Week 3: Catholics & the Politics of Citizenship

This week asked us to focus on questions of citizenship. When evaluating Catholic access to citizenship it is important to establish what it means to gain citizenship. Citizenship is a complex word that means different things to different people across different contexts, yet for the purpose of analyzing American Catholics, there are three ideas of citizenship that will be used as a framework. First citizenship can be most clearly understood as access given in law to the rights, duties, and privileges afforded to a citizen. A second way to understand citizenship is to see when those rights, duties, and privileges, guaranteed on paper, are actually manifested. That is to say when a group of people is able to reap the benefits of participation in society and access social institutions such as education or meaningful political participation. The third measure for citizenship is when a group is fully accepted by others, and the people are all willing to see and treat a group as fully part of the whole.

Catholics achieve the first threshold of citizenship, that is rights on paper, with all other men at the founding of the United States. The United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights guarantee the rights of “all men”. The First Amendment guarantees protection from discrimination based solely on religion. Even some of the original signers of the Constitution were Catholic. It is clear that from the beginning of the United States there has been an ideology of religious freedom and tolerance which has protected Catholics.

These [American] Catholics were in turn granted religious liberty, not in spite of holding views the state considered intolerable but because they rejected the great threat to American independence—imperium in imperio—that Catholics were otherwise presumed to espouse.

(Michael D. Breidenbach, “Conciliarism and the American Founding”, The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 73, No. 3 (July 2016), pp. 499)

It is equally clear, however, that many Catholics did not have access to the political boons offered up by the Constitution. At the time of the founding, many people distrusted Catholics, feared their ties to the Pope, and would not offer them places in their schools, businesses, nor the government. Even so, this discrimination was not perpetrated systemically by the government and by the measure of rights on paper, Catholics have been citizens since 1791.

The second measure of citizenship is met when a group is able to participate in society and reap the benefits of that participation. This is seen in access to schools, to hospitals, to community organizations, and to involvement in how oneself is governed. With regards to this measurement, Catholics find themselves in a very unique position. This is due to the fact that Catholics faced a great deal of discrimination and distrust from many Americans. In response to this Catholics created what I will term, parallel citizenship, by which I mean Catholics, being rejected from major social institutions, created for themselves their own institutions. They made hospitals, schools, and importantly they created or heavily participated in institutions that served as a place to connect to their community such as Unions or Settlement Houses. If we define citizenship as access to the benefits of living in a community and a society the flourishing of these groups allowed Catholics to reap the benefits of citizenship.

Images from left to right: Plumbers Union Hall, Haymarket Memorial, Union Park, and Hull House

This week I visited sites which helped to shed light on the importance of these institutions in creating community. I saw how active and vibrant and resilient the sorts of community fostered by this parallel citizenship can be. People were still using the facilities at Union Park to play. In the time since the turn of the century the importance of these institutions has declined, and neighborhoods have changed, for example the Plumber’s Union Hall is now surrounded by new, swanky apartments. Despite this change, the imposing physical presence of these places speaks to their past importance. Importantly, however, these institutions created by Catholics were still separate. Although they allowed Catholics to access the physical markers of citizenship they did not represent true access. Creating for yourself benefits because you are denied access to what others have might have the same physical result, that is having the benefit, it is not the same as getting equal access.

This interim period of parallel citizenship is further complicated by the fact that this sort of citizenship was only ever truly available to Irish Catholics. Given that they came first and in great numbers, the Irish were able to establish for themselves political machines in urban areas that helped give them access to politics and citizenship. This is seen even in the statue in Union Park which celebrates the work of Irish labor leader James Connolly.

As the reformer Emily Balch observed in 1910, “The newcomers encountering Irish policemen, Irish politicians, Irish bureaucrats, Irish saloon keepers, Irish contractors and Irish teachers, could be excused for thinking ‘Irish’ equaled ‘American.'”

(James R. Barrett, The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multiethnic City, (Penguin Press: 2012), pp. 2)

The history of Catholics is not only the history of the Irish and it is important to note that other Catholics following the Irish did not have such successes and were even denied access to some of the organizations made by those Irish Catholics. Although in this case, it is important to note that the objection of many Irish Catholics to new immigrants was not their religion but their country of origin. Therefore, although some Catholics were able to create for themselves the markers of citizenship this parallel citizenship was never truly available to all Catholics.

Despite the many roadblocks along the way, Catholics do reach full citizenship in every sense of the word. Today in the United States aggressive anti-Catholicism has been largely pushed out of the mainstream. This is not to say that there are not some people who hate Catholics, but they are largely on the fringes. After 1965, Vatican II, and the election of John F. Kennedy the question of Catholics as citizens is not one on the forefront of anyone’s mind.  This can be seen in the past presidential election when the candidates for vice president run by both major parties, Pence and Kaine, were Catholic. Even so, their faith was rarely talked about by pundits and even when it was, it was not in the context of disqualification from office but rather the context of how it might impact the way they would vote. Today people who are Catholic are certainly still discriminated against but, they are not often attacked on the basis of their Catholicism. This can be seen in the example of many immigrant Latino populations who are discriminated against not because they are Catholic but because they are immigrants.

Fundamentally the question of when Catholics are considered full citizens is wholly dependent on how one defines citizenship. If we look through the lens of legal rights Catholics have had citizenship since the foundation of the United States as discrimination on the basis of religion has always been outlawed. A second way to conceive of citizenship is to see it as accessing the benefits of society or the ability to enact one’s political will. Through this lens, we can see that Catholics were able to create for themselves an almost parallel citizenship around the turn of the century in that they created for themselves institutions that would provide those services. The third way to understand full participation in citizenship is to see it as being achieved when a group is not thought of as other and that identifiers are not used to deny access. This is achieved by American Catholics by the 1960s when to be Catholic was hardly a consideration in the minds of many Americans. It is clear, therefore, that the road to citizenship has been long and complex but today Catholics are on the whole accepted as full citizens within the United States.

Week 1: Introduction & How Catholics Vote

This post launches the beginning of an exploration into the unique place of Catholicism in American politics. I was initially drawn to this seminar as I wanted an opportunity to hone my research skills and dive in-depth into one topic. This year’s topic is particularly interesting to me as I think American Catholics have a very unique position in history. Growing up outside of Washington DC, I have always been in an environment chock full of politics; and although I did not grow up Catholic, I have been interested in the history of community and identity and the place that the Church can have in that. I am interested in continuing to explore the place that the Church has in helping people form their political identity.

When asked what issue matters most to a Catholic voter today my initial response was one I think many people would have, that is to say, the issue of abortion. The reason this issue comes immediately to mind is pretty clear, the issue of abortion is often in the news and the pro-life movement is spearheaded by Catholics. Another issue that comes to mind as a stereotypically “Catholic issue” is the issue of immigration. Given a large portion of American Catholics are, or have been immigrants this issue is really tied to many American Catholics. Overall I think one of the most “Catholic” issues is the idea of preservation of life and dignity. For Catholic voters, this goes beyond simply the “pro-life movement” as throughout American history, Catholics have focused effort on the promotion of life and dignity through initiatives like hospitals and schools. Although these days the Catholic focus is less on creating uniquely Catholic institutions as they are largely welcomed in mainstream institutions in a way they were not before, the focus on preserving life and dignity is unchanged.

Although life and dignity as a concept are certainly foundational issues to a Catholic American, more careful consideration throughout this first week has left me with a more measured view. That is to say, after hearing from my classmates and reading more on the topic of the “Catholic Vote” I have found myself less inclined to say that there even is a Catholic vote. Although Catholics are united in a faith tradition, I think it is important to recognize that they are not a homogeneous group. The experience of American Catholics ranges from Native American people to recent immigrants from Central and South America, to Irish and Italian immigrants who came over with industrialization, to Catholic families that have been in America from its founding. Among American Catholics, their religiosity is varied and their political affiliation goes across the spectrum from very conservative to extremely liberal. American Catholics may well be guided by an overarching ideology of respect for life, however, the way that that respect manifests is hugely variant. Catholic voters are certainly a large and important block, but they are not a block that is easily pigeonholed.