The Church has often found itself at odds with American society—or perhaps it is more accurate to say, American society has often found itself at odds with the Church. There is a long history of the Catholic faith being labeled “un-American” when its tenets run counter to the prevailing attitudes of the day. We seem to once again find ourselves in such a position. In recent years, the conflict has taken place on a variety of fronts: the fight of the Little Sisters of the Poor against the HHS’s contraceptive mandate; Catholic Charities being forced out of the adoption process in several states for its insistence on placing children in traditional family settings; and calls from some to strip away the tax-exempt status of churches and church-related entities that do not assent to the newly-found constitutional right to same-sex marriage as established in the Obergefell decision.
Though the election of Donald Trump to the presidency has provided cautious hope that the new federal administration will at least not be hostile to the Church, threats still exist at the state level. For example, this year California considered SB 1146, which would remove religious exemptions for Catholic colleges concerning issues like employment, student housing, admission and other decisions on the basis of gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation, threatening the ability of Catholic institutions to conduct themselves according to Catholic principles. In many places, the Catholic Church finds itself now very much on the defensive, subject to a “bloodless persecution,” as Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore termed it in an address at Divine Mercy University in May. This may seem odd in a time when the Vice-President, half of the Supreme Court, and the last three Speakers of the House have all been Catholics, but such events are only the latest in the long history of the Church’s struggle to maintain itself in America.
A legacy of anti-Catholicism
Catholicism has long been viewed with suspicion in a nation that has historically had a Protestant majority, and often that suspicion has turned to hostility. “An important component of Protestant American culture,” noted historian Lynn Dumenil in her 1991 article on “The Tribal Twenties” in the Journal of American Ethnic History, “anti-Catholicism played a significant role in the religious and ethnic conflict that shaped so much of local and state politics.” From the Know-Nothing Party, which was explicitly opposed to the Catholic Church and Catholic immigrants, to the infamous “No Irish Need Apply” signs in shop windows, Catholics in the U.S. have often faced systemic opposition. Dumenil notes that schools in particular became a target, as “parochial schools allegedly encouraged separatism and kept Catholics from becoming loyal Americans.” Would the teaching of Catholic children in parochial schools prevent them from being integrated and assimilated into American culture? Would they be able to become “good Americans” if they were not taught in public schools? Some Americans felt that this was the case and worked to cut out this “subversive” influence.
The 1922 Oregon Compulsory Education Act
One manifestation of these tensions came to a head in Oregon in 1922. The Oregon Compulsory Education Act (or Oregon School Law) was placed on the Oregon ballot “requiring any parent, guardian or other person having control, charge or custody of a child over eight and under sixteen years of age, from and after September 1, 1926, to send such child to a public school during the entire school year.” The bill was sponsored by the Grand Masonic Lodge and was supported by 1922 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Walter M. Pierce and the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK, at the time, had experienced a resurgence as a “patriotic” organization and boasted millions of members, including prominent public office holders, such as the governor of Indiana. Yet the Klan’s legacy of bigotry, including that against Catholics, remained, perhaps more a contributor to its popularity than a detriment in a time of mass Catholic immigration.
The public debate raged in the pages of The Oregonian and other local newspapers. One central point of contention was the true purpose of the proposed law. Opponents of the bill, particularly Catholic clergy—including Archbishop Alexander Christie—claimed that the aim of the bill was to eliminate religious institutions, particularly Catholic ones. Defenders of the bill denied this claim publicly, stating that their only goal was to preserve “the American institution of our public schools” or “our Anglo-Saxon heritage.” Some authors of letters to the editor, however, admitted that their support for the bill was rooted in a fear that parochial schools would supplant public schools, and that these parochial schools would have a foreign or anti-American element to them—loyal to Rome rather than to Washington. Whatever the claimed purposes of the bill’s supporters, the ballot measure was passed.
Catholics across the country were outraged, and the law was challenged in court. In 1925, the Supreme Court in Pierce vs. Society of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary struck down the law as unconstitutional. In his majority opinion, Justice James Clark McReynolds stated, “The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in the Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty to recognize and prepare him for additional obligation.” The responsibility of educating their children in the manner in which they see fit, said the court, is a natural “liberty” granted to parents under the Fourteenth Amendment. Pope Pius XI would reference and quote this decision in his 1929 encyclical Divini Illius Magistri on Christian education.
Our call to witness
As these new social standards harden into laws and legal precedents, Catholic schools may face increasing pressure to abandon the teaching of the faith to conform to the opinions of the times—to become “more American,” they might say. One could counter, however, that there is nothing more American than exercising the liberties granted in the Bill of Rights, the very first of which listed is the free exercise of religion. The Church must not bow to the pressure of potential social media blitzes and corporate boycotts. Our Lord calls us to be the salt of the earth; let us not lose our savor.
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