Early American Catholicism – The Priestless Church

[This is part one of a summary of James O’Toole’s The Faithful, a history of Catholics in America that focuses on the devotional and religious experience of American Catholics, as Catholics and as Americans.]

Few Catholics  On the eve of Revolution, there were few Catholics in the British colonies. Since Catholicism was discouraged by establishment Protestantism, most Catholics were scattered groups of immigrants, banded together by a common ethnicity. This combination of minority ethnicity with minority religion fused many Catholics into tight social units. Some did abandon their religion and join the cultural mainstream, but many more remained devoted, even though it was far from clear how to practice Catholicism under the conditions of colonial America.

Fewer Priests  The primary challenge for American Catholics was a shortage of priests. The ratio in many places was 1000 Catholics to 1 priest. Almost all priests were itinerant, meaning that a particular band of Catholics might see a priest only once every several years. If a priest was of substandard quality, there was no recourse. Any religion would suffer from a shortage of ministers, but Catholicism is especially handicapped under such circumstances. According to Catholics, only priests can baptize. Parents of unbaptized children may have to wait years for the sacrament; if their children should die in the meantime, the best they could hope for was that their children would remain in limbo, a place free both of torment and bliss. Only priests could administer the Eucharist, the central act of Catholic devotion. Only they could hear confession, absolving sinning Christians from the temporal penalties of their transgressions. When a priest did arrive in a remote area, they tended to stay for several days as Catholics gradually arrived from miles away. Confessions and baptisms could fill hours or even days, sometimes delaying the celebration of the Mass.

Individual Devotion  A unique Catholic lay spirituality emerged under these conditions. Devotional manuals and prayer books instructed heads of household to read Scripture texts and “reflections” aloud, and to recite prayers. Many were organized around the Church calendar, providing “an internal logic and a rhythm that lay people could feel.” These manuals are remarkable both for what they emphasize and for what they do not. Lacking regular confession, they led readers through examinations of their conscience. They encouraged the cultivation of inner virtues, including love and devotion to Jesus. Relatively absent from them are prayers to the saints, devotion to Mary, and attachment to the papacy. They were perhaps more “Protestant,” in that they offered a view of the spiritual life that rendered the institutional and sacramental aspects of Catholicism peripheral.

Catholics as Americans   After America gained independence from Britain, most Catholics viewed themselves as American citizens, committed to the ideals of freedom of religion and republican government. The Protestant mainstream was feeling more tolerant as well, partly because of the low status of the papacy and small number of Catholics at the time. Yet, there was the lingering question of how American Catholics would square their allegiance to a foreign figure —particularly one known for political meddling — with their commitment to American ideals. Most significantly, Catholicism was seen as the prime religious example of hierarchical principles, diametrically opposed to the republican political and religious principles embraced by America. Tensions caused by these principles would fuel controversy both among Catholics and between Catholics and non-Catholics.

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Published in: on June 30, 2011 at 11:21 am  Comments (2)  
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  1. Just a clarification, not sure if the info was from you or from the book, but the Catholic Church has always maintained that anyone can baptize, even a layperson. Otherwise, we could not accept Protestant baptisms since, according to Catholic ecclesiology, all Protestants are laypersons.

    • Thanks for the info. I just moved, and don’t have ready access to the book right now, but I remember O’Toole making a big deal of it and the issues surrounding limbo. When I can, I’ll examine that portion more closely. Regardless of the reason, unless O’Toole is completely wrong, these early Catholics were waiting for priests to perform baptism.


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