Americans, dismayed by a rancorous and — for just about all of them — profoundly trying presidential election campaign, approach its conclusion with a growing awareness that national reconciliation will be among the most pressing and immediate needs after the vote.
The Catholic Church and other religious bodies unquestionably have a role to play in that. But history suggests that achieving reconciliation now may be more easily said than done.
The deep and bitter divisions that rose to the surface in 2016 won’t be quickly and easily healed. In particular, many of Donald Trump’s core supporters appear to be people whose grievances are rooted in real economic and social dislocations that deserve to be taken seriously.
In some ways the present situation is reminiscent of the one that existed as the Civil War neared its end. Then as now, neither religion nor anything else had a surefire formula for healing the divisions among Americans.
Abraham Lincoln perhaps came closest. Concluding his Second Inaugural Address, delivered March 4, 1865, the president spoke of principles he saw underlying a viable approach to reconciliation between North and South.
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds ... to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations,” he said.
Alas for this appeal to compassion and generosity, little more than a month later Lincoln, felled by an assassin’s bullet, lay dead.
His successor as president, Andrew Johnson, tried to take a generous approach to the defeated former rebels, but that, plus his abrasive style, earned him the enmity of a Congress dominated by hardliners who advocated a tough policy. One result was that Johnson was impeached, though not expelled from office.
The Reconstruction years that followed are now recalled as an era of bitterness and resentment instead of reconciliation.
Where was the Catholic Church in all this? Charitably put, the answer seems to be: all over the lot.
Before the Civil War, Catholic leadership in the United States didn’t take a stand for or against the pressing moral issue of the day: slavery. There were Catholic slave-owners in the South, and at one time the Jesuits of southern Maryland, along with Jesuit-run Georgetown College in Washington, had owned slaves. It didn’t help either that some prominent abolitionists were also rabid anti-Catholics.
Eventually, Catholic voices were raised against slavery. One of the first was Archbishop John B. Purcell of Cincinnati, who in 1862 called for emancipation months before Lincoln issued his emancipation proclamation. The following year, the Catholic Telegraph of Cincinnati, edited by the archbishop’s brother Father Edward Purcell, declared slavery to be “condemned and reprobated” by the Church.
During the Civil War, Catholics served in the armies of both the Confederate States and the Union. Catholic priests provided chaplaincy services to fighting men on both sides.
In his history “American Catholic” (Vintage, $18.95), Charles Morris reports that Union armies in the South “did not trust Catholic bishops.” But, acting at the request of Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, Archbishop John Hughes of New York undertook an unofficial diplomatic mission to persuade European continental Catholic powers France and Spain not to extend diplomatic recognition to the Confederacy. Neither did.
Soon after the war, in 1866, the U.S. bishops convened in the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore. At this remove, it may seem to have been an ideal opportunity for the hierarchy to issue a ringing appeal for national unity, but evidently they didn’t see it that way, and their final decrees focused on internal Church issues like religious life and ecclesiastical property. The bishops did discuss pastoral care for former slaves but failed to agree on separate parishes for African-Americans.
With the advantage of hindsight, this ignoring of the contemporary political and social scene unquestionably looks strange. But it’s important to remember that the Church of mid-19th century America was extremely poor, especially in the South, lacked social and political clout, and had its hands full dealing with the interrelated challenges of immigration and anti-Catholicism.
Yet even so at least one prominent Catholic did speak up in a manner that still commands attention. In his masterwork “The American Republic,” published in 1865, writer and social critic Orestes Brownson presented a vision of the nation’s postwar role that stands beside Lincoln’s for its generosity and scope.
Brownson, a convert who was the most prominent American Catholic public intellectual of that day, argued that God had given the country a “political mission in the future of the world” — a mission to propagate the idea of American-style democracy based on liberty and law: “the sovereignty of the people without social despotism, and individual freedom without anarchy.”
Brownson wrote: “The work now to be done by American statesmen is even more difficult and more delicate than that which has been accomplished by our own brave armies. As yet the people are hardly better prepared for the political work to be done than they were at the outbreak of the civil war for the military work they have so nobly achieved.
“But, with time, patience, and good-will, the difficulties may be overcome, and the Government placed on the right track for the future.”
If Lincoln and Brownson had been heeded, the history of America’s emergence from its greatest crisis to date might have been very different. Come to think of it, it might be very different if they were heeded as the nation prepares to emerge now from another crisis — the election of 2016.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.