In 1865, the Missouri State Legislature required anyone who wanted to hold public office, teach in schools, or minister in a church to take an oath swearing that they had in no way helped the Confederate cause. They called it “the Iron Clad Oath,” for it effectively banned people who had so much as put a bandage on a wounded Confederate soldier from serving the public.Archbishop Peter Kenrick
When St. Louis’ Archbishop Peter Kenrick got wind of the new law, he knew his priests couldn’t take the oath. Missouri’s priests had fed, clothed, housed, and prayed for Union and Confederate soldiers alike. They’d tended both armies’ wounded and served both armies as chaplains. They’d done what men of God were supposed to do, and Kenrick wasn’t going to have them lie under oath and say they hadn’t.
More fundamentally, Kenrick knew it was none of the Missouri Legislature’s business who served in his parishes. They didn’t get to decide who could and couldn’t be a priest. That was his job.
So, Kenrick ordered his priests not to take the oath and fought the law. Priests in Missouri went to jail. The State made endless threats against the archbishop. But Kenrick fought nonetheless, right up to the Supreme Court. And he won. He stood his ground, risked everything, and won
In 1826, New York Irish Catholics got the idea that they could push their new bishop, John DuBois, around. DuBois was a good and holy man, beloved by all at the seminary he founded, Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg. But DuBois was also French. And the Irish didn’t like the French. The Irish liked the Irish. The only bishops they’d ever known—in Ireland or New York—were Irishmen, and they were not about to be shepherded by a Frog. So, they rebelledBishop John DuBois
First, they fired the teachers he hired for their schools. Then, they refused to pay the priests he sent to their parishes
Finally, they refused to pay him.
DuBois was kind. DuBoise was reasonable. But DuBois also didn’t bend.
“I am old man and don’t need much,” he told them. “I can live in a basement or a garret. But whether I come up from the basement or down from the garret, I will still be your bishop.”
And so he was, until his death in 1842.
And one more:
In May 1844, Catholic Philadelphia was on fire. A rowdy group of anti-Catholics—history calls them Nativists—had set fire to Catholic parishes and homes, as well as a school and convent. Flush with success, the Philadelphia Nativists set their sights on even bigger prey: the Diocese of New York.Archbishop John Hughes
In partnership with New York’s own Nativists, the Philadelphia rioters planned to come north, march through the city, and set the Big Apple’s parishes alight. The stage was set for a wild night, when New York’s bishop, John Hughes, got wind of the plan.
No sooner did he learn what was afoot, then did Hughes issue a call for every Catholic man in the city to take up arms and surround their parishes. He then informed New York’s mayor (himself a Nativist sympathizer), that if so much as a spark approached one of his churches, “the city would become another Moscow.” Meaning, Hughes would imitate the Russians, who a few years back had burned Moscow to the ground rather than see it fall into French hands.
The Nativists got the message. The march on New York was cancelled and not a church burned in the city that May.
The Moral of the Stories?
Sheep need shepherds. Soldiers need generals. And Catholics need bishops—strong bishops, bold bishops, bishops who don’t hesitate to look evil in the eye and tell it exactly where it can go.
As these stories and others recounted in The American Catholic Almanac (co-authored by CV President Brian Burch and me) show us, the Church in America is in America today because of bishops like Kenrick, DuBois, and Hughes. Without their courage, Catholics would have been run out of this country long ago, and without their tenacity, faithful Catholics would have been silenced and marginalized. Those bishops fought ignorance, within and without the Church, and because of their fight, Catholicism didn’t just survive in America; it thrived.
Yes, the bishops of yesterday fought somewhat different evils than we fight now. And the tactics that worked then (i.e. calls to arms) might be less than advisable today.
But in many ways the Nativists and Know Nothings weren’t all that different from the forces of secularism, out-of-control hedonism, and the culture of nice our bishops now find themselves up against. Those forces were many. They were powerful. And they were willing to stop at nothing to get their way.
Nevertheless, the Church triumphed. Her bishops challenged Catholics to be braver and helped ordinary men and women to better understand that for which they were fighting. They didn’t compromise with those who sought to take the Church’s freedoms away. They didn’t call “evil” good or dismiss it with a casual, “Judge not.” And they most certainly didn’t let the Nativists march in their parades.
No, those bishops simply said, “This is wrong, this is right, and I will stand alongside you defending what is right, no matter the cost.” They were willing to be hated. They were willing to be reviled. And for that, they were loved.
Not all of America’s early bishops could be mistaken for Roman gladiators (as Hughes was once described). Some were weak. Some pastored poorly. Those bishops, however, have either been forgotten or reviled by history.
It’s the good ones we remember. Or at least, it’s the good ones we should remember. To them we owe so much. And from them, we can learn so much. Again, bishops matter. Christ established his Church, with its hierarchy, for a reason. He knew what we needed: Strong leaders. Not perfect leaders, but strong leaders—men who could quietly eat with sinners, but also tear up the temple with a whip when needs be.
We have some of those leaders in the Church in America today. But for the New Evangelization to really bear fruit—for it to unleash the flood of graces our culture desperately needs—we need more.
The Catholic laity can do a great deal. We can go places priest and bishops can’t go and do things religious sisters can’t do. But we can’t be the shepherds.
We can’t be the fathers.
That’s the first lesson America’s Catholic past holds for America’s Catholic present. But not the last. More next week. (And if you’re looking for the first post in this series, here you go.)