Review: Catholics' Lost Cause

Carl C. Creason

Carl C. Creason is a Ph.D. candidate in History at Northwestern University and a Research Specialist with the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Humanities Project.

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Carl C. Creason, "Review: Catholics' Lost Cause," Journal of Southern Religion (22) (2020):

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Adam L. Tate. Catholics’ Lost Cause: South Carolina Catholics and the American South, 1820-1861. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2018. 296pp. 978-0-26810-417-7.

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Adam L. Tate’s Catholics’ Lost Cause: South Carolina Catholics and the American South, 1820-1861, shows how Roman Catholic clerical leaders in the Diocese of Charleston “cultivated an affinity with non-Catholic southerners” (3).  The clergy helped “resolve the pesky problem of cultural accommodation,” Tate argues, paving the way for Catholics to found institutions throughout the Carolinas (3).  Yet, despite Catholic success, Tate’s story ends tragically.  The Civil War quickly halted Catholic development in the region, leading to the Church’s “own version of the Lost Cause” (11).  The Church’s affinity with the Confederacy sealed its fate, as the war reduced the Catholic presence in the South and overturned its earlier progress.

Tate engages a variety of scholarly conversations.  His central thesis addresses the work of southern historians who have argued for an innate or natural compatibility between Catholicism and southern culture.[1]  Other scholars have contended that Catholics fully embraced life in the Old South, often surrendering to the cultural standards of the region.[2]  Tate’s monograph challenges both interpretations.   He adopts the position of literary scholars who have claimed that twentieth-century southern Catholic writers—Flannery O’Conner, for example—purposely crafted an affinity between their religion and region “to serve polemical purposes” (2).  Similarly, Tate disproves both a nineteenth-century natural affinity with southern culture and Catholic capitulation to the Protestant majority.  Rather, according to Tate, the efforts of Church leaders helped integrate Catholics—on their own terms—among the South’s “assemblage of peoples” (5).

Tate examines how Catholics cultivated an affinity with southerners and analyzes how their faith-based commitments complicated the Church’s acceptance in the region.  In particular, the writings of the three antebellum bishops of Charleston—John England, Ignatius Reynolds, and Patrick Lynch—and articles from the United States Catholic Miscellany, the diocesan newspaper edited by Fr. James Corcoran, constitute the main source base of his study.

The Miscellany provided a platform for the Church to deliver its message of belonging.  Tate argues that Fr. Corcoran used the Miscellany to frame debates between Catholics and Protestants as “affair[s] of honor” (100).  By publicly challenging critics and defending the Church, Catholics appealed to southern honor culture and showed that “they were part of the ‘people’ of [South Carolina]” (100).  This analysis underscores how place or region shaped the Church’s relationship with non-Catholic neighbors. In the northeast or mid-Atlantic regions, anti-Catholicism remained a central element of mainstream Protestant culture and apologetics often triggered waves of nativism and xenophobia.  Contrarily, however, defending the faith in the Carolinas generated respect for the Church and its clergy.

Bishop England figures most prominently in Catholics’ Lost Cause.  In particular, Tate shows how England championed a Jeffersonian conception of the union that allowed for cultural heterogeneity.  As long as Catholics demonstrated a commitment to republicanism, the minority religious group could claim belonging in a “union of sentiment” (4).  Of all the prelates, England spoke most directly on the themes of republicanism, nationalism, and the union. Tate may over-focus on England’s words and actions, neglecting to supply the same degree of evidence for his successors, Reynolds and Lynch.

Tate underscores key philosophical differences between the bishops.  In the final chapter on slavery, he draws a clear distinction between England—who charted an “independent course” on the issue, attacking abolitionists and challenging the proslavery factions—and Lynch—who “defended slavery as a necessary system of racial control” (182, 200).  Tate contends that England offered a sophisticated appraisal of slavery that combined Catholic teachings and southern mores, while Lynch simply adopted the conventional proslavery position of the 1860s.  This chapter best illustrates Tate’s imbalanced treatment.  He explains England’s position in over twenty pages, but dispenses with Lynch’s in only four, relying exclusively on one pamphlet from 1864 to represent the latter’s ideas about slavery.  Yet, a recent biography of Lynch suggests that the bishop held more nuanced views on slavery than revealed in the contents of one tract.[3]

While Catholics’ Lost Cause is primarily a top-down examination of religion in the antebellum South, the fourth chapter incorporates the activities of lay Catholics.  Tate’s study of three St. Patrick’s Day celebrations “emphasizes how Charleston’s Irish Catholics promoted their ethnic identity while demonstrating their devotion to South Carolina” (104).  The laity proved that they could be both Catholics and “good citizen[s]” by echoing the sentiments of Bishop England in public toasts and demonstrations (105).  Though Tate shows how the laity helped cultivate affinity, one wonders about their relationships with Protestants in contexts other than parades and how those interactions affected the Church’s reputation in the South.  Indeed, Tate also raises a number of questions about the role of religious orders and parish priests in the story of southern Catholicism.  Overall, Catholics’ Lost Cause helps fill an important void in the scholarship on southern religion and U.S. Catholic history.  Yet we clearly still need studies that examine the experiences and contributions of lay Catholics, parish priests, and religious orders in the Old South.

[1] For the best examples, see Eugene Genovese, The Southern Tradition: The Achievement and Limitations of an American Conservatism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994) and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders’ Worldview (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).  For a work that examines the congenial relationship between Catholics and Protestants in the antebellum South, see Andrew H. M. Stern, Southern Crucifix, Southern Cross: Catholic-Protestant Relations in the Old South (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2012).

[2] Randall M. Miller’s work best represents this interpretation of southern Catholicism.  See Randall M. Miller, “A Church in Cultural Captivity: Some Speculations on Catholic Identity in the Old South,” in Catholics in the Old South: Essays on Church and Culture, edited by Randall M. Miller and Jon L. Wakelyn (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1983), 11-52; Randall M. Miller, “Catholics in a Protestant World: The Old South Example,” in Varieties of the Southern Religious Experience, edited by Samuel S. Hill (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988), 115-134; Randall M. Miller, “Roman Catholicism in South Carolina,” in Religion in South Carolina, edited by Charles H. Lippy (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993), 82-102.

[3] David C. R. Heisser and Stephen J. White, Sr., Patrick N. Lynch, 1817-1882: Third Catholic Bishop of Charleston (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2015).