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The Urban Legend of Catholic Schools

When the Supreme Court ruled on displays of the Ten Commandments on public property last June, few realized that Catholic urban legends played a major role in the legal debate. But the fear of the role of Catholic schools in American society lies behind many of the legal precedents for the Court ruling. Clearly, Catholic urban legends—though usually silly, non-historical, and based on anti-Catholic propaganda—are nothing to take lightly. They can have serious results.

A set of urban legends regarding Catholic schools developed in nineteenth-century America. Social historians today see Catholic schools primarily as a means for educating immigrant children who were social outcasts in the public schools. But the popular view at the time was that they were created to “inculcate impressionable minds with fallacious teachings,” to use the words of a widely circulated anti-Catholic newspaper. Thousands of anti-Catholic tracts and newspaper editorials portrayed Catholic schools as anti-Bible, anti-American, and set on raiding the public till to bring about the destruction of the public school system. Throw out the anti-Bible accusation and you can essentially find the same rhetoric aimed at Catholic schools today.

Catholic schools began in the United States as the Church’s response to a publicly funded school system that was essentially Protestant. The Bible—specifically the King James Version, complete with its warnings about the dangers of “popery”—was seen in Protestant America as a universal document that stood above doctrinal divisions within Protestantism. The public schools were not Presbyterian or Congregationalist, but use of the King James with its underlying Protestant assumptions was the foundation of the public school system.

The debate over school funding began to evolve into an anti-Catholic movement during the battle over the “common schools” in New York City that began in 1840. The New York City schools at that time were funded by the state through the Public School Society. A primary goal of the society was “to inculcate the sublime truths of religion and morality contained in the Holy Scriptures” and to assure that Bible exercises were included in the schools it controlled. The Public School Society funded schools that were generically “Christian.” These were “common” schools sharing in the “common” understanding of Protestant Christianity rather than those operated by a specific Protestant congregation, since “no school can be common unless all the parents of all religious sects . . . can send their children to it . . . without doing violence to their religious beliefs.”

Such assurances, though, did not apply to the growing Irish Catholic population in the city. It was accepted as a matter of fundamental pedagogy that a general Protestant understanding of Scripture and devotional life was central to the curriculum. As such, the schools were not very subtle tools for proselytizing the growing Irish Catholic immigrant population.

Within the common schools in New York City—and elsewhere—daily Scripture readings from the King James were required. Prayers, songs, and general religious instruction at odds with Catholic belief were the norm. Anti-Catholic sentiments extended throughout the curriculum, and references to deceitful Catholics, murderous inquisitions, Church corruption, conniving Jesuits, and the pope as the anti-Christ of Revelation were commonplace.

In response to such bigotry, Catholic parishes began to develop their own schools. By 1840 in New York City, approximately 5,000 children attended eight Catholic schools. But at least 12,000 more Catholic children either attended no school or were enrolled in the common schools, where their faith was insulted daily.

The firestorm began when William H. Seward, the newly elected governor of the state, addressed the issue in a legislative message delivered in January 1840. He recommended the “establishment of schools in which [immigrants] may be instructed by teachers speaking the same language with themselves and professing the same faith.” In response, Catholic schools in New York City petitioned the common council for a share of the state school fund distributed through the Public School Society. The society’s response resonates with today’s rhetoric.

The society argued that by funding Catholic schools, money would be dissipated and the public schools would collapse. The “sectarian” nature of Catholic education, the society argued, was not fit for use of public funds. The common council agreed and the Catholic petition was denied.

It was then that Bishop John Hughes of New York stepped into the picture. Blasting the Public School Society for corrupting Catholic children, Hughes submitted a renewed petition demanding Catholics be given a portion of the state funds for schooling. The petition was answered by both the Public School Society and the Methodist churches of New York. The Methodist clergy argued that no school should be funded that teaches children that heretics should be murdered and that papal authority should be upheld.

The common council scheduled a debate on the issue for late October 1840. At the debate, Catholics were portrayed as irreligious idol worshipers bent on the murder of all Protestants. Anti-Catholics argued that a Church that teaches young children a system of beliefs based on idolatry, superstition, and violent opposition to the Holy Bible should not be receiving any public funds.

The parameters of the debate were set—and would be adhered to virtually to our own day. On the one hand, Catholics had been forced to set up their own schools because of the overwhelmingly Protestant nature of the public school system, and they wanted a share of the public funding set aside for the general education of children. On the other hand, the public school system viewed itself as the only educational instrument for the common culture of America and that the existence of Catholic schools endangered that system. The specious argument was that if Catholics obtained public funding, public schools would be financially gutted.

The image was created—the Catholic urban legend was formed—of Catholic schools demanding the right to deplete the public treasury for their nefarious activity. The Catholic schools, the legend would have it, existed purely to propagate a mindset rooted in Catholic beliefs. They didn’t educate; they merely proselytized. They existed solely to convey sectarian indoctrination under the guise of education. While rocks were thrown, violence was minimal in New York during the debate over the schools. Such was not the case in Philadelphia. In 1843, Bishop Francis Patrick Kenrick of Philadelphia asked the local school committee to excuse Catholic students from reading the King James Version and from daily Protestant exercises. When the school committee permitted Catholic students in the common schools to read their own translation of the Bible, nativists claimed that this was merely the first step to an outright ban on Bible reading in the schools. With a growing anti-Irish sentiment already strong in the city, the dispute erupted in a violent series of riots in 1844 that saw the bishop flee the city, thirteen people killed, and five Catholic churches burned to the ground.

But the Catholics kept immigrating. In response, nativist groups such as the anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party grew in size and political power. A primary goal of the Know Nothings was protection of the Protestant nature of the common schools. In addition to passing laws mandating reading of the King James Bible and maintaining Protestant devotions in the common schools, they worked to enact measures barring any public funds to Catholic schools.

The popular appeal of the Know Nothing Party prior to the Civil War was based on a growing anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiment fueled in no small part by the public school question. Catholics were portrayed as drunken, un-American Bible-burners eager to rob the public till to pass on their superstitious beliefs to a new generation. The Know Nothing Party combined nativism, temperance, and anti-slavery postures into a potent political force that would dominate in Northern state houses in the late 1850s.

As the Know Nothings gained power, they took particular aim at Catholic schools. In the 1854 elections in Massachusetts, they secured complete dominance in both houses and won the governor’s office. They immediately adopted an amendment to the Massachusetts constitution that barred use of public funds for “any religious sect for the maintenance exclusively of its own school.”

The amendment’s proponents were open about their motives:

If gentlemen say that the resolution has a strong leaning towards Catholics, and is intended to have special reference to them, I am not disposed to deny that it admits of such interpretation. I am ready to say to our fellow Catholic citizens: You may come here and meet us on the broad principles of civil and religious liberty, but if you cannot meet us upon this common ground, we do not ask you to come.

The goal of the Know Nothings in Massachusetts and elsewhere was the same: to make Catholic schools financially unfeasible so that Catholic children would be immersed in American Protestant culture in the public schools. In their anti-Catholic zeal, the Know Nothings of Massachusetts also passed a “nunnery inspection” law that included Catholic schools. Committees were to investigate certain unnamed “practices” allegedly taking place within these Catholic institutions, a common enough belief based on decades of popular anti-Catholic literature boldly proclaiming immoral activity and “white slavery” conditions in convents. The so-called Nunnery Committee undertook three special investigations, all at Catholic schools.

In the era after the Civil War, anti-Catholic fervor over the school question coalesced in the movement to legislate so-called Blaine amendments into state constitutions. President Ulysses S. Grant (1868–76) was well known for his Know Nothing sympathies and had belonged to the party prior to the Civil War. In 1875, Grant called for a constitutional amendment that would mandate free public schools and prohibit the use of public money for “sectarian” schools, a description universally understood to apply to Catholic schools. It was clear that Grant’s concern was rooted in his anti-Catholicism, fearing a future with “patriotism and intelligence on one side and superstition, ambition and greed on the other,” which he identified with the Catholic Church.

Senator James G. Blaine of Maine had proposed such an amendment to the Constitution in 1874. It read, in part:

No money raised by taxation in any state for the support of public schools, or derived from any public source, nor any public lands devoted thereto, shall ever be under the control of any religious sect, nor shall any money so raised or land so devoted be divided between religious sects or denominations.

The constitutional amendment was narrowly defeated in 1875, but it became the model incorporated into thirty-four state constitutions over the next three decades. They have come down to us today. Thirty-one states presently have Blaine amendments (or amendments derived from the Blaine formula) in their constitutions forbidding state aid to Catholic schools.

But the Blaine amendments did not end Protestant services in public schools. Well into the twentieth century, public schools routinely conducted such services and identified themselves by a generically Christian environment, a fact that holds true today in many parts of the country, despite Supreme Court rulings to the contrary. The public schools began to become secularized—and then only in urban America—only in the 1930s with the influx of the new professional public educators inculcated with the teaching philosophy of John Dewey. Even at that point, the impetus for such secularization came from the teaching community, not through judicial or legislative mandate.

Blaine amendments themselves were squarely aimed at Catholic schools; they were never interpreted to apply to public schools that were legitimately Protestant and reflected that “Protestant hegemony.” Court decisions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries routinely held that the prohibition on funding “sectarian” schools did not prohibit funding public schools that were religious but only schools with religions that conflicted with the common Protestant culture. In a 1903 Nebraska court ruling, for example, it was stated that constitutional prohibition against sectarian instruction:

cannot, under any canon of construction which we are acquainted, be held to mean that neither the Bible, nor any part of it, from Genesis to Revelation, may be read in the educational institutions fostered by the state.

In general, the courts paid little attention to Catholic schools themselves. As long as the Church was not attempting to secure the use of public funds, the judiciary left the schools alone. But in 1922 the state of Oregon, under Ku Klux Klan pressure, passed a law requiring that all children between the ages of eight and sixteen attend the public schools. The nuns who operated Catholic schools in Oregon challenged the law, and the case ultimately made it to the Supreme Court. In 1925, it declared the law unconstitutional. If nothing else, the Court guaranteed that at least Catholic schools were allowed to exist as it affirmed “the liberty of parents and guardians to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control.”

After World War II and in light of the 1925 Oregon school decision, Catholics once again began to seek public aid for schools while, concurrently, the public schools themselves began the movement from essentially Protestant entities to secular institutions. It was at this point that the Supreme Court began to move aggressively to apply the establishment clause to issues of Catholic school funding.

Under Chief Justice Hugo Black—a former KKK member and bitter anti-Catholic—the Supreme Court in a series of rulings declared Catholic school funding unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds. In Everson v. Board of Education (1947), the Court upheld the constitutionality of a New Jersey law allowing free school bus transportation for parochial school students. Yet the Everson decision was critical, because for the first time the Supreme Court read into the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment the First Amendment’s non-establishment clause. In applying the establishment clause, the Court moved quickly to complete the secularization of public schools so enamored by the new class of professional educators. At the same time, the Catholic nature of a private institution was the determining factor in rejecting any public aid, even when such aid was directed to the children or the parents.

Following the Everson precedent, the Supreme Court addressed the issue of aid to Catholic schools—or Catholic educators, parents and children—as a violation of the establishment clause. In Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), where the court struck down state legislation permitting supplementary salary payments to parochial school teachers, Justice William Douglas quoted Loraine Boettner’s Roman Catholicism, a virulently anti-Catholic book. (Among the quotes in Boettner’s book: “The lesson of history is that Romanism means the loss of religious liberty and the arrest of national progress.”)

Douglas’s concurrence in Lemon reads like a Know Nothing tract:

In the parochial schools Roman Catholic indoctrination is included in every subject. History, literature, geography, civics and science are given a Roman Catholic slant. The whole education of the child is filled with propaganda. That, of course, is the very purpose of such schools. . . . That purpose is not so much to educate, but to indoctrinate and train, not to teach Scripture truths and Americanism, but to make loyal Roman Catholics.

Douglas was essentially making the same arguments as the Public School Society of New York in the nineteenth century.

The combination of a series of Supreme Court decisions from Everson through the 1990s had a dramatic effect on religious expression in the public arena. Bureaucrats in public institutions began a virtual purge of faith-based speech and expression that would soon extend to private businesses and institutions as well. All because of the Catholic urban legend of Catholic schools as un-American institutions brainwashing innocent children.


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