Catholics’ Lost Cause

A review of Catholics’ Lost Cause: South Carolina Catholics and the American South, 1820-1861(University of Notre Dame Press, 2018) by Adam L. Tate

Some thirty odd years ago, scholars began to peer into the world of immigrants in the South with not a little attention devoted to Catholics.  What they found surprised them.  Immigrants in the South adjusted to life in their new home with far less trouble and resistance than the folk who settled among the “saints” in New England.  Scholars of that day assumed that the relatively small numbers of immigrants in the South, compared to urban northern communities, left the natives less threatened and the immigrants more cowed.  There was not a lot of evidence to support this assumption, and it did run counter to the recorded experience of many immigrants into the South. Catholic migration into the South, primarily from Ireland, was especially puzzling.  America was and is a protestant country, yet the Irish Catholics quickly assimilated into Southern society, and more importantly, could assimilate. Catholicsu2019 Lost Ca... Adam L. Tate Best Price: $37.50 Buy New $35.37 (as of 03:40 UTC - Details)

Adam Tate, and other scholars, suggests a dynamic was in place that encouraged this assimilation.  The dynamic was, and is, the Southern propensity for multiple identities.  Florence King, the long-time social critic for the National Review, was fond of saying that contemporary Southerners loved their country, both of them.  It is an old phenomenon.  Robert Beverly, in his book, The History and Present State of Virginia, declared, “I am an Indian.”  When John Randolph of Roanoke visited England, he insisted on walking into the gallery of the House of Commons with the English gentry.  His hosts tried to dissuade him, but to their surprise Randolph, who deeply identified with his family’s English roots, was seen taking a seat in the gallery among the gentleman commoners of England.  In our own day, Ronald Hoffman recounts a story where a descendant of Charles Carroll the Settler informed Hoffman that he knew little and cared less about his family’s Irish past.  When Hoffman mentioned that he had met the current English protestant owner of the old Carroll estate in Ireland, the descendant of the Settler “glared” at his guest and stated, “Those people are on our land.”

Adam Tate’s account of South Carolina’s Catholics and the process of assimilation is an outstanding account of both identity formation and social integration of an important immigrant group into this most Southern of states. Mr. Tate faced several challenges in researching the book, most particularly the paucity of sources.  In part, this forced him to rely heavily upon the accounts and writings of the Catholic clergy.  I agree with him that this is no grave handicap, as the clergy, particularly the impressive Bishop John England of Charleston, were in the vanguard of Catholic efforts to build a lasting presence in the Palmetto state.  Catholics had a better time of it in South Carolina than Massachusetts, but it was by no means a bed of roses.  A dearth of clergy and resources hindered institution building, intellectual hostility and cultural prejudice against Catholics, and a daunting geography that spread the Dioceses of Charleston across the states of Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina.

Catholics in South Carolina pursued a strategy institution building to win a place in Carolina society.  The indomitable Bishop England founded the country’s first Catholic weekly, the Catholic Miscellany, as well as schools (which contained a fair number of protestant students), a seminary, and the founding of a women’s religious order.  England was also a member of Charleston’s Philosophical and Literary Society and the Anti-Dueling Society, and he was in demand as a speaker throughout the states which made up his dioceses.  Not only did England eschew any sort of Catholic ghetto building by insisting on Catholic participation in society, but he pursued a strategy that evangelicals and Lutherans were also pursuing to win respect for and acceptance of Catholic citizens.  This last is a crucial observation on Mr. Tate’s part and one that I think has eluded many scholars of religion in the South.  Bishop England’s successors continued the strategy after that singular man worked himself into an early grave. The South Was Right! James Ronald Kennedy, ... Best Price: $21.38 Buy New $36.15 (as of 10:45 UTC - Details)

In Mr. Tate’s view, the strategy of institution building to gain acceptance and respect for Catholics succeeded, but at a price.  Resources for these institutions where hard to come by and several projects had to be set aside.  The controversy over slavery and abolitionist mailings led to the closure of the Bishop England’s school for free blacks.  On that tortured issue, England attempted to steer a middle way between “traditionalists” who advocated for a system of slavery shaped by positive law, and evangelical “paternalists” who argued for a social and cultural amelioration of slavery’s evils.  England was not an apologist for slavery in the abstract, but neither did he advocate for the institution’s immediate abolition.  It might be best to view him as a gradualist.  What England pilloried was the too often vicious anti-Catholicism present among many in the abolitionist camp. Mr. Tate gives too much of a hearing to the “Bishop England should have and could have done more to oppose slavery camp.” The folks who are in this camp are engaging in a species of ahistorical presentism.  Bishop England knew darn well that slavery was a grave evil, but it was also deeply complex in theological, moral, social, racial, and cultural terms.  The greatest historian of American slavery, Gene Genovese, agreed with England in this assessment. Slavery was a hornet’s nest that required a good deal more car and prudence to deal with than many today, who are safely tucked away from the institution by the space of time, realize.

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