Is God Using the Catholic Church to Awaken America?

One of the biggest stories in the U.S. this past week has been the uproar over the Obamacare provisions being handed down by the Department of Health and Human Services. The new mandates force religiously-affiliated organizations to dispense contraceptives against their consciences in violation of long-held religious freedom.

All week national Christian leaders decried the action. On Friday, radio commentator Sean Hannity held a “Crisis Forum” on the issue. The nation’s most watched cable network trumpeted  the danger against religious liberty almost every hour. And yesterdy, I attended a private gathering of Washington State leaders to hear a major Republican presidential candidate speak to the issue.

Do you know what these national leaders, Sean Hannity, the cable news network and presidential candidate all have in common?

They are Catholics.

Is God using the Catholic Church to awaken America?

If He is, it would be quite ironic.

The first three spiritual awakenings in America history were led by fervent Protestants whose Bible-based convictions called the nation to repentance, faith and active involvement in the moral issues of their day. During America’s first two hundred years, it was the Protestant side of the Church that promoted strong families, railed against the excesses of alcoholism, and led the charge against the evil of slavery.

There was a reason for this. At the time of the American Revolution, Catholics formed only 1.6% of the population of the thirteen colonies.

But by 1850, Catholics had become the country’s largest single denomination. Between 1860 and 1890, their population in the United States tripled through immigration. By the end of the decade it reached  seven million. This influx would eventually bring increased scrutiny for the Catholic Church and a greater cultural presence which led to a growing fear of the Catholic “problem” among America’s Protestants.

In fact, it was quite common in the 18th and early 19th centuries for Catholics to be marginalized in American society as heretics, Papists, and condescendingly described as “anti-Christ.” Some anti-Catholic political movements like the Know Nothings, and organizations like the Orange Institution, American Protective Association, and the Ku Klux Klan, actively persecuted Catholic believers.

In fact, for most of the history of the United States, Catholics were victims of discrimination and persecution. It was not until the presidency of John F. Kennedy in 1960 that Catholics were broadly accepted in the US.

The Philadelphia Nativist Riot, Bloody Monday, the Orange Riots in New York City in 1871 and 1872, and The Ku Klux Klan-ridden South discriminated against Catholics (as they did the Jews and African Americans) for their Irish, Italian, Polish, German, or Spanish ethnicity. Many Protestants in the Midwest and the North labeled Catholics as “anti-American Papists,” “incapable of free thought without the approval of the Pope.”

During the Mexican-American War, Mexicans were portrayed as “backward” because of their “Papist superstition.” In reaction to this attitude, some hundred American Catholics, mostly recent Irish immigrants, fought on the Mexican side. However, the majority of Catholic soldiers (primarily the Irish), along with their chaplains like John McElroy (Jesuit), who later founded Boston College, proved loyal to the American cause.

In 1850, Franklin Pierce, the US Attorney for the District of New Hampshire, presented resolutions for the removal of restrictions on Catholics from holding office in that state, as well as the removal of property qualifications for voting. But these pro-Catholic measures were soundly defeated by the Protestant population.

If you were a Catholic back then, you couldn’t even run for office!

As the 19th century progressed, animosity between Protestants and Catholics began to cool off. Many Protestant Americans came to understand that, despite anti-Catholic rhetoric, Catholics were also people of faith and were on their side of the issues. Another reason was that many Irish-Catholic immigrants fought alongside their Protestant compatriots in the American Civil War.

In the 20th century, and culminating in JFK’s election, Catholic believers moved into the mainstream in American society.

Today, according to a new 2011 study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, the US Catholic population is currently 77.7 million. The United States has the fourth largest Catholic population in the world, after Brazil, Mexico, and the Philippines. In fact, in 2011,  there are more than four times as many Catholics as Southern Baptists and more than eight times as many as United Methodists.

I understand some of the past suspicion over the Catholic Church. Hundreds of years of European Church corruption and persecution had fueled a Post-Reformation hatred of the Holy See. The church’s focus on rituals, perceived idolatry of the Virgin Mary and other patron saints didn’t sit well with Protestants. In the 20th century, evangelicals insisted that followers of Christ needed to be born again and follow the teachings of the Bible–not a fallible Pope.

But today, the tables have turned. It’s the Protestants who are asleep and the Catholics that are living out their faith.

I noticed the change in the 1980s while living in Washington, D.C. After the infamous Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, my young family attended many of the large pro-life rallies that marched against abortion. I expected to find my fellow evangelicals leading the procession.

Didn’t happen. What we did find was a passionate and powerful Catholic Church that was leading the way. In the early days, the Protestants and evangelicals were AWOL. Today they are more involved, but the Catholic Church is still the champion against abortion in this nation.

And when the brouhaha broke out this week over the Obamacare mandates, it was the Catholic Church that rose to speak for religious liberty. New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan said that he felt betrayed by President Obama and vowed that the Catholic Church would fight the new regulations even if they had to do it “in the streets.”

After President Obama blinked and modified (but didn’t really change) the rules, Archbishop Charles Chaput had even harsher words for the insurance-company-as-middleman approach. “Many Catholics are confused and angry. They should be… The HHS mandate, including its latest variant, is belligerent, unnecessary, and deeply offensive… We cannot afford to be fooled–yet again.”

Protestants and evangelicals are now joining the issue, but it is the Catholics who are really taking up the prophetic mantle. It’s as if the evangelical church–pre-occupied and neutralized by trying to be seeker-sensitive in the modern world–has abandoned its prophetic call and commitment to be salt and light in the culture.

So the Catholics have arisen to awaken the nation and Church.

  • The national leaders I mentioned at the beginning are primarily Catholics. Many read a letter in their parishes last week calling the people and nation to fight for freedom of conscience.
  • Sean Hannity is a Catholic believer. He hosted a leader’s summit on prime-time television that was primarily manned by Catholic clergy.
  • Fox News was founded by Roger Ailes, a Roman Catholic, and many of its commentators including Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and Megan Kelly, are Catholics.
  • And Rick Santorum is a rising Catholic Republican presidential contender.

C’mon my Protestant and Evangelical friends! The Catholic Church is putting us to shame while we twiddle our thumbs and tip toe around the great moral issues of our day.

Maybe Penny Young Vance is right: We’re all Catholics Now.  Or maybe we better be.

Because God seems to be using the Catholic Church to awaken America.



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