Old World Religion, New World Conflict

While Catholic soldiers always prove an interesting focus for research, the Catholic Church as an entity was uncharacteristically silent from 1861-5. As this article investigates, this may have been due to the Church having a dog(ma) in each side of the fight.

On the eve of the Civil War, as citizens were taking sides, and taking up arms, leading Unionists questioned where the Church stood on the issues of slavery and secession. In May 1861, the Third Provincial Council of Cincinnati attempted to clarify the Catholic position on the crisis. The Council stated that the “spirit of the Catholic Church is eminently conservative and while her ministers rightfully feel a deep and abiding interest in all that concerns the welfare of the country, they do not think it their province to enter the political arena.” It further elaborated on the Catholic “unity of spirit” that recognized “no North, no South, no East, no West.” Yet historian Mark Noll states that the American Catholic position, while not as “fully developed domestically as they were abroad” created a theological challenge to prevailing American beliefs. Catholics challenged the Protestant notions that linked democracy and Christianity, capitalism and Christianity, and the individualism Protestants interpreted from scripture. Noll stated in his book The Civil War as a Theological Crisis that the Catholic position “amounted to a fundamental assessment of prevailing beliefs and practices that American protestants, whose main principles were so closely intertwined with the nation’s dominant ideologies, could not deliver.” Northern theologians could not understand Catholic misgivings about the abolitionist movement, with its willingness to break the law for its goals, and Know Nothing roots, while Southern radicals could not abide the Church’s sympathy for and identification with the plight and suffering of slaves. Furthermore, while Protestant denominations split along sectional lines and theological interpretations of slavery, even to the point of advocating war, the Catholic Church seemed maddeningly united and suspiciously neutral during the secession crisis.


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