How American Catholic Identity Remains Rooted in the Local Churches

Our readings this week told a story of a powerful but fragmented Chicago Catholic Church. In Catholicism, Chicago Style, the authors claim that, “There was no other group [in Chicago] that was strong enough, united enough, or perhaps cared enough to oppose the dominant position of Catholics.” At the same time, John Buenker frames the Chicago mayoral races of 1905 and 1931 as a game of ‘who can appease the most ethnic-Catholic groups’ while emphasizing that it was Catholicism that eventually united the groups. Patrick Kennedy, focusing on the period immediately after, emphasizes the work of the German-American archbishop of Chicago George Mundelein. Mundelein facilitated the “creation of ethnic parishes” to appease the Irish majority of Catholics in Chicago. However, these are all stories of the past. It is clear by the institutions and neighborhoods that Chicago’s past focused on local politics which was driven by local churches. The question becomes, is it still this way today?

My home parish, Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Naperville, IL (Website)

Since I have been studying the actors in Catholic political history for the past month, it is difficult for me to think about a topic in Catholicism without applying the cases of Father Daniel Berrigan and Fr. Michael Pfleger. While reflecting on these two men in relation to how local Catholicism is today, I realized that these two men are fantastic evidence in support of Catholicism remaining local. Fr. Daniel Berrigan, a member of the Catonsville Nine, was famous on the small community of Block Island. The documentary Seeking Shelter highlights this community of Catholics and non-Catholics alike who surrounded and loved Fr. Berrigan. They spoke of long nights talking about the latest political issues or philosophy. Though this may not be a community Church in the literal sense, it reveals the communal nature surrounding the Catholic ideas which Fr. Berrigan preached. Fr. Pfleger, on the other hand, invokes a much more literal local Catholic Church. St. Sabina’s is heavily invested in the community, and the interior reflects this. The painting behind the altar depicts Jesus Christ with a skin tone that matches many of the members of the community. The celebratory music and dances much more reflects African Culture than traditional Catholic Rites. This, I believe, is the ultimate example of the Catholic Church remaining local.

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A photo of the altar of St. Sabina’s Catholic Church in Chicago during its 100th anniversary celebration. (Source)

However Fr. Berrigan and St. Sabina’s are relatively extreme cases. What about the local Churches scattered around Chicago that rarely, if ever, make the headlines? I visited St. Vincent DePaul Catholic Church in Lincoln Park and Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Uptown to find out. I did this as an alternative to visiting Open House Chicago sites, but going to Mass in these different communities ended up being more valuable in my eyes. St. Vincent DePaul at DePaul contrasts well with Madonna della Strata at Loyola. Even though Loyola and DePaul are similar as Catholic schools on the north side of Chicago along the red line, their worship spaces are quite different. St. Vincent DePaul is a parish on its own, with its focus being an independent Catholic Church that happens to have a large student population. Madonna della Strata, on the other hand, is funded, staffed, and run exclusively by the University, and outside parishioners are a small (but growing) percentage of attendees. This stark contrast is more evidence for the argument that Catholicism is local to this day. My experience at Our Lady of Lourdes echoed this contrast on a broader sense as its design, worship, and population were almost entirely unique especially compared to the marble monolith that is St. Peter’s in the loop or the heavily white parishes which I have frequented in the suburbs. As we have gone along studying the neighborhoods of Chicago essentially created by the Churches they surrounded, Fr. Berrigan’s island, Fr. Pfleger’s sanctuary for African American Catholics, and the differing populations and worship styles among Chicago Churches today, it has become clear to see that Catholicism has been and remains a highly local institution.

A photo I took of the simple but beautiful altar of Our Lady of Lourdes.

Fr. Pfleger: Role-Model or Rabble-Rouser?

Raised going to a Catholic Church in suburban Chicago, I was educated early on the ways of Catholicism: go to Church, give some money, obey the Ten Commandments. Though a community certainly existed within the parish, we were quick to alienate others as “not Catholic enough” or “the wrong kind of Catholic”. There was perhaps no greater example of this than Fr. Michael Pfleger, pastor of Saint Sabina’s Catholic Church and nonviolent activist. Though I would like to believe I have widened my world-view since middle school, the name Fr. Pfleger still left a bitter taste in my mouth as we began this week of the Ramonat Seminar. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend his Mass in person, but further sources have led me to believe that this initial judgment may be too curt.

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Photo of Fr. Michael Pfleger speaking at an anti-violence protest (Source)

This week focusing on Catholics and civil rights with a spotlight on Fr. Pfleger is not far removed from Berrigan Week, where I criticizied Fr. Berrigan, another Catholic preist-activist, for going beyond civil disobedience. However, while reading a New Yorker article detailing Fr. Pfleger’s career as an activist, the tone of the author did not sit well with me. The subtitle reads, “A militant white priest fights for his black parishioners on the South Side.” [emphasis added] This assessment, in my opinion, rings wholy untrue. From all I have read about Fr. Pfleger, his whole schpeel is non-violence. I deem it unfair to assessing him as ‘militant’ simply because he has a large following or because he demands much out of his followers.

We need to be asking the questions nobody else asks. We need to be raising issues. We need to be challenging. We need to be sitting at tables where we’re not invited and demanding that, at those tables, we speak for the poor and for the forgotten.

However, our readings this week pointed out that this conflict between the Catholics who act and those who criticize those who act is nothing new. Change from the Inside Out compares preconciliar (pre-Vatican II) Catholic with the postconciliar (post-Vatican II) Catholic, claiming Catholics who adopt and celebrate the ideas promligated during Vatican II were more likely to participate in the Memphis civil rights movement. Catholics were playing a similar role curbing discrimination against African Americans and Asian Americans in San Francisco, according to another one of our articles. The story repeats itself even going back to the Civil War and the abolitionist movement. But the question remains, in this post-Vatican II world with Catholic’s long history of involvement in civil rights, why does Fr. Pfleger’s actions leave such a bad taste in my mouth?

I have ultimately decided that I believe it is due to a shift in the Church’s attitude. My belief stems from the article Racial Justice and the People of God by John McGreevy who declares, “the pictures of demonstrating clergymen and religious, flashed on TV screens or bannered across front pages, spoke more clearly and directly than any conciliar decree…” I believe Catholics have become lax today. Though for a long time rejected, they are largely accepted into American society. They no longer need to fight for their faith, so they have stopped fighting. Though the clergy certainly likes to issue decrees condemning or celebrating events and policies in the world, prevolent is the attitude that Catholics need not directly act to change the injustices in the world. They simply need to hold the opinion in their heart. This, I believe, is what makes Fr. Pfleger so ‘revolutionary’. It is the fact that he is not revolutionary. He has simply refused to adopt a lax attidude. Fr. Pflager continues the battle that earlier Catholics fought so that they and other disparaged groups in the United States could enjoy the lives gifted to them. In his own words, “Because of my faith, I’m a prisoner of hope. I can’t quit.”

Catholicism in War

Berrigan Week

This past week, Loyola’s Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage hosted a week celebrating the life and actions of Father Daniel Berrigan, SJ. This week coincided with our week of discussing how past Catholics, as a whole, have played a role in anti-war and, more recently, anti-nuclear movements. As we have read about in the past, Catholics, especially Irish, struggled to be fully socialized into American society. One thing that helped them do this was war itself. As immigrant and fifth-generation American fought side-by-side, it had an equalizing effect. Reverand William Au summarizes these concepts in American Catholics and the Dilemma of War 1960-80 when he claims, “Conscious of being a minority in an anti-Catholic milieu, and eager to be an accepted part of their society, Catholic reformers historically did not challenge the place of their nation in the international community.” However, much change was looming on the horizon as the Vietnam War and Vatican II entered the picture.

An icon featuring Father Daniel Berrigan, SJ advocating for direct action displayed at the Seeking Shelter Exhibit

As Au continues, he asserts, “After [World War II the Catholic Association for International Peace] strongly supported the United Nations and papal teaching calling for the establishment of a real world government to eliminate the need for war.” This desire for peace echoed throughout our readings and discussing this week. However, some groups believed that peaceful protest was not going to do the trick, and took more drastic actions. This week at Loyola featured Fr. Berrigan, a member of the Catonsville Nine. The Catonsville Nine were charged with breaking into a draft board in Catonsville, MD and burning some of the records using homemade napalm. This eventually landed him on the FBI’s most wanted list for five months until he was eventually arrested. After being released from prison, he continued his anti-war ministry which eventually included work to reduce nuclear tensions during the Cold War and beyond.

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One of the many photographs of the Catonsville Nine, as they invited members of the media to be present (Source)

Hearing that a Jesuit priest was involved in this type of anti-war protest surprised me. As a fan of civil disobedience and using peaceful, lawful protest (a great example with minimal swearing) and respectful debate to change unjust laws, hearing Fr. Berrigan’s story was jarring. In my definition, civil disobedience is characterized by violating an unjust law and facing the consequences in order to demonstrate how unjust the law is. Fr. Berrigan’s actions contradict this definition. Breaking into a public building, destroying documents, and fleeing are not the hallmarks of a peaceful protest. For this reason, I would assert that Fr. Berrigan also contradicts our readings for this week. In the beginnings of American history, Catholics used war to assimilate into society. Later, American Catholic Bishops began preaching a message of non-violence, popes called for an end to war, and Catholic organizations worked to protest the Vietnam War and nuclear arms throughout the United States. Fr. Berrigan does not fit into either of these categories. He and his close friends were truly radicalists, not fitting in with any group. Whether or not their actions are just is actually a debate on how far civil disobedience ought to be taken.

Catholic, Citizen, or Both?

In my mind, the title of “Citizen” has always been tied to the overseeing government; citizens of the United States are the people who are classified as such by the United States Federal government. However in class on Monday, many of my fellow Ramonat Scholars shared views opposing this. They instead discussed qualifiers which might restrict someone’s citizenship even if the government recognized them as citizens. For example, Irish Catholics were heavily persecuted as they were excluded from finding better jobs and housing. I, however, would argue that this is better qualified as being excluded from the social structure rather than being excluded from citizenship.

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A “Help Wanted” sign from 1916 illustrating the social exclusion of Irish immigrants (Source)

With both my definition of a citizen and my disagreements with further qualifications for citizenship, it will be unsurprising to hear that I believe that the early Catholics have always been citizens of the United States. I hold this position especially considering that there were other groups in the early United States—for example, African American slaves—were not even considered full people. Because Catholics, although socially outcast at times, were able to participate in government, I think they have always been citizens of the United States.

However, some things have changed for Catholics in the past century. People’s freedom of religion is an extremely important social value, and individuals or groups who discriminate based upon religion are shunned by many. So what changed? As a Benedictine Catholic attending a Jesuit University, I enjoyed hearing Michael Breidenbach’s explanation in Conciliarism and the American Founding where he credits the early accepting of Catholics to monastic orders like the Benedictines and Jesuits. According to him and confirmed by my own experience, monastic orders shared some Protestant’s suspicious views of the Pope, making them more relatable.

Perhaps the greatest factor that led to the acceptance of Catholics into American society was, in fact, time. According to the introduction of The Irish Way, the Irish immigrants were persecuted because they did not fall into American society. The children of the immigrants were a different story. Born and raised in the United States, they were able to speak the language and began to adapt to the culture. In addition, the sheer number of immigrants and Catholics meant that the American people were forced to get used to them. Lastly, a new generation of Americans who had grown up among immigrants was beginning to find places of power, and they did not see the Irish as a new wave of foreigners coming to take over America. Instead, the Irish were simply a part of the American landscape.

Selfies from my scavenger hunt around Chicago

Speaking of the American landscape, I had the opportunity to explore some of the Chicago parts of the American landscape this week. Most of the sites I visited related to last week’s blog about unions in Chicago. The first site I visited was the Haymarket Square Memorial. This statue memorializes the men and women who have fought for labor rights around the world. What really struck me about the statue were all of the plaques in many languages from around the world surrounding the bottom of the statue. These demonstrate how far-reaching the demonstrations in Chicago were and continue to be.

Just a few blocks west were the Local 597 Pipefitter’s Union and Union Park. Although Union Park is a wide green space with plenty of shade from large trees, baseball diamonds, a soccer field, and a jungle gym that made me wish I was 10 again, it borders an ugly, busy street with dilapidated sidewalks and traffic lights. I am sure at one point the Local 597 and Union Park had a symbiotic relationship, but they are now split apart by the noisy North Ogden Avenue. Almost ironically with asbestos being used to insulate pipes in the past, there is also a lung health center immediately across from the Local 597.

The building just north of the Local 597 Pipefitter’s Union

The last stop on my scavenger hunt in Chicago was the recreation of the Chicago Board of Trade. This was perhaps my favorite stop, as I really felt transported back in time. The electric bulbs were burning carbon-filament yellow and the floors gave a nice creak with every step. What I was not prepared for was the ornateness of the walls and the ceiling. The orange, green, and creme colors in the design provided something pleasant to look at without distracting from the business that was occurring at the podium. The recreation of the room was so convincing that the blankness of the floor-to-ceiling chalkboards near the podium stood out like a sore thumb.

A view of the walls and ceiling of the Chicago Board of Trade at the Art Institue of Chicago


Catholicism & Collective Bargaining

While reading Heath Carter’s “With the Prophets of Old” this week, I had trouble believing the scene which was being set out in front of me. Carter was describing Chicago as the first unions were beginning to form within the city. As the Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers is one of the tenents of Catholic Social Teaching, I assumed this piece would be an article of praise on how the Catholic Church helped early immigrants. I was wrong. Carter quotes the Interior which claims, “The church is the ally of the capitalist and the oppressor, the Bible is the rich man’s book”. This claim is the opposite of what I hear at Mass on Sundays. The Church now presents itself as an ally to all of those in distress whose voices cannot be heard. In Carter’s retelling of industrial Chicago, the Catholic Church became the oppressor itself.

Sketch of the Chicago Battle of the Viaduct during the Great Railroad Strike.
Police fire at a crowd of striking railroad workers (1877, Source)

I am, however, happy that the Church has realized the hypocrisy of this stance. To be a religion which claims to uphold the Bible and Catholic tradition, it is our duty as Catholics to be an ally to those put down by society. I strongly believe that, if workers believe they are not receiving fair pay or are being forced to work in unsafe conditions, it is not only their right but their obligation to act. In many cases, unions are currently the best way to make those changes.

Beginning the Ramonat Seminar

When I first found out about the Ramonat Seminar, I was intrigued by the idea of committing to a year of historical research that culminates in writing and presenting a comprehensive report on Catholicism in American Politics. As a student of bioinformatics, I have become accustomed to reading and writing scientific papers. How could adding history to my repertoire hurt?


I think the biggest issue facing Catholics today is voting. Because both parties in the United States have tenants that go against core Catholic beliefs, it makes voting, especially in Presidential elections, difficult to deduce. This is especially true as the two parties drift further and further apart on the political spectrum. In the past, the biggest issues were most likely abortion, immigration, and healthcare. I would assume that Catholics have voted against abortion, for immigration (though this likely differed from time to time), and for expanding healthcare. Unfortunately, voting this way is much more difficult. The party that is against abortion seems to also be against immigration and expanding healthcare. The opposite is true for the other party, with little in-between. This leaves modern Catholics with difficult decisions and lose-lose scenarios on election day.