American Catholics and a New Century

While the U.S. Catholic Church saw exponential growth during the 19th century, the new century that began in 1900-01 would not only see continued growth, but numerous groundbreaking events for America Catholics. Social issues became more prominent, the organization that would become the United States Council of Catholic Bishops was founded, parochial schools expanded, and the first Catholic was nominated by a major party for president. The early part of the decade was not all positive, as the Church, the country, and the world would be plunged into "The War to End All Wars," and by 1939 would witness the rise of Adolf Hitler.

- The new century began darkly for the United States, when President William McKinley was assassinated September 6, 1901. The assailant was Leon Czolgosz, a Polish immigrant of Catholic heritage. Though his anarchist beliefs would trump his faith prior to the assasination, this article from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Czolgosz reaffirmed his Catholic faith prior to his execution October 29, 1901. Prior to this, this newspaper article reports that Czolgosz's actions were strongly denounced by Polish Catholics in Philadelphia.

- Upon the silver jubilee of Pope Leo XIII in 1902, American bishops sent him congratulations. The pope would return the favor. With Catholics in other countries facing persecution of various kinds, Leo XIII would laud the American Church for having "promoted every kind of Catholic organization with such wisdom as to provide for all necessities and all contingencies, in harmony with the remarkable character of the people of your country."

-Women's suffrage, which had been debated since at least the middle of the 19th century, continued to gain popularity in the early 20th century. However, this part of the century found that many Catholics were not supportive of the idea (as shown in this article from Catholic World),

-The American Church was without a unified voice on national affairs until 1917, when Church leaders formed the National Catholic War Council as a way to participate in the World War I mobilization effort, as well as to be the voice of Catholic concerns in the U.S. This letter by Father John J. Burke to Bishop Peter J. Muldoon asks that the bishop join other leaders at a meeting in Washington D.C. that would establish the NCWC; in addition, it lays out Burke's reasoning for such an organization.

-The 20th century also saw the U.S. Church become more vocal about national social issues. One of the prime examples of this interest was the Bishops' Program of Social Reconstruction (1919)  The program, authored by Father John Ryan, essentially called for the overhauling of politics, the economy, and society in America. Among the items espoused by the Program were government insurance for the sick, unemployed and aged; labor's participation in industrial management; public housing; unions' right to organize, and a "living wage" for all workers.

-Catholic history was made in 1928, when New York Governor, and devout Catholic, Alfred E. Smith won the Democratic nomination for president. Throughout the campaign, Smith would battle anti-Catholic sentiments, and he addressed the matter in a speech in Oklahoma City on September 20, 1928. Smith would lose the election in a landslide to Republican Herbert Hoover, but his candidacy helped pave the way for another Catholic candidate to win the election in 1960, a young senator from Massachusetts named John F. Kennedy.

-The need for the Church to focus on social problems became more evident with the advent of the Great Depression. One of the best known, and controversial, priests of the era was Father Charles Coughlin of Detroit, who advocated social justice for the working class. Initially a supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Coughlin would establish the National Union for Social Justice in 1934 to protest what he felt was the slow pace of reform offered by the New Deal. In a series of addresses on his radio show, Coughlin laid out the tenets of the NUSJ

-As what would become World War II began in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to establish diplomatic ties with the Vatican in order to attempt to promote peace in Europe, something also wished by Pope Pius XII. While war eventually did commence, Roosevelt's envoy, Myron Taylor, would stay in the Vatican as FDR's "eyes and ears" in the region. In this letter to Roosevelt, Pius thanks him for his focus on peace and assures him that Taylor would be warmly received.