Roman Catholicism and U.S. foreign policy - 1919-1935: a clash of policies.

Author:Gribble, Richard

The allied victory in World War I, coupled with the United States' rather quick defeat of Spain twenty years earlier, transformed. America from a satellite nation dependant upon Europe to an emerging world power. While it could be accurately argued that the United States sought a return to its former isolationalist status during the inter-war years, the period was one of significant international activity where America took a new role in world politics. At the same tune, American Catholicism discovered new energy and began to sail on its own, especially after the nation was removed from the supervision of Propaganda Fide in 1908. The Vatican believed the American Church had matured sufficiently to gain its independence, a status that, like the nation as a whole, required a new perspective and method of operation.

This essay looks at the clash between the international policies of the United States and American Catholicism during the inter-war years. During this period, each institution was in transition. The United States was moving from its perennial isolationist stance to worldwide influence; the Roman Catholic Church sought Treater acceptance in the nation after a long history of nativism and anti-Catholicism. A conflict of policies was most observable in the protracted persecution of the Catholic Church in Mexico and the short-lived but strident opposition by American Catholics to the proposed diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union. By examining the efforts of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, led by its general secretary, Paulist Father John J. Burke, and the body's administrative chairman, Archbishop Edward Hanna of San Francisco, this essay will demonstrate how the divergent agendas and beliefs of church and state were applied to secure an outcome beneficial to the nation as a whole.


Problems created by World War I led the American Catholic hierarchy in 1917 to meet collectively for the first time since 1884. (1) In June, two months after America's entry into the European war, Paulist Father and Catholic World editor John J. Burke, Catholic University sociology professor William Kerby, Paulist Father Lewis O'Hern (who was responsible for assigning Catholic chaplains during the War), and the former Secretary of Labor, Charles O'Neill, met in Washington, D.C. to formulate an official Catholic response to the war. (2) As the group's spokesman, Burke consulted with Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore, who approved an August meeting of the hierarchy. Representatives from sixty-eight dioceses and twenty-seven Catholic societies met at The Catholic University of America and formed the National Catholic War Council, "to study, coordinate, unify and put in operation all Catholic activities incidental to the war." (3) An executive committee, chaired by Cardinal George Mundelein of Chicago, was formed in December 1917, to oversee the work of the Council. (4)

After the war ended, Burke and Gibbons led a campaign to establish a permanent bishops' council. The issue of prohibition and the threat of federalization of education necessitated a united Catholic response that only an Episcopal conference could provide. (5) Thus, on 24 September 1919, ninety-five prelates from eighty-seven of the country's one hundred dioceses came together at The Catholic University; the result was the formation of the National Catholic Welfare Council (Conference after 1922), which created five departments: Education, Legislation, Social Action, Lay Organizations, and Press and Publicity, each headed by a bishop. John Burke was appointed general secretary and Archbishop Hanna was elected to chair an administrative committee to manage the nascent body. (6) He described the committee's task: "The Executive Department has to deal directly with the United States government and its numerous departments on matters that affect Catholic interests." (7)


The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and the rise of Communism under Vladimir Lenin, completely changed the relationship between Russia and the rest of the world, including the United States. The threat posed by Communism, with its political and economic ideologies antithetical to American democracy and laissez-fair capitalism, was strongly felt in the United States, especially after World War I. American citizens feared that the Bolshevist influence, which was spreading rapidly in Europe, demanded vigilance to prevent it from penetrating America as well. (8) In 1919, this fear generated the infamous "Red Scare," led by United States Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and future FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Placed on high alert, Americans often saw a ubiquitous communist menace. San Francisco's archdiocesan newspaper, The Monitor, expressed the view of many, "The Real Communist who would establish the Soviet in America by violence must be brought to bay and taught that free America will not stand for the methods that have ruined rich and poor alike in Russia." (9)

Despite calls for moderation from many quarters, raids by Justice Department personnel in the fall and winter of 1919 and 1920 targeted radical groups in general, and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW known best as the Wobblies) and other Bolshevist-leaning organizations in particular. Historian Richard Gid Powers has summarized the situation: "Hoover's raids were so outrageous by any standards of deceiving and legality that they mobilized lawyers, clergymen, and civil libertarians to demand a halt to the antiradical campaign." (10)

Almost simultaneously with the "Red Scare" in the United States, the. Soviet regime launched an offensive against the Orthodox Church. While already stripped of its privileges and properties, the Orthodox Church still retained the unique status as the only institution in Soviet Russia that lay outside the Communist Party's control. The Soviet plot to crush the church was centered on the famine that began in 1921. In an effort to assist the Party, Russian Patriarch Tikhon offered to donate non-consecrated vessels, made of precious and semi-precious metals, to the cause. Lenin, however, rejected the offer, stating that the church must give its consecrated vessels. Although Tikhon offered to raise funds equivalent to the value of the vessels, an order issued on 26 February 1922 stated that churches must be stripped of sacred vessels. As expected, Tikhon refused to comply; his defiance led Tikhon and his associates subject to house arrest as "enemies of the State." Then, on 19 March, Lenin issued a secret memorandum that called for the destruction of the church under the spurious rationale that it had refused to aid in famine relief. The historian Richard Pipes concludes: "The anti-Church campaign of 1922 was meant to destroy, once and for all, what was left of the autonomy of religious bodies--in other words to carry [the] 'October' [revolution] into the ranks of organized religion, the last relic of the old order." (11)

On 22 March, the Commission for the Realization of Valuables, under the direction of Leon Trotsky, ordered the removal and disposition of all church valuables. "Trials" for those accused of obstructing the confiscation process and overthrow of the state began almost immediately, with the result that many were executed. Pipes concludes, "The proceedings were used to demonstrate that the Orthodox Church ... had organized a 'counter-revolutionary' plot." (12)

Catholics responded to the American preoccupation with Communism in several ways. First, they generally viewed Communism as a threat to America's economic system, and, therefore, supported American workers rather than critiquing socialism or promoting capitalism. The Monitor editorialized,

If the United States wishes to prevent the spread of Bolshevism among the working classes, it must speedily find ways and means of destroying the economic foundations of poverty and executing worldwide agreements regarding wages, length of working hours ... [and] physical needs of workers and their families. (13)

Second, although Americans in general were anxious about the terrorism and mayhem created by the Russian Revolution, the American Catholic hierarchy was more concerned with the injustice and religious persecution normative in the new regime. In April 1923, Archbishop Hanna and Bishop Peter Muldoon, representing the NCWC Administrative Committee, asked President Warren Harding to join in protesting death sentences that Soviet authorities had pronounced against Catholic clerics Archbishop John Zepliak and Monsignor Constantine Butchkavitch. (14) The American Catholic concern and support for Christianity in Soviet Russia was best illustrated in a NCWC resolution adopted in September 1924:

We view with pain and deep anxiety the extremely sad plight of the Christian communities of Russia. To them today, in the throes of a religious persecution surpassing in studied cruelty the fearful sufferings of the early Christians, we extend our heartfelt sympathy.

Speaking in the name of twenty millions of Catholics of this republic, and supported, we are sure, in this, our action, by the liberty-loving Christian millions of America, we condemn the wholly unjust attitude of the present Russian government, opposed as it is to the fundamental principles of justice and repugnant to the best sentiments of all Christian people. We furthermore declare that we are ready to aid in every way possible our suffering brethren, bishops, priests, and the people of Russia. (15)

In a more favorable light, the NCWC served as a federally, funded authorized agent for Russian famine relief, a situation that had become critical in the Soviet Union after five years of war and revolution. While the Vatican was in the process of negotiating its entry into the Soviet Union with its communist government, the Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, through his American Relief...

To continue reading