land O'Lakes, Wis., to study the problem. They issued a statement calling for institutional autonomy from the founding religious orders and dioceses and for academic freedom for the faculty.

While creating much-needed stability in the Catholic colleges and universities, the changes chipped away at their Catholic identity and focus. It is no secret that, today, many Catholic institutions of higher education are all but indistinguishable from their secular counterparts. Pope John Paul II is now trying to re-establish the Catholic identity of these colleges through the provisions of Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church, 1990). Many are hoping that the coming year will yield some resolution on this issue.

Widening Mission

Besides the ministry of education, the Church teaches in other ways as well. For example, the bishops often speak with one voice on moral, pastoral and other issues. In the 19th century, the bishops gathered for several provincial and plenary councils, but it wasn't until World War I that they banded together in a formal way in the National Catholic War Council (1918) to provide and coordinate Catholic support for the troops and war effort. After the war when the bishops were challenged to come up with a Catholic program of recovery, they responded with in 1919 with the “Bishops' Program of Social Reconstruction” written by Father John A. Ryan. This major teaching statement of the bishops set the pattern for the years to come.

The concept of a formal organization for the nation's Catholic bishops such as the renamed National Catholic Welfare Council was opposed by some bishops, notably Boston's Cardinal William O'Connell. They appealed to Rome to prevent the council from becoming permanent, but ultimately lost when Rome endorsed the establishment of the broader, and again renamed, National Catholic Welfare Conference in 1922. Its permanent departments included education, social action, lay organizations and missions. The first two were clearly focused on the educational mission of the Church. (In 1966, the Welfare Conference became the U.S. Catholic Conference, the operational secretariat and service agency of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.) From the time of its establishment, Father Ryan used it as a platform to teach about the Church and social justice.

Besides teaching at the level of the Welfare Conference, significant teaching took place at other places and levels in the Church as well, both at “official” and “unofficial” levels. Sometimes the result was positive, as through the teaching regarding racism and antiSemitism by lay movements such as Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker and Catherine de Hueck Dougherty's Friendship House. Their efforts were built upon through the pages of the Jesuit-run America magazine and the lay-run Commonweal. Bishops sometimes independently led the way. Cardinal Joseph Ritter (1892-1967) of St. Louis and Cardinal Patrick O'Boyle (1896-1987) of Washington, who integrated the Catholic schools of their archdioceses beginning in 1947 and 1948 well before the Supreme Court ruling of 1954, undoubtedly had an effect on the American bishops who wrote a pastoral letter on racism in 1958.

But sometimes the result of this “teaching” was negative, as when Father Charles E. Coughlin (1891-1979), the popular “radio priest” of the 1930s and '40s, broadcast his antiSemitic diatribes while pastor of Little Flower parish in Royal Oak, Mich., outside Detroit. To avert the scandal Father Coughlin was causing, the plug was pulled on his program in 1942. Jesuit Father John LaFarge (1880-1963), through his efforts as an editor of America, quietly countered Father Coughlin as America sought to develop Catholic understanding of the Jews in its pages in the '30s and '40s. This was well before the Church condemned anti-Semitism in the Vatican II declaration Nostra Aetate (1965).

The bishops' conference and the U.S. Catholic Conference became of age as a teaching body after Vatican II. Before the council, it was difficult for the bishops to critically reflect on deficiencies in American society because Catholics were still trying to gain acceptance as loyal Americans. After World War II and the Cold War, this loyalty could no longer be questioned. Pope Paul VI in his 1971 apostolic letter Octogesima Adveniens encouraged the national bishops' conferences to reflect theologically on pastoral problems. Following this challenge, the American bishops looked more intently at their own society, and found it wanting. Since 1980, they have issued more than 20 pastoral letters on social, political and economic issues.

For example, in 1983, after several years of study, the bishops issued The Challenge of Peace, their pastoral letter on war and peace which criticized American participation in the arms race, first-strike use of nuclear weapons and defense spending. They followed this with Economic Justice for All, their 1986 pastoral that leveled strong criticism at the free-enterprise system. While yielding prosperity to many, the American economy was criticized by the bishops for doing so unevenly and leaving many in poverty. These pastoral letters antagonized many Catholics who felt that the bishops' teaching role would be better directed toward “spiritual” issues and not “secular” concerns. Many Catholics still did not see the interconnection of the two. Even stronger criticism erupted over the bishops' attempt to write a pastoral letter on women. The fourth draft of that pastoral was withdrawn in 1992 when it became apparent that deeply divergent views in the hierarchy and in the whole Church regarding women and feminism prevented consensus on the issue.

The Challenge Continues

While the Church helped the children of immigrants to enter mainstream America through its school system, many Catholics now think much like the mainstream. In many ways, the Church suffers from its own success. As the 21st century begins rolling along, the Church is finding even greater challenges as she tries to teach her followers how to live as disciples of Jesus Christ.

And what happened to the members of the Gaston family? Almost 40 years after they first entered American society, they count among their members doctors, lawyers, teachers, women religious, a priest and professionals of all sorts — even a mayor of a major city (Miami). They have attended some of the best state, secular and Catholic colleges and universities in the country, and in the process are thoroughly American. About 85% are active Catholics. The rest are Protestant fundamentalists, inactive Catholics and unchurched. Their family experience is much better than the overall experience of the Church in America in the 20th century.

Anthony Bosnick lectures on history and writes from Gaithersburg, Maryland.