Catholicism in the 20th Century

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1925. Taft is seated...

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Over the course of the 20th century, Catholics gained social acceptance and political power. [1] Post-Americanist Catholicism developed during the progressive era of American politics- the era of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, William H. Taft, and Woodrow Wilson…during this period some American Catholics appropriated the spirit of the progressive era, which is usually associated with evangelical Protestant moralism. [2]  In an ironic twist, Catholics began to adopt the motives of many of their Protestant neighbors.  Though the twentieth century also began to blur lines between religious difference and the common ethos that united people seemed to be the hunger for advancement.

Just as before in the 17th and 18th Century, Catholics still remained relatively blue collar.  Until the middle of the twentieth century, the Catholic Church in this region, as in other parts of the country, was an overwhelmingly working-class institution.[3]  But a noticeable shift happened in the 1930s.  George Q. Flynn has argued convincingly that under Roosevelt and the New Deal, American Catholics were “recognized as a major force in society” and raised to a new level of influence that indicated a transformation in the American political attitude toward the church and in the church’s disposition toward the government.[4]  In the first half of the twentieth century, Catholics achieved sufficient numerical strength at the polls to ensure that their views were embodied in public policy, and the political influence of religious leaders might be considerable.[5]

As the twentieth century proceeded, the social transformation of New England Catholic lay people was dramatic.  Playing out the stereotypical American story of upward mobility, Catholics used the institutions they had built to promote their own advancement across the generations.  Church-affiliated colleges with undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools opened new paths to white-collar jobs, and Catholics eagerly took advantage of them.[6] Catholics became a force to be reckoned with in American society.  The way in which Catholics came to influence the politics of the six states has been the most visible public expression of that dominance.  This did not happen all at once, of course, and it took almost three quarters of the twentieth century before each state had elected a Catholic as governor for the first time:  Rhode Island in 1906, Massachusetts in 1913, New Hampshire in 1936, Connecticut in 1940, Maine in 1954, and finally Vermont in 1972.[7]  Catholics had become a power numerically as well as socially and politically.  But this influence would reach a culmination point.

The election of John Kennedy as president of the United States in 1960 seemed like the pinnacle of political success for New England’s Catholics, and so it was.  Apparently settling once and for all the “Catholic question” about the religion of candidates for the presidency, Kennedy’s victory signaled that Catholics had achieved full acceptance, both regionally and nationally.[8]  This was near the ending of a period of great growth within Catholic ranks in America.  Between 1945 and 1965, American Catholicism experienced a phenomenal growth, one significantly unmatched during the previous twenty years and one not repeated in the post-1965 period.[9]  But what happens when any institution, especially one of religious persuasion, begins to gain power, comfort, prosperity and influence?  The spiritual aspect of that institution inevitably begins to decline.  Could it be that many Catholics jumped on board a bandwagon of progress but didn’t fully accept the religious implications of their association with the church?  The facts seem to point to yes.  Since the 1960s, the practice of confession has fallen off dramatically across the board, with fewer and fewer Catholics of all kinds satisfying the minimum standard.[10]  This quest for materialism and the American Dream inevitably deteriorated the spiritual fiber of American Catholics (as it has to many American Protestants and Evangelicals!).

This change was signified in the central Catholic event of the last century, the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965.  This gathering of bishops from around the world effected major changes in the Church’s understanding of itself and, more immediately, in the way its services were conducted.  The Mass and the other sacraments were now conducted in the vernacular language of the congregation rather than in Latin, a language uniformly foreign to all.  Church buildings were redesigned, and greater openness to other churches and other cultures was encouraged…Catholics in New England were generally unprepared for Vatican II…thus, when the changes of Vatican II arrived in the middle 1960s, they seemed to most New England Catholics to come out of the blue. [11]

A more loosely affiliated Catholicism that was more tolerant of other faiths and less committed to the traditions of the Catholicism of the past led to a greater spiritual apathy among the Catholic laity.  The religious practice of ordinary Catholics, the “men and women in the pews”, changed slowly but inexorably in the aftermath of Vatican II.  Going to church was quite different by the end of the twentieth century from what it had been at the beginning.  Participation by New England Catholics in the Mass and the sacraments was the most evident sign of change.  Though reliable statistics are hard to come by for either the earlier or later period, most estimates pegged weekly Mass attendance among self-identified Catholics at roughly 30 percent by the year 2000, down from 70 percent or higher in 1900.[12]  Parishioners had heard repeatedly that they-not the pope, the bishops, the clergy, or sisters, but they themselves- were the Catholic Church, apparently, they believed it. [13]  But it was clear that a Catholicism based more on the individual did not ignite a greater devotion to the religious and spiritual practices within the faith.


[2] Catholics in America, 67

[3] Religion and Public Life in New England, 47

[4] Catholics in America, 88

[5] Relgion and Public Life in New England, 50

[6] Ibid., 48

[7] Ibid., 49

[8] Ibid., 51

[9] Catholics in America, 93

[10] Religion and Public Life in New England, 53

[11] Ibid., 53-54

[12] Ibid., 55

[13] Ibid., 58

2 thoughts on “Catholicism in the 20th Century

  1. Pingback: What Do Catholics and Protestants Have in Common? « benwhite29

  2. Pingback: One Unified Church??? Scattered Protestants and the Central Institution of Catholicism « benwhite29

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