Teaching catechism in San Antonio, Texas, 1954 (The American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives (ACUA), the Catholic University of America, Washington, DC)

By all rights, American Catholics should be in a celebratory mood. The nation’s second Catholic president was inaugurated in January, a majority of Supreme Court justices are Catholic, and Catholics hold more seats in the new Congress than any other Christian denomination. But a distinct lack of jubilation has met such unprecedented political prominence. Instead, it’s only underscored how deeply fractured Catholics are in the United States. 

Many Catholics—who today make up approximately one-fifth of all Americans—are bitterly divided from one another by politics, views on morality, and culture. These divisions are often accompanied by a growing intolerance. In almost any local community across the country, it’s possible to find opposing groups of Catholics who do not just disagree with each other but condemn each other’s politics and practices: Catholic Democrats and Catholic Republicans; traditionalist Catholics who seek out Latin Masses and progressive Catholics who prefer to hear homilies about social justice; Catholics who adore Pope Francis and Catholics who see him as the anti-Christ; Catholics who are pro-life and Catholics who are pro-choice; the list goes on. It is much easier to foresee further division and decline, and even the growth of new schismatic movements, than it is to imagine a more unified future for American Catholics. 

Perhaps U.S. Catholic history can provide perspective and hope for the present moment. For the past five centuries, Catholic communities in the land that is now the United States have been extraordinarily diverse in origin, experience, and outlook. In her masterly and highly detailed recent book, American Catholics: A History, Leslie Woodcock Tentler offers a sweeping survey of Catholicism in the United States, and, ultimately, finds strength in this diversity. 

An eminent historian of twentieth-century Catholic history, Tentler’s previous works have focused on U.S. Catholics and contraception and the history of the Church in Detroit. (Full disclosure: she is also an emerita colleague of mine at the Catholic University of America.) Her latest book proceeds chronologically over fourteen chapters that are interspersed with five biographical vignettes of notable American Catholics, and her narrative begins with the three very different groups of Catholics who initially arrived in the territory that is now the United States. 

The first of these were the Spanish soldiers, settlers, and missionaries who came to the East Coast and the Southwest and built a string of missions in California, New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona, where they converted indigenous people—often with violence and under duress—and instilled popular devotions to the Virgin of Guadalupe. The French, who settled in the upper Midwest, followed shortly thereafter. While the population of French Catholic settlers was very small, Tentler argues that their experience had an enduring impact on subsequent generations of Midwestern Catholics, who venerated French martyrs and converts such as Kateri (Catherine) Tekakwitha. 

For the past five centuries, Catholic communities in the land that is now the United States have been extraordinarily diverse in origin, experience, and outlook.

It is gratifying that Tentler narrates the history and legacies of the Spanish and the French, because for so long U.S. Catholic historians paid far less attention to them than to the third group of colonial arrivals: English and Scottish Catholics who arrived in Maryland in 1634 on the Ark and the Dove and established the colony as a destination for Catholic settlers. Eventually, Catholic communities in Baltimore and the Eastern Shore, though small, nevertheless achieved political power through families such as the Carrolls, who produced a signer of the Declaration of Independence as well as the first U.S. bishop. 

During the nineteenth century, the country’s borders expanded westward, eventually incorporating these diverse Catholic populations—along with indigenous converts and enslaved Black Catholics—within the territorial boundaries of the same nation. Tentler’s narrative of this century is perhaps the most compelling of the book. She describes an extraordinarily heterogeneous Catholic population who managed to practice their faith despite enormous challenges. Catholics on the frontier suffered from a chronic lack of clergy, and those clergy who were brave, rugged, or unlucky enough to work in the hinterlands needed to have prodigious linguistic skills (Frederic Baraga, first bishop of the Diocese of Marquette in Michigan, spoke seven languages); be as hardy as possible (the frontier priest was characterized by his “coarsened hands, weathered complexion, and often rather shabby garments”); and accept the reality that frontier Catholics had only “limited exposure to communal devotions.”

During this period, the Church’s diversity became ever more pronounced. New waves of German and Irish Catholics arrived in the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century, giving “a hitherto marginal church...a startling new visibility.” By the 1850s, the Catholic Church had become the single largest denomination in the United States, but its size and rapid growth also attracted hostility: anti-Catholic propaganda circulated widely, and tended to fixate on lurid tales of sexually corrupt priests and ravished nuns—as with the 1836 “runaway best seller,” Awful Disclosures by Maria Monk of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal. Nativist political movements, such as the American Party and, later, the Know Nothings, also flourished. 

Most of this migration was urban, and as a result the Church grew rapidly and impressively in urban centers. By and large, the hierarchy focused on establishing and strengthening Catholic institutions, especially through the construction of new, flamboyant, and imposing churches (St. Patrick’s Cathedral was built during this period), as well as the building of hospitals, orphanages, and schools. The labor of female religious, who worked as teachers, child-care workers, and nurses, would sustain all of these burgeoning new institutions well into the mid-twentieth century. (Throughout the book, Tentler consistently acknowledges the incredible contributions of Catholic women, underscoring their essential—and too often underappreciated—role in building and strengthening the American Church.)

This growth was interrupted by the Civil War, in which U.S. Catholics played an ambivalent, and often inglorious, role. Despite the fact that Pope Gregory XVI had condemned the slave trade in 1838, there were no prominent Catholics in the United States who were public advocates of emancipation. Instead, Tentler writes, “Catholic thinking on slavery...was rooted not only in tradition...but also in anxiety over liberal individualism.” Most southern Catholics—and several southern bishops—backed the Confederate cause. In the north, Catholics were underrepresented in the Union Army, and the famous Draft Riots of 1863 saw Irish rioters burning local draft offices and attacking Black New Yorkers in a disgraceful spate of lynchings, property destruction, and the torching of the Colored Orphan Asylum. 


Given this history, it is not surprising that Black Catholics experienced racism, segregation, and exclusion both before and after the Civil War. Tentler describes how Black Catholics were barred from the vast majority of white religious orders. Black Catholic nuns were able to establish only two orders by mid-century, and Black priests were similarly rare. Ultimately, Tentler claims, Black Catholics “remained a small and generally segregated minority in the American church until at least the 1950s, when white Catholics began—slowly, hesitantly, and often incompletely—to embrace the liberationist implications of a now-distant Civil War.” Here, readers might find themselves wishing for a fuller investigation of the history of Black Catholicism in the United States, rather than the overview that Tentler provides. This may be a reflection of the fact that many Catholic archives have only recently begun to make public their materials on Black Catholic history in the United States. A new generation of scholars, such as Shannen Dee Williams, are currently investigating this fascinating and important area of research.

While Black Catholics saw only incremental change during the latter half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the rest of the U.S. Catholic population grew remarkably fast. A massive influx of new immigrants from Europe helped double the number of American Catholics between 1884 and 1914, and administrative and institutional expansion continued apace as forty-six new dioceses were created between 1880 and 1904. Tentler describes how the new immigrants of this period indelibly influenced the culture and devotional practices of the Church in the United States. Italian Catholics brought their saints and rituals with them, such as the annual festa; Poles were “prodigious church builders” who fused religion and nationalism (and whose parish disputes led to the only schismatic Church in U.S. history, the Polish National Catholic Church); and new Irish, German, and Eastern-European Catholic immigrants infused their communities with the practices, traditions, and languages of their homelands. 

By the early twentieth century, the massive immigration of Catholic Europeans came to an end, due to restrictive immigration laws enacted by nativist legislators in the 1920s. (A small but significant group of Mexican Catholics did continue to immigrate to the U.S. Southwest and Midwest throughout the 1920s, but Spanish-speaking Catholics remained an underserved minority until after the first half of the twentieth century.) Still, the Catholic population continued to grow rapidly as the Catholic birth rate boomed. By mid-century, parish life was vibrant, with devotional societies and Catholic social groups thriving across the country. It was, famously, “an era of Catholic flourishing.” 

Despite the troubles of the recent past, Tentler finds reason to be hopeful about the future.

Yet, as Tentler points out, this era also contained the seeds of what would become enduring political divisions. Large numbers of Catholics supported the candidacy of Al Smith, Roosevelt’s New Deal, and the labor movement. At the same time, Fr. Charles Coughlin attracted many Catholics to his national radio program, in which he descended into “overt anti-Semitism and fascist apologetics.” And while Catholics served in great numbers during World War II, their strong anti-Communism also occasionally fostered sympathy for fascist leaders abroad. Then, during the 1960s, a series of startling changes rocked Catholic communities across the United States, due in large part—but not completely—to the conciliar reforms of Vatican II. Weekly mass attendance declined significantly, religious vocations collapsed, and Catholic-school enrollments fell. Catholics also began making their own decisions regarding the morality of premarital sex and birth control, despite the dictates of Humane vitae

The history of the past fifty years, which Tentler narrates deftly, will be familiar to many readers. In the wake of Roe v. Wade, Catholics became even more politically polarized, perhaps irreversibly. The election of Pope John Paul II, who was widely popular among Catholics and non-Catholics alike, nevertheless consolidated these political divides. And both his tenure as well as that of his successor, Benedict XVI, were marred by the ongoing sex-abuse crisis within the Church. Financial troubles and a spate of parish closings—tragic for long-standing Catholic communities as well as for new immigrants who had found havens in underpopulated urban churches—marked the first two decades of the twenty-first century.  


Despite the troubles of the recent past, Tentler finds reason to be hopeful about the future. She points out that immigrants from Latin America now make up the most important source of Catholic population growth, and have “shifted the center of Catholic geographic gravity” to California and the Southwest. Tentler also notes that the election of Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope—with his emphasis on the humane treatment of immigrants and the poor—signaled a new way forward for the U.S. Church. 

In a book that adroitly covers the astounding breadth of Catholic demography, culture, devotional life, institutional growth, and intellectual life, it is natural that some topics are given less attention than others. Still, I wish that Tentler had devoted more space to describing the phenomenal growth and heterogeneous character of the Spanish-speaking Catholic population. Mexican Catholic immigrants in Los Angeles have had a very different historical experience than Puerto Ricans in New York or Cubans in Miami, and they are not always unified by the fact that they speak the same language. It would be wise for their fellow American Catholics to get to know this population a bit better. Despite being the most important source of growth for the U.S. Catholic Church, young Latino Catholics are also leaving the faith in numbers that should be setting off alarm bells in U.S. Catholic leaders; perhaps one reason it’s not is that Latino Catholics are severely underrepresented in the Church hierarchy and clergy. 

Nevertheless, like Tentler, I too find hope in the most recent waves of Catholic immigrants from Latin America, Asia, and Africa, who have revitalized—and globalized—Catholic parishes, particularly in urban areas. The history that Tentler relates in American Catholics is one of continuous change, adaptation, and renewal, and there is reason to believe that current political divides may be overcome as the newest and most diverse generation of Catholics inherits the leadership of the American Church. For now, the experience of immigrant parishes provides Tentler—and many others—with a sense of cautious optimism for the future. She closes her book with an evocative anecdote about her visit to Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in Los Angeles, where Mass is said every Sunday in forty-two languages. “That Sunday Mass at the cathedral spoke the language of hope,” Tentler says, “hope for the nation, hope for immigrant peoples, hope for the church.” 

American Catholics
A History

Leslie Woodcock Tentler
Yale University Press
$30 | 416 pp. 

Julia G. Young is associate professor of history and director of undergraduate studies at the Catholic University of America. 

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Published in the May 2021 issue: View Contents
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