The lessons of history

Barring certain immigrants from this country based on ethnicity is nothing new. In 1924, Congress passed into law a bill that set quotas on the number of immigrants who could be permitted to enter this country. President Calvin Coolidge signed the act into law. Many people complained that it was racist in large part. It also was politically expedient.

For example, by that time, many Irish-Americans were in the overall United States population, and they voted. No politician would dare offend them. So the quota for Irish people was not bad. It was not bad for Poles. Many Polish-Americans voted. It was fairly generous for Italian immigrants. They voted.

Other nationalities were not as fortunate. Only 512 people from Belgium could come into this country in a year. Only 503 could come from Portugal, just 131 from Spain, 344 from Lithuania. Religion was not given as a reason behind these quotas, but no one ever met a Belgian, or Spaniard, or Lithuanian who was not a Catholic. At the same time, the quotas allowed great numbers of immigrants from heavily Protestant countries. Connect the dots.

The quotas caused much harm. After Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, many Jews tried to flee the country to escape his violently anti-Semitic measures. The Netherlands welcomed these fleeing Jews. So did Britain. So did most nations in Latin America. Not that many could come to America because of the quotas. Jews were unwanted. Catholics were fearful, and justifiably so. Hard for us to imagine today, but at the time, anti-Catholicism was raging, presenting itself in ways now no one can believe.

Laws forbidding the wearing of religious garb on the street were promoted. Of course, these laws were supposed to apply to everyone, but how many Presbyterian nuns did they see on the street?

Parochial schools would have been outlawed if the Supreme Court had not entered the story, by saying that no state could require every child to attend a nonreligious school.

The Ku Klux Klan, outspokenly and violently anti-Catholic, had millions, literally, on its membership lists.

Catholics today should be very conscious that not too long ago Americans, or other people, of the Catholic Faith had much to fear in the United States. Catholics were despised.

Many colleges made it hard for Catholics to enroll. Understandably, few Catholics were physicians or lawyers. Major corporations, some in business today, refused to hire Catholics. People would not sell residential property to Catholics, to keep them out of certain neighborhoods. Time changed. President Franklin D. Roosevelt did much in this regard, appointing Catholics to government positions never before held by Catholics. He courted Catholics. It was to his advantage politically, but it lifted the Catholic image.

In the Second World War, soldiers and sailors not of the Catholic religion discovered that Catholics fighting next to them were patriotic and decent.

Catholic John Kennedy’s election as president in 1960 is said to have greatly weakened anti-Catholicism. Most importantly, no Catholic, in the hierarchy or not, made any demands of him for preferential treatment.

Things are not good in every way now, and it is why the bishops of the country are doing much to awaken us all to the reality of anti-Catholicism in our midst at this time. It is more subtle, but it is strong, aided now by a growing indifference to, and disapproval of, any institutionalized religion.

Bottom line: When we Catholics today hear slurs about Muslims or Hispanics along with calls to ban them from this country, we should say, “We Catholics have been there. What is new?”

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.