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Catholics and prayer in public schools

The conjunction of two recent articles on American Catholic history, specifically the history of prayer in schools, provides a timely warning for church involvement in politics: straightforward descriptions of policies as liberal or conservative may not be very useful, exaggerating supposedly ideological threats may prove deceptively easy, and, finally, being part of a majority can badly affect our discernment.

The first of these articles, by Amanda Beyer-Purvis,[1] shows American Catholics on the defensive in Philadelphia in 1844 during riots that followed use of the King James Bible in public schools. The Protestant majority considered a nonsectarian Protestantism to be necessary for moral education and the sustaining of American republicanism. The Catholic minority, after it was clear that the government would not also fund its parochial schools, appealed to freedom of conscience against mandatory Bible reading in public schools. After the bloody Philadelphia riots, New York Bishop John Hughes said, “There is no such thing as a predominant religion, and the smallest minority is entitled to the same protection as the greatest majority.” Hughes, Beyer-Purvis notes, had worked “with Jewish leaders in [New York City] to advocate for legislation that would remove Bibles from public education entirely.” This would hardly be the last episode of conflict over religion and Protestant hegemony in American public schools.

The second of these articles, by Kathleen Holscher,[2] has middle 20th-century American Catholics — by now more numerous than the members of any single American Protestant denomination — still agitated by school prayer, but distressed that the Supreme Court, in Engel v. Vitale (1962), had ruled that government sponsorship of a short and ecumenical school prayer violated the Establishment clause of the First Amendment. Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle of Washington, D.C., lamented, “It is obvious that little by little [the court] is discarding the religious traditions hallowed by a century and a half of American practice.” The Jesuit magazine America editorialized that the court had reached “a decision that spits in the face of our history, our tradition and our heritage as religious people.”

What had happened to drastically change Catholic attitudes toward school prayer or religious exercises in public schools? How had school prayer, formerly the cause of offense, become hallowed and our tradition?

This transformation cannot easily be described as liberal or conservative. Holscher notes that the newfound Catholic respect for school prayer came in part because 20th-century American Catholics could see themselves in ecumenical solidarity with Protestants. Regarding that once incendiary issue of Protestant versus Catholic translations of the Bible, American Catholics were now encouraged to read from a variety of translations of the Bible and even to look forward to ecumenical translations of the Bible.

A 1962 America article by Walter Abbott, SJ, quoted Pittsburgh Bishop John J. Wright’s judgment that “A common Bible for Protestants and Catholics is very possible” and recognized that the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops and House of Deputies had adopted a resolution at the 1961 General Convention expressing hope for a translation of the Bible for all Christians. (Abbott had high hopes for the Anchor Bible.) There is an irony here. Catholics had adopted liberal positions on ecumenism and joint prayer and Bible reading, but these positions could be deployed as conservative efforts because they raised the possibility of co-belligerence, here directed against the new common enemy of secularism.

Catholic protests against Engel v. Vitale saw the decision as the very embodiment of ideological secularism. America’s editorial against the “Black Monday decision” suggested that “the secularizing tendencies at work in American society have come full circle.” In a later editorial, America would agree with Bishop James Pike’s claim that the decision had performed an act of “deconsecration” and created a state religion, “that of secularism.”

Corinna Barrett Lain[3] has written that much of the public misunderstood Engel as limiting the free exercise of religion by preventing voluntary prayer by students and preventing what the decision said that it hadn’t prevented: recitation of “historical documents such as the Declaration of Independence which contain references to the Deity.”

Supreme Court Outlaws Prayers in Public Schools, newspaper headlines claimed (not true). While America recognized the limits of the majority opinion, the magazine suggested that these “distinctions” and “subtleties” were evidence of “unreality” and that the decision put “even the services of chaplains of all religious denominations in our armed forces at risk.” After all, the real meaning of the decision, America later said, was in Justice William O. Douglas’s more separationist concurring opinion or the commentary of Dean Kelley of the National Council of Churches, which would seem to place the Pledge of Allegiance at risk.

America warned of “doctrinaire amplification” and “logical conclusion.” A contributor sarcastically wrote to the Supreme Court against moments of silence because “private piety might take shape.” Because the decision was seen as an unfailingly unidirectional secularist thrust, America did not foresee the possibility of an enduring if uneasy balance between educator neutrality and free student religious expression and the legal distinction between prayer and historical or ceremonial expression. The threat was badly exaggerated.

And who, then, might be behind this force of secularism? Before the decision, America spoke of forces that were “clearly [those] of a minority.” Post-decision, this minority was a “well-organized and litigious minority” aligned against “millions of parents.”

Then America, rather disturbingly, suggested that the Supreme Court’s decision “sharply stepped up the voltage that exists between religious groups in the country” and warned about the effect on a particularly culpable minority: “We can be sure that leaders of the Jewish community, and especially the officials of those Jewish agencies which so promptly and unanimously hailed the decision, are aware that the victory that was apparently gained for minority groups may run out to be rather costly in terms of community relations.”

As historian Bruce J. Dierenfield has recounted, the Jewish reaction to this was one of severe disappointment. Joachim Prinz, president of the American Jewish Congress, criticized the “thinly veiled threats of anti-Semitism from so respectable a journal of opinion as America.”[4] In the next year, when the Supreme Court subsequently ruled against school-sponsored Bible readings in Abington School District v. Schempp, America was much more circumspect and much less concerned with community relations. This time, the decision was expected by most Catholics. But also, perhaps, it seemed far less apocalyptic.

Catholic support for public school prayer may have been somewhat episodic, at least in its intensity, but it leaves us with a few important lessons. Liberal moves, such as toward ecumenism, can be at once accommodating and belligerent, especially if the newfound solidarity is directed against a common enemy. Distinctions and subtleties are hard to register when the public sphere seems like the arena for ideological conflict between diametrically opposed isms.

Finally, our discernment can change when we become part of a majority, no longer an immigrant church or what Bishop Hughes called the smallest minority. Regarding that latter point, one test for some forms of Christian politics, as Eve Tushnet has recently written, may be recognizing the awful fact that “From the Roman Empire to the American, the consistent sticking point in every Catholic political fantasy is the Jews.”


[1] “The Philadelphia Bible Riots of 1844: Contest over the Rights of Citizens,” Pennsylvania History 83.3 (2016), pp. 366-93.

[2] “‘A Decision that Spits in the Face of Our History’: Catholics and the Midcentury Fight Over Public Prayer and Bible Reading,” The Catholic Historical Review 102.2 (2016), pp. 340-68.

[3] “God, Civic Virtue, and the American Way: Reconstructing Engel,” Stanford Law Review 67 (2015): pp. 479-555.

[4] Bruce Dierenfield, The Battle over School Prayer: How Engel v. Vitale Changed America (University Press of Kansas, 2007), p. 157.


  1. It was either George Marsden or Mark Noll who pointed out how the sectarian language used to sideline Romans Catholics in the 19th century came back to be used against Protestants in the 20th.

    • Thanks for your comment, Charlie. It’s also the case that some confessional Protestants were deeply uncomfortable with the nonsectarian Protestantism in the 19th century common schools. On this, see Charles Glenn’s The Myth of the Common School.


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