Letter to Harold “Hoot” and Annie Gibson cont. part 15
SHALL WE EAT OUR COOKIES INSIDE THE HOUSE OR OUTSIDE THE HOUSE?
Why, pray tell, are you digging up this ancient history about a war fought more than a century ago? What can this possibly have to do with the Hootenanny Mass? Well, it isn’t as ancient as you might think! When I was a boy, in the groovy sixties and early seventies, an impressionable lad in a Jesuit University, I had a Latin course with old Fr. Mertz. I loved the class. He didn’t talk about Latin very much. He mostly talked about how he hated stinking pigeons. “Flying rats!” He called them. Occasionally he would take a shotgun to the roof of the tallest building on campus, Metrz Hall, KABOOM! There would be a shower of feathers and pigeons falling from the sky, like quail in the book of Exodus. He was not going to let pigeons roost on HIS building. It was a college dorm and when he found out what went on in that building, it being the early seventies, he wanted his name taken off it. No luck. It is Mertz Hall to this day. Where was I? Oh, yes. When he was not complaining about student debauchery and stinking pigeons, he would reminisce about the Spanish American War, and how grand it was to be a boy in such an heroic era. It was not that long ago.
The Spanish American War, so called, launched America onto the world stage. The few who opposed the war and subsequent empire went unheard by those who believed in the destiny of America was to civilize and Protestantize the world. Empire is deeply embedded in the American consciousness. Already, in the 1780s, Thomas Jefferson, awaited the collapse of the Spanish empire: “...‘til our population can be sufficiently advanced to gain it from them piece by piece.” He also wrote that, “History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government,” and, “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.” Jefferson, who never freed any of his own slaves, even in his last will, wrote our Declaration of Independence. He longed for an “Empire for Liberty”. What emerged was an empire for slavery. The Mexican government welcomed American settlers into Texas, but required them to swear allegiance to the Mexican constitution of 1824 and practice the Catholic Faith. This meant that they could not own slaves. The Americans who emigrated into Mexican Texas soon revolted, not so much for their liberty but for the right to keep their slaves. The independence of Texas soon led to the Mexican-American War and the annexation of the United State of almost half of Mexico.
Thomas Jefferson’s name sake, United States Senator Jefferson Davis, later President of the Confederate States of America, introduced an amendment to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo to annex most of northeastern Mexico. It was not passed into law. Davis also said, “Cuba must be ours... to increase the number of slave-holding constituencies.” So we had cast covetous eyes on Cuba and its millions of potential slaves half a century before we took it. Catholicism and the United States were on a collision course from the Puritan beginnings and things escalated to real bloodshed in the first part of the 19th century.
It is hard to believe that anti-Catholicism was one of the founding principals of this country, but anti-Catholicism is woven into the fabric of the nation. Few know that the Catholicism of Quebec is one of the reasons that the Protestant colonies left the British Empire. The Continental Congress, the founding assembly of the nation, wrote King George, protesting the Quebec Act of 1774 which allowed Quebec to remain Catholic though conquered by Protestant England. Here is a quote from the Continental Congress’ letter to King George, “(French Catholics are) fit instruments in the hands of power, to reduce the ancient free Protestant Colonies to the same state of slavery with themselves. This was evidently the object of the Act:—And in this view, being extremely dangerous to our liberty and quiet, we cannot forbear complaining of it, as hostile to British America...Nor can we suppress our astonishment that a British Parliament should ever consent to establish in that country a religion that has deluged your island in blood, and dispersed impiety, bigotry, persecution, murder and rebellion through every part of the world.” The statement sounds like it was written yesterday by those who hate the Church for her opposition to abortion, and the other moral hot button issues of our time, I can hear a few of my more progressive friends saying “Amen! Preach it brother!” at the words, “blood (shed)...bigotry, persecution, murder.”
Virulent anti-Catholicism has never left American politics, from then until now. By means of the invasion of Mexico, the government of the United States extended slavery into Catholic lands where it was already forbidden. Slavery was abolished by Hidalgo in 1810, and was formally abolished after the revolution in 1821. As the beginnings of empire stirred America, anti-foreign and anti-Catholic sentiment continued to grow. The American Party, better known as the “Know Nothings” because of their secrecy, was a reaction to German and Irish Catholic immigrants.
The movement originated in New York in 1843 and soon spread to the rest of the country. In 1836, the publication of Maria Monk's “Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery in Montreal.” It told of the lascivious conduct of Catholic nuns. It was a runaway best seller even though it was shown to be pure fabrication shortly after publication. The civil war saw a lessening of formal attempts to restrict Catholicism in the US. Catholic immigrants fought on both sides of the conflict, and people who had never met a Catholic in their lives found themselves in the trenches with them and saw no visible evidence of horns, cloven hooves or tails. But the prejudice continued. The Ku Klux Klan renewed anti-Catholicism in the 1920s. In 1929, my parents were married in Little Flower, Catholic Church in 1929 built in 1925 in Royal Oak, Michigan, a Protestant suburb of Detroit. Two weeks after it opened, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on the church lawn.
I grew up surrounded by anti-Catholicism. My Aunt converted to Catholicism when she married my Uncle back in 1930. Her Aunt Olivia never quite forgave her. I remember Aunt “Ollie” explaining to me that nuns were at the “service” (remember it’s a family column) of priests who entered convents via secret tunnels. If a child resulted, it was baptized and then promptly strangled and buried in the aforementioned tunnels. In my old age, I discovered that this is an exact quote from Maria Monk’s bestseller. In 1960, I was being fed a line of anti-Catholic drivel written in 1836.
Catholic were inferior beings in the Chicago suburb where I grew up. Jews were not welcome at all and Catholics were merely looked down on. I was not allowed into the home of the family across the street because I was a Catholic. I remember my friend going in to get a glass of water. I couldn’t come in, because I was Catholic, but I could wait and he would be out in a few minutes. I have vague memories of his congregationalist mother once weakening and bringing me some cookies and lemonade out on the sidewalk. That was in 1955. In 1955, there were still enough jerks around to make a child feel less because of his religious affiliation. Can you imagine what four hundred years of cookies on the sidewalk did to the American Catholic consciousness? It made eating the cookies inside seem really important.
American exceptionalism flowered in the first and then the second world wars. We were cowboys to the rescue, then we went on to rescue Korea and then Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia and Lebanon and Granada, with a valiant attempt to get some other people to rescue Cuba, then we changed our minds, and then we decided to rescue Kuwait and Iraq and now we are rescuing Afghanistan. But in 1960, we were fresh from rescuing Europe and South Korea, and we could do no wrong and America was the envy of the world, or so we thought.
We Catholic Americans had finally arrived when Joe Kennedy finally triumphed. His boy, Jack, was elected the first Catholic president of the United States. The Boston Brahmins would have to let us into their country clubs now! I was 10 years old in 1960. John Kennedy was President and John XXIII was pope and he had just called for an Ecumenical council. To be American and Catholic was to be on the top of the heap. The future was going to be wonderful. Perhaps now the neighbors would invite me to eat my cookies inside instead of on the sidewalk. To be both American and Catholic was no longer a problem. was as exceptional as any red blooded American!
We had been the Catholic Church in America. Now people talked about the American Church. Three years later, both pope and president would be dead, but by then we were acceptable. American Catholicism and American exceptionalism had somehow fallen in love in those three years. That acceptance had come at a fearful price that few noticed at the time. The old Puritan prejudices died hard. It was doubted that a Catholic could be elected president of this Protestant nation. John Kennedy tackled the problem head on in his address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on Sep 12, 1960. He said “I am the Democratic Party's candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters; and the church does not speak for me. Whatever issue may come before me as President, if I should be elected, on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject, I will make my decision... in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise. But if the time should ever come -- and I do not concede any conflict to be remotely possible -- when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do likewise.”
He won the election. So a Catholic could be elected if he promised that he would follow his conscience, but not his faith. He said that he happened to be Catholic. Therein lies the problem. He happened to be Catholic. I do not happen to be Catholic. I choose to be Catholic, because I think it is the truth.