H.L. Mencken — writer, journalist and prominent iconoclast of the century past — took a generally dim view of the clergy (along with many other things). But his view of Cardinal James Gibbons, archbishop of Mencken’s Baltimore for 44 crucial years, was different.
Writing after the cardinal’s death in 1921, the Sage of Baltimore — Mencken, that is — remarked that “more presidents than one sought the counsel of Cardinal Gibbons ... a man of the highest sagacity, a politician in the best sense.” There was “no record,” Mencken added, the late prelate “ever led the Church into a bog or up a blind alley.”
High praise, considering the source.
In a long, fruitful career as leader of the American hierarchy, James Gibbons combined diplomacy, patriotism and a canny understanding of human nature in a manner that made him the most effective advocate before or since of the Americanization of American Catholicism. To him more than anyone, the Catholic Church owes both the advantages and the unintended consequences of assimilation into American secular culture.
Above all, he believed with all his heart that this nation he loved was a congenial home for the Church he also loved. In a sermon in Rome in 1887, he declared his “deep sense of pride and gratitude” for “the civil liberty we enjoy in our enlightened republic.” Whether he would say quite the same thing today is anybody’s guess.
James Gibbons was born in Baltimore on July 23, 1834, the fourth of six children of Thomas and Bridget Gibbons, an Irish immigrant couple. His father, a grocer, suffered from tuberculosis and, hoping the move would benefit his health, took the family back to Ireland in 1839. After the elder Gibbons’ death, mother and children returned to the United States and settled in New Orleans.
Feeling drawn to the priesthood, young James entered the seminary in Baltimore in 1855 and was ordained in 1861. After pastoral assignments that included service during the Civil War as volunteer chaplain at Fort McHenry, he was appointed secretary to Archbishop Martin John Spalding and helped in preparations for the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore.
In 1868, responding to a request from that assembly of the nation’s bishops, Pope Pius IX established a new quasi-diocese called an apostolic vicariate in North Carolina, and appointed Gibbons to head it, naming him a bishop. In 1872 he was transferred to Richmond as its fourth ordinary while remaining in charge of the North Carolina vicariate.
In North Carolina and Virginia in those years, Catholics were few and far between. Traveling widely, the young bishop met many Protestants. The experience provided him with material for a work of apologetics, “Faith of Our Fathers.” Published in 1876, the book became one of the top religious bestsellers of all time. Bishop Gibbons was the second youngest bishop at the First Vatican Council of 1869-70 and there voted in favor of defining the doctrine of papal infallibility. In May of 1877, Pope Pius named him coadjutor archbishop of Baltimore. He became archbishop a few months later.
Students of Gibbons’ life and career find in him many praiseworthy traits. Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, author of a massive two-volume biography published in 1952, lists among these the habit of consulting others before making decisions, consideration for the feelings of others, a “naturally irenic temperament,” balanced judgment and keen intelligence. But he also had his faults, including a certain vanity when it came to the perks and prerogatives of his office and — a frequent source of frustration to his more impetuous colleagues — a well-known hesitance and indecisiveness in making up his mind and taking a stand.
Becoming archbishop of Baltimore, the oldest diocese in the U.S., had made him de facto primate of the American hierarchy, but only in presiding successfully at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884 did he emerge as a truly national figure. Unconvinced at first regarding the need for such a meeting of bishops, he eventually became a strong supporter of the program for the fast-growing Church.
In 1886, Pope Leo named him a cardinal, only the second American to be so honored. Time and again in the years that followed, he played a key role in issues that confronted American Catholicism. Keeping The Catholic University of America afloat when bad investments threatened its survival in 1904 was one.
But the cardinal’s finest hour may have been his timely backing for the organized labor movement in its early days. Leading the way at the start was a group called the Knights of Labor that included many Catholic working men as members. At the Vatican, though, the Knights were viewed with suspicion as a secret society. Condemnation by the pope seemed likely. At that juncture, Cardinal Gibbons weighed in with a memorial to Rome defending the organization and arguing that the Church should stand with the workers. Not only was there no papal condemnation, historians consider Gibbons’ intervention at a crucial juncture critical to maintaining friendly relations between the Church and the American labor movement.
A decade later, with tensions over Cuba mounting between the U.S. and Spain, the Cardinal sought to head off American military action. But when peace efforts failed and the Spanish-American War broke out, he lined up four-square on the side of the United States.
Similar unconditional patriotism also colored his reaction to World War I. In April 1917, the cardinal published a statement containing the remarkable assertion that the first duty of a citizen is “absolute and unreserved obedience to his country’s call.” While the claim no doubt mirrored its time and place, it would be hard today to find theologians or Church leaders who would say anything like that.
Inevitably, Cardinal Gibbons was embroiled in a tangled controversy in the closing years of the 19th century over a phenomenon known to history as Americanism. Central to it was an assortment of ideas involving the separation of church and state that was starting to spread in France and other European countries that the Holy See associated with U.S. Catholicism.
Cardinal Gibbons and his friends scrambled to head off a papal condemnation, but this time they failed. In January 1899, Pope Leo XIII published a document — written in the form of a letter to Gibbons and titled Testem Benevolentiae (“Witness to Good Will”) — which came down hard on Americanism. Although historians who are themselves Americanists pooh-pooh the papal document, it’s a surprisingly farsighted warning against attitudes that in recent times have done much to sap the strength of American Catholicism. Among the errors noted by Pope Leo was the opinion that everyone is entitled to his own opinion on religious questions insomuch as the Holy Spirit inspires individuals to decide these matters for themselves as if by “a kind of hidden instinct.”
The cardinal and his Americanist colleagues were appalled by the papal condemnation, and Cardinal Gibbons replied with a long, formal letter to Leo XIII thanking him profusely and assuring him that of course no one held the views he had condemned. In fairness to the cardinal, it must be said that he most certainly didn’t. That no one else did is not so clear. Today many do.
During the Gibbons era, millions of Catholic immigrants and their children and grandchildren entered the American mainstream with the enthusiastic blessing of the cardinal. Not long before his death on March 24, 1921, his great friend Theodore Roosevelt called him as “the most useful citizen of our country.” At least from an American point of view, that may have been no exaggeration.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.