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Catholicism first came to the territories now forming the United States with the Spanish explorers and settlers in present-day Florida (1513), Georgia (1568-1684), and the southwest. In a 2008 survey it was reported that 23.9% of Americans identified themselves as Roman Catholic.


Colonial era

In general

The history of Roman Catholicism in the United States — prior to 1776 — often focuses on the 13 English-speaking colonies along the Atlantic seaboard, as it was they who declared independence from Great Britain in 1776, to form the United States of America. However, this history — of Roman Catholicism in the United States — also includes the French and Spanish colonies, because they later became the greater part of continental United States.

In 1634, Maryland recorded a little less than 3,000 Catholics out of a population of 34,000 (around 9% of the population). In 1757, Pennsylvania recorded fewer than 1,400 Catholics out of a population of about 200,000. In 1785, when the newly founded United States (formerly the Thirteen Colonies) contained nearly four million people, there were fewer than 25,000 Catholics (about 0.6% of the population). Until the end of the Continental Congress or Congress of the Confederation in 1789, Catholics were under a titular bishop of the Catholic Church in England and Wales — the Vicar Apostolic of the London District — whose jurisdiction included the Catholics of British (English-speaking) possessions in America. The last British Catholic bishops to oversee the Catholics of the newly formed United States (1776–1783) were Richard Challoner, 1758–81, and James Robert Talbot, 1781-90.

Further information: #American Revolution (below)

Spanish missions

The first recorded baptisms in Alta California were performed at Los Cristianitos, "The Canyon of the Little Christians", in what is now San Diego county, just south of Mission San Juan Capistrano[1]

Catholicism first came to the territories now forming the United States before the Protestant Reformation with the Spanish explorers and settlers in present-day Florida (1513), Georgia (1568-1684), and the southwest. The first Christian worship service held in the current United States was a Catholic Mass celebrated by Franciscan Friars in 1559 in Pensacola, Florida.(St. Michael records)[citation needed]

The influence of the Alta California missions (1769 and onwards) forms a lasting memorial to part of this heritage. Until the 19th century, the Franciscans and other religious orders had to operate their missions under the Spanish and Portuguese governments and military.[2] Junípero Serra founded a series of missions in California which became important economic, political, and religious institutions.[3] These missions brought grain, cattle and a new way of living to the Indian tribes of California. Overland routes were established from New Mexico that resulted in the colonization and founding of San Diego at Mission San Diego de Alcala (1760), Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo at Carmel-by-the Sea, California in (1770), Mission San Francisco de Asis (Mission Dolores) at San Francisco (1776), Mission San Luis Obispo at San Luis Obispo (1772), Mission Santa Clara de Asis at Santa Clara (1777), Mission Senora Reina de los Angeles Asistencia in Los Angeles (1784), Mission Santa Barbara at Santa Barbara (1786), Mission San Juan Bautista in San Juan Bautista (1797), among numerous others.

French territories

Saint Louis Cathedral in New Orleans

In the French territories, Catholicism was ushered in with the establishment of colonies and forts in Detroit (1701), St. Louis, Mobile (1702), Biloxi, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans(1718). In the late 17th century, French expeditions, which included sovereign, religious and commercial aims, established a foothold on the Mississippi River and Gulf Coast. With its first settlements, France lay claim to a vast region of North America and set out to establish a commercial empire and French nation stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada.

The French colony of Louisiana originally claimed all the land on both sides of the Mississippi River and north to French territory in Canada. The following present day states were part of the then vast tract of Louisiana: Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota.

Louisiana's French settlements contributed to further exploration and outposts. They were concentrated along the banks of the Mississippi and its major tributaries, from Louisiana to as far north as the region called the Illinois Country, near Peoria, Illinois and present-day St. Louis, Missouri. In 1718 the Louisiana Territory was divided into nine districts: New Orleans, Biloxi, Mobile, the Alabamas, Natchez, Yazoo, Natchitoches, Arkansas, and Illinois. The officials of these districts oversaw the vast stretches of land that comprised Louisiana.[4]

The French possessions of North America were under the authority of a single diocese, whose seat was in Quebec. The archbishop, named and remunerated by the king, was spiritual head of all New France. With loose religious supervision, the fervor of the population was very weak; Louisianans tended to practice their faith much less than their counterparts in France and Canada. The tithe, a tax by the clergy on the faithful, produced less revenue than in France. The Church nevertheless played an important part in the exploration of French Louisiana; it sent missions, primarily carried out by Jesuits, to convert Native Americans. It also founded schools and hospitals: by 1720, the Ursulines were operating a hospital in New Orleans. The church and its missionaries established contact with the Amerindian tribes. Certain missionaries, such as Father Jacques Marquette in the 17th century, took part in exploratory missions. The Jesuits translated collections of prayers into numerous Amerindian languages for the purpose of converting the Native Americans. Sometimes living with the tribes, they could not prevent some syncretism of ther practices and beliefs. Sincere and permanent conversions were limited in number; many who received missionary instruction tended to assimilate the Holy Trinity into their belief of "spirits", or rejected it outright.

Compared to the Spanish, the French missionaries, primarily Jesuit, were more practical in their Catholic attitudes toward the native peoples. While they sought to convert the Native Peoples, they did not have the same obsession about strict obedience and conformity. For example, they were content to introduce the Natives to Christianity in stages. They also allowed for differences, permitting the Natives to keep many of their traditional customs, preferring to emphasize the similarities rather the the differences between Christianity and Native belief. There was also no attempt to extract forced labor. Instead they encouraged Natives to bring their furs to exchange for French goods. Intermarriage between trappers and Natives was also not uncommon. This symbiotic relationship helped align most of the Native Peoples west of the Allegheny mountains with the French. [5]

English colonies

Catholicism was introduced to the English colonies with the founding of the Province of Maryland by Jesuit settlers from England in 1634.[6] Maryland was one of the few regions among the English colonies in North America that was predominantly Catholic.

However, the 1646 defeat of the Royalists in the English Civil War led to stringent laws against Catholic education and the extradition of known Jesuits from the colony, including Andrew White, and the destruction of their school at Calverton Manor.[7] During the greater part of the Maryland colonial period, Jesuits continued to conduct Catholic schools clandestinely.

Maryland was a rare example of religious toleration in a fairly intolerant age, particularly amongst other English colonies which frequently exhibited a quite militant Protestantism. The Maryland Toleration Act, issued in 1649, was one of the first laws that explicitly defined tolerance of varieties of Christianity. It has been considered a precursor to the First Amendment.

After Virginia established Anglicanism as mandatory in the colony, numerous Puritans migrated from Virginia to Maryland. The government gave them land for a settlement called Providence (now called Annapolis). In 1650, the Puritans revolted against the proprietary government and set up a new government that outlawed both Catholicism and Anglicanism. In March 1655, the 2nd Lord Baltimore sent an army under Governor William Stone to put down this revolt. Near Annapolis, his Roman Catholic army was decisively defeated by a Puritan army in what was to be known as the "Battle of the Severn". The Puritan revolt lasted until 1658, when the Calvert family regained control and re-enacted the Toleration Act.

Origins of anti-Catholicism

American Anti-Catholicism has its origins in the Reformation in which Protestant adherents developed a deep-rooted antipathy for the Roman Catholic Church as a result of their long struggle to establish independent churches. Because the Reformation, from the Protestant perspective, was based on an effort by Protestants to correct what they perceived to be errors and excesses of the Catholic Church, it formed strong positions against the Catholic interpretatoin of the Bible, the Catholic hierarchy and the Papacy in particular. These positions were brought to the eastern seaboard of the New World by British colonists, predominantly Protestant, who opposed not only the Roman Catholic Church in Europe and in French and Spanish-speaking colonies of the New World, but also the policies of the Church of England in their own homeland, which they believed perpetuated some Catholic doctrine and practices, and, for that reason, deemed it to be insufficiently Reformed.

Because many of the British colonists were Dissidents, such as the Puritans and Congregationalists, and thus were fleeing religious persecution by the Church of England, much of early American religious culture exhibited the more extreme anti-Catholic bias of these Protestant denominations. Monsignor John Tracy Ellis wrote that a "universal anti-Catholic bias was brought to Jamestown in 1607 and vigorously cultivated in all the thirteen colonies from Massachusetts to Georgia."[8] Colonial charters and laws contained specific proscriptions against Roman Catholics. Monsignor Ellis noted that a common hatred of Catholics in general could unite Anglican clerics and Puritan ministers despite their differences and conflicts. Before the Revolution, the 13 colonies also had established churches, either predominately Congregational or Anglican. Most of New England, for example, remained Congregational and, except for Pennsylvania and Delaware, the rest of the colonies remained or became Anglican. All remained anti-Catholic.[9] This religious complexion of established churches only changed after the Revolution though anti-Catholicism still remained in many areas of the new country.

For example, in 1788, after the Revolution, John Jay urged the New York Legislature to require office-holders to renounce foreign authorities "in all matters ecclesiastical as well as civil."[10] Possibly because the pope was still sovereign of a European country nearly the size of Belgium, the Papal States (until 1870), he had reason to be suspicious at the time.

American Revolution

By the time of the American Revolution, 35,000 Catholics formed 1.2% of the 2.5 million population of the thirteen seaboard colonies. Fully one half of all colonists were Black slaves. [11] One of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll, owner of sixty thousand acres of land, was a Catholic and considered one of the richest men in the colonies to sign the Declaration. [12]

Statue of John Carroll

Before and during the American Revolutionary War, the Catholics in Great Britain's thirteen colonies in America (and also its colonies in Canada) were under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the bishop of the Apostolic Vicariate of the London District, in England. The war was formally ended by the Treaty of Paris, which was signed on September 3, 1783, and was ratified by the Congress of the Confederation (of the newly independent United States of America) on January 14, 1784, and by the King of Great Britain on April 9, 1784. The ratification documents were exchanged in Paris on May 12, 1784.

A petition was sent by the Maryland clergy to the Holy See, on November 6, 1783, for permission for the missionaries in the United States to nominate a superior who would have some of the powers of a bishop. In response to that, Father John Carroll — having been selected by his brother priests — was confirmed by Pope Pius VI, on June 6, 1784, as Superior of the Missions in the thirteen United States of North America, with power to give the sacrament of confirmation. This act established a hierarchy in the United States and removed the Catholic Church in the U.S. from the authority of the Vicar Apostolic of the London District.

The Holy See then established the Apostolic Prefecture of the United States on November 26, 1784. Because Maryland was one of the few regions of the colonial United States that was predominantly Catholic, the apostolic prefecture was elevated to become the Diocese of Baltimore[13] — the first diocese in the United States — on November 6, 1789.

Thus, Father John Carroll, a former Jesuit, became the first American-born head of the Catholic Church in America, although the papal suppression of the Jesuit order was still in effect. Carroll orchestrated the founding and early development of Georgetown University which began instruction on November 22, 1791.[14]

19th century

The Catholic population of the United States, which had been 35,000 in 1790, increased to 195,000 in 1820 and then ballooned to about 1.6 million in 1850, by which time, Catholics had become the country’s largest single denomination. Between 1860 and 1890 the population of Roman Catholics in the United States tripled primarily through immigration. By the end of the century, there were 12 million Catholics in the United States.


During the 19th century, a wave of immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Italy, Eastern Europe and elsewhere swelled the number of Roman Catholics. Substantial numbers of Catholics also came from French Canada during the mid-19th century and settled in New England. This influx would eventually bring increased political power for the Roman Catholic Church and a greater cultural presence, led at the same time to a growing fear of the Catholic "menace."

Between 1820 and 1860, the Irish constituted over one third of all immigrants to the United States. In the 1840s, they comprised nearly half of all immigrants to this nation. American Catholics were not exactly happy to see the new immigrants. Not only did the exponential growth set off nativist alarms among Protestants, they presented problems for the existing Catholic parishes. The wave of immigration from Ireland led to tension between the Irish and the French-dominated American Catholic Church. French Catholics were contemptuous of the Irish.

Later this dynamic would be repeated in the post-Civil War period with the Irish in positions of power, and the new immigrants coming from places such as Naples and Sicily. These new immigrants shared little in common with their Irish Catholic co-religionists other than their faith.

Archdiocese of Baltimore

Because Maryland was one of the few regions of the colonial United States that was predominantly Catholic, the first diocese in the United States was established in Baltimore. Thus, the Diocese of Baltimore achieved a pre-eminence over all future dioceses in the U.S. It was established as a diocese on November 6, 1789 and was elevated to the status of an archdiocese on April 8, 1808.

In 1858, the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (Propaganda Fide), with the approval of Pius IX, conferred "Prerogative of Place" on the Archdiocese of Baltimore. This decree gave the archbishop of Baltimore precedence over all the other archbishops of the United States (but not cardinals) in councils, gatherings, and meetings of whatever kind of the hierarchy (in conciliis, coetibus et comitiis quibuscumque) regardless of the seniority of other archbishops in promotion or ordination.[15]

Religious orders for African-American women

In 1829, the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first religious order of black women in the United States, was established in Baltimore, Maryland by a small group of the city's Haitian-Americans. Soon after receiving papal approval, the Oblate Sisters established a number of schools and orphanages for African-American children. In 1842, the Sisters of the Holy Family was founded in New Orleans, Louisiana by two free women of color, Henriette Delille and Juliette Gaudin, making it the second religious order for black women in the United States.

Dominance of Irish Americans

Beginning in the 1840s, although outnumbered by the German American Catholics, Irish American Catholics comprised most of the bishops and controlled most of the Catholic colleges and seminaries in the United States.

To assert their independence from the Irish American-dominated Catholic Church, a group of Polish American broke away, to form the Polish National Catholic Church, which is headquartered in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Parochial schools

Famous 1876 editorial cartoon by Thomas Nast showing bishops as crocodiles attacking public schools, with the connivance of Irish Catholic politicians

Catholic schools began in the United States as a reaction against a growing publicly-funded school system that was essentially Protestant. In 1839 and 1840, the American Bible Society pledged that "the Bible would be read in every classroom in the nation". In what was then a predominantly Protestant country, this was generally understood to be the King James Version of the Scriptures.

In 1875, President Grant, whose sympathies for the Know-Nothing party were well-known, called for a Constitutional amendment that would mandate free public schools and prohibit the use of public funds for "sectarian" schools. It was clear that Grant’s motivation was rooted in his anti-Catholicism, fearing a future with "patriotism and intelligence on one side and superstition, ambition and greed on the other" which he identified with the Catholic Church. Grant called for public schools that would be "unmixed with atheistic, pagan or sectarian teaching."

Senator James G. Blaine of Maine had proposed such an amendment to the Constitution in 1874. The amendment was defeated in 1875 but would be used as a model for so-called "Blaine Amendments" incorporated into 34 state constitutions over the next three decades. These amendments prohibited the use of public funds to fund parochial schools and are still in effect today although a 2002 Supreme Court ruling partially vitiated these amendments. As of March 2009, no state school system had changed its laws to allow state funds to be used for this purpose.[16]

Plenary Councils of Baltimore

In the latter half of the 19th century, the first attempt at standardizing discipline in the American Church occurred with the convocation of the Plenary Councils of Baltimore.

Slavery debate

Two slaveholding states, Maryland and Louisiana, had large contingents of Catholic residents. Archbishop of Baltimore, John Carroll, had two black servants - one free and one a slave. The Society of Jesus owned a large number of slaves who worked on the community's farms. Realizing that their properties were more profitable if rented out to tenant farmers rather that worked by slaves, the Jesuits began selling off their slaves in 1837.

In 1839, Pope Gregory XVI issued a Bull, entitled In Supremo. Its main focus was against slave trading, but it also clearly condemned racial slavery:

We, by apostolic authority, warn and strongly exhort in the Lord faithful Christians of every condition that no one in the future dare bother unjustly, despoil of their possessions, or reduce to slavery Indians, Blacks or other such peoples.

However, the American church continued in deeds, if not in public discourse, to support slaveholding interests. Some American bishops misinterpreted In Supremo as condemning only the slave trade and not slavery itself. Bishop John England of Charleston actually wrote several letters to the Secretary of State under President Van Buren explaining that the Pope, in In Supremo, did not condemn slavery but only the slave trade.[17]

One outspoken critic of slavery was Archbishop John Baptist Purcell of Cincinnati, Ohio. In an 1863 Catholic Telegraph editorial Purcell wrote:

"When the slave power predominates, religion is nominal. There is no life in it. It is the hard-working laboring man who builds the church, the school house, the orphan asylum, not the slaveholder, as a general rule. Religion flourishes in a slave state only in proportion to its intimacy with a free state, or as it is adjacent to it."

During the war, American bishops continued to allow slave-owners to take communion. During the Civil War, Pope Pius IX made no secret of his affinity for the Confederacy, and the American hierarchy was so fearful of local schisms that the bishops were reluctant to speak out on behalf of abolition.

African-American Catholics

Because the ante-bellum South was predominantly Protestant, most African-Americans who adopted Christianity became Protestant. However, there have been African-American Catholics since colonial times. Irish, Italian and Eastern European Catholics and their clergy often excluded blacks from local parishes. Many blacks simply felt more at home in their birthright Protestant churches, where adaptable liturgies and ministerial opportunities meant that black Christians could worship their own way more readily than in Latin-rite Catholicism.

Opposition to educating the slaves in the South was so intense that many religious orders shied away from the task for fear of alienating white patronage. Feuds between religious orders and non-Catholics often forced black Americans out of the schools. Southern bishops repeatedly tried to muster the funds and workforce and funds to render an effective ministry to African Americans, but their extreme poverty crippled most of the efforts they made.

As a result of this discrimination, African-American Catholics operated largely as segregated enclaves. They also founded separate religious orders for black nuns and priests since diocesan seminaries would not accept them. For example, they formed two separate communities of black nuns: the Oblate Sisters of Providence in 1829 and the Holy Family Sisters in 1842.

While there had been African-American Catholics since colonial times, historically only white priests tended to their spiritual and corporal needs. Although the Vatican promoted the importance of African-American priests, the American hierarchy, exhibiting commonly accepted racial attitudes, considered African-Americans poor prospects for the priesthood. These attitudes forced the first African-American priests to pursue their formational studies and ordination outside of the United States.

James Augustine Healy, a light-skinned son of an African-American mother and Irish-immigrant father, was ordained in 1854 in Paris, France. Father Healy eventually became the second bishop of the Diocese of Portland, Maine in 1875. His brother, Patrick Francis Healy, joined the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in Liege, France in 1864 and became the president of Georgetown University ten years later. In 1886, Augustus Tolton, a former slave, was ordained a priest in Rome and returned to the United States to minister to the needs of African-American Catholics in the Midwest. It was not until 1891 that Charles Uncles became the first African-American priest to be ordained in the United States. The first black American priest, James Augustine Healy, was ordained in 1854.

In 1866, Archbishop Martin J. Spalding of Baltimore convened the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore, partially in response to the growing need for religious care for former slaves. The 45 bishops attending the council decreed that religious instruction be pursued for all, black and white equally. Attending bishops remain divided over the issue of separate parishes for African-American Catholics.

A few religious communities were successful, such as the Oblate Sisters of Providence, founded in 1829, and the Mill Hill Fathers of Baltimore in 1871. Katharine Drexel was also successful in establishing a network of schools which served upwards of 25,000 African-American and Native American children and founded Xavier University in New Orleans, the first predominantly black Catholic university in the Western Hemisphere.

In 1889, Daniel Rudd, a former slave and Ohio journalist, organized the National Black Catholic Congress, the first national organization for African-American Catholic lay men. The Congress met in Washington, D.C. and discussed issues such as education, job training, and "the need for family virtues."

Third Plenary Council of Baltimore

One result of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore was the development of the Baltimore Catechism which became the standard text for Catholic education in the United States and remained so until the 1960s when Catholic churches and schools began moving away from catechism-based education.

Another result of this council was the establishment of the Catholic University of America, the national Catholic university in the United States.

Labor union movement

The Catholic Church exercised a prominent role in shaping America's labor movement. From the onset of significant immigration in the 1840s, the Church in the United States was predominantly urban, with both its leaders and congregants usually of the laboring classes. Over the course of the second half of the nineteenth century, nativism, anti-Catholicism, and anti-unionism coalesced in Republican politics, and Catholics gravitated toward unions and the Democratic Party.

The Knights of Labor was the earliest labor organization in the United States, and in the 1880s, the was the largest labor union in the United States. and it is estimated that at least half its membership was Catholic (including Terence Powderly, its president from 1881 onward).

Yet the organization came under scrutiny from some of the church hierarchy because of its similarity to other “secret societies” (e.g., the Masons) that the Church forbade its followers to join. Others believed that unions could promote better lives for workers. The matter was resolved in 1887 when Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore interceded in Rome against a proposed condemnation of the Knights.

This was the context in which Pope Leo XIII wrote an encyclical letter that articulated the teaching of the Church with a view to the “new things” of the modern world. In Rerum Novarum (1891), Leo criticized the concentration of wealth and power, spoke out against the abuses that workers faced and demanded that workers should be granted certain rights and safety regulations. He upheld the right of voluntary association, specifically commending labor unions. At the same time, he reiterated the Church’s defense of private property, condemned socialism, and emphasized the need for Catholics to form and join unions that were not compromised by secular and revolutionary ideologies.[18]

Rerum Novarum provided new impetus for Catholics to become active in the labor movement, even if its exhortation to form specifically Catholic labor unions was widely interpreted as irrelevant to the pluralist context of the United States. While atheism underpinned many European unions and stimulated Catholic unionists to form separate labor federations, the religious neutrality of unions in the U.S. provided no such impetus. American Catholics seldom dominated unions, but they exerted influence across organized labor. Catholic union members and leaders played important roles in steering American unions away from socialism.


The Whitemarsh Constitutions in 1784 called for congregational election of pastors and lay control of parochial finances. Bishop John England in Charleston set up a Diocesan Constitution calling for popularly elected delegates in the dioceses.

Progressive Catholics in America advocated greater Catholic involvement in American culture, which some understood to mean that Roman Catholics should adapt its teachings to modern civilization.

This kind of pioneer-inspired reinvention alarmed Rome. Rumors spread among Europeans that an "Americanist" movement was sweeping the Catholic churches in the United States and would allegedly soon lead to the American Church claiming independence for itself.

In Longinqua oceani (1895; “Wide Expanse of the Ocean”), Leo warned the American church leaders hierarchy not to export their unique system of separation of church and state. In 1898 he lamented an America where church and state are "dissevered and divorced," and wrote of his preference for a closer relationship between the Catholic Church and the State, along European lines. Finally, in his pastoral letter Testem benevolentiae (1899; “Witness to Our Benevolence”) to Cardinal James Gibbons, Leo condemned other forms of Americanism.

In response, Gibbons denied that American Catholics held any of the condemned views. Leo's pronouncements effectively ended the Americanist movement and curtailed the activities of American progressive Catholics.


Some anti-immigrant and Nativism movements, like the Know Nothings and the Ku Klux Klan, have also been anti-Catholic. Indeed for most of the history of the United States, Catholics have been persecuted. The Ku Klux Klan-ridden South discriminated against Catholics for their commonly Irish, Italian, Polish, or Spanish ethnicity. Those in the Protestant Midwest and North labeled Catholics as anti-American "Papists", incapable of free thought without the approval of the Pope.

Famous 1876 editorial cartoon by Thomas Nast showing bishops as crocodiles attacking public schools, with the connivance of Irish Catholic politicians

Anti-Catholic animus in the United States reached a peak in the nineteenth century when the Protestant population became alarmed by the influx of Catholic immigrants. Fearing the end of time, some American Protestants who believed they were God's chosen people, went so far as to claim that the Catholic Church was the Whore of Babylon in the Book of Revelation.[19]

The resulting "nativist" movement, which achieved prominence in the 1840s, was whipped into a frenzy of anti-Catholicism that led to mob violence, the burning of Catholic property, and the killing of Catholics.[20]

This violence was fed by claims that Catholics were destroying the culture of the United States. Irish Catholic immigrants were blamed for raising the taxes of the country[citation needed] as well as for spreading violence and disease.

The nativist movement found expression in a national political movement called the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s, which (unsuccessfully) ran former president Millard Fillmore as its presidential candidate in 1856. The Catholic Church, in part, established lay fraternities and hundreds of schools, colleges, and universities like Boston College, the College of Holy Cross, and the University of Notre Dame to combat the bigotry.

20th century

By the beginning of the 20th century, approximately one-sixth of the population of the United States was Roman Catholic.

American Federation of Catholic Societies

Bishops in the United States met sporadically in plenary councils such as the Plenary Councils of Baltimore to consider common problems, and Catholic laymen had met a few times in national congresses but there was no ongoing national administrative structure for the church in America.

In 1901, Bishop James McFaul of Trenton helped organize the American Federation of Catholic Societies to encourage Catholic unity and promote Catholic interests. The Federation focused on social and economic questions as well as issues of public morality and education. In 1910, it created a Committee on Social Reform chaired by Father Peter Dietz. The committee supported the organization of labor; however, it became a strong opponent of socialist influence in the unions.[21]

From its very inception, the Federation struggled to overcome ethnic infighting and the opposition of many bishops. Some bishops were concerned that a national Catholic organization would feed the suspicions of nativists who might portray such an organization as an example of "papist aggression" with the goals of "taking over" Protestant America. This stance was opposed by John J. Burke, a Paulist priest and editor of the Catholic World. Burke believed that it was crucial for Catholics to develop a national organization in order to defend themselves and spread their faith.[21]

National Catholic War Council

With the outbreak of the World War I, Catholic bishops realized that if they did not help mobilize their flocks for the war effort, nativists would once again begin to target them as disloyal. They also realized the need to ensure that Catholics were well represented among chaplains and all other services provided for American soldiers and sailors both in the United States and overseas.

It was John J. Burke , editor of the Catholic World, who first recognized the urgency of the moment. Burke had long argued for a national outlook and sense of unity among the country’s Catholics. The war provided the impetus to initiate these efforts. The Catholic hierarchy was eager to show its enthusiastic support for the war effort. In order to better address challenges posed by World War I, the American Catholic hierarchy in 1917 chose to meet collectively for the first time since 1884.

In August 1917, on the campus of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., Burke, with the backing of Cardinal Gibbons and other bishops, convened a meeting to discuss organizing a national agency to coordinate the war effort of the American Catholic community. One hundred and fifteen delegates from sixty-eight dioceses, together with members from the Catholic press and representatives from twenty-seven national Catholic organizations attended this first meeting.

The result of the meeting was the formation of the National Catholic War Council, "to study, coordinate, unify and put in operation all Catholic activities incidental to the war." An executive committee, chaired by Cardinal George Mundelein of Chicago, was formed in December 1917, to oversee the work of the Council. The mandate of the newly formed organization included the promotion of Catholic participation in the war, through chaplains, literature, and care for the morale of the troops, as well as (for the first time) lobbying for Catholic interests in the nation’s capital.

Bishops' Program of Social Reconstruction

Following the war many hoped that a new commitment to social reform would characterize the ensuing peace. The Council saw an opportunity to use its national voice to shape reform and in April 1918 created a Committee for Reconstruction. John A. Ryan wrote the Bishops' Program of Social Reconstruction. Combining Progressive thought and Catholic theology, Ryan believed that government intervention was the most effective means of affecting positive change for his church as well as working people and the poor.

On February 12, 1919, the National Catholic War Council issued the "Bishops' Program of Social Reconstruction," through a carefully planned public relations campaign. The plan offered a guide for overhauling America's politics, society, and economy based on Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum and a variety of American influences.

The Program received a mixed reception both within the Church and outside it. The National Catholic War Council was a voluntary organization with no canonical status. Its ability to speak authoritatively was thus questioned. Many bishops threw their support behind the Program, but some, like Bishop William Turner of Buffalo, and more notably, William Henry O'Connell of Boston, opposed it. O'Connell believed some aspects of the plan smacked too much of socialism. Response outside the Church was also divided: labor organizations backing it, for example, and business groups criticizing it.

Compulsory Education Act

After World War I, some states concerned about the influence of immigrants and "foreign" values looked to public schools for help. The states drafted lawsdesigned to use schools to promote a common American culture.

In 1921, the Ku Klux Klan arrived in Oregon from central California and quickly attracted as many as 14,000 members, establishing 58 klaverns by the end of 1922. Given the small population of non-white minorities outside Portland, the Oregon Klan directed its attention almost exclusively against Catholics, who numbered about 8% of the population.

In 1922, the Masonic Grand Lodge of Oregon sponsored a bill to require all school-age children to attend public schools. With support of the Klan and Democratic Governor Walter M. Pierce, endorsed by the Klan, the Compulsory Education Act was passed by a vote of 115,506 to 103,685. Its primary purpose was to shut down Catholic schools in Oregon, but it also affected other private and military schools. The constitutionality of the law was challenged in court and ultimately struck down by the Supreme Court in Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925) before it went into effect.[22]

The law caused outraged Catholics to organize locally and nationally for the right to send their children to Catholic schools. In Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), the United States Supreme Court declared the Oregon's Compulsory Education Act unconstitutional in a ruling that that has been called "the Magna Carta of the parochial school system."

1928 Presidential election

Al Smith

In 1928, Al Smith became the first Roman Catholic to gain a major party's nomination for President, and his religion became an issue during the campaign. Many Protestants feared that Smith would take orders from church leaders in Rome in making decisions affecting the country.

Catholic Worker Movement

The Catholic Worker movement began as a means to combine Dorothy Day's history in American social activism, anarchism, and pacifism with the tenets of Catholicism (including a strong current of distributism), five years after her 1927 conversion.[23] The group started with the Catholic Worker newspaper, created to promote Catholic social teaching and stake out a neutral, pacifist position in the war-torn 1930s. This grew into a "house of hospitality" in the slums of New York City and then a series of farms for people to live together communally. The movement quickly spread to other cities in the United States, and to Canada and the United Kingdom; more than 30 independent but affiliated CW communities had been founded by 1941. Well over 100 communities exist today, including several in Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, The Netherlands, the Republic of Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, and Sweden.[24]

National Catholic Welfare Conference


Historian John McGreevey notes: "Priests across the country in the 1930s encouraged their parishioners to join unions, and some like Pittsbugh's Charles Rice, Detroit's Frederick Siedenberg, and Buffalo's Monsignor John P.Boland, served on regional labor boards and played key roles in workplace negotiations." The Catholic Worker Movement and Dorothy Day grew out of the same impetuses to put Catholic social teaching into action.

Catholic Conference on Industrial Problems

The Catholic Conference on Industrial Problems (1923–1937) was conceived by Fr. Raymond McGowan as a way of bringing together Catholic leaders in the fields of theology, labor, and business, with a view to promoting awareness and discussion of Catholic social teaching. Its first meeting was held in Milwaukee. While it was the venue for important discussions during its existence, its demise was due in part to lack of participation by business executives who perceived the dominant tone of the group as anti-business.


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

Religion became a divisive issue during the presidential campaign of 1960. Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts was vying to become the nation's first Catholic president. A key factor that was hurting Kennedy in his campaign was the widespread prejudice against his Roman Catholic religion; some Protestants believed that, if he were elected President, Kennedy would have to take orders from the Pope in Rome. When offered the opportunity to speak before a convention of Baptist ministers, decided to try to put the issue to rest.

To address fears that his Roman Catholicism would impact his decision-making, John F. Kennedy famously told the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960, "I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for President who also happens to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my Church on public matters — and the Church does not speak for me."[25] He promised to respect the separation of church and state and not to allow Catholic officials to dictate public policy to him. Kennedy also raised the question of whether one-quarter of Americans were relegated to second-class citizenship just because they were Roman Catholic.

Even so, it was widely believed after the election that Kennedy lost some heavily Protestant states because of his Catholicism. His address did not please everyone: many non-Catholics remained unconvinced that a Catholic could be president without divided loyalties; and many Catholics thought he conceded too much in his profession of belief in an "absolute" separation of church and state. The speech is widely considered to be an important marker in the history of Catholicism (and anti-Catholicism) in the United States.

Kennedy went on to win the national popular vote over Richard Nixon by just one tenth of one percentage point (0.1%) - the closest popular-vote margin of the 20th century. In the electoral college, Kennedy's victory was larger, as he took 303 electoral votes to Nixon's 219 (269 were needed to win). The New York Times, summarizing the discussion late in November, spoke of a “narrow consensus” among the experts that Kennedy had won more than he lost as a result of his Catholicism,[26] as Northern Catholics flocked to Kennedy because of attacks on his religion.


Roe v. Wade

On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court of the United States announced its decision in the Roe v. Wade case, finding that a constitutional right to privacy prohibited interference with a woman's obtaining an abortion. The Catholic Church was one of the few institutional voices opposing the decision at the time, leading to the abortion issue being construed then and since largely as a religious one. Although a majority of Catholics have agreed with the hierarchy in their insistence on legal protection of the unborn, some—including prominent politicians—have not, leading to perennial controversies concerning the responsibilities of Catholics in American public life.


Sanctuary of refugees from Central American civil wars was a movement in the 1980s. It was part of a broader anti-war movement positioned against U.S. foreign policy in Central America. By 1987, 440 sites in the United States had been declared "sanctuary congregations" or "sanctuary cities" open to migrants from the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala. These sites included university campuses.

The movement originated along the U.S. border with Mexico in Arizona but was also strong in Chicago, Philadelphia, and California. In 1981, Rev. John Fife and Jim Corbett, among others, began bringing Central American refugees into the United States. It was their intent to offer sanctuary, or faith-based protection, from the political violence that was taking place in El Salvador and Guatemala.[27] The Department of Justice indicted several activists in south Texas for assisting refugees. Later 16 activists in Arizona were indicted, including Fife and Corbett in 1985; 11 were brought to trial and 8 were convicted of alien smuggling and other charges. The defendants claimed their actions were justifiable to save lives of people who would be killed and had no other way to escape.

This movement has been succeeded in the 2000s by the movement of churches and other houses of worship, to shelter immigrants in danger of deportation. The New Sanctuary Movement is a network of houses of worship that facilitates this effort.[28]

21st century


Modern Roman Catholic immigrants come to the United States from the Philippines, Poland, and Latin America, especially from Mexico. This multiculturalism and diversity has greatly impacted the flavor of Catholicism in the United States. For example, many dioceses serve in both the English language and the Spanish language. This multiculturalism and diversity has greatly impacted the flavor of Catholicism in the United States. For example, many dioceses serve the faithful in both the English language and the Spanish language. Also, when many parishes were set up in the United States, separate churches were built for parishioners from Ireland, Germany, Italy, etc. In Iowa, the development of the Archdiocese of Dubuque, the work of Bishop Loras and the building of St. Raphael's Cathedral illustrate this point.

A 2008 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, a project of the Pew Research Center, found that 23.9% of 300 million Americans (i.e., 72 million) identified themselves as Roman Catholic and that 29% of these were Hispanic/Latino, while nearly half of all Catholics under 40 years of age were Hispanic/Latino. The survey also found that white Catholics (often third and fourth generation Americans) were seven times more likely to have graduated high school than Hispanic/Latino Catholics, and that over twice as many Hispanic/Latino Catholics earned under $30,000 per year as their white counterparts.[29] According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 15% of new priests are Hispanic/Latino and there are 28 active and 12 inactive Hispanic/Latino bishops, 9% of the total.[30] According to Luis Lugo, the director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, nearly a quarter of all Catholics in the United States are foreign born. He notes: "To know what the country will be like in three decades, look at the Catholic church."[31]

Sex abuse scandal

In the later 20th century "[...] the Catholic Church in the United States became the subject of controversy due to allegations of clerical child abuse of children and adolescents, of episcopal negligence in arresting these crimes, and of numerous civil suits that cost Catholic dioceses hundreds of millions of dollars in damages."[32] Although evidence of such abuse was uncovered in other countries, the vast majority of sex abuse cases occurred in the United States.[33]

Major lawsuits emerged in 2001 and subsequent years claiming some priests had sexually abused minors.[34] These allegations of priests sexually abusing children were widely reported in the news media. Some commentators, such as journalist Jon Dougherty, have argued that media coverage of the issue has been excessive, given that the same problems plague other institutions, such as the US public school system, with much greater frequency.[35][36][37]

Some priests resigned, others were defrocked and jailed,[38] and there were financial settlements with many victims.[34]

One estimate suggested that up to 3% of U.S. priests were involved.[39]

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops commissioned a comprehensive study that found that four percent of all priests who served in the US from 1950 to 2002 faced some sort of sexual accusation.[40][41]

The Church was widely criticized when it emerged that some bishops had known about abuse allegations, and reassigned accused priests after first sending them to psychiatric counseling.[34][41][42][43] Some bishops and psychiatrists contended that the prevailing psychology of the times suggested that people could be cured of such behavior through counseling.[42][44] Pope John Paul II responded by declaring that "there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young".[45]

The U.S. Church instituted reforms to prevent future abuse by requiring background checks for Church employees;[46] because the vast majority of victims were teenage boys, the worldwide Church also prohibited the ordination of men with "deep–seated homosexual tendencies."[44][47] It now requires dioceses faced with an allegation to alert the authorities, conduct an investigation and remove the accused from duty.[46][48]

In 2008, the Vatican affirmed that the scandal was an "exceptionally serious" problem, but estimated that it was "probably caused by "no more than 1 per cent" of the over 400,000 Catholic priests worldwide.[40]

Legislative stances

The Roman Catholic Church has tried to influence legislation to preserve Sunday as a day of worship[citation needed], to outlaw abortion[citation needed] and euthanasia[citation needed]. It has also supported legislation to restrict or not to promote the use of contraceptives[citation needed].

Human sexuality

Some criticize the Church's teaching on sexual and reproductive matters.[49] The Church requires members to eschew homosexual practices,[50] artificial contraception,[51] and sex out of wedlock, as well as non-procreative sexual practices, including masturbation. Procuring or assisting in an abortion can carry the penalty of excommunication, as a specific offense.[52]

Although some charge that the Roman Catholic Church rejects sex for purposes other than procreation, the official Catholic teaching regards sexuality as "naturally ordered to the good of spouses" as well as the generation of children.[53]

Some criticize the Church's teaching on fidelity, sexual abstinence and its opposition to promoting the use of condoms as a strategy to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS (or teen pregnancy or STD) as counterproductive.[citation needed] The Roman Catholic Church has been both praised and criticized for its stauch pro-life efforts in all societies. The Church's denial of the use of condoms has provoked criticism especially in countries where AIDS and HIV infections are at epidemic proportions. The Church maintains that countries like Kenya where behavioral changes like abstinence are endorsed instead of condom use, are experiencing greater progress towards controlling the disease than those countries just promoting condoms.[54]


The Roman Catholic Church maintains its opposition to birth control. Some Roman Catholic Church members and non-members criticize this belief as contributing to overpopulation, and poverty.[55]

Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the Church's position in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae (Human Life). In this encyclical, the Pope acknowledges the realities of modern life, scientific advances, as well as the questions and challenges these raise. Furthermore, he explains that the purpose of intercourse is both "unitive and procreative", that is to say it strengthens the relationship of the husband and wife as well as offering the chance of creating new life. As such, it is a natural and full expression of our humanity. He writes that contraception "contradicts the will of the Author of life [God]. Hence to use this divine gift [sexual intercourse] while depriving it, even if only partially, of its meaning and purpose, is equally repugnant to the nature of man and of woman, and is consequently in opposition to the plan of God and His holy will."[56]

The Church stands by its doctrines on sexual intercourse as defined by the Natural law: intercourse must at once be both the renewal of the consummation of marriage and open to procreation. If each of these postulates are not met, the act of intercourse is, according to Natural Law, an objective mortal sin. Therefore, since artificial contraception expressly prevents the creation of a new life (and, the Church would argue, removes the sovereignty of God over all of Creation), contraception is unacceptable. The Church sees abstinence as the only objective moral strategy for preventing the transmission of HIV.[57][58]

The Church has been criticized for its opposition to promoting the use of condoms as a strategy to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, teen pregnancy, and STDs.

Homosexual behavior

The Roman Catholic Church requires homosexuals to practice chastity in the understanding that homosexual acts are "intrinsically disordered" and "contrary to the natural law."[59] All unmarried persons who have sex outside of marriage commit adultery according to basic Christian belief. Homosexual acts are considered one form of adultery that harms both the soul of the person who commits adultery and their relationship with God. It insists that the only appropriate expression of sexuality is within the context of marriage, which by definition is permanent, procreative, heterosexual, and monogamous. The Vatican has reiterated the standing instruction against ordaining gay candidates for the priesthood.[60]

See also


  1. ^ Engelhardt, Zephyrin,O.F.M. San Juan Capistrano Mission ,p. 258 , Standard Printing Co., Los Angeles 1922.
  2. ^ Franzen, 362
  3. ^ Norman, The Roman Catholic Church an Illustrated History (2007), pp. 111–2
  4. ^ Richard Middleton, Colonial America (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 407.
  5. ^ Middleton, 406-7.
  6. ^ Fitzpatrick, Edward A.; Nevils, William Coleman (January 1936). "Miniatures of Georgetown, 1634 to 1934". The Journal of Higher Education 7 (1): 56–57. doi:10.2307/1974310. Retrieved 2007-11-14. 
  7. ^ Nevils, William Coleman (1934). Miniatures of Georgetown: Tercentennial Causeries. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press. pp. 1–25. 
  8. ^ Ellis, John Tracy. 
  9. ^ Richard Middleton, Colonial American (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 260-1.
  10. ^ Kaminski, John (March 2002). "Religion and the Founding Fathers". Annotation - the Newsletter of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission 30:1. ISSN 0160-8460. 
  11. ^ Middleton, 225. Also see Michael Lee Lanning, The American Revolution 100 (Napierville:Ill.: Sourcebook,Inc.), 193.
  12. ^ Theodore Maynard, The Story of American Catholicism (New York: Macmillian, 1960), 127.
  13. ^ Archdiocese of Baltimore official website. Retrieved 2009-11-26.
  14. ^ "William Gaston and Georgetown". Bicentennial Exhibit. Georgetown University. November 11, 2000. Retrieved 2007-07-03. 
  15. ^ "Archdiocese of Baltimore - Our History". Retrieved 2009-03-30. 
  16. ^ Bush, Jeb (March 4, 2009). NO:Choice forces educators to improve. The Atlanta Constitution-Journal. 
  17. ^ Panzer, Joel (1996). The Popes and Slavery. Alba House. 
  18. ^ "Rerum Novarum - ENCYCLICAL OF POPE LEO XIII ON CAPITAL AND LABOR". Retrieved 2009-04-23. 
  19. ^ Bilhartz, Terry D. (1986). Urban Religion and the Second Great Awakening. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. p. 115. ISBN 0-838-63227-0.,M1. 
  20. ^ Jimmy Akin (2001-03-01). "The History of Anti-Catholicism". This Rock. Catholic Answers. Retrieved 2008-11-10. 
  21. ^ a b "Pledging the Church to Reform?: The Bishop's Program for Social Reconstruction". 
  22. ^ Howard, J. Paul. "Cross-Border Reflections, Parents’ Right to Direct Their Childrens’ Education Under the U.S. and Canadian Constitutions", Education Canada, v41 n2 p36-37 Sum 2001.
  23. ^ ""Dorothy Day, Prophet of Pacifism for the Catholic Church"" from "Houston Catholic Worker" newspaper, October 1997
  24. ^ Directory of Catholic Worker Communities "List of Catholic Worker Communities". Directory of Catholic Worker Communities. Retrieved 2008-11-30. 
  25. ^ Kennedy, John F. (2002-06-18). "Address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association". American Rhetoric. Retrieved 2007-09-17. 
  26. ^ New York Times, November 20, 1960, Section 4, p. E5
  27. ^ See James P. Carroll, 2006: "Sanctuary", in House of War, pp. 397-404. ISBN 0-618-18780-4
  28. ^ Sanctuary Movement history on New Sanctuary Movement page
  29. ^ "Pew Forum: A Portrait of American Catholics on the Eve of Pope Benedict's Visit to the U.S.". The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. 2008-03-27. Retrieved 2009-05-29. 
  30. ^ "USCCB - (Hispanic Affairs) - Demographics". U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Retrieved 2009-05-29. 
  31. ^ "Panel offers observations on the impact of immigration on faith in the US," Boston Globe 13 September 2009, 3.
  32. ^ Patrick W. Carey, Catholics in America. A History, Westport, Connecticut and London: Praeger, 2004, p. 141
  33. ^ 1,200 Priests Reported Accused of Abuse Article from AP Online
  34. ^ a b c Bruni, p. 336.
  35. ^ Dougherty, Jon (5 April 2004). "Sex Abuse by Teachers Said Worse Than Catholic Church". Newsmax. Retrieved 11 June 2008. 
  36. ^ Irvine, Martha; Tanner, Robert (21 October 2007). "Sexual Misconduct Plagues US Schools". The Washington Post. Retrieved 13 October 2008. 
  37. ^ Shakeshaft, Charol (2004). "Educator Sexual Misconduct" (PDF). US Department of Education. Retrieved 12 April 2008. 
  38. ^ Newman, Andy (2006-08-31). "A Choice for New York Priests in Abuse Cases". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-03-13. 
  39. ^ Grossman, Cathy Lynn. "Survey: More clergy abuse cases than previously thought." USA Today (February 10, 2004). Retrieved July 21, 2007.
  40. ^ a b Owen, Richard (7 January 2008). "Pope calls for continuous prayer to rid priesthood of paedophilia". Times Online UK edition (London: Times Newspapers Ltd). Retrieved 31 March 2008. 
  41. ^ a b Terry, Karen et al (2004). "John Jay Report". John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Retrieved 9 February 2008. 
  42. ^ a b Steinfels, p. 40–46.
  43. ^ Frawley-ODea, p. 4.
  44. ^ a b Filteau, Jerry (2004). "Report says clergy sexual abuse brought 'smoke of Satan' into church". Catholic News Service. Retrieved 2008-03-10. 
  45. ^ Walsh, p. 62.
  46. ^ a b United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (2005). "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People". United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Retrieved 2007-10-08. 
  47. ^ Pope Benedict XVI (2005). "Instruction Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in view of their Admission to the Seminary and to Holy Orders". Vatican. Retrieved 2008-03-09. 
  48. ^ "Scandals in the church: The Bishops' Decisions; The Bishops' Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People". The New York Times. 2002-06-15. Retrieved 2008-02-12. 
  49. ^ U.S. Catholic Bishops - Catechism of the Catholic Church
  50. ^ CCC 2357
  51. ^ CCC 2370
  52. ^ CCC 2272
  53. ^ CCC 2353
  54. ^ Dugger, Carol (2006-05-18). "Why is Kenya's AIDS rate plummeting?". International Herald Tribune.,+condoms,+hiv,+abstinence&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=5&gl=us. Retrieved 2008-02-21. 
  55. ^ "Talking Point | Is the Vatican wrong on population control?". BBC News. 1999-07-09. Retrieved 2009-11-12. 
  56. ^ Paul VI. "Humanae Vitae - Encyclical Letter of His Holiness Paul VI on the regulation of birth, 25 July 1968". Retrieved 2009-11-12. 
  57. ^ "Contraception and Sterilization". 2004-08-10. Retrieved 2009-11-12. 
  58. ^ "Birth Control". 2004-08-10. Retrieved 2009-11-12. 
  59. ^ "Catechism of the Catholic Church", see the "Chastity and homosexuality" section.
  60. ^ Pope approves barring gay seminarians

Additional reading

  • Fogarty, Gerald P. Commonwealth Catholicism: A History of the Catholic Church in Virginia, ISBN 978-0268022648.

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