Catholic Church in America
The Catholic Church has, for two millenia, in keeping with the Incarnation, defended the dignity of all human beings. One example of this is the Papal Bull issued by Pope Paul III in 1537, Sublimus Dei, regarding the “enslavement and evangelization of Indians“.
The enemy of the human race, who opposes all good deeds in order to bring men to destruction, beholding and envying this, invented a means never before heard of, by which he might hinder the preaching of God’s word of Salvation to the people: he inspired his satellites who, to please him, have not hesitated to publish abroad that the Indians of the West and the South, and other people of whom We have recent knowledge should be treated as dumb brutes created for our service, pretending that they are incapable of receiving the Catholic Faith.
We, who, though unworthy, exercise on earth the power of our Lord and seek with all our might to bring those sheep of His flock who are outside into the fold committed to our charge, consider, however, that the Indians are truly men and that they are not only capable of understanding the Catholic Faith but, according to our information, they desire exceedingly to receive it. Desiring to provide ample remedy for these evils, We define and declare by these Our letters, or by any translation thereof signed by any notary public and sealed with the seal of any ecclesiastical dignitary, to which the same credit shall be given as to the originals, that, notwithstanding whatever may have been or may be said to the contrary, the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect.
This is an inconvenient truth for those who would have us believe that Christopher Columbus’ Catholicism had something to do with the mistreatment of Native Americans after the arrival of Europeans to North America. Indeed, though men may fail, the teachings of the Church never have, never do, and never will.
Just as the Church defended Native Americans 474 years ago this month (May 29, 1537), so today the Catholic Church continues to defend — through Her very clear teaching — the most vulnerable of all, the unborn child. Just as in the time of Sublimus Dei there were Catholics who protested the Church’s guidance, so today there are Catholics who deny the humanity and dignity of the innocent unborn child.
Most, if not all, Americans today understand the evil of slavery precisely because of the good work of Christendom, but most particularly the Catholic Church which stands as a visible beacon to the world. Satan devises his manner, but the Light continues to shine. So it is that I have hope that some day, Americans will look back upon this time as the brutal age of abortion, and Catholic politicians who did not stand against it will have the most shameful place of all in the annals of history.
The peaks of Notre Dame history are shrouded in the mists of war.
Father Hugh O’Donnell, President, Notre Dame-1941
I think it was in 1964 when I read my first book on the Civil War, The American Heritage Golden Book of the Civil War, and I immediately thereafter developed a life long passion for the subject. Over the intervening 47 years, I have read hundreds of books on the War. Truth to tell, more than a few of the books I have read on the Civil War have left me with a ho hum feeling, not telling me much that I haven’t read many, many times before. I am therefore always pleasantly surprised when a tome on the Late Unpleasantness can give me lots of new information, and such is the case with Notre Dame and the Civil War, by James M. Schmidt. Mr. Schmidt, knowing of my interest in US Catholic Chaplains in the military, was kind enough to send me a review copy, and I am glad that he did, as he has brought forth facts and new pieces of information about Notre Dame and the Civil War that I have not read elsewhere.
Many Protestant denominations in the country were ripped asunder North and South by the Civil War and the decades of turmoil leading up to it. Not so the Catholic Church in America. As a global Church, it was not unusual for Catholics to find themselves on different sides in civil wars or national conflicts, and there was never any threat to the unity of the Church in America. Individual Catholics fought bravely for both the Union and the Confederacy. The Catholics of Notre Dame, except for a few students from the South, were whole heartedly for the Union.
Even before the Civil War, as Mr. Schmidt brings out, Notre Dame students were preparing to fight. Two student military companies were organized in 1858, part of the craze for militia companies, well drilled, in fancy uniforms that swept the nation in the late Fifties. It was fun being a part time soldier: drills, nice uniforms, parades, pretty girls cheering on the side lines. Many of the students of course were soon to have first hand knowledge of darker aspects of military life.
Schmidt skillfully relates the fever to enlist in the Union army that swept through the students of Notre Dame after Fort Sumter. Along with their students, Notre Dame priests also served as chaplains. Most famous among them was of course Father William Corby, who marched and fought with the Irish Brigade and who gave them mass absolution on the second day at Gettysburg before they charged into battle. The book relates the adventures of Father Corby, but also relates the stories of other Notre Dame priests who served as chaplains, including Father Paul E. Gillen, Father James Dillon, Father Joseph C. Carrier and Father Peter P. Cooney, all of whom will be featured in posts in the future.
The Sisters of the Holy Cross of Notre Dame also got behind the war effort. Sixty of the Sisters would serve as nurses during the war. The role of Catholic Sisters as nurses in the Civil War is one of the great largely unsung stories of the War. Usually nursing Protestant soldiers, the Sisters, through their bravery, skill at nursing and simple charity and kindness, often turned fairly anti-Catholic men into friends of the Church and not a few converted to the Faith. Mr. Schmidt gives these heroic women their due.
I give an incredulous salute to the liberal Commonweal for publishing a magnificent column by Kenneth Woodward where he discusses the New York Times Magisterium:
No question, the Times’s worldview is secularist and secularizing, and as such it rivals the Catholic worldview. But that is not unusual with newspapers. What makes the Times unique—and what any Catholic bishop ought to understand—is that it is not just the nation’s self-appointed newspaper of record. It is, to paraphrase Chesterton, an institution with the soul of a church. And the church it most resembles in size, organization, internal culture, and international reach is the Roman Catholic Church.
Like the Church of Rome, the Times is a global organization. Even in these reduced economic times, the newspaper’s international network of news bureaus rivals the Vatican’s diplomatic corps. The difference is that Times bureau chiefs are better paid and, in most capitals, more influential. A report from a papal nuncio ends up in a Vatican dossier, but a report from a Times correspondent is published around the world, often with immediate repercussions. With the advent of the Internet, stories from the Times can become other outlets’ news in an ever-ramifying process of global cycling and recycling. That, of course, is exactly what happened with the Times piece on Fr. Murphy, the deceased Wisconsin child molester. The pope speaks twice a year urbi et orbi (to the city and to the world), but the Times does that every day.
Again like the Church of Rome, the Times exercises a powerful magisterium or teaching authority through its editorial board. There is no issue, local or global, on which these (usually anonymous) writers do not pronounce with a papal-like editorial “we.” Like the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the editorial board is there to defend received truth as well as advance the paper’s political, social, and cultural agendas. One can no more imagine a Times editorial opposing any form of abortion—to take just one of that magisterium’s articles of faith—than imagine a papal encyclical in favor.
The Times, of course, does not claim to speak infallibly in its judgments on current events. (Neither does the pope.) But to the truly orthodox believers in the Times, its editorials carry the burden of liberal holy writ. As the paper’s first and most acute public editor, Daniel Okrent, once put it, the editorial page is “so thoroughly saturated in liberal theology that when it occasionally strays from that point of view the shocked yelps from the left overwhelm even the ceaseless rumble of disapproval from the right.” Okrent’s now famous column was published in 2004 under the headline “Is the New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?” and I will cite Okrent more than once because he, too, reached repeatedly for religious metaphors to describe the ambient culture of the paper.
If were to ask you what some Catholic traditionalists and some radical leftists had in common, you might be left scratching your head for a few moments. On most matters you wouldn’t expect them to agree on much of anything. But there’s one issue they do tend to converge upon, and that is their take on American history.
When I read some Catholic trad descriptions of American history and Catholicism’s place in it, I find myself wondering if I’d accidentally picked up and began reading something by Charles Beard or Howard Zinn. I’m not associating these tendencies in order to delegitimize the Catholic trad critique – which contains, as do most critiques which catch on with at least some people, elements of truth. But the trad critique, in its shrillness and its refusal to engage historical facts that may falsify or at least cast reasonable doubt upon its substantive claims, deserves to be set alongside the vulgar leftist critique of American history. And bear in mind, I say this as a Catholic trad myself, albeit one who is more of a romanticist than a true reactionary.
I also say it as someone who once bought into this whole idea. As a young man emerging from a long and involved commitment to Marxism, both academic and political, into Catholicism, a religion I had little to do with since the age of 13, I had sort of stumbled upon this narrative on my own. There was still something romantic and alluring about rejecting “Americanism”, now from a Catholic perspective.
After all, the two critiques often make use of a lot of the same themes – a rejection of individualism, of bourgeois Protestant values, a savage critique of the Enlightenment, invocations of slavery and other manifestations of racism and inequality, and perhaps more specific to the Catholic angle, reminders of Freemasonry and the Illuminati (though to be fair, Mozart was a Freemason too, back in the days when it wasn’t yet forbidden by the Church. I don’t think that’s ever stopped a trad from enjoying his Requiem, but I digress).
Now, given the popularity of this critique, not only among trads, but also among the Catholic left, the “peace and justice” crowd – of course, for much different reasons and to much different ends – one would surely expect to find a solid foundation or at least an implied resonance within Church history, tradition, and teaching.
If you hold that expectation, prepare to be utterly disappointed. Or delighted, as the case may be.