2016-06-30
Two years ago, nearly all the bishops under consideration to succeed Cardinal John O'Connor in New York were Irish-Americans--as O'Connor himself was. Naturally enough, one might assume. The patron saint of the New York archdiocese, after all, is Saint Patrick, and its seat, St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan, is among the most famous Catholic churches in America and a major tourist stop. Built by the pennies and labor of 19th-century Irish immigrants, the cathedral is a monument to the sacrifices and faith of the ethnic group that has set the defining stamp on American Catholicism nearly since its founding. Indeed, of the nearly 500 American bishops appointed between the Revolution and the middle of the 20th century, around 60 percent had Irish surnames.

Yet few of the current Irish bishops are young, and it has been more than three decades--since the end of the Second Vatican Council--since young men of Irish descent entered the Catholic priesthood in disproportionate numbers to their percentage of the American Catholic population. The once-dominant Irish are in the process of fading out as the face of American Catholicism. Yes, they have achieved astonishing success in business and the professions since World War II, and they still play an instrumental role in the American Catholic Church's fundraising efforts. But as the 21st century moves forward, Latinos are already taking the place of the Irish as the group whose traditions--and faith--will define the American Church over the coming decades.

What happened to the Irish? The short answer is that their Catholic fervor fell victim to their material success. The distinctively Irish nature of American Catholicism for so many years was partly due to sheer numbers: More than 2 million Irish Catholics fled to the United States between the potato famine of the 1840s and the U.S. Civil War, and millions more immigrated here afterward.

But there was another factor: a sense of besiegement by a dominant Protestant culture that engendered a strong feeling of group identity among the Irish and strong religious loyalties. Persecuted for their Catholicism in their native Ireland, the immigrants retained a fierce devotion to the faith of their ancestors. Unlike the Italians (also Catholics and also immigrants in droves to America), whose culture contained a streak of anticlericalism dating from the beginning of the 19th century, the Irish wholeheartedly encouraged their young men to become priests, and they regarded the clergy as the true leaders of an embattled community. They brought this devotion with them when they crossed the Atlantic, along with a feeling that they had been expelled from their homeland in some sense because, as Catholics, they were denied basic rights by an oppressive Protestant elite.


The Irish thus quickly came to dominate the American priesthood, and those priests often reflected their community's assumption that the outside world was hostile and threatening.
Their worldview found its expression in the eight-foot walls that surrounded old Saint Patrick's Cathedral in downtown Manhattan, the still-standing predecessor of the tourist attraction on Fifth Avenue. The Civil War-era prelate of that church, the Irish-born Bishop John Hughes, was a powerful leader of his people who spearheaded the drive to build the far grander edifice that is today's St. Patrick's so that the Irish could take pride in their religious heritage. Like so many of his Irish successors in America, Hughes believed in Catholic self-segregation from mainstream American culture. He and his successors over the decades built the huge infrastructure of Catholic schools and hospitals, a veritable parallel Catholic universe of social services which, ironically enough, now serve mostly poor non-Catholics in America's large cities.

In the early '60s, three events coincided that both marked the zenith of Irish influence over American Catholicism and hastened its decline. The election of John F. Kennedy as president in 1960 did more than heal the wounds of his fellow Irish Catholic Al Smith's defeat in 1928. It ended that distinctively Irish sense of eternal siege that had prevailed since the first days of post-famine immigration. With the urbane, Harvard-educated Kennedy at America's helm, its mainstream Protestant culture no longer seemed as hostile, as unwelcoming, to the Irish as it had for the better part of the 19th and early 20th centuries. With Kennedy in the White House, the spirit of Hughes could rest easy.

Even as Kennedy took the oath of office, another transforming event was under way in the urban parishes the Irish clergy once ruled with the authority of Gaelic chieftains. The Irish began leaving the old neighborhoods for the promise of the suburbs, where the old sense of identity, of social cohesion, of a shared communal spirit, quickly shattered.


And then came Vatican II, which put the finishing touches on the old Catholic religion ways--such as unquestioning obedience to the clergy--ways that the Irish in America had defined, implemented, and mastered. In a matter of a few years, all the certainties of American Catholicism as the Irish understood them no longer seemed so certain. Priests no longer were the ultimate authority figures; they would now share at least a portion of their power with the lay people of the parish. The ecumenical spirit of Vatican II made Irish-Catholic suspicion of Protestant America politically incorrect. (Many Catholics of a certain age no doubt recall warnings from their Irish parish priest never to cross the threshold of a Protestant church, even in the unlikely event that they were invited to a Protestant wedding.)

These changes did not challenge completely the Irish influence over American Catholicism. Indeed, post-Vatican II teachings on social justice, poverty, labor, housing, and other issues actually reaffirmed the spirit of such leading 19th-century Irish-American Catholic clergymen as Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore, whose support for unions made him a hero to Irish-American workers.

But Vatican II, combined with Kennedy's election, which suggested the end of the Irish-Catholic search for acceptance in America, and the exodus from the old urban parishes, signaled the beginning of an end to Irish domination of the American church. While about half of the 44 million Irish in America are Catholic (the surprisingly low percentage is due to the fact that many American Protestants who once claimed to be "British" or "Scotch-Irish" are now proudly claiming pure Irish ancestry), they no longer send their sons into the priesthood the way they used to. Indeed, those sons (and daughters) now typically attend public schools and secular universities, choose secular careers, and marry outside the faith.

Religion is no longer a badge of cultural identity, as it was in Ireland and in mid-century America. Ethnicity--Irishness without the Catholicism--has trumped religion, as least among many of the middle-class young. And that change is evident throughout the country: If your parish priest is named Quinn or Sullivan, odds are that he is not many years away from retirement.

Latinos are now the fastest-growing ethnic group in American Catholicism. While they may not have contributed an Irish-size share of the priesthood (there is an Italian-style tradition of anticlericalism in Mexico and other Latin counties), Hispanics in America have generally retained a strong Catholic faith, face similar pressures from the cultural majority, and tend to live in their own distinctive subcultures reminiscent of the old urban Irish-Catholic parishes.

And yet it would be incorrect to announce the end of an era. Yes, the Irish don't run the American Catholic Church the way they used to. But a careful look at American Catholicism reveals that the Irish contribution to American Catholicism will not be so easily swept away. Today, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, St. Patrick's School, connected to Old St. Patrick's church, continues its mission of educating young city dwellers--the very mission of service that Bishop John Hughes and his successors instituted for the Irish more than 150 years ago. The children attending St. Patrick's are now nearly all Asian and non-Catholic. But the education they are receiving is a tribute to the enduring influence of the Irish on the institutions of their faith.

For it was the Irish who built those institutions, that network of church buildings, schools, and hospitals, that still make up the bulk of the American Catholic physical infrastructure. And it was more than just bricks and mortar. The Irish nurtured the Catholic faith when it came under attack from the Protestant majority, and they eventually proved to a skeptical nation that Catholics could indeed be as American as any other group. The Irish may be diminishing as a cultural force within American Catholicism, but the Irish institutional legacy--the creation of organizations that are still models of effective education and service--and the memory of Irish devotion--will continue to nourish the Church, and new waves of harried ethnic Catholics, far into the new century.

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