Catholics & the Politics of Citizenship

“I can’t be a good citizen if I don’t love my country. That doesn’t mean ignoring the country’s flaws and failings…It does mean that I strive to do what’s best for my country..”

Stephen White

Citizenship: It’s one of those words where we think we know what it means, but when asked to explain, many will give a very superficial definition as to what it encapsulates. Many countries define citizenship in terms of two ideas: citizenship by descent or citizenship by birth. Citizenship by descent is exactly how it sounds: obtaining citizenship status based on the citizenship of one’s parents. Citizenship by birth, also known as Birthright, is obtained when one is born within the country, regardless of their parents’ citizenship in said country.

In the United States, citizenship is granted by birth, meaning anyone born within the boundaries of U.S. territory, is technically considered a citizen. This birthright to citizenship was granted to Americans by the Fourteenth Amendment, which states “persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States”. However, after a discussion of rights and citizenship and inequality this past week, citizenship might not be as easy to define as it may seem, especially when it comes to defining citizenship for Catholic individuals.

Image from bulletin of United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

In order to properly discuss Catholic citizenship in America, we first need to have a discussion about the nature of citizenship and how it can possibly be defined other than the way it is in the Constitution. Citizenship is, at its core, a societal status. It can generally be boiled down to describe a person with legal rights in a certain political context in a specific country. Along with that is almost always inequality and exclusion, meaning that certain individuals may or may not be considered citizens, which will come in to play when I discuss Catholic citizenship here in a minute. But how citizenship is understood varies wildly between people and perhaps at a larger scale, countries as well. Its definition can fluctuate with other aspects like family ideals, political participation, freedom, religion, rights and duties, ethnicity, and race coming into consideration. In the United States, however, the modern idea of citizenship still carries the ideas of political participation that we have seen for centuries with different classes of people being “granted” citizenship when their rights to vote were legalized. However, this concept of citizenship had excluded certain Americans, particularly Catholics, for centuries, not just based on their ability to actively participate in politics, but for their chosen religion. Let’s dive into this.

For Catholics, the biggest question to discuss is: Why and to what extent have Catholics ever been treated as full citizens? To answer this question in full, we need to look back to the Founding of American Catholicism, and compare the role of Catholic Americans in society to that of modern America.

Historians often look to the 19th century to examine the rise of the Catholic population and where along the road Catholics started to be socially and politically accepted as American citizens. In 1790, the Catholic population of the United States had been around 35,000, but at the end of the century, that population ballooned to around 12 million, with increased rates of immigration and births. In particular, we discussed the nature of the Irish Catholics and their role in American society in the late 1800s. As James R. Barrett states in “The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multiethnic City”, “Immigrants who arrived in American cities around the turn of the century found it difficult to avoid the Irish”[1]. With the rise of Irish Catholics immigrating to the United States, Americans living there prior to their arrival did not take it well. Hostility and violence rapidly increased throughout the nation, with anti-Catholic and anti-Irish groups, such as the “Know-Nothing Party”, forming to combat the societal changes that Irish Catholics brought along with them. As Barrett also states, “The Know-Nothing Party briefly won control of Chicago’s city government by appealing to xenophobia, pro-temperance sentiment, and anti-Catholicism”.

An anti-Catholic cartoon shows Archbishop Francesco Satolli in 1894, casting an evil shadow across the country.

For years, Irish Catholics were targeted by Nativist Americans, to the extent where they were forced to isolate themselves from the city public, with an idea of “Irishness” floating around, defining the identity of Irish Americans, but not always in the best light. It’s safe to say that by the time the 20th century rolled around, Irish Catholics finally started to become more “established in the United States and are a part of mainstream American society today”[2]. But what initiated this change in mindset from the once adamant anti-Catholic ideology that many Nativist Americans once had?

Perhaps it was the Irish Catholics involvement in America’s labor union movement. Irish Catholics took on a prominent role in the development of America’s unions, as most were unskilled urban workers, of which unions were born and populated by. Fueled by their strong sense of community, Irish Catholics used their forced solidarity to form the foundation of unions and even political parties. By the beginning of the 20th century, roughly “a third of the leadership of the labor movement was Irish Catholic”[2]. With time, Irish Catholics not only became more and more involved in the labor movement in urban America, they become more involved in American politics, forging this idea of the “Catholic vote” that historians continue to discuss today.

John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States

But was this the time Catholics were granted “American citizenship”? Let’s examine another possibility. The 1960s marked an unprecedented era of transformation in the American Catholic Church, particularly with the presidential campaign of 1960. As you may know, John F. Kennedy won the Democratic nomination for president, with his political base being among urban Catholics, while opponent Richard Nixon’s base was with most Protestants. Many feared Kennedy’s presidential win would allow him to start taking orders from the Pope and imposing them on American society, to which Kennedy rebutted with, “I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who also happens to be Catholic. I do not speak for my Church on public matters – and the Church does not speak for me”[2]. Kennedy’s presidential run stirred up the “religious pot”, with religion and Catholicism becoming more of a diverse issue of 1960s contemporary Americans.nJames Hitchcock, author of Abortion, Religious Freedom and Catholic Politics, noted an interesting dynamic in the fact that Kennedy’s years came just before that of Vatican II. He states, “I think there were people who viewed Kennedy as a representative of this new Vatican II type Catholic, who was so socially aware, but at the same time a man who was saying, ‘Look, my Catholicism is not influencing or shaping my public policies'”[3]. Kennedy was seen by many Catholic Americans as a hero, one who broke down an important barrier between religion and politics in American society, with some calling him “a doctor of the church, who brought Catholics into the center of American life instead of living on the margins”[3].

Personally, I believe that Kennedy was possibly the catalyst for the redefinition of citizenship for Catholics. Could it also have been Vatican II? Absolutely! But I believe that because he was such a controversial public figure at the time, he generated a lot of discussion and discourse around religion in American society and shattered the glass ceiling that contained it all. In conjunction with Vatican II, the modern idea of Catholicism was reinvented entirely, forcing Americans to view Catholicism in a vastly different way than they did at the beginning of the century.

Since then, we have turned our focus to the “Catholic vote”, and how that was born from this tumultuous history of Catholics trying to establish their full citizenship in American society. I would like to close my discussion with an interview with Stephen White, author of Red, White, Blue, and Catholic, with the Catholic World Report, in an effort to continually discuss the evolution of the question of whether or not the “Catholic vote” exists in American politics and to what extent it changes the political climate of contemporary America.

CWR: Faithful citizenship is far more than just voting—but is the “Catholic vote” still important in U.S. politics today?

Stephen White: Roughly a quarter of American voters are Catholic, which means that in terms of sheer numbers the Catholic vote matters tremendously. The deeper, more complicated, question is whether—and to what degree—the voting behavior of Catholics is influence by their being Catholic. Do Catholics vote in a way that is distinctively Catholic? As I said that’s a much more complicated question, but the short answer is: not as much as we might hope.[4]

Image from Crisis Magazine.

[1] Barrett, James R. The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multiethnic City. Viking, 2014.

[2] Burger, John. “How John F. Kennedy Did What Al Smith Could Not.” Aleteia - Catholic Spirituality, Lifestyle, World News, and Culture, Aleteia, 26 May 2017,

[3] “Catholicism and Citizenship.” Catholic World Report,

[4] “Citizenship.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 14 Sept. 2018,

[5] “History of the Catholic Church in the United States.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 23 Aug. 2018,

[6] “Irish Catholics.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 14 July 2018,

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