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James Andrew Corcoran

Priest; theologian, editor, and Orientalist (1820-1889)

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Corcoran, JAMES ANDREW, theologian, editor, and Orientalist, b. at Charleston, South Carolina, U.S.A., March 30, 1820; d. at Philadelphia, July 16, 1889. In his fourteenth year he was sent to the College of Propaganda, Rome, where he made a brilliant course and was ordained priest December 21, 1842. He was the first native of the Carolinas who received priestly orders. He remained a year longer in Rome to complete his studies and was made doctor in sacred theology. He read with ease the literatures and dialects of Western and Northern Europe, spoke Latin as fluently as his native tongue, and acquired that thorough mastery of the idiom which distinguishes the text of the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore. In addition, he was a profound Semitic scholar, with a special predilection for Syriac. On the death of Bishop England in 1842 he was recalled to Charleston, where he taught in the seminary, doing parochial work in the meantime, and in conjunction with Dr. Lynch edited the “United States Catholic Miscellany”, the first distinctively Catholic literary periodical published in the United States. His position as a Catholic editor naturally involved him in many controversies, one being on the life and teachings of Martin Luther, for which Dr. Corcoran procured from Europe an abundance of Lutherana. He had made great headway with the preparation of a life of Luther, when in 1861 his manuscript and library were destroyed by fire. During the Civil War his sympathies were with the South, and the end of the struggle found him rector of a parish at Wilmington, North Carolina, where he proved his fidelity to pastoral duty during an epidemic of cholera which decimated his little flock. He was made secretary to the Baltimore Provincial Councils of 1855 and 1858; also secretary in chief at the Second Plenary Council of 1866. He was one of the editors of the complete works of Bishop England. In 1868 he was chosen by the unanimous voice of the American hierarchy as their theologian on the commission preparatory to the Vatican Council. He was assigned to the doctrinal commission presided over by Cardinal Billio. During the debates on papal infallibility, a doctrine which he firmly held, he drew up for Archbishop Spalding the famous “Spalding Formula”, destined as an olive-branch, in which the doctrine is rather implied than flatly stated. But those were no days for compromises. While at the council, Bishop Wood of Philadelphia, his school-fellow at the Propaganda, perfected arrangements by which Dr. Corcoran took a theological chair in the newly-opened seminary at Overbrook, near Philadelphia. This position he retained until death, declining, on the plea of advancing years, a call to the Catholic University at Washington. In 1876 the “American Catholic Quarterly Review” was founded, and Dr. Corcoran was made chief editor. His able articles and book notices were the principal source of its success. (For a list of his contributions see General Index of the Review, Philadelphia, 1900, p. 15.) In 1883, when the archbishops of the United States were invited to Rome to prepare for the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, they took Dr. Corcoran with them as secretary, and, at their request, he was permitted to be present and take notes at the sessions held with the three cardinals appointed by Pope Leo XIII as a special commission. The following year he was made a domestic prelate and assisted as secretary at the Plenary Council. That Monsignor Corcoran did not bequeath to posterity works of any great size is explained by the circumstances of his life. He was too busy a man to devote himself to literary pursuits. A great part of his time was occupied with his immense correspondence. He may be said to have been weighted down with “the solicitude of all the Churches”, for such was the confidence which the bishops and clergy reposed in his judgment, that they sought his counsel on all difficult points of theology and canon law. He was apparently unconscious of his great gifts, claiming no superiority, and was extremely affable. His love for the Church, and his loyal adhesion to all her doctrines, were patent in all he said or wrote.


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