Civil Rights Have Proven to Be Just as Divisive Among American Catholics as It Was Throughout the Rest of the Country

IMG_9084Photo Source: Spencer Bailey

Throughout American history, with the country’s perceived 205 years at war and decades of various political movements, one thing has always been present: a divide among groups of people in regard to their positions on political issues. The American Civil War split Americans into groups of abolitionists and anti-abolitionists, while the Vietnam War split the general American public into those who supported and those who opposed the war. The split of Americans does not just pertain to the general public, but to all facets of American life. Throughout American history it has been assumed that Catholics and other religious groups would always be on the same side and hold the same positions on certain issues; however, this is not the case. Catholics are just as diverse as any group of people and it must be noted that while there are examples of Catholics largely taking the same position, this does not allow for them to always be grouped together in their perceived perspectives.

Beginning as far back as the pre-Civil War era in the United States, the divisive thoughts regarding civil rights and Catholics’ opinions of it have been documented throughout American history. “Catholicism, Slavery, and the Cause of Liberty” by John T. McGreevy outlines the particular thoughts of Catholics in regard to their positions on slavery in early American history. The main example of such used by McGreevy was the “most influential American Catholic Intellectual of the nineteenth century:” Orestes Brownson. McGreevy cites that near the end of the 1850s, Brownson had began to find a newfound sympathy for antislavery and had grown increasingly in favor of abolition. As a result, many of his colleagues and members of the Catholic community denounced his perspective, and were quite confused.

A Baltimore Catholic journal expressed surprise that “so eminent a controversialist as Dr. Brownson” would align himself with abolitionists who “pronounce the opinion of the Court in Dred Scott to be flat ‘Popery.'” Brownson explained to Montalembert, “I have nothing encouraging to write you of my own country. I am under a cloud now because I refuse to defend slavery as a natural right, and have received also my ‘warning’ from a portion of the Catholic public.” –John T. McGreevy

Dr. Brownson’s controversial perspective at the time and the reaction it received among catholics is a perfect example of the divisiveness of civil rights among the Catholic public as far back as the times of Slavery in the United States.

Moving forward in time, another massively controversial point in time for civil rights with respect to Catholics was after the Pearl Harbor attack during WWII. The focus of the Catholic struggle with civil rights after WWII and the Pearl Harbor attack is embodied by William Issel and Mary Anne Wold in “Catholics and the Campaign for Racial Justice in San Francisco From Pearl Harbor to Proposition 14.” The authors began by laying out the condition of San Francisco in the 1940s and 50s which was beginning to attract larger numbers of minorities such as Japanese families returning from internment camps, Chinese, Filipino, Hispanic, as well as African-American migrants coming into the city seeking residency. The newcomers hailing from minority groups were met with the nearly impossible task of obtaining housing, getting a job, education, and health care that was all mostly restricted to those who fit the description of “white.”

San Francisco Catholics did not speak in one voice then anymore than they do today…

The quote above from the beginning of a sentence in “Catholics and the Campaign for Racial Justice” is a great confirmation of the main point to be made by this blog: while Catholics may have banded together during certain times of American history, they cannot be added up to one single group of people who always think the same things; all catholics are different.

…but in early 1942 Catholic racial liberals joined with Protestant and Jewish civil rights activists, and made common cause with members of ethnic minority rights organizations, when they helped establish the Bay Area Council Against Discrimination. –William Issel and Mary Anne Wold

The fight against housing discrimination in San Francisco is an example of an issue that largely brought Catholics of the Bay Area together which prompted the participation of many Catholics in groups such as the Bay Area Council Against Discrimination which was the driving force for legislation throughout the entire state of California. The participation achieved a large amount of the goals it sought to reach all the way up until the defeat of Proposition 14 which involved the nullification of the Rumford Fair Housing Act.


Photo Source: Topics of Meta

Around the time of the fight for fair housing in San Francisco in the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement had been in full swing in Memphis, Tennessee, garnering a multitude of Catholics on their side as well. “Change from the Inside Out: The Contribution of Memphis Catholics in Civil Rights Activism, 1961-1968” by Amy Delong encompasses the role Catholic Tennesseans, although only making up 2.2% of the Tennessee population, played in the fight for equality long before and long after the efforts of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. who was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968.

The Memphis Catholic Human Relations Council, founded in the early 1960s by a group of motivated clergy and laypeople, employed Catholic social teachings to raise issues of inequality in the community and work for their demise. Although the group first developed as a means to end discrimination within the church, their work soon spread to causes including school integration, inner-city poverty, and the 1968 Sanitation Workers’ Strike. -Amy Delong

The seemingly positive unification of Catholics in the beginning of this process was in reality little more than an official proclamation rather than a whole-hearted position held by all the members of the church. Delong writes that when ordering churches to desegregate:

According to Reverend Milton Guthrie, there was quite a stir the first Sunday when a large number of African-Americans attended Mass at St. Therese. After they sat down, some white parishioners moved to seats in front of them, reasoning that “No black person is going to sit in front of me.” These parishioners had become so accustomed to the “lawful” segregation that pervaded the American south that they could not see past skin color to accept even Catholic African Americans as equals in the church. -Amy Delong

The reactions of Catholic parishioners at St. Therese in opposition to that of the church officials is another example of a time in American history in which Catholics have been divided upon their positions on political issues.

In another article by John T. McGreevy titled “Racial Justice and the People of God: The Second Vatican Council, the Civil Rights Movement, and American Catholics,” McGreevy outlines a similar instance in Selma, Alabama, during the Civil Rights Movement in comparison to the attempted integration of churches in Memphis, Tennessee. McGreevy cites that it was customary in much of the South for segregation to be extended to Catholic Churches, and that when one of the city’s white parishes attempted to integrate it was countered by a fierce opposition from the church.

It is the slowness of integration and the long predominance of segregation that created many predominantly African-American churches which were places in which African-Americans could worship in peace, further distilled from the discrimination of the outside world. An example of a church of this type that still exists to this day is a sacred place of worship known as the Saint Sabina Faith Community Church in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. The ethnic makeup of St. Sabina’s participants is vastly different from the ethnic groups of which first attended the church. According to St. Sabina’s website, the church’s participants used to consist mostly of Irish Americans until the 1960s when there was a shift in the residents of the area. Most of the Irish Americans moved out, while an increasing number of African-Americans moved in. St. Sabina was one of the very few churches of the area to accept the new residents into their perish. Today, African-Americans are the predominant attendees at the St. Sabina Faith Community Church and have shaped its history for more than 50 years.


Photo Source: Spencer Bailey

During my visit, from the second I walked, I was greeted numerous times by congregants of the church. Members of St. Sabina welcome newcomers with open arms, similar to how the church welcomed the new community members nearly 6 decades ago. While waiting for the service to begin, I witnessed first-hand the extent to which the Faith Community of St. Sabina was knitted together. If someone greeted one person, they were likely to greet 10 others, which shows just how regular the attendees are to the church and just how deeply involved they are within their community.

A large part of the teaching of the church during the service pertained to racial issues as well as how the guest speaker they invited was a visible example of a doctor “who looks like” the children of the church. Throughout the entire service, although the priest was notably white, the subject of faith and how it relates to the demographic of St. Sabina was loudly present. This demonstrates the individuality of St. Sabina in that it is a place of worship that has adapted to the change in its demographic, welcomed it with open arms, and aided in its relation to their religion.

This further demonstrates the complicated role of Catholics in civil rights politics because not all Catholics are the same. It is obvious that the politics of Catholics at a predominantly white and predominantly African-American church will not and historically have not been the same on a large-scale. As demonstrated through the above article references, white Catholic parishioners have long been on the other side of the civil rights debate historically which have actually driven African-Americans to form their own churches. To say that all Catholics have been on the same side in relation to the issue of Civil Rights is a blasphemous generalization that is clearly not true and is further evident because of the sheer existence of this blog in the first place.


DeLong, Amy. “Change from the Inside Out: The Contribution of Memphis Catholics in Civil Rights Activism, 1961-1968.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly, vol. 67, no. 2, 2008, pp. 124–147. JSTOR.

Issel,William, and Mary Anne Wold . “Catholics and the Campaign for Racial Justice in San Francisco From Pearl Harbor to Proposition 14.” American Catholic Historical Society , vol. 119, no. 3, 2008, pp. 21–43. JSTOR.

McGreevy, John T. Catholicism and American Freedom: a History. W.W. Norton, 2004.

McGreevy, John T. “Racial Justice and the People of God: The Second Vatican Council, the Civil Rights Movement, and American Catholics.” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, vol. 4, no. 2, 1994, pp. 221–254.

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