The American Catholic Experience
Roman Catholicism in the United States today stands in a relatively good state of health and acceptance, although this present situation was only obtained over a long struggle in a difficult environment. The American Catholic Experience is rather unique in Catholic history. The United States is the first country where Catholicism came to maturity and gained prominence under a democratic system of government. The concept of the separation of church and state, while being a hallmark to American democracy, was a unique environment for Catholicism where, especially in Europe, church and state had been one or at least completely supportive of each other. Starting as a mere 1 percent of the population in 1785, by 1850 Catholicism, principally as a result of immigration, became the single largest religious denomination in the United States, a status that continues today.
While Catholicism became the single largest religious denomination, it continued to be a minority against the Protestant majority. As a result of this situation and the enduring fallout from the Reformation, Catholics throughout the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries were forced to endure anti-Catholic rhetoric on many fronts. Politically Catholics were shunned and their loyalty questioned due to their allegiance to the pope. During the mid-nineteenth century, books and newspapers told lurid tales of Catholic clergy and religious that were wildly popular and widely circulated. For example, in 1832, Samuel F.B. Morse attacked Catholics politically in Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States. Published four years later, The Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery in Montreal, by Maria Monk (supposedly a nun who “escaped” from the convent), told of sexual encounters between priests and nuns in the confessional. It took the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, the first Catholic president, to break the back of anti-Catholicism, although as recent authors have stated, it remains the last acceptable prejudice in the minds of many.
American Catholicism today, while generally having weathered its past storms of rejection, is still hampered by the fallout from Vatican II, especially a shortage of clergy, and a splintered unity. Yet, American Catholics are more vibrant and faithful in their practice than those in many other lands. Challenges continue to exist, but systems and people are in place for the church to continue to lead others to Christ in the future.