The book aims to resolve the entanglements of race and Catholicism
In February 1941, prominent Philadelphia activist and devout Catholic Anna McGarry wrote an impassioned letter calling for “a greater measure of interracial justice” from her parishioners.
But such appeals have been undermined by decades of systematic — and decidedly Catholic American — “anti-blackness,” argues Maureen O’Connell in the provocative book. Untying the Knots: Five Generations of American Catholic Anti-Blackness.
As she follows her own family’s immigration journey, O’Connell — an associate professor of Christian ethics at La Salle University — argues that “Couch[ing] Racism “interpersonal rather than structural” either failed to counteract or was complicit in “American Catholic white supremacy.”
untying the knots certainly makes a valid argument that “the Catholic tradition could be better used to make decisions based on justice rather than fear”.
All too often, however, O’Connell’s laudable pursuit of “racial graces” is guided by flawed historical details and assumptions that have troubling implications for our study of the past, as well as our current, raging culture wars.
The book’s most revealing passages analyze the community and other local forces (education, real estate) who supported desperate immigrants—like O’Connell’s paternal ancestors—but often at the expense of Philadelphia’s small, persecuted black Catholic community.
O’Connell’s paternal ancestors left Cork, Ireland in the 1840s and settled in the Philadelphia area.
Early bishops like Franz Patrick Kenrick – the “St. Patrick of Pennsylvania” – and New York’s “Dagger” John Hughespresided over explosive growth but also “walked a moral tightrope to shield their defense of slavery,” writes O’Connell.
And so ‘Antebellum Irish Catholics’ chose to align themselves with the pro-slavery Democratic Party rather than join the abolitionist Republicans – although the latter’s passion for liberty and equality would have resonated with their pre-famine British experience occupied Ireland.”
What O’Connell doesn’t mention is that despite all her merits Abolitionist Republicans opposed Catholicism almost as vigorously as they opposed slaverywho regard both “as parallel despotic systems”, in the words of historian John T. McGreevy.
Throughout the 19th century, the newly formed Republican Party was home to a range of activists – many considered “progressive” in their day – united by their contempt for alcohol, crime, political machines, and other evils associated with urban immigrants .
In short, Catholic newcomers were pushed aside by the anti-slavery Republican Party, much as they chose to join the pro-slavery Democratic Party – a development that would have far-reaching, if complex, political consequences.
untying the knots also relies on questionable claims that Catholic immigrants in general are motivated by “being American [and] uphold American institutions.”
“Dagger” John – for all his faults – challenged invited prominent Philadelphia Presbyterian John Breckinridge to a series of public debates centered on the call to redefine what it means to be “American.”
Hughes later went to New York, demanding taxpayer money to set up a segregated school system for thousands of impoverished “women popes” – some of whom would later take up arms against the United States in the Mexican War, violently opposed Abraham Lincoln’s Civil War draft orders, and resisted US diplomacy in launching armed invasion of Canada to liberate Ireland from Britain.
In short, these immigrants often had little interest, as O’Connell writes, in “assimilating[ing] yourself with this white Protestant master frame.”
untying the knots later describes a “Catholic exhibit” at Philadelphia’s 1926 bicentennial, located next to a “eugenics exhibit, I suggest.”[ing] a proximity of thought if not necessarily of practice.” Yet the Catholic Church—for all its shortcomings—was actually the national group that was “best organized in its opposition” to the eugenics of the 1920s, according to historian Adam Cohen.
There is no question that European immigrants who “went white”—especially Catholics—were powerful contributors to the misery of African Americans. But atonement for these historical sins does not seem served by the suggestion that the children of Irish farmers – O’Connell has little to say about Poles, Italians or others – were as complicit in this misery as were plantation owners or robber barons.
If anything, capitalism’s more predatory captains are treated fairly gently in this version of events. And we stick to the unseemly suggestion—let’s call it revisionist nativism—that the US would have been better off without the destructive, foreign influences of earlier immigrants.
Such are the dangers of presenting the past as an almost Manichaean struggle between the powerful and the powerless.
And that’s not an old story.
Less than a century ago, urban Catholics could not convince even their own political party members that they were good Americans. That 1924 Democratic Convention spanned a third week and included heated arguments over all the ills still associated with immigration. Such conflicts were at the heart of the emerging ones ideological shifts in the 1930s and 1960s and go a long way in explaining where we are today.
None of this justifies what O’Connell calls “the pro-Trump zeal of white Catholics.” These voters desperately need a reminder that they are beneficiaries of what untying the knots as a kind of white historical “affirmative action”.
But this story has much more to offer. The US is now open to mass immigration from Asia, Africa and Latin America for almost 60 years — or only while Ellis Island was open.
More and more new immigrants with their children and grandchildren are spoiled their own “zeal” for Trump-related ideas.
Experts and historians have yet to grapple with the causes and effects of this shift, which may well be a backlash, but is neither white nor preeminent.
On the other hand, if we never really understood immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries, should we really be surprised that the issue still troubles us?