The Church and the Modern City

An eminent member of the faculty of Harvard University and director of its Center for the Study of the History of Liberty in America, OSCAR HANDLIN is an authority on the immigrant in the United States. In 1952, Mr. Handlin was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in History for his sound and eloquent volume, THE UPROOTED.


THE American Catholics are an urban people. Fully 80 percent of them live in cities, perhaps one third of the total in the eight largest alone. The roots of Catholicism everywhere are planted in the parish, and in the United States they are firmly fixed in the urban parish. This environment has been the central element in the social experience of the Church in the New World.

The adjustments that have made American Catholicism what it is today are the end results of great dislocations in European society in the nineteenth century. An ancient faith, embedded in traditional practices and long rooted in a familiar environment, then faced the serious problems of migration, industrialization, and urbanization. It had to alter its practices, organization, and methods to meet the new needs, and yet do so without departing from dogmas and forms it considered timeless and universal. Nowhere was the challenge more acute than in the great cities of the United States.

In the Old World, the Church had been an integral part of the communities in which it flourished, In the villages of peasant Europe, the Church was identified with the whole life of the people. There was no one who did not belong, or who failed to participate in the round of activities which added a religious dimension to every incident of the individual’s life, to every season of the group’s experience. The sanctions of the Church were rarely necessary in small communities where discipline was primarily a habit nurtured by the family and strengthened by the very circumstances of existence.

Until little more than a century ago, urban life was hardly more complex. In cities of relatively stable size, the body of communicants formed a homogeneous community, held together by guild and family as well as by religious ties. Here, too, the parish, after the sixteenth century, was the nucleus of organization, related in an orderly way to the existing structure of society.

By contrast, the city of the last hundred years has been a radically new environment. Its huge size presented complex problems of organization for an institution the tight hierarchical structure of which had been geared to the small territorial parish. Furthermore, the impersonality that in the nineteenth century became characteristic of great cities undermined the basis of the old communal life. In Europe, the effects were disruptive. The Church was slow to recognize the problem and slower still to work out ways of dealing with it. The great masses of people who came from rural regions into the cities of France, Italy, Germany, and Poland lapsed into a nominal relationship with the Church or left it altogether, and many were tempted by competing systems of belief — socialism, fascism, Communism.

In America the situation was somewhat different. The Church here was a product of immigration. Although there had been tiny groups of Catholics in the eighteenth-century colonies, the great growth in numbers came after 1830 with the influx of newcomers from Ireland and Germany. Most of them had once lived on the soil, but the conditions of their coming led them to the cities. In the United States they struggled to rebuild the communal life they had known before their departure, but they did so in face of the great obstacles presented by the new milieu.

THE general problems of adapting Catholicism to urban life were therefore complicated by the peculiar circumstances of immigration. The populace assembled in the cities was far more heterogeneous in the New World than across the ocean; the Catholics of New York and Chicago were compelled to learn to live and work with a majority of neighbors outside their faith.

The challenge of doing so was more extreme than in such places as Liverpool, London, and Glasgow. In England or Russian Poland, where Roman Catholics were also a minority, they could work out a formal relationship with the establishment that relieved them of some of the tensions of their disadvantaged position. But the United States recognized no church as a body and left the individual exposed to the competitive proselytization of many sects or allowed him to drift apathetically into the ranks of the unaffiliated. That created a tremendous problem of discipline.

Moreover, in America even the Catholics were not all of one sort. Profound differences in language, culture, attitudes, and even ritual separated the Irish, the Germans, the Italians, the Poles, and the Ruthenians. A single parish could hardly take in all these varieties of people and still remain a coherent community. The Irish, who had been first to arrive, entrenched themselves in the hierarchy and sought to mold the church along lines familiar to them. But by the end of the nineteenth century, a growing laxity in the performance of religious obligations, outright conversions, and the appearance of a number of schismatic movements showed that there was a genuine threat that many others would be lost to the faith.

The result was a widespread demand among the non-Irish groups that the Church organization be recast along nationality lines, with German, Polish, and Italian bishops to supervise the religious life of the communicants of their own nationalities. Had this demand been heeded, it would have made the Church permanently a foreign institution in the United States, with its main links across the ocean in the various European countries.

The fact that settlement in American cities distributed the population in ethnically homogeneous neighborhoods permitted a compromise that avoided that outcome. The Irish, the Germans, and the Italians filled up their own districts, which de facto turned into national parishes. It was possible to permit occasional families to cross neighborhood lines to worship with people of their own kind in their own language without doing too much violence to the territorial principle. The Church also surrendered to local sentiment to the extent of organizing separate Negro parishes in Southern cities. Each group was thus accommodated without yielding on the problem of general organization; but in the process ethnic and religious identifications were fused. Catholicism remained associated in the minds of its adherents with the peculiarities of belief and practice in the lands of their birth.

It was more difficult to eliminate a second complicating element. The migrations did not bring a whole cross section of the European social system to America. The nobility and most of the middle and upper classes remained at home. The newcomers were almost entirely drawn from the ranks of the peasantry and the poorer artisans. That cut the Church off from the traditional source of financial support and lay leadership. In the New World it would learn to survive through voluntary contributions rather than through patronage, and its men of influence would rise from among the people rather than descend by birth.

The selective character of immigration created serious hardships in the course of settlement. The great mass of Catholics had nothing to offer but their brawn and entered the labor force at the bottom. For a long time they lived on the margin of existence under slum conditions and subject to all the concomitant social disorders of low earnings.

In the face of this misery, the Church at first could offer only the consolatory hope of a better world to come, where virtue and faith would be rewarded. Meanwhile, its own function it interpreted largely in terms of the necessity of saving the faith of the communicants under its charge.

The parish was the primary instrument for doing so. Canonically, among the attributes of the parish was the fact that it consisted of “a designated people.” It was not enough to regard its population as occasional participants in the rites of worship. They were to be bound together by a vigorous round of activities as a social entity, within which the individual would be sheltered from the temptations of an alien and hostile world. The desire of immigrants to form communities similar to those they had left in Europe provided the Church with the zealous support which nurtured its growth down through the first quarter of the twentieth century. All the ties of family, neighborhood, social and political loyalty, as well as faith, held these people together. In response to them, there appeared an array of social and religious institutions for men, women, and children, all linked to the Church and each eliciting support by virtue of its appeal to both faith and group loyalty. The parish thus became the equivalent of the European village community.

Its situation in a different world, however, created unexpected difficulties. The defense of parish life was subject to two dangers. As immigration declined, some of the painfully reconstructed activities ceased to be attractive to young Catholics of the second and third generation, who formed an ever-larger percentage of the communicants. And, second, as some Catholics climbed up from the mass of laborers and moved into the middle and upper classes, their ties with the old districts weakened; they acquired new friends and business acquaintances and a new style of life, and even if they did not move away physically, were no longer solidly integrated in the community.

The young people who grew up after World War I were therefore disoriented in the manner of the characters in James Farrell’s Studs Lonigan or Harry Sylvester’s Moon Gaffney. Catholicism was the faith of their ancestral communities, with values not altogether in accord with those of the world about them. Success and Americanization, to some extent, drew them away from those communities and threatened to draw them away also from the practice of their faith. As immigration ended in the 1920s and mobility increased, the difficulties of adjusting the Church to its urban environment multiplied.

THE problems of a population of heterogeneous immigrant origins, now Americanized and moving out of the working and into the middle class, established the focus of the Church’s efforts in the American city. While the prospect of converting the Protestant majority always remained an attractive missionary ideal, it was one not likely to be attained immediately. The primary task was preservation of the faith of those already in the fold. Salvation for the life eternal was far more important than any mundane consideration, and the bewildered flock was surrounded by numerous temptations that led to disaster. The essential task of the Church was to prevent the loss of souls.

For that reason it looked askance at any changes that weakened the existing community. For a long time, any tendency toward dispersal was a danger. Catholics who moved out of the city to the isolated rural West lost the shelter of the Church. A few clerics, like Bishop John Lancaster Spalding, hoped for further resettlement under Catholic auspices by colonization projects. But these efforts were hardly successful. Generally, it was safer to hold people where they were. If Catholics consequently missed some of the opportunities that came with westward migration, their immortal souls were nevertheless that much safer.

But there were dangers even in the homes that the great cities became. These places were impersonal; a negligent individual could easily escape the observation of the community. People moved in and out of the parish without making themselves known at the rectory. The pastor, therefore, could not know who they were or give them the counsel they needed. Moreover, the dynamic forces in American life blurred distinctiveness and emphasized assimilation with the predominantly non-Catholic pattern of life. Contact with other people, who at first generally occupied a superior social position, made familiar disturbing models of behavior. And the American ideology of equality of opportunity encouraged every individual to break away from his inherited background, to strive for success, and to emulate those who had reached the top.

The result was a gradual modification of traditional practices. The metropolitan pastor could not maintain a personal relationship with all his parishioners, pay sick calls, check the performance of all obligations. Various old customs dropped away. In some parishes pregnant women no longer asked for a special blessing, and Old World festivals, for all their quaintness, lost their relevance. Many rites which served a social as well as a religious function were adjusted to urban conditions and to the usage of other Americans. Sunday afternoon vespers, which interfered with family outings, often gave way to a holy hour in the evening. Mother’s Day, a commercial device to begin with, because it fell on Sunday became an occasion for recalling the devotion of the faithful to the Blessed Mother of God. So that more people could attend, weddings and funerals were even occasionally conducted in the afternoon rather than at the nuptial or funeral Mass in the morning. Christening parties tended to overshadow the act of baptism, and godparents were chosen with scant reference to the religious duties they were expected to perform. The extent to which such departures were permitted varied from diocese to diocese. But few urban parishes escaped these pressures entirely.

Where there was no social or communal incentive — as there was in baptism, marriage, and death — observance became lax. Fewer children took First Communion than were baptized, fewer were confirmed than took First Communion. There was a growing deviation from the expected regularity of confession, Communion, and attendance at Mass. There was a notable difficulty in conveying to worshipers the idea of penitential sorrow, alien to so much of their optimistic American culture; and although the Easter season evoked the most intense religious emotions, there was a softening in the severity of Lenten regulations.

Above all, there was leakage. Whatever measurements are available show that by the middle of the twentieth century between one fourth and one half of those who were baptized as Catholics were not actively practicing their faith. A few had made the positive decision to break away, but most remained nominal or dormant Catholics. These indifferent parishioners were not only living in some degree of sin, but they were exposed to the cverdangerous proselytizing Protestant, and their children were likely to be even less observant than they. They were thus living evidence of the disruptive effect of the American environment upon the traditional Catholic community.

THE overriding obligation of the Church under these circumstances was to come to terms with that environment, resisting those elements which threatened the faith of its communicants, adopting those which would help it win back the souls who had drifted away. That imperative shaped its attitude toward the family, education, philanthropy, and social issues.

The family was critical. Within it were molded the beliefs and habits that guided the individual through life. Ideally, it was a permanent, monogamous, fruitful union, established through the sacrament of matrimony; and the immigrant generations had largely held to that ideal. But Catholic families displayed an evident tendency, with the passage of time, to approach the norms of other Americans in the increase in the number of marriages dissolved and in the spacing of children. The Church remained unalterably opposed to divorce and to birth control, but it gradually shifted its opposition to the grounds of method. It came to tolerate the limitation of family size by other than mechanical means and to accept separations other than through divorce.

To counter the dominant trend, the Church made a sustained effort to discourage mixed marriages and to inculcate strict standards of personal behavior in its young people. While marriage to a Catholic sometimes opened the way to conversion of the non-Catholic spouse, more generally it weakened existing ties and led to a neglect of religious duties. Such unions were believed less likely to last, more likely to produce discord, and damaging to the children, despite the promises exacted that the offspring be reared as Catholics. Hence the Church only reluctantly permitted such marriages; usually the banns were not even read, to minimize publicity. To avoid troublesome connections, adolescents were frequently warned against dating and courting non-Catholics.

The preoccupation with censorship in the last quarter century is the product of a similar concern with creating an environment in which young people will grow up to be faithful Catholic parents. Suggestive comic books, magazines, and novels, lurid movies and television programs create temptations for those who lack the power to resist. If the whole society cannot be purged of these incitements to sin, at least the immediate charges of the Church ought to be steeled to resistance. The young girls are warned of the dangers to their purity. “Tell him, ‘No sale, hands off.’ Your bodies are temples of the Holy Chost; therefore, do not let anyone expel God from your body.”

Despite these precautions the number of mixed marriages remained substantial and the behavior of Catholic teen-agers was not far different from that of their non-Catholic peers. The pervasive American emphasis upon individuality, the glorification in all cultural media of romantic love, and the frequent opportunities for heterogeneous contact in the great city often outweighed the cautious injunctions of the clergy. Hence the continuing concern with education.

The early Catholic colleges and academies were rural and were designed either for those destined for clerical vocations or for the well-to-do. Even when urban parochial schools appeared, they were, to begin with, not aimed at the whole population. The concept of education for every child emerged as a response to external threats. A profound reform impulse made the public school the instrument for equipping all men with the means of self-improvement. The underlying assumption — that learning would loosen the shackles of tradition and lead to progress — was deeply rooted in Protestantism and antipathetic to the Catholicism of the day. Furthermore, in practice the public schools, even when they were not overtly hostile, nevertheless drew children away from their families and their communities, where faith was safe. For a long time secularism and nonsectarianism were still forms of Protestantism. To the Catholic it made little difference that these institutions refrained from favoring Baptists over Methodists. The insistence upon reading the King James Bible showed that the public schools were imbued with a thoroughly Protestant spirit.

Yet it was difficult to take a wholly negative stand against education. State compulsory attendance laws became ever more common, and the schools were attractive for the avenues of social mobility they opened. The only tolerable response was to build a parallel system of Catholic schools. Consistently thereafter, fathers and mothers were warned that they would do more harm to a child by depriving him of his religious education than by cutting off his hand. “He can get to heaven without a hand, but without religion he will go to hell.”

Measured by the yardsticks other Americans used, these institutions were sometimes deficient. But in terms of their own criteria, they played an important role. They compensated for the decline of the immigrant communities by supplying the children with an upbringing both American and Catholic.

Philanthropy, too, was a threat to the faith. Often it was actually administered by Protestant clergy, and sometimes it proved the entering wedge of proselytization. But above all, its philosophy was totally alien, and its practice tended to separate the Catholic from his community. Again, the response was defensive. On the one hand, the Church sought places for its chaplains in public institutions to preserve the faith of its communicants. On the other, it labored to create the network of orphanages, hospitals, and homes for the aged under its own auspices, where it could further its own traditional views.

In the past two decades, changes in the character of the cities and of the Catholic population have introduced new elements of concern. As the immigrant background continued to fade and as the social and economic status of Catholics continued to rise, the old parish communities were further weakened from within. The members died out, and their children moved to the suburbs, to be replaced in many cities by newly arrived Negro people. Many parishes were sapped of vitality, either through the loss of their national quality or through the decay of their neighborhoods. By way of compensation, the same changes eased some of the old difficulties. Poverty ceased to be the burden for Catholics it had been earlier; and the percentage of substantial middle-class folk and of skilled members of conservative labor unions grew steadily.

The shift in the center of Catholic activity to the suburbs altered the emphasis the Church gave its problems. Questions of discipline became less pressing, both because these smaller communities offered the opportunity of more personal contact with communicants and because the post-war revival of religion made conformity more normal. Many rites had by now become so thoroughly bound up with social occasions that they made little demand upon faith. It was respectable and to be expected that one would be baptized, married, and buried in a ceremony under Church auspices. Interfaith tensions also eased; a defensive posture was no longer necessary, and the election of 1960 was a welcome contrast to that of 1928.

On the other hand, middle-class Catholics continued to absorb the standards, tastes, and values of their neighbors. It was more difficult than ever to secure adherence to distinctive patterns of behavior; and the necessity for vigilance in matters of faith and morals was as great as before. Catholics now showed the same concern for education as other middle-class parents, and that put an enormous strain on existing facilities, although the Church clung to the ideal of a religious education for every child.

Furthermore, a revival of activism among both clergy and laymen introduced other elements of instability. The appearance of large numbers of Negroes, Mexicans, and Puerto Ricans in the great cities was a challenge to a Church which preached the universal fraternity of men under God and in Christ. But to bring practice into accord with doctrine called for a painful adjustment in attitudes and habits on the part of older groups for whom the parish had been their exclusive community.

These are indications that the old conception of the parish community may be entering upon a period of further change. Rooted in the traditional practices of the European churches, the parish was laboriously transferred to the New World through the faith of immigrants. For more than a century it survived by maintaining its separateness from a hostile outside world and by accommodating itself gradually to the American environment. It has now discovered that that environment has changed radically and that further adjustments will be demanded of it.