History of American Roman Catholic-Protestant Interreligious Hostilities and Reconciliations

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The history of intergroup tensions between Roman Catholics and other Christians spans the history of the United States. In 1789 George Washington formally welcomed U.S. Roman Catholics, stating, "May the members of your society in America, animated alone by the pure spirit of Chrisitanity, and still conducting themselves as the faithful subjects of our free government, enjoy every temporal and spiritual felicity." [1] Scholars divide these tensions into two time intervals, disagreeing on the precise placement of the line of separation. For the scholar James Atkinson the periods are 1517-1939 and 1939-1983[present], the later period being one of respect and revaluation initiated by the work of the Roman Catholic scholar Joseph Lortz.[2] For other scholars, the boundary is less precisely marked by 1960's events such as the election of the first Roman Catholic president of the United States John F. Kennedy and the Catholic Church's Vatican II.[3]

Pre-1960's American Protestant attitudes towards Catholics

The era of the political movement known as the Know Nothings. Protestant acceptance of the hoax Maria Monk's best-selling book The Awful Discolsures of Maria Monk (1836).

Pre-1960's American Catholic attitudes towards Protestants

The pro-catholic work Maria Monk's Daughter: An Autobiography (1874), which was supposedly written by Lizzie St. John Eckel.

Post-1960's attitudes

For much of American history, the attitude of non-Roman Catholics towards Catholics was marked by a wariness towards the Pope as the head of a foreign government. It was suspected that the Pope could require American Catholics to adhere to the political (as well as religious) dictates of a foreign king. At a time when the memory of the American Revolution and the War of 1812 were still fresh in the minds of Americans and opposition towards monarchism was strong, this concern was significant. The results of Vatican I, by which the Roman Catholic Church declared the doctrine of Papal Infallibility, did little to lessen that concern. The election of John F. Kennedy and Vatican II, however, did much to change and even eliminate some of the old hostilities, but new differences and voices have arisen.[4] Such voices of hostilities are those of Jack Chick and other American liberals: "Good American liberals who would not dream of using sexist language or racist slurs or anti-Semitic jokes have no problem at all about using anti-Catholic language, ethnic slurs, or Polish Jokes."[5]

Anglican (American Episcopalian) and Roman-Catholic reconciliations

On December 11, 1983, John Paul II became the first Pope to ever officially attend a Lutheran service. Both the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and Prince Charles attended Pope John Paul II's funeral on April 8, 2005. Archbishop Williams is the first Archbishop of Canterbury to attend a Roman Catholic funeral since the Anglican Church's break with the Papacy under King Henry VIII (oddly, media such as CNN focused less on the unprecedented historical nature of this event and more on Prince Charles pos-poning his own wedding in order to attend the Pope's funeral).[6] Two years earlier, in 2003, after becoming the head of the Anglican Church, Williams met with John Paul. Such meetings between the Anglican and Roman Catholic leadership have been relatively routine since the 1960s.[7][8] In 2010, however, Pope Benedict announced a new policy by which Anglican clergy and laypersons might convert to the Roman Catholic Church without giving up all of their distinctively Anglican religious heritage. While the initiative was welcomed by some in the Anglo-Catholic wing of Anglicanism, the move was seen by many other Anglicans as hostile and damaging to future relations between the two denominations.

Official Position of Catholics

The Roman Catholic Church is the only true and complete Christian Church, but all Christian denominations are to be treated as equal in love for Jesus, as our brothers in Christ. Our differences over sacraments and apostolic lineage will not deny the existence of Christ among all God's children.


  1. The Bible Tells Me So: Uses and Abuses of Holy Scripture Jim Hill and Rand Cheadle, 1995, Anchor Books/Doubleday, pp. 82-85, ISBN 0385476957
  2. Martin Luther: Prophet to the Church Catholic, James Atkinson, 1983, W.B. Eerdmans
  3. Uncivil Religion: Interreligious Hostility in America, Robert Neelly Bellah, Frederick E. Greenspahn, Crossroad, 1987, ISBN 0824507967, 9780824507961, 235 pages
  4. online pdf of New and Old Anti-Catholicism, originally published in Theological Studies, 2001, volume 62, Mark S. Massa, S.J.
  5. An Ugly Little Secret: Anti-Catholicism in North America, Andrew M. Greeley, 1977, page 1
  6. http://edition.cnn.com/2005/WORLD/europe/04/04/royal.wedding/index.html
  7. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/photo/pope/dignitaries/day.html
  8. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/3163374.stm
  • Uncivil Religion: Interreligious Hostility in America, Robert Neelly Bellah, Frederick E. Greenspahn, Crossroad, 1987, ISBN 0824507967, 9780824507961, 235 pages