Catholicism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Catholicism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature

Insofar as the American colonies were settled and the nation founded predominantly by Protestants, the culture of America in the nineteenth century was mainly characterized by the Protestant spirit. Despite a period of toleration immediately following the Revolutionary War when Protestant-Catholic relations were cordial, anti-Catholicism broke out in the early nineteenth century and took on a definite shape and direction with the nativist movement, which waged war against Mormonism, the Masonic Order, and Catholicism. Historians offer various explanations for the phenomenon of nativism occurring at that point in American history as well as for its vast sweep and special virulence. But it is generally agreed that it was a convergence of the political ideals and religious beliefs by which most Americans defined themselves, and the sudden and dramatic increase in the sheer number of Catholic immigrants that produced nativism and, particularly, anti-Catholicism. The Roman Catholic Church seemed to nativists the antithesis of America's democratic ideals—the Roman Church was conspicuously hierarchical and authoritarian and so, it was assumed, politically anti-democratic. Its belief in celibacy for clergy made it appear anti-social; its rites were mystical and, therefore, ran counter to the purely ethical religion and natural theology prevalent in the Protestant churches of the nineteenth century; and the highly cultured and learned Roman Magesterium clashed with strong egalitarian instincts, especially during the era of Jacksonian democracy.

The movement spawned some mob violence, the most famous being the burning of the Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts, in the mid-1830s. But nativism was largely an ideological movement that produced vast quantities of published material alleging vicious depredations on the part of the Roman Catholic Church, as well as seditiousness, superstitions, and perversions of Christian belief and virtue. The persistent focus of this literature was on the convents as the element of Catholicism to be feared the most, because it was believed that they would enslave and corrupt free and wholesome American womanhood. It was the widely-read nativist anti-Catholic tract Awful Disclosures (1836) by Maria Monk, a young Ursuline nun, that incited the burning of the convent she had fled (and later voluntarily sought to return to) in Charlestown. Many other similar, popular exposés, like Rebecca Reed's Six Months in a Convent (1835) were published in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. Convents, it is generally agreed, were the main target of nativist attacks on Catholicism because, as closed societies, they appealed at once to prurience and to popular suspicions of what appeared to be "foreign" and not generally understood. Besides the exposés, many articles, tracts, and books were published which advanced theological and historical arguments attacking papal authority, priestly celibacy, the confessional, and the veneration of saints, among other issues.

In response, the Catholic press produced a large number of works in which the Catholic faith was defended and Protestantism, in turn, was attacked. Catholics also countered by attempting to undo the libel against convent life and to discredit the false accounts of "renegades" like Maria Monk. In addition, the Catholic Church reacted by drawing the theological lines between itself and Protestantism more emphatically. Its most effective line of defense was the parish school: many school texts were published, along with a growing number of devotional guides for the average Catholic, which stressed the exclusivity of the "one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church." Much less strident than the Protestant assault, the Catholic response aimed to persuade rather than revile by showing the weaknesses of Protestantism's intellectual positions, which it frankly disdained as historically disingenuous and theologically simplistic. One of the most prolific and vociferous of the nineteenth-century Catholic writers was Orestes Brownson, a lay convert, who asserted that the logic of Protestantism, which kept it in perpetual revolt, would also lead inevitably to atheism. Much of the Catholic argument was devoted to the Reformation of the sixteenth century; here, in the Catholic view, lay the root cause of the present religious, moral, and civil decay, for Protestants had rejected the religious and moral authority of the church.

The Catholic novel, too, was a means of defending and propagating the faith. In the thirty-six years between 1829 and 1865 almost fifty specifically pro-Catholic novels were written (largely by priests of varying skill) and published. Unlike many of its Protestant counterparts, the Catholic novel propagandized not with sensational gothic tales of kidnapping, seduction, and rapine, but with mannered, sentimental romances illustrating the way good Catholics lived and practiced their religion. Because of the difficult task of at once disproving Protestantism and converting Protestants to Catholicism, Catholic fiction became, on the one hand, excessively sentimental in its attempt to appeal to the prevailing tastes of novel readers, and, on the other hand, too abstract and discursive. Either tendency, as Orestes Brownson, who was also a critic and novelist, pointed out, rendered a work less effective. A few Catholic writers of this period approached their task by deemphasizing the more exclusive forms of Catholicism and emphasizing their common American patriotic sentiments.

Just as the Catholic response to rampant anti-Catholicism reached high tide around mid-century, the public image of Catholics suddenly turned favorable. The more strident anti-Catholicism that decried all priests and other religious orders as demonic gave way to a view of them as exemplars of Christian virtue. This change is evident in the treatment of the role of the nun in fiction from the middle to the end of the nineteenth century: depicted before 1860 as a demonic perpetrator of the "evils" of Catholicism, between 1860 and 1870 she was described as a woman of supreme, unworldly virtue, and finally, in the last three decades of the century, she became simply a good woman whose antiquated religion rendered her incompetent to do the good she desires.

The Catholic novel changed accordingly after 1860. Becoming more and more the occupation of lay writers, it was transformed from a thinly-veiled apologetic treatise to a more thoroughly literary product that had largely assimilated and affirmed American culture. This secularization was already a tendency in Catholic fiction before 1850, and Orestes Brownson, who saw the novel as the most effective mode of apologetics, severely criticized the trend in his reviews as dangerous to Catholic integrity. But after 1850 the tendency became the rule, one which even Brownson found all but irresistible. By the end of the century, anti-Catholicism remained but was submerged under a broad civil tolerance effected by an increasingly secularized American society.