March 10, 2008

Edward Cardinal Egan, Archbishop of New York, is clearly as worried as I am about the viciously anti-Christian legislation being backed by the abortionists’ best friend, NY Gov. Spitzer—which would force religious hospitals, social service agencies, and even schools to cooperate in the destruction of unborn life. The cardinal took the extraordinary step of issuing a pastoral letter this weekend, to be read from the pulpit of every church in his archdiocese. You can read it here.

There hasn’t been this grave a threat to the free exercise of religion in New York since the 1830s and 40s, when Know-Nothing mobs (having already burned down convents and churches in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania) threatened the Catholic parishes of New York City—which were thronged with recent Irish immigrants. The prelate at that time was the great Archbishop John Hughes, whose leadership I remembered as follows in The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Wine, Whiskey and Song:

From the 1820s on through the 1870s, thousands of Irishmen sailed annually to escape the repression and poverty imposed upon the Irish by the English. As William Stern wrote in a famous City Journal article, in occupied Ireland, Catholics were

barred from ever owning a house worth more than five pounds or holding a commission in the army or navy. Catholics could neither run schools nor give their children a Catholic education. Priests had to be licensed by the government, which allowed only a few in the country. Any Catholic son could seize his father’s property by becoming a Protestant.

Even the slums of New York and Boston sounded promising by comparison. As Irish climbed out of steerage and “€œcoffin ships,”€ they raised suspicions on the part of natives and nativists”€”who feared the influx into a pristinely Protestant America of millions of loyal “€œpapists.”€ Prominent Americans from John Quincy Adams to John Calhoun asked aloud if these ragged emigrants were the vanguard of “€œRomish tyranny.”€ To make matters worse, when the Potato Famine devastated Ireland in the 1840s, the influx became a torrent”€”and the immigrants arrived in an appalling condition. As Stern described the new arrivals: 

In New York they took up residence in homes intended for single families, which were subdivided into tiny apartments. Cellars became dwellings, as did attics three feet high, without sunlight or ventilation, where whole families slept in one bed. Shanties sprang up in alleys. Without running water, cleanliness was impossible; sewage piled up in backyard privies, and rats abounded. Cholera broke out constantly in Irish wards. Observers have noted that no Americans before or since have lived in worse conditions than the New York Irish of the mid-nineteenth century.

Illiteracy, alcoholism, and prostitution were rampant. Irish indeed formed America’s first underclass”€”and set some natives (such as the anti-Catholic cartoonist Thomas Nast) wondering whether they were some inferior sub-species of homo sapiens. What saved the Irish from this desperate situation, as Stern documents, was neither a government program nor a guerrilla movement. Instead it was the efforts of the local Catholic Church, led by the intrepid and bellicose Archbishop “€œDagger”€ John Hughes.

Born in 1797 to a poor farmer in county Tyrone, Hughes had seen oppression up close. Stern notes that after Hughes”€™ sister Mary died: “€œEnglish law barred the local Catholic priest from entering the cemetery gates to preside at her burial; the best he could do was to scoop up a handful of dirt, bless it, and hand it to Hughes to sprinkle on the grave.”€ The family left for Maryland soon after. There the young John worked as a stonemason building a seminary”€”and discovered his own vocation to the priesthood. The local (French-speaking!) pastor gave little encouragement to this strapping but unlearned lad, but he met with St. Elizabeth Seton, who used her influence to gain his admittance to Mount St. Marys”€”which still trains priests today. Hughes was appalled by the hostility he encountered in America, where hatred of Catholics was growing”€”even as Britain was repealing most restrictions on the Church. In Philadelphia, the first city where Hughes ministered worked, nativist organizations armed themselves with rifles and cannon”€”while Catholics were disarmed by the police. (In 1844, the nativists would riot, burning three churches and many Catholic homes, killing 13.) Hughes traveled the country debating ministers who accused impoverished immigrants of conspiring to impose the Inquisition in the America, winning a worldwide reputation”€”and appointment in 1838 as Archbishop of New York.

Hughes fought fire with fire”€”for instance, organizing armed groups of Irishmen to defend his churches from arson at the hands of bigoted mobs”€”but he fought poverty through compassion. And not the nanny state, non-judgmental kind which nowadays hands out condoms to schoolkids and free needles to addicts. Hughes used his parishes to start a chain of Catholic schools which would drill the ragamuffin children of recently-starving laborers in useful trades and the catechism, and universities such as Fordham to teach the liberal arts. At their churches, his pastors preached purity and penance. They”€™d dispense food and clothes to needy workmen”€”but only after sniffing their breath for the scent of whiskey. Young women who wanted the nuns to find them work had to keep a blameless good name. Orphans and the sick could find shelter in Church-run homes. Soon, the once-destitute Irish re-formed themselves into a healthy working class. As Stern documents, the tough love of good priests like Hughes, and the nuns who staffed their schools, in a single generation pulled an entire people out of penury”€”and into the NYPD.

Perhaps the most famous thing Hughes ever said dates from a threat by nativists to burn down St. Patrick’s Cathedral (the old one, which now stands in trendy Nolita, on Mulberry Street). Recalling the Tsar’s scorched earth response to Napoleon’s invaders, the good Archbishop said that if anything happened to his cathedral, his congregants would make of New York “a second Moscow.” The cathedral still stands.

Since the armed mobs that threaten Catholic hospitals and schools today will hold the sanction of the State, it is the State that Cardinal Egan should make his enemy, using (of course) non-violent means. Egan should do whatever he can to influence all of these institutions to openly flout such an unjust law—and put the full resources of the Church put behind their legal defense, appealing to the Supreme Court to uphold our First Amendment rights.

When a hospital or school loses its license, it should continue to operate—until the police are sent in to drag out the doctors, teachers, patients and students. If that happens, Egan should use whatever pressure he can among the many Catholics in the NY Police department to provoke a police strike. And so on. Such a civil rights movement would not seem sincere if the bishops themselves were unwilling to go to jail. They should remain there as long as necessary—until the last doctor, teacher, or cop is released. The next pastoral letter should come from Binghamton jail.

The NY governor’s law is a declaration of war against every orthodox Christian (and orthodox Jew) in the state of New York. If he passes it, we have no other choice—if we are serious about our Faith—but to make New York State ungovernable.


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