The Dynamic Catholic Other

The question posed to the Seminar this week is: to what extent do you think Catholics have been treated as full citizens, and if the treatment has changed throughout the history of America. Through our readings this week and the scavenger hunt activity we had to complete, I will argue that Catholics have, and continue to, not be treated as full citizens—predominately, the Catholic immigrant population and the Catholic union worker population. The first half of my post will explore the treatment of Catholic immigrants, followed by an exploration of Catholic union workers which stems from last week’s work on Catholics in unions.

During the American Founding, Catholics were viewed under a distrustful eye because of their connection to the Papacy. As Papal authority extended above civil law, the Protestant America foresaw Catholics going against the American government at the word of the Pope (Breidenbach, 468). Although there was a division in Catholicism regarding the Pope’s authority, many still viewed all Catholics supportive of temporal power. The side of Catholicism which advocated for a lesser authority of the Pope—conciliarism—has also been ignored in many histories of the American Founding (Breidenbach, 473). However, as scholars have made clear, the only way Catholics could effectively participate in politics and society was under a conciliarist view. Given this distrust in Catholics, there was a limited scope of their ability to participate as full citizens. The distrust of Catholics alluded to their ultimate status as an “other” in American society during the Founding.

The question of where a Catholic’s alliances stand still exists today—although in different regards. Considering Catholics are more likely to be immigrants or children of immigrants than other Americans, Catholics are still seen as an “other” in society. Also, the percentage of the American Catholics population who are Hispanic increased by 5% from 2007-2015 and continues to grow. The political relevance of immigration, especially from Mexico, puts a majority of US Catholics on a pedestal. Although scholars today claim the Catholics who received the brunt of the discrimination during the Founding to the early twentieth century lost their label of “other” after the 1960s (McCartin, 9), a new generation of Catholics is fighting for full citizenship in the eyes of America. Although other Catholic nationalities assimilated, Hispanic immigrant Catholics have become the new target for American discrimination. As we discussed in class, the discrimination against earlier Catholics dripped down onto the new group of Catholic immigrants today.

Regardless of the intersectional traits of American Catholics today, the American Catholics during the Founding to the early 1900s (i.e. Irish) still showed “racist, anti-Semitic, and other intolerant attitudes” (Barrett, 10). Although Catholic parties in American history has received countless amounts of discrimination, they were still able to be intolerant toward other minority groups. One could argue that Catholics in America today are receiving more discrimination than their ancestors because of a Hispanic Immigrant’s low power position in America. However, I also think earlier Catholic Americans were quick to ridicule others in support of their persistent effort to receive respectability and acceptance from the rest of America. As explored throughout Barrett’s The Irish Way, Irish Catholics “often embraced a hyperbolic brand of American patriotism, as if wrapping themselves in the flag might finally bring them acceptance” (Barrett, 7). The hyperbolic patriotism could have become a brand of hostile nationalism which infringed upon newer immigrants and “others.”

The “lace curtain class” of Irish Catholics in America also searched for the respectability from the rest of America. The intense need of Americans to feel accepted and respected within their community is also broadly seen in the Chicago Cultural Center. The Cultural Center was one of the options to visit during our class’s scavenger hunt assignment. I always thought the Cultural Center was beautiful, but I never paid attention to the history of the building. For years, the Chicago Cultural Center was a delivery space for the Chicago Public Libraries. As one of the greeting plaques advertise, the library “has served visitors in pursuit of inspiration, information, and enlightenment.” In many ways, this description is still relevant today—the building now holds many community offices, art exhibits, and information areas for pamphlets and information of what is happening in the city. The Cultural Center is a tourist attraction and meet-up point, but that was always the intent. The Cultural Center website even explains the splendor of the architecture was meant to show off to visitors that Chicago was a sophisticated American staple—“Come for the beauty, stay for the events.” The emphasis on appearances parallels the Irish Catholic’s “lace curtain” and the general desire of acceptance by the rest of America.

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Although immigration status is one of the big roadblocks in a Catholic’s road to full citizen participation, Catholics in unions also face restrictions on their political participation. Three out of the four scavenger hunt sites revolved around the discussion of labor unions last week. Union membership is another aspect to consider when discussing a Catholic’s societal citizenship in America given the restrictions and overall bad reputation put on unions.

Exploring Union Park, I could not help but enjoy the ample space and the fieldhouse to encourage communal activities. However, the neighborhood was eerily quiet and the only other people in the area were playing frisbee in the park. Perhaps this was because I visited on a Tuesday afternoon, but the emptiness of the park was still suspicious on a beautiful day. Unions and parks encourage communal events and family outings—so you would suspect Union Park to double that emphasis. Considering the location far out of downtown, public access to the park was restricted.

Another union site with restricted public access was the Haymarket Memorial. Although it was awkwardly positioned right at the side of the road, it close to impossible for a tourist to wander onto the memorial or Union Park without prior knowledge of the location. Union Park and the Haymarket Memorial give recognition to the unions, but also resist further recognition or encouragement in the eyes of the public.

Given the events which occurred during the Haymarket Riots, the random position of the memorial was less surprising. When I was at the memorial, there was only a middle-aged couple visiting too. The woman brought up how the commemorative plaque on the memorial called the rally organizers anarchists. With further reading, the plaques description of events was a bit inconsistent. Although it called the organizers of the event “anarchist activists,” the plaque then explained how none of the organizers could be tied to the bombing itself and endured an unfair trial. The contested legacy the Haymarket Riot put on unions continues in its own memorial dedicated to workers all over the world.


The commemorative plaque. Photo by me.

Perhaps with the Haymarket legacy in mind, the Plumbers Union Hall is right next door to the Fraternal Order of Police building. The police building provides a subconscious threat to the unions to thwart any other riots and strong activity. The ongoing “big brother is watching” mentality restricts the activity of the union members. The secluded locations and police presence at union sites take away the power from the unions. The limit of power on unions obstructs their ability to participate politically and socially in society as a full citizen. Therefore, considering the intersections of traits in Catholic Americans, the populations of Catholics in unions experience these restrictions.

Although not all Catholics experience the plights of a union member or an immigrant, a majority do. The discrimination and hardships in these groups restrict their ability to participate as a full citizen. Considering many Catholics congregate in unions and hold immigrant status, they feel these restrictions. Also, considering the historical distrust of Catholics in the American government, the precedent to limit a Catholic’s societal influence has existed since the Founding, regardless of the American Catholic’s persistent efforts to rid their status as an “other.”


Referenced Work:

Barrett, James R. “Introduction.” in The Irish Way, 1-12. New York: The Penguin Press, 2012.

Breidenbach, Michael D. “Conciliarism and the American Founding.” The William and Mary Quarterly 73, no. 3 (2016): 467-500.

McCartin, James P. “The Waning of the “Catholic Other” and Catholicism in American Life after 1965.” Revue Française D’études Américaines, no. 95 (2003): 7-29.




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