“Unwanted Papists” – Catholics and Citizenship

Anti-Catholic from 1870 (Catholic League)

“He then offered a sacrifice on the mountain and invited his kinsmen to share in the meal. When they had eaten, they passed the night on the mountain” – Genesis 31: 54

A refrain common throughout Catholic communities is that the faithful are part of the “Kingdom of God”. All Catholics can find solace by being members of the heavenly system, their citizenship under temporal powers has been slightly more fraught. To what extent have Catholics been American citizens? This is a complicated question that has many interconnected dimensions. I believe that many Catholic groups have not been treated as citizens throughout American history because they were at the center of three despised identities: religion, ethnic identity, and class. In contemporary America, a Catholic’s religious identity has become more accepted while their class and ethnic identity remains decisive.

Their religious identity as Roman Catholics prevented many of the faithful from being considered Catholic. One can look at the attitudes towards Catholics in the 18th century to understand that many American Protestants were afraid of Catholics’ perceived undying loyalty to the Pope. While this sentiment continued until the 20th century, the idea that Catholic belief inevitably led to Catholics to be unfaithful to American ideals of freedom and liberty was widespread throughout the original 13 colonies.

Throughout American history, newly arrived Catholics also happened to belong to unwanted ethnic groups. For example, James Barrett devoted sections of his book The Irish Way to the plight of the Irish when they arrived on American shores. Due to their identities as Irish, they were systematically kept out of systems of power in the United States. Italian immigrants have a vary similar story of people unwanted. These two groups also happened to be majority Catholic.

Statue of Irish Labor Leader James Connolly in Union Park (Own Photo)

The third identity that intersected with ethnic and religious identity is class. Throughout the 20th century, many Catholic immigrants were laborers who fought for their right to unionize. For example, James Connolly (1868-1916) was an Irish Catholic labor organizer that fought for Irish Catholic workers in Chicago. He is memorialized in Union park by a statue. In the American system, many Catholic workers were at the bottom of the proverbial totem pole in regards to power. Because of this, many Catholics were not treated as full citizens because they were tied to the whims of bosses and business. It is difficult to be treated as a citizen when your identity group does not hold power. Catholics were also abused during labor protests. Catholic workers were part of the infamous Haymarket riots. Throughout American history, Catholics typically were part of the class that was most abused and subsequently not treated as citizens.

Haymarket Memorial in Chicago (own photo)

While Catholics were historically not treated as citizens, I believe that the situation has slightly changed. I believe that discrimination against Catholics has mostly ceased on religious grounds, while certain Catholic groups’ ethnic and class identity remain a blockade. The United States government has and has had Catholic serving in its highest offices in the last few decades. Former vice-president Joe Biden and a majority of the Supreme Court are Catholic. Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016 was also a practicing Catholic. There are some isolated scenarios where a person’s Catholic identity is a problem. For example, Amy Barrett, who was one of the floated candidates for Anthony Kennedy’s vacant Supreme Court seat, was questioned on her Catholic faith’s role in her judicial decision making. These cases are uncommon, and practicing Catholics remain to be part of the American system.

Joe Biden meets Pope Francis (Catholic News Service)

While Catholicism as an isolated dimension does not prevent someone from being a citizen in modern America, there are ethnic and class groups that are predominately Catholic that are not treated as citizens. Latinos in the United States make up a large portion of the American Catholic population, and they often see themselves locked out of systems of power in the United States. They also are found working jobs with lower pay. I believe that in this scenario, it is the group’s class and ethnic identity that prevents them from being considered citizens rather than their religious affiliation.

To what extent have Catholics been American citizens? In summery, I believe that different groups of Catholics have not been treated as citizens. In Modern America, Catholicism has largely stopped been a factor in not considering someone as a citizen. While certain groups that are predominately Catholic continue to not be considered citizens, it is due to prejudice against their class and ethnic identity. Questions of citizenship and identity are not easy. A thorough reading of the historical record demonstrates that Catholic groups have faced challenges to be treated as citizens.


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