Anti-Catholicism Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Rooted in antipapist feelings brought to the New World by Protestant English colonists, prejudice against Catholics shaped attitudes of those residing in the United States toward Catholic immigrants. Campaigns to deny Catholics basic rights persisted throughout the nineteenth century, leading to discrimination against immigrant populations from predominantly Catholic countries and forcing Catholic newcomers to demonstrate that they were loyal Americans and not tools of the papacy.

Anti-Catholicism was a fixture in the British North American colonies, where Protestants of every denomination were united in their antipathy for the Roman Catholic pope and his followers, and institutionalized discrimination against Catholics was commonplace. After the formation of the republic, the guarantee of freedom of religion in the U.S. Constitution, coupled with the low number of Catholics in the country, led to a reduction in overt discrimination, although individual prejudices among the Protestant majority still existed. Beginning in the 1820’s, however, when Catholics from Germany and Ireland began arriving in the United States by the thousands, latent hostility erupted in a series of overt efforts to control what was portrayed as a potential menace to the new American nation.Roman Catholics;opposition toNativism;and anti-Catholicism[antiCatholicism]Anti-Catholic movements[AntiCatholic movements]Roman Catholics;opposition toNativism;and anti-Catholicism[antiCatholicism]Anti-Catholic movements[AntiCatholicmovements][cat]ANTI-IMMIGRANT MOVEMENTS AND POLICIES;Anti-Catholicism[00230][cat]STEREOTYPES;Anti-Catholicism[00230][cat]NATIVISM;Anti-Catholicism[00230][cat]RELIGION;Anti-Catholicism[00230]

Anti-Catholicism Prior to the Civil War

By the 1820’s, those already settled in America had begun to see new immigrants as a threat to the economic stability of the nation, and the fact that so many entering the country after that time were Catholics provided an easy excuse to target the newcomers as foreigners whose presence threatened the civic values of the new nation. Catholics were seen as being loyal first to their church, and orphanages, refuges, hospitals, and schools established by Catholic religious orders were condemned as incubators of un-American values. Dozens of anti-Catholic pamphlets and books appeared touting the notion that the pope was in league with foreign heads of state to overthrow the American government. Prominent among these was inventor Morse, Samuel F. B.Samuel F. B. Morse’s Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States (Morse)Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States (1835), a virulent attack charging that these new immigrants were being used as dupes in a conspiracy to turn America into a vassal state of the papacy.

Numerous evangelical groups sprang up to counter the alleged Catholic threat, often sending Missionaries;and anti-Catholic movement[antiCatholic movement]missionaries to meet ships containing immigrants to urge them to convert to Protestantism upon arrival in their new homeland. During the 1840’s, the Native American Party, later known as the Know-Nothing Party[Know Nothing Party]Know-Nothing Party, emerged as a political force, campaigning on a platform to keep Catholics out of public office. Efforts by these groups made it difficult for new immigrants to assimilate quickly and often prompted more radical Protestants to engage in violent acts against churches and Catholic establishments.

Later Anti-Roman Catholic Campaigns

Although anti-Catholicism subsided for a time during and after the Civil War, a new wave of hysteria about the influence of Catholic immigrants rose during the 1870’s, largely as a result of an influx of Catholics from Italy and eastern Europe. Once again, immigrants were seen as a threat to the economic prosperity of those already residing in the country, and the newcomers’ religion became an easy way to stir up antagonism among the Protestant majority. The most prominent group to emerge during this new round of anti-Catholic activity was the American Protective AssociationAmerican Protective Association, which was highly influential during the 1890’s. Strongly linked with the Progressive movement that swept the nation at the turn of the twentieth century, this group sponsored a number of newspapers and journals that called readers’ attention to the menace posed by large groups of citizens seen to be intensely loyal to a foreign power.

By this time, Catholics had established political presence in a number of American cities, and most Catholic politicians were Democrats. The overwhelming tendency for Catholics to vote Democratic gave further ammunition to those who argued that Catholics could not be trusted to think independently; eventually, it was claimed, Catholics would be led to support leaders and laws inimical to traditional American values of individual liberty and freedom of choice. At the same time, leaders of the temperance movement targeted Catholic immigrant populations as being morally inferior, since their cultural values encouraged consumption of alcohol. As had happened before the Civil War, as a result of these attacks new Catholic immigrants found it difficult to become fully accepted in American society and were often forced to remain in geographic and social enclaves for support and protection.

By the end of World War I, anti-Catholic attacks on immigrant populations had begun to wane. While there remained within the country a tendency to distrust Catholics (evidenced by the Presidential electionsVoting;presidential electionsvoting patterns in the 1928 presidential election, when Catholic Al Smith received only a small percentage of Protestant votes), by midcentury the impact of such prejudice on newly arriving Catholics was minimal. While the new wave of Catholic immigrants from Latin America and Asia who began arriving after 1965 were subjected to intense discrimination, there is little evidence that it was based on their religion. Nevertheless, many were encouraged to question whether their loyalty to their church was compatible with the American values of individualism and freedom of religion.Roman Catholics;opposition toNativism;and anti-Catholicism[antiCatholicism]Anti-Catholic movements[AntiCatholic movements]

Further Reading
  • Hurley, Mark J. The Unholy Ghost: Anti-Catholicism in the American Experience. Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor, 1992. Traces the continual struggle of Catholics in America to fight prejudice and discrimination, especially from proponents of “nativism” who branded Catholics as un-American.
  • Jenkins, Philip. The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Contains a discussion of the historical development of anti-Catholicism in America, including its origins in xenophobic responses to immigrants during the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
  • Massa, Mark S. Anti-Catholicism in America. New York: Crossroad, 2003. Provides a synopsis of the relationship between the rise of anti-Catholic sentiment and the influx of largely Catholic groups of immigrants into the United States during the nineteenth century.
  • Nordstrom, Justin. Danger on the Doorstep: Anti-Catholicism and American Print Culture in the Progressive Era. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006. Concentrates on the outpouring of anti-Catholic writings during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Explores motivations for anti-Catholic feelings in the United States at various times during the history of the nation.
  • Walch, Timothy. Catholicism in America: A Social History. Malabar, Fla.: Krieger, 1989. History of the Roman Catholic Church in America detailing its struggles against persistent prejudices that led to misunderstandings, discrimination, and sometimes violence against Catholics as their numbers grew within the general population.

American Protective Association


Catholic Charities USA

German immigrants

Irish immigrants

Italian immigrants

Know-Nothing Party


Political parties

Religions of immigrants


Categories: History