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Unitarian Universalism and Catholicism

The chat list of the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society has taken up the issue of anti-Catholicism in our movement. It was noted that many of our most distinguished founding ministers, including the revered William Ellery Channing often wrote scathingly of Catholicism. Clergy and laity alike often engaged in attempts at suppression or control of the “Papist menace.”
Why should this be so? Does it persist in Unitarian Universalism even today?

Anti-Catholicism ran deep in colonial Protestant culture. In pre-Revolutionary Boston the annual "Pope Day" marches in November were a highlight of the year. In these effigies of the Pope were dragged through the street along with effigies of the Stuart pretender to the British throne and burned. These marches often degenerated into semi-controlled riots between competing bands from different neighborhoods, each marching society with its own “officers” vying to out do the other in extravagance of their anti-Catholic display. And this in a city without a Catholic presence worth mentioning except for sailors stumbling off of ships in the harbor. Made up of mechanics and apprentices, the Pope Day marching societies became the nucleus of the Sons of Liberty. And on Sundays they sat in the pews of all of those Boston churches destined to become Unitarian.

It is hardly surprising that when large numbers of Irish and other Catholic emigrants began pouring into the cities in the early 19th Century this kind of reflexive anti-Catholicism--or anti-Popery as they themselves would have preferred--would become a dominate theme expressed by even our most distinguished clergy.

Resentment among laboring classes of the wage-base threatening immigrants was intense. Meanwhile that segment of society designated as “the Mechanics” in the 19th Century—the master craftsmen and tradesmen employing their own apprentices and common laborers—were climbing to respectability as part of the new middle class and some even turning into capitalists building industrial shops. This group soon became the employers of immigrant labor while shifting their class identification to the long dominant merchants and professionals. It was easy to apply traditional Protestant outrage at “Popery” to exert control over the new under class. Indeed by the 1840's probably came to dominate over strictly "religious" objections.

Nativism, as evidenced by the Know-Nothing movement, flourished all over the Northeast in the second quarter of the 19th Century. As it evolved from a semi-secret society to an open political party, it won the governorship in Massachusetts and made strong headway in state legislatures and city governments. It was especially powerful in Up State New York, where it involved many members of Unitarian Churches. One of our "Unitarian Presidents," Millard Fillmore, ran for the office again on the Know-Nothing (American Party) ticket. Interestingly though he won 870,000 popular votes, he carried only Maryland—a state founded by Catholics and home of the first American diocese. In times many of these same people became Free-Soilers and then Republicans, carrying with them their anti-Catholic prejudices.

It should be pointed out that while the Universalists were not un-tainted by this, it seems both far less virulent and less common among them. Hosea Ballou had a long, close personal friendship with the Bishop of Boston and further alienated his Unitarian critics by coming to the defense of a convent attacked by mobs.
A common focus for clashes between Unitarian and Catholics was education. While Unitarians had always treasured education, they had been generally content to leave it largely in the hands of the traditional “academies” set up independently by that particularly starving frayed hem of respectable gentility, the school master—often an aspiring or failed minister, layer or writer. It was only when the Catholics began to set up their own school system that a passion for publicly funded and controlled education really took off. The new public schools of Horace Mann and his disciples were intended to inoculate even Catholic children with decent American and Protestant values. Catholic tried in vain to capture a bit of the public purse for the support of their school like the Town meetings sometimes used to lend to the old academies. This was the locus of unending battles, which echo down to our own time in controversies over vouchers and other public subsidies for private education.

It is true that some Transcendentalists were more sympathetic to Catholics. Some of them recognized the mystical appeal of Catholic ritual, which seemed starkly absent from stripped, stern and rational Unitarianism. Orestes Brownson, one of the leading figures of the movement, eventually converted to Catholicism. But this interest was not universal nor necessarily precluded outbreaks of anti-Catholic outrage among them.

Later, Henry Adams, the heir of generations of Unitarianism, would shock his contemporaries by also converting.

Anti-Catholicism lingered on well into the Twentieth Century. Beacon Press was still publishing popular anti-Catholic screeds well into the 1950's.

But it must be said that much of the old virulence was fading. This was due to a number of factors. First was Unitarianism’s gradual drifting away from a strictly Protestant identity. Fueled by the radicals of the Free Religious Association and pursued by the much more untraditional Western Conference, this new Unitarianism did not need to define itself so directly as the natural heir to the Reformation.

The rise of Humanism also helped. The Humanists, hostile to Theism in any form saw little reason to single out the Catholics for their scorn. Indeed, since their most virulent opposition came from within the Protestant identifying liberal Christian elements still strong in New England, their scorn was often drawn away from a Catholic target.

The infusion of Universalism, which never shared the intense hostility, likewise also tended to muffle anti-Catholic rhetoric in the newly united denomination.

Moreover, a new generation of activist UU clergy were encountering a new generation of activist Catholics, liking what they saw and working closely with them. These bonds began to be forged in the civil rights movement where nuns and priests had marched side by side with Dana Greeley and many others. It was deepened in the anti-war movement where pacifist UU’s came to closely associate with folks like the Berigan brothers. This persists to this day at the annual demonstrations at the School of the Americas.

Many UU ministers and theologians were highly enthused by the liberalizing Second Vatican Council. Catholic writers like Thomas Merton were embraced and both widely read and quoted from the pulpit. Liberation theology was also deeply influential among us. In major northern cities where local UU churches attempted to involve themselves in community organizations on the Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Communities Foundation model, they often found themselves working with people organized by local Catholic parishes.

One would think that anti-Catholicism might have vanished entirely from among us. That would be wrong. A number of issues have arisen that put a strain on the relationship as never before. First is a general and rising conservatism with in Catholicism, a backlash against the ecumenicism and liberalism of Vatican 2. This was accelerated in the Papacy of John Paul II and has triumphed under his successor. A generation of liberal priests and bishops are being replaced by far more traditional and conservative leaders.

In places like Massachusetts UU’s and Catholics often come into open political conflict over issues ranging from the availability contraception, abortion rights, and gay marriage. We hold competing news conferences, march against each other in the streets, even scream at each other in the legislature. Passions run deep on both sides and it would take a miracle if this political confrontation did not translate itself into a resurrection of general hostility to the Church. If we do not recognize this, the faithful in Boston “Southie” parishes, who have a long tribal memory of repression by the old Brahman—and largely Unitarian—elite, are quick to do so.

Then there is the wide spread sex abuse scandals among Catholic clergy. We tend to cluck our tongues over the depravity and exploitation and lay the blame on a celibate clergy, the exclusion of women, a general aura of “Catholic guilt and repression,” and the paternalistic arrogance of the bishops. We barely notice the occasional lapses of our own clergy or dismiss them as aberrations.

Here in the Chicago area, which is heavily Catholic, huge percentages of members of our churches are former Catholics. In our church, the Congregational Unitarian Church in Woodstock, Illinois, the figure is over 70%. Despite the personal baggage and bitterness of some ex-Catholics, anti-Catholicism among us is naturally rare. But in this area, where the churches grew up in the liberal Western Conference, this is not surprising. I would be interested to see what the figures are like in heavily Catholic Boston, where linger class and religious resentments still run close to the surface.

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( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 30th, 2006 05:54 am (UTC)
Correction on Henry Adams
Wes Hromatko sent the following correction into the UUHS Chat. Thanks,Wes.

Henry Adams did not convert. To the end he claimed to be a mystical
Unitarian however much he loved medieval architecture and history. His
attendant is responsible for the rumors. See Samuels three volume
Brooks came closer, but he didn't either. He owned his ancestral faith
publicly in the Quincy church in his later years. My articles on both
them remain to be posted.

On the other hand, note Channing's good relations with the Catholics in
Boston. See Jack Mendelsohn's biography of Channing probably available
you through interlibrary loan.

Wes Hromatko (M/L '73)

Jan. 31st, 2006 09:32 pm (UTC)
Philocrites Comments
Chris Walton has posted a comment on this essay on his blog, Philocrites--probably the most respected widely read Unitarian blog. To check it out: http://www.philocrites.com/archives/002534.html
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )


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