The Newberry Seminar in U.S. Religious History
Co-Sponsored by the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Chicago Divinity School
Thursday, March 11, from 4:00pm to 6:00pm
"The Menace: Catholics, Anti-Catholics, and Civil Liberties in Early 20th-century America"
Francis G. Couvares, Amherst College
This paper will explore the civil libertarian critique of Catholicism and the Catholic Church in early 20th-century America. I came to the subject indirectly: having worked through the papers of Theodore Schroeder, longtime head of the Free Speech Leage, I found evidence of surprising connections between the League and anti-Catholics, such as those associated with the Menace, perhaps the most famous anti-Catholic periodical in the first two decades of the century. These connections were made when, at the behest of Catholic authorities, the editors of the Menace were indicted for sending obscene matter through the mail. The League took up the case and won it for the defendants, but its files, along with other records reveal a broader pattern of legal harassment of anti-Catholic speakers and writers in cities where Catholics were a majority or a significant minority, and where the Church had come to wield significant political power. Beyond the practices of the Church and its followers, including Catholic police and judicial personnel, libertarians found the doctrines of the Church increasingly troubling. They found encyclicals and pronouncements of successive pontiffs upon political matters, especially those concerning separation of church and state, incompatible with American democratic ideas and practices. Although it is difficult to separate nativism from this kind of libertarian reaction - and in some anti-Catholics both strains are evident - I think it is fair to call the views of Schroeder and people like him "non-nativist anti-Catholicism." In any event, my purpose in this paper will be to explore, first, a range of actions aimed at suppressing the free speech of anti-Catholics and, second, the ways in which libertarians connected these action with Catholic doctrine to develop a broader critique of the influence of the Catholic Church on American democracy. Although I cannot hope to make any firm connections in this paper, some of my findings may suggest longer-term continuities between these conflicts and events of the 1930s (the Legion of Decency, Catholic's support for Franco), the McCarthy era (Catholic anti-communism), and even the more recent era of neo-conservatism; and between the intellectual critique of Catholicism offered by Schroeder and others of this time and those offered by 1930s anti-faxcists and 1940s liberals such as Gilbert Seldes, Paul Blanshard, and others.
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