American Anti-Catholicism and the Confessional

A brief history of the anti-Catholic rhetoric deployed in the US against the sacrament of Confession.

The highest tides of anti-Catholic feeling in this country occurred in the 19th century.  The standard explanation for this simply points to Protestant fears that the waves of Catholic immigrants, especially from Ireland, would take their jobs away.

Anti-Catholicism, as this explanation goes, was rooted in the Protestant fear that the “trying of swords” between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism which had reshaped European history was moving to the continent of North America, and that the Protestant United States was not only being outflanked and encircled by Catholic Latin America and French Canada, but that the US was itself being undone from within by Catholic immigrants, who were simply waiting until they could impose their anti-American views on the country by their hive-mind bloc voting, controlled by “priest police.”  The most well-known exponent of this view of the Catholic Menace was inventor and painter Samuel F. B. Morse, who in 1835 wrote and published Foreign Conspiracy against the Liberties of the United States.

But there was certainly another aspect of the antipathy to Catholics: they were thought to be essentially alien in the sense of un-American, that is, they could not or would not be assimilated to basic American principles of freedom and the common good.  Some of this came out into the open during the battles over the public schools and parochial schools—and Catholics today may still have some lingering sense of that—but the other place this particular anti-Catholic rhetoric was deployed was in attacks on the Catholics’ sacrament of Confession.

Catholic apologist James Chancy wrote in 1888, “By far the bitterest attacks of the Protestants have been directed against the Confessional.  They merely scoff at the other sacraments of the Church, but of the Sacrament of Penance their condemnation is strong, their hate deep, bitter, and lasting.”

Why was their antagonism focused most especially on Confession?  Chancy continued, “Instinctively they feel this is one of the greatest powers the Church wields to preserve its members from the contamination of the world, the continuance of the indulgence of passion, and the taint of heresy.”  Unsurprisingly, this was not what non-Catholics offered as their reason for opposing it so strongly.  Confession, to them, was the very sink of iniquity and foremost danger to the republic.  Today’s Catholic surely would be surprised to learn this.  Or to learn that two ex-Catholic priests carried the banners in the crusade against Confession.

William Hogan: A tare among the wheat

william hogan

William Hogan, a young Irish priest who had left Ireland under some kind of cloud for “indiscretions,” arrived in America around 1810 and through almost accidental circumstances found himself placed as an assistant in the cathedral seat of Philadelphia, St. Mary’s.  He was quite popular with a portion of the congregation, but resisted the discipline of his bishop, Henry Conwell. He finally entrenched himself in the church, while relying on his supporters, as trustees, to exclude the bishop, leading to years of open warfare in the parish and the bishop’s moving the cathedra elsewhere, and to Hogan’s excommunication in 1821.  When challenged in the courts, his supporters argued that there was a “danger of a foreign head of an American church” and that their takeover of St. Mary’s signaled the establishment of an independent American Catholic Church.  The courts decided against them, and eventually Hogan was forced to abandon his place in Philadelphia.  His own behavior—his open relationships with women and his drinking—finally left him with few, if any, supporters in the schismatic congregation.

It is interesting, given Hogan’s later career, that during his time in Philadelphia he had taken it upon himself to revise, for his congregation, James Butler’s standard Catechism’s chapter on confession.

That catechism had this:  “Q. Will perfect contrition reconcile us to God when we cannot go to confession?  A. Yes; and it is the only means we have to recover God’s friendship when we cannot go to confession.”  And Hogan added the words, “There is no actual remedy for mortal sins but perfect contrition,” which seemed to obviate the need for sacramental Confession altogether.

If Hogan could not be King of American Catholicism, evidently, he decided to consign Catholicism to Hell.  He shipped south to Wilmington, North Carolina, where he married a rich widow, who died a couple of years later, and then another rich widow.  His anti-Catholic writing and preaching in Protestant churches endeared him to other anti-Catholics and his connections in the South enabled him to be appointed President Tyler’s ambassador to Cuba.  Tyler was working on annexing Texas, and Hogan was assigned to travel to Santo Domingo, and scout out the possibility of repeating the Texas events there—a declaration of independence, followed by a petition for annexation to the US.

That mission was opposed, even within the United States.  At the end of his posting to Cuba, he settled in Boston and wrote anti-Catholic diatribes for the Boston Atlas.  While there, this “Champion of American Freedom,” as his editor called him, in 1845 wrote, among his other anti-Catholic works, Auricular Confession and Popish Nunneries.

jules michelet

Its publication coincided with that of the translation of Jules Michelet’s Spiritual Direction and Auricular Confession: Their History, Theory, and Consequence (Du prêtre, de la femme, et de la famille), which was, as one critic has called it, “a mixture of sentimentalism, communism, and anti-sacerdotalism, supported by the most eccentric arguments, but urged with a great deal of eloquence.”  The French anti-clerical and anti-Catholic Michelet had published his screed in an atmosphere in France that was already being shadowed over by the coming revolutionary events of 1848, and especially by anti-Jesuit hysteria.  The gist of Michelet’s book—and of Hogan’s following—was encapsulated well in a letter from a pseudonymous “John Huss,” explaining the “Methods of the Romish Church” to the readers of the Zion’s Herald and Wesleyan Journal in Boston in 1866 (this portrait of the Church would live for decades among Protestants).

First, there was the confessional’s pollution of female innocence:

Of the power of this instrumentality, Protestants have but little conception; think for a moment what a sway it must acquire over the mind of a virtuous wife and mother, to compel her to listen patiently, and answer unreservedly to the most indelicate and even obscene questions.

Second, there was an undermining of the marital institution by the replacement of the father’s and husband’s authority over the females in his family with that of the priest:

My design in referring to this is merely to show the despotic control exercised by this means, which steps in between the most sacred ties of earth, and makes the confessor a closer confidante and more intimate friend than even the husband.  This is a living, breathing fact, in Protestant America, in this nineteenth century!

Related to this, there was priests’ control over the population accomplished by their sharing of confessional secrets and by the blackmail it made possible:

Nor is this power permitted to lie inert, but by its exercise is poured into the treasure-house of the church a rich fund of the most useful information, which is carefully classified, systematized, and used, as occasion may require; while the tools from whom it has been gathered are instructed in the course to be pursued from the information they have themselves imparted, catechized on their return as to their success, and thus the stream of information is kept continually flowing, while the poor dupes innocently believe it to be the zealous care of the confessor for their spiritual welfare which prompts him to manifest so deep and interest in everything which concerns them.  The extent of the information thus acquired is almost incredible, and when couple with that gleaned by the indefatigable exertions of the Jesuits, makes the Romish Church the best informed in worldly knowledge of any organization on earth, and gives them an advantage in laying schemes and carrying them out not enjoyed by any other.

Then there was outright solicitation by the priests in the confessional of sexual favors from female penitents.  The issue was aroused by the Protestant conviction that celibacy itself was unnatural: either it was a fraud and in fact merely hid illicit sex by so-called “celibates” or it actually fostered their sexual urges being played out in unnatural channels, such as with women with whom they were not married.

And, closely related to this, there was entrapment of young women by their confessors.  This played on the already-hoary tales in Gothic novels of innocent girls kept captive in convents for the “use” of priests, such as in Ann Ward Radcliffe’s 1797 The Italian; or, The Confessional of the Black Penitents, or the ludicrous 1835 “testimony” of Rebecca Reed, Six Months in a Convent, which led to the burning of the Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts, or the even more hysterical 1836 Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, abetted and published by the notoriously anti-Catholic Harper brothers.

“If I can satisfy Americans,” wrote Hogan in his book, “that Auricular Confession is dangerous to their liberties; if I can show them that it is the source and fountain of many, if not all, those treasons, debaucheries, and other evils, which are now flooding this country, I shall feel that I have done an acceptable work, and some service to the State.”

Why would an ex-priest write up Confession as “a man-trap, or rather woman-trap”?  Why would he call it “one of the most ingenious devices ever invented by the great enemy of man, for the destruction of the human soul”?  His opponents could not help but remember that the events that ultimately resulted in his excommunication by his bishop in Philadelphia began when Hogan resisted the bishop’s efforts to rein him in, as Hogan asserted his right to set up his own living quarters that would allow him to conduct his “lively” relationships with his parishioners, females included.  There was certainly clear evidence of his philandering.  How then is one to read Hogan’s Auricular Confession except as his own fabulistic and torturous confession of sins, displaced onto the Church as a whole, the Church that had disowned him?  The result of a kind of Catholic Derangement Syndrome?

To the third generation

Hogan died in 1848 of tuberculosis.  One of his main supporters—a “Hoganite”—in the schism at St. Mary’s Church had been Mathew Carey, an Irish political exile to America (due to his anti-British writings).  Carey was a Philadelphia bookseller and printer, and acquaintance of Franklin, Washington, and Jefferson.  His place as a leader of those at St. Mary’s who supported Hogan and opposed their bishop is probably attributable in part to his republican enthusiasm.  His opposition to the British monarchy seems to have extended in his own mind to opposing any sort of European “foreign potentate,” including the pope.  His son Henry C. Carey was an economist motivated especially by his desire for American independence from foreign (that is, British) economic domination, and so was a solid proponent of protectionist tariffs.

In the next generation, Mathew Carey’s grandson was Henry Charles Lea, a progressive reformer and scholarly historian of Europe, and a president of the American Historical Society.  In 1892, he wrote A History of Auricular Confession and Indulgences in the Latin Church.  Although Lea claimed objectivity, he was largely in the business of drawing up an historical indictment of monarchical Catholic Europe, including, of course, the Spanish Inquisition.  He was in constant contact with Protestant organizations that were actively anti-Catholic, and intensely promoted Protestant “Americanizing” plans, especially by converting Catholics to Protestantism and by restricting immigration.  His collected papers contain letters he saved from people who had been converted from Catholicism through his works.

The bias of his work on Confession shows through in his selection of some facts, his neglect of others, and his judgment of the relative importance of the facts he brings forward, suggesting that Confession was not practiced in the earliest Church but was a later development.  He had already written An Historical Sketch of Sacerdotal Celibacy in the Christian Church, in which he had continued Michelet’s tales of priestly concubines, and, like Michelet, believed that one-on-one “auricular confession” was the primary instrument by which priests entrapped women.

Charles Chiniquy:  A wolf among the sheep

Charles Chiniquy

The career of Charles Chiniquy (1809-1899) was very similar to that of William Hogan.  A Canadian priest who was a popular preacher throughout Canada and the United States on the subject of Temperance, Chiniquy nevertheless ran into repeated problems in his various posts due to his untoward predilection for young women and his refusal to submit to restraint or discipline by his bishops in the face of irrefutable evidence of his misdeeds.  He left the Church in 1858, and found a market for his preaching skills among Protestants, who he regaled with “insider” stories of the Catholic Church.

He eventually became a Presbyterian minister and continued his attacks against Catholics from the pulpit and elsewhere, especially dwelling on prurient details of the supposed corruption of the confessional.  These culminated in his 1875 book, The Priest, the Woman, and the Confessional, which received extravagant praise and recommendation from the Protestant press, and which repeated and expanded canards along the lines of William Hogan’s earlier work.  He followed this years later with Fifty Years in the Church of Rome, in which he tried to justify his leaving Catholicism as an act of courage against the scandals he found in the Church.

Catholics pointed out that, like Hogan, Chiniquy had written—two decades after leaving the Church—about the “scandals” he encountered even before he entered the seminary, but not only did he never say anything about them at the time, but he happily made his way to ordination and administered the supposedly abominable sacrament of Confession for his entire career as a priest, meanwhile endeavoring, not to leave the priesthood, but to procure an important position in the Church, until being frustrated in his attempts.

But even aside from that, unlike Protestants, Catholics well understood what actually went on in the confessional, and, plainly speaking, neither Hogan’s nor Chiniquy’s tales had any correspondence to their own experience of the sacrament.  Nevertheless, both Hogan’s and Chiniquy’s “testimonies” found a large market among Protestants, for whom the books merely confirmed and inflamed their worst suspicions.  As a Google search easily confirms, the books continue to be cited and used by some: Jack Chick, for example, is apparently a fan and took the trouble to issue a comic-book version of Chiniquy’s Fifty Years in the Church of Rome.

The patriotism of Protestant America

Aside from the ludicrous tales of widespread priestly immorality in the confessional, the other point of attack on the sacrament of Confession was essentially a variation on the oldest Protestant objection to confessing one’s sins to a priest: it appears to place a mediator—the priest—between God and man, when in fact, the forgiveness (or not) of man’s sins is accomplished only by God and occurs, as one might say, in the secret workings within a man’s heart, not through any sacramental action.  A priesthood, therefore, is presumed to be unnecessary.  On that assumption, a Protestant looks for some other possible (and probably suspicious) motivation for Confession.  The most often cited was a conspiracy of priests, under the control of Rome, exercising their own control, in turn, over their deluded congregations.

Protestants often expressed the belief that Confession allowed Catholics to lie and commit perjury and other sins unreservedly, because they knew that absolution was right around the corner in the confessional.  The Catholic believed, they said, “that five minutes of auricular confession, and a shilling’s worth of absolution from his priest, will restore him at once to the favor of the Almighty, and make him again every whit a saint.”  Because of this, how could a society trust Catholic testimony in a court of law?  Along with this, the seal of confession was argued to allow the confessor to circumvent or ignore the civil authority’s duty to investigate criminal acts (which might have been confessed).  The confessional, therefore, was a challenge to the civil society because it lay outside its jurisdiction—or at least its power of surveillance.

Many Protestants considered the Enlightenment to have been a continuation of the Reformation, especially in its fundamental political focus on individual rights and freedoms and its cherishing of “light” and “openness” and “transparency.”  And it was undeniable that Enlightenment ideas lay at the foundation of American society. A distrust of secret societies (ironically, the Freemasons and other secret societies had been peculiarly active in Europe in effecting Revolutionary “freedoms”) easily stretched to include the Catholic Church, and especially to Confession.

Confession, Protestants argued, was subversive of human freedom and was therefore a threat to the American republican form of government, setting up a secret network of authority bound to a foreign power within the free and open society of the United States, whose democratic principles depended on the exercise of the Protestant axiom of “private judgment,” which depended (in theory at least) on free and unobstructed inquiry.  Could Catholics ever be trusted to exercise their own judgment, and therefore act as full citizens and patriots, or were they just closeted and mindless instruments of ecclesiastical conspiracies and priestly domination?  Where were their loyalties?

This line of argument against Confession as “unpatriotic” was present in America, but extended to Britain as well.  There, as here, its greatest intensity coincided with a struggle in the Anglican and Episcopal churches over an Oxford-Movement inspired effort by some churchmen, led by Edward Pusey. It started in earnest around 1845, with a sermon Pusey gave, “The Power of the Keys” (the power of knowledge and the power to loose and retain), arguing for the re-institution of “auricular confession,” which horrified anti-Papists, who filled the press with the most lurid stories about priestly infamy and plots against the State.

And today

Now, well over a century after Chancy wrote of the Protestant attacks on the confessional, matters are quite different. With few exceptions, there is little public sentiment focused against the sacrament or interest in prying into it to monitor “crime.” This, in part, is because Protestants in general no longer form any kind of united front, demographically or doctrinally, against Catholics. But it is also because so many Catholics no longer frequent the confessional, but instead prefer to talk in vaguely Protestant terms about confessing their sins directly to God and about being “spiritual” but not “religious.”  

But it is not impossible to imagine, given the notion now enforced by civil law that abortion is “healthcare” and homosexual behavior is a morally neutral “lifestyle choice,” that the Church or individual priests might someday soon be sued for psychological damage or “hate speech” for identifying abortion and homosexual acts as sinful and contrary to both reason and sound morality. Ask our fellow Catholics and Orthodox who lived in the Soviet bloc how easily this sort of thing was done, or how priests themselves were suborned under great pressure to pass on information, not to Rome, but to the State security bureaus.  

Whatever the future holds, let us hope that the confessional will stand appreciated anew and revealed, not as a place where one’s secrets are placed under surveillance by the unworthy (as the criticism of the 19th century made it out to be), but rather as a cleansing refuge in which the sinner “looks squarely at the sins he is guilty of, takes responsibility for them, and thereby opens himself again to God and to the communion of the Church in order to make a new future possible” (CCC 1455).

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About John B. Buescher 14 Articles
John B. Buescher received his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Virginia. From 1991 to 2007 he was the head of the Voice of America's Tibetan Broadcast Service. His books include The Other Side of Salvation: Spiritualism in the Nineteenth-Century Religious Experience (Skinner House Books, 2004), The Remarkable Life of John Murray Spear: Agitator for the Spirit Land (University of Notre Dame Press, 2006), and The President's Medium: John Conklin, Abraham Lincoln, and the Emancipation Proclamation (Richard W. Couper Press, 2019).