Immigrants March 31, 2024

The Working Catholic, Immigration Part Three by Bill Droel

Archbishop John Hughes (1997-1864) of New York is probably not a suitable role model for a bishop today. And yet…

Hughes was born in Ireland. He once tellingly wrote: For first four days of my life, I was “on social and civil equality with the most favored subjects of the British Empire.” But then I was baptized a Roman Catholic.

Hughes emigrated to the U.S. in 1817 where he worked in a quarry and in landscaping. He was eventually ordained for the Philadelphia diocese and within 12 years was appointed as a bishop to New York City. From the time he arrived on these shores, Hughes strongly felt that Catholicism was in harmony with our Constitution and our democratic ideals. He was consistently positive about pluralism, the electoral process and the law. At the same time, Hughes was a controversial opponent of certain assumptions and attitudes embedded in the dominant culture of his day. Using today’s term, Hughes was a cultural warrior.

Machine Made: Tammany Hall by Terry Golway (W.W. Norton, 2014) explains the tension that made Hughes a champion of immigrants and a threat to others. The dominant culture of his time was associated with New York’s elites, with evangelical Protestants. They fancied themselves as reformers, as technocrats. They knew what was best for society. But Hughes judged them to be an outdated aristocracy whose hypocrisy denied opportunities to immigrant families. He saw heavy-handed moralizing in their campaigns for temperance, child welfare and the like. In fact, to him their notion of social improvement was anti-Catholic, anti-Irish American.

Concurring with the First Amendment of our Constitution and anticipating a key insight of Vatican II (1962-1965), Hughes believed that a religion does better within pluralism than in a theocracy. “There is no such thing as a predominant religion” in the U.S., said Hughes. Ours is not “a Protestant country or a Catholic country or a Jewish country or a Christian country in a sense that it would give any sect or combination of sects the right to oppress any other sect.” A minority, he continued, “is entitled to the same protection as the greatest majority.” Further, a minority has “the right to reject the values of a dominant culture.”

Hughes was best-known for applying his understanding of the Constitution to education. To Hughes, as Golway writes, the public schools “were imbued with Protestant assumptions and attitudes.” Hughes judged that they were sectarian and thereby undermined our Catholic style of Christianity. The school system “conveyed cultural disrespect.” Hughes first attempted to gain public funding for a small number of parish schools, but his political and legal efforts were thwarted. Hughes then concentrated on bricks-and-mortar. “Build our own schools first,” he said. Church buildings can come later. Today, Hughes is considered a founder of the Catholic school system through which thousands upon thousands of immigrant children and their descendants have moved into the mainstream.

Hughes “was outspoken, aggressive and political to his very marrow,” Golway writes. His nickname was Dagger John. His style would not go over among Catholics today, accustomed as they are to breezy, polite clergy. Further, his style is unacceptable in post-Vatican II theology in which lay people, not Church employees, are expected to be competent leaders in civic affairs. But Hughes’ insights are still relevant.

  • The Gift of Immigrants. All immigrant groups are, allowing for a period of adjustment, a source economic growth and social energy for our country.
  • Genuine Pluralism. People learn and exercise virtues through the give-and-take of family life and in their particular parish/neighborhood. By contrast, the diversity movement in our schools and businesses does not help people find meaning or propel them in society. As it turns out, Catholic particularity within ethnic communities and parishes makes for citizens sensitive to the greater good.
  • Disabling Help. Many immigrant families arrive in the U.S. needing resources. When government funds are involved, self-sufficiency can stall. Instead of dealing through a bureaucracy, help is ennobling when delivered through proximate institutions (ethnic networks, a parish, a precinct, an independent settlement house, a neighborhood clinic and a union hall or worker center).
  • Quality Education. The mix of races and ethnicities in public schools today can encourage social awareness and genuine tolerance. So too with the philosophy of a Catholic school—more so these days because those schools admit a significant number of non-Catholic students and a number of Black students.
  • Religious Liberty. Our Constitution’s First Amendment is a two-way street. Government shall not meddle in a church’s religious affairs nor favor any one religion. No distinctive religious doctrine shall dominate any part of government. In the other direction, when clergy and other Church leaders enter the public square they must argue their positions in civic terms. Catholic clergy must stop short of partisanship. (Hughes admittedly inched over the society-partisan politics boundary by running a slate of local electoral candidates.)

Droel edits a printed newsletter on faith and work, INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)

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