Category: History Essay
Anti-Catholicism in North America

Although the U.S. has for several years praised itself for its separation of the state and church as well as its tradition for religious practices and freedom, the country has suffered from different types of religious bigotry such as anti-Catholicism. Various forms of intolerance related to religion such as anti-Catholicism, nativism, and anti-Semitism were inherited from the United Kingdom. They flourished as a result of several years of war between the U.S., Spain, and France. As a result, Catholics who resided in most, if not all, colonies controlled by the U.S., became the victims of discriminatory laws. Generally, they were excluded from the universal suffrage (voting). Catholics were also denied the right to hold political office. This document critically analyzes various aspects of Anti-Catholicism in North America.

Historical Background

The age of Reformation is considered as the first roots of anti-Catholicism in North America. It is due to the fact that one of the main aims of Reformation was to correct the alleged excesses and errors of the Catholic Church. Proponents of anti-Catholicism established strong positions aimed at opposing the stand and hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. In addition, the Papacy, in particular, and the general clerical hierarchy of the Catholic Church was opposed. Protestant leaders in the North American colonies were at the forefront in spreading sentiments against the Catholic Church. Some of the greatest critics were the Anglican, Calvinist, and Lutheran traditions. In addition, both Scottish and English identities were to a huge extent opposed to the ideologies presented by Catholicism. Historians wrote that most English speaking people were anti-Catholics. Since, to be English, and individual in the colonies was expected to be against Catholicism.

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It is also important to note that most of the colonists from Britain such as Congregationalists and Puritans came to America in order to avoid persecution meted by the Church of England. The modes of worship and the doctrines of the Catholic Church were rooted deeply in the Roman Church. As a result of this, most of the religious culture that had arrived early in North America portrayed some of the most extreme and harshest form of anti-Catholicism bias. Most negative attitudes against the Catholics were mostly spread by the Protestant denominations. An anti-Catholics bias that was applied universally was composed by John Tracy Ellis and taken to Jamestown in 1607. It was cultivated vigorously in all the American colonies from Georgia to Massachusetts. Colonial laws and charters that were made up of huge amounts of specific instructions against Catholicism had immense political powers.

Scholars are of the opinion that the common and general hatred against Catholicism could influence the Puritan and Anglican clergy and laity to come together and share a common ground despite several disagreements between them. The law that prohibited Catholic settlers was passed in the Colony of Virginia in 1642. The Massachusetts Bay Colony also enacted a similar statute five years later. The Act of Toleration was enacted in 1649, which made blasphemy and the use of other offensive religious languages and names punishable offenses. In 1654, the law was repealed. It once again outlawed Catholicism. In 1692, the former government of Catholic Maryland was overthrown; and the officials established the Church of England as a legal institution. It then went ahead to enact heavy taxes that forced the Catholics to support the financing of the church. Catholics were prohibited from participating in politics and other laws; and regulations were implemented to ban Church’s Sacrament, Mass, and Catholic schools. In the Rhode Islands, civic restrictions were imposed on Catholics in 1719.

Catholics in Maryland had to flee their homes and become refugees. The only place that they could get a safe haven was in Pennsylvania. William Penn was a Quaker who had previously been harassed due to his religious affiliations. It prompted him to implement broad grants of civil rights that tolerated people who had different denomination and religious beliefs. Therefore, people who believed in God irrespectively of their denominations could reside there peacefully without persecution. There were increased risks that France and England were about to go to war. It renewed the past suspicion against the Catholics. The Quaker government in Pennsylvania nevertheless did not oblige when it was coerced to violate its traditional practices and pass harsh laws against Catholicism.

John Higham, a historian, describes anti-Catholicism as one of the most powerful and among the oldest anti-foreign traditions that affected the cultural and intellectual history of North America. However, this famous observation by Higham basically portrays three different forms of anti-Catholicism nativism that had a vibrant and long life in the U.S. To start with, the cultural distrust directed towards the Catholics was a result of the public culture of the North Americans. It was rooted in a significantly Protestant and British ordering of human society. Second, there was the intellectual distrust of Catholics that was based on various philosophical and epistemological ideas that were initially revealed in Scottish (Common Sense Realist) and English Enlightenment, as well as the political thought of the British Whig tradition. The third one was the nativist distrust directed towards the Catholics regarded as deviant individuals in American society. This perception was common among the duty of the mainstream Protestants that involved boundary maintenances, where Emile Durkheim’s reading was utilized to explain how outsiders had assisted insiders to regulate social control.

Studies have shown that deep roots of anti-Catholicism were exhibited among British and German Protestants after the reformation. These immigrants brought with them the hostilities that they possessed against the Catholics in North American colonies. During the colonial period in America, there were two forms of anti-Catholic rhetoric being widely distributed. The first one resulted from a theological heritage that was present during the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. During this time, rampant religious wars were experienced between the Biblical Anti-Christ and that of the Whore of Babylon types that consisted of anti-Catholic ideologies and thoughts. They lasted until the end of the 17th century. The second form of rhetoric variety concentrated on the assumed schemes of the Catholic states which were aggressive to both Classical Liberalism and Marxism. Historians have critically analyzed the factors that motivated the occurrence of anti-Catholicism. One of the commonly proposed factors is prejudice directed towards Catholics. The rest of American society considered them as having a deep bias against the Americans.

19th and 20th Centuries Anti-Catholicism

Anti-Catholicism is considered as an embedded aspect of American society for hundreds of years. It is despite the fact that the Roman Catholic Church has made significant contributions as well as the demographic impact since the 18th century. In addition, it is important to note that the Catholic Church currently has more than 58 million members. It is the biggest religious denomination in the U.S. Nevertheless, during the American Revolution, individuals who practiced Catholicism were minorities; they were increasing distrusted. The Catholics were mainly composed of Spanish and French colonists and a few numbers of Irish and German Catholics in Maryland and Middle colonies.

Initially, American culture was pluralistic. However, Massachusetts officials usually supported the Congregational church, which had been given state funds until 1833. The Roman Catholic Church, by contrast, emphasized as a matter of faith that their denomination was the one true faith. Furthermore, the American society had puritan origins which instilled the U.S. with anti-authoritarian, individualistic, anti-hierarchical, and anti-clerical values which contrasted with the Episcopal and Papal authority. Catholic bishops and priests exercised a huge amount of control and authority in comparison with the Protestant clergy. Anti-Catholic riots that took place in 1834 in Boston became some of the major signs of anti-Catholicism bias in America. In addition, the riots that occurred in 1844 in Philadelphia, as well as the sudden emergence of the nativist Know-Nothing party during the 1850s, showed powerful signs of anti-catholic bias. They were spreading quickly across the American colonies.

Studies have shown that the Catholic Church in America until the 1950s had been an immigrant church as a result of the repeated waves of Irish and German Catholics taking place in the 1840s and 1850s. It was followed closely by the post-Civil War Immigrants that originated from Poland, Quebec, and Italy as well as those from Latin America who started to immigrate from 1830 to present. The high level of immigration played a critical role in expanding Catholicism and its religious prejudice. Loyal Catholics performed the Civil War service in both the Confederate and the Union armies. It diminished the impact of anti-Catholicism. However, new immigrants in the 19th century refused to abandon their Old World customs and religion. They aroused fears that Catholics would not have the abilities to assimilate effectively into American society.

The efforts of the American Catholic Church were supported by European Catholic officials to provide immigrants with the support of accessing parochial schools, social services, parish organizations, and hospitals. The separation between the Catholic and Protestant leaders was considered as hostile to the American values, which aimed at expanding the public school system. In addition, the influence and authority of the parish priest and leaders appeared strange and threatening to several non-Catholics. Most Catholic bishops during the Progressive Era were social conservatives being actively opposed to any kind of reforms as well as union movements. It caused additional mistrust across the general American society. Anti-Catholic bias in the 1880s also took place during the nativist American proactive Association as well as during the 1920s period when the Ku Klux Klan was revived. After Alfred E. Smith was defeated in the presidential democratic candidate in 1928, the main reason that led to his demise was anti-Catholicism. John F. Kennedy managed to overcome the same sentiments in the 1960s. However, despite the huge level of success and prosperity that millions of Catholic Americans have experienced over the years, several anti-Catholicism sentiments continue to linger across the general American society.

Racial Perspective

Nativism acquired a racial perspective in the 20th century thus making different nativist factions to classify those from different countries as either powerful or poor. The founder of Ku Klux Klan by William J. Simmons was aimed at directing their hatred against the Blacks. However, their objectives soon expanded to focus their attacks on the Jews and Catholics. In 1920, the faction was expanding at an alarming rate, reaching a three million member rate in 1923. It had such a strong membership such that the delegates attending their meeting in 1923 became fearful and failed to condemn its blatant activities.

During this period, there was a huge level of nationalism. The immigration act was passed in 1924. It replaced the temporary 1921 regulations. The quotas system being implemented in 1929 increased anti-Catholicism and discrimination against both the Jews and the Catholics. Further, in 1928, a Catholic was nominated for the presidency. Although there was a sign of bigotry, it was something that anti-Catholicism was declining slowly. This trend continued systematically until the presidential elections that were held in 1960, which saw John F. Kennedy, who was a Catholic, elected as president. Nonetheless, it was argued that Kennedy would have gathered another 1.5 million votes if not his religious affiliation.

Relaxation of Anti-Catholicism

The phase when Catholicism was strongly and blatantly persecuted came to an end during the revolutionary era (1763-1820). For a number of reasons, the occurrence of hostilities and the period when the U.S. gained independence forced several Protestant Americans to reduce their direct unfriendliness against Catholicism. In addition, officials relaxed the penal regulations against the Catholics. It breathed a sigh of reliefs amongst the Catholics who could at least practice their religion in a legitimate and normal manner. Nevertheless, instead of continuing with the consistent behavior emphasized by Catholicism, most individuals adopted the denomination as a practical way of life.

They either downplayed or ignored most of the doctrines that had been proposed by the Catholic Church in the past and used to be attacked by Protestantism. Catholics also decided to forget most of the evils associated with Protestant heresy and other forms of negative mentality. This kind of attitude was emphasized by the natural desire that aimed at achieving economic and social success. It, however, differs with the past shameless attitude that Catholicism was the only true faith and religion with regards to serving the glory of God. The decline in anti-Catholicism attitude intensified and continued to generate a form of followership. With some time, it developed a close collaboration between the Protestants and Catholics leading to an end in rivalries between these two denominations.

Anti-Catholicism - Modern Perspective

For several individuals in the U.S., especially academicians and other opinion makers, Catholicism does not deserve any form of protection that is directly applicable to other forms of religious traditions. Numerous observers, on the contrary, argue that this religion and especially the organized church itself is the main problem that tends to hinder a social change. The latter one in this analysis is a shelter of reaction particularly when it comes to the issues associated with sexuality and gender. It implies that the Catholic Church does not deserve any protection due to the fact that it has always been on the wrong side. This is the factor that has led to increased attacks from Protestants and the general public. The scandals affecting the Catholic Church are similar to the historical issues of anti-Catholicism. They are currently being manifested in terms of public condemnations that have simply refused to go away.

The Catholic problem and how it has changed over some time can be traced back to the 19th century when the anti-Catholicism had an ethnic and class appeal. The new religion and ethnic agencies presented both cultural and economic challenged to the already established group's successive agitators and activists. They were raising the alarm and warning the rising Catholic population that the native-born individuals posed a threat to their political and hegemony and wealth. A well-developed body of stereotypes and knowledge concerning the behavior of the Catholic Church and ideologies was employed by people. It led to historical mythology and religious polemic. In this respect, the pope provided impressive demon figures leading to numerous cases of anti-Catholicism. Various groups of people found themselves colliding with the Roman Catholic Church. The main aim was to ensure that it was fully discredited. The fundamental political enemies were the radical ones who created a new anti-Catholicism.

Nevertheless, it is important to note that the modern form of anti-Catholicism differs in considerable ways when compared to the older types. The tradition of the old Catholicism was fundamentally negativist, politically right-wing, and xenophobic attacks. However, the current revulsion for the Catholic Church is mainly driven by gay and feminist activists. In addition, their liberal coloring also managed to reshape the traditional one of these forms of clashes. For instance, the Roman Catholic Church was loathed by several critics due to the fact that it had betrayed the Christians as well as the truth written in the Bible. Nevertheless, such arguments and oppositions do not apply to the modern day critics that continue to attack the Catholic Church.

Impact on Other Groups

Research studies carried out across the world have revealed the significance of anti-Catholicism movement and the role it played in the formation of identities on the old and modern arenas. It was witnessed both within the Protestant churches as well as national liberation movements that aimed at attacking Catholicism in the American colonies. Studies have also shown that anti-Catholicism played an important role in the formation and development of North American culture. This religion hostility is considered as a popular cultural phenomenon. It was used to attack the Catholics as well as other religious groups and political enemies. The most important issues when it came to the use of anti-Catholicism were to create the common culture and ideologies that enabled the members of the group share common goals when it came to addressing their grievances.

Catholic schools started in the U.S. as an issue of ethnic and religious pride. It provided a mechanism of inculcating the Catholic doctrines into the youths. It also ensured that young people were insulated from the influence of Protestants and intermingling with non-catholic students. The religion issue of these schools escalated in 1860 after the Tammany Hall which had a huge catholic base sought. It was given $1.5 million in public resources for the constructions of Catholic schools. In 1847, the bill was introduced into the parliament aimed at prohibiting the use of public money in the construction of schools that appeared to be supported by a certain religious group. However, the amendment was defeated. It formed a model that would later to become a basis for the commonly referred to as the Braine Amendments. Over the next three decades, in 1875, the law was accepted and implemented in 34 states constitutions.


This document has critically analyzed different aspects of anti-Catholicism in North America. Scholars have cited a number of reasons for the emergence and spread of this religion hostility. To start with, the persecution of Protestants in the British Kingdom motivated most immigrants to settle in North America and establish colonies that directly prohibited the spread of Catholicism. Catholics in all these American colonies had to go through difficult times trying to settle in a region where the majority group did not advocate for their religious denomination. Anti-Catholicism is considered as a sign of massive hatred against the Catholic Church where the Protestants agitated for the eradication of the community. Historical tensions between the Catholics and Protestants started to decline after the country gained its independence, and the Catholic president was elected.

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