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Kirchengeschichte: Neuzeit


Hochgeschwender, Michael


Wahrheit, Einheit, Ordnung. Die Sklavenfrage und der amerikanische Katholizismus 1835–1870.


Paderborn-München-Wien-Zürich: Schöningh 2006. 530 S. gr.8°. Geb. EUR 74,00. ISBN 978-3-506-71367-4.


Mark A. Noll

This thoroughly researched book sets a new standard for interpret-ing the engagement of American Catholics with slavery and race in the era of the American Civil War (1861–1865). It is based on important Catholic archives in the United States, an extensive range of secondary sources, and the era’s voluminous Catholic periodical literature. H.’s care in analyzing American Catholicism according to its constituent parts plays special dividends: the concerns of Irish-American Catholics overlapped only partially those of German-American Catholics, while the concerns of these newer immigrant communities were quite different from the interests of elite Catholic communities in Maryland and the French-speaking Creole Catholics of New Orleans and Louisiana. Unlike the former, the latter often owned slaves.
H. demonstrates convincingly that for Catholics in this period of American history, which climaxed in a civil war precipitated by controversy over slavery, slavery itself functioned as only »Chiffre und Instrument« (481). Catholics, whether priests and bishops or the laity, were never as concerned about questions of race and slavery in themselves as they were about how race and slavery affected their integration into American society: »Im Prinzip drehte sich für Katholiken die Sklavenfrage nicht um die Sklaverei« (482). The great merit of this book is to explain how interacting with the broader American environment determined Catholic positions on slavery during the Civil War era and strongly influenced Catholic attitudes toward race deep into the twentieth century. H.’s argument is complex, but can be divided into the following parts:
1) During the 19th century American Catholics faced the daunting task of making their way in an American nation that had been founded by largely Protestant interests and in which a strong revival of evangelical Protestantism had been underway since the early 19th century.
2) American revivalist Protestants advocated several varieties of reform, including abolition (the immediate end of slavery), a reform inspired by the English Protestants who had succeeded in outlawing slavery (1832) in the British empire. From the same evangelical circles came the nativists, like the Know Nothing political party, that blamed immigrants for the United States’ problems and attacked Ro­man Catholicism as both a false religion and a tyrannical threat to republican ideals.
3) These evangelical Protestants were loosely linked with the Whig political party (active 1828–1852) and then more closely associated with the Republican party that in 1860 succeeded in electing its candidate, Abraham Lincoln, as the nation’s president. This election of a candidate pledged to halt the spread of slavery, in turn, precipitated the secession of southern states that led to the Civil War.
4) Catholics of all sorts found themselves always struggling against evangelical, reforming, and nativist forces as they sought to establish themselves in the new world. Politically, a few moderate Catholics had been associated with the Whig party, but after the Republican party took the place of the Whigs, it received almost no Catholic support.
5) Instead, the dynamics of American social development pushed Catholics ineluctably toward the Democratic political party, which, though it too harbored some evangelical and nativist elements, was organized to fend off the reforming efforts of what Democrats regularly labeled meddling »Puritans« or »Yankees«.
6) Abolition was the most radical reform of the era because it affected broad economic issues and touched deep racial prejudice. Although some abolitionists in fact were prepared to abandon Christianity altogether – for example, if it could be shown that the Bible really did tolerate slavery – in the public eye abolition was always associated with the reforms of evangelical and British Protes-tants.
7) By contrast, the Democratic party was the primary home of slave-holders as well as of all other groups, including Catholics, who wanted to be left alone to work out their social and economic destinies by tending to local conditions, needs, and circumstances.
8) For its part, the American Catholic church was attempting to provide cohesion and stability for its relatively small number of traditional adherents as well as for the great burgeoning of Irish and German immigrants who poured into the country from the 1840s. In these rapidly changing circumstances, the Catholic church’s main goals were conservative, as expertly summarized in the title of this book: »Wahrheit, Einheit, Ordnung«.
9) To be sure, American clerics did repeat traditional Catholic teachings on slavery, which had never called slave-holding a sin, but which did include strict guidelines for humanizing the institution by protecting slave marriages, enabling slave religious in­struction, and maintaining the mass as a rite for all the faithful (black and white). In addition, a traditional wariness about unrest-rained capitalism came into play when the church criticized the notion of chattel slavery (treating humans as objects) and the lust for profit that seemed to drive American society as a whole, in-cluding the slave system.
10) If, however, Catholic teaching offered a powerful, if mode­rate voice against the abuses of slavery, that voice never exerted much influence on the Catholic faithful. Rather, Catholics remained more concerned about the threat of radical reform than the abuses of the slave system. When President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (1863) announced the manumission of slaves in the Confed-eracy, even most northern Catholics were only tepid in their support. No Catholic came out four-square for abolition until the Civil War was well underway. And especially Irish Catholics were key participants in riots and other violent resistance to the slavery reforms promoted by the Republican party. In H.’s precise summary, »Katholizimus, Konservatismus, Ordnungs- und Einheitsdenken, antibritische und antiprotestanische Stereotype durchdrangen sich gegenseitig und bildeten das geistige Umfeld für ein fundamental antiabolitionistisches Denken« (194). Within the large population of Catholic immigrants, the Irish were warned off abolition because of its British and nativist associations, while Germans reacted against the abolitionism, liberalism, and anticlericalism of the European supporters of the 1848 Revolutions, who had also migrated to American in great numbers.
11) Tragically, especially lower-class Catholics, often Irish, who were economic competitors with liberated slaves, found them-selves pulled along when the Democratic party after the Civil War allied itself with the Ku Klux Klan and other racist movements to strip blacks of their newly won civil rights. In these circumstances, it was a short step for some Catholics to move from a religiously based ideological antiabolitionism to a racially grounded opposition to African American civil rights.
This summary can only begin to suggest the riches of this book, which includes an excellent brief account of black Catholics (whose­ numbers, not surprisingly, shrank in this period); of the unusual developments in New Orleans with its tri-racial (black, Creole, white) heritage; and of many very interesting individuals who took up issues concerning slavery in some form.
Of criticisms there are very few. H. often refers to the effects of ultramontanism but without every fully defining what he means by this conservative 19th-century force. And despite his wide rang­ing research, he does not fully explore the guidance that American Catholics received from authoritative European sources (that guid-ance is the theme of some of the best current writing on American Catholic history, including Peter D’Agostino, Rome in America: Transnational Catholic Identity from the Risorgimento to Fascism [2004], and John T. McGreevy, Catholics and American Freedom [2003]). But these are trifles when set against the splendid achievements of a splendid book.