The Catholic Thing
Risking Hell for Harvard Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Monday, 07 July 2014

The development of education was job one when Coadjutor Bishop John Joseph Hughes came to New York in 1837. As one expert explains: 

eight makeshift parochial schools, meeting in church basements or rented halls, had on register about 5000 Catholic children. An additional 7000 either lacked accommodation or made no effort to go to school. 

Public aid had been given to some of these basement schools by the Free School Society, but in 1825, when it became the Public School Society, funding for denominational schools (Catholic and Baptist) ceased.

The Society wasn’t unwilling to educate Catholic children; it just intended to do so in a Protestant manner, using, for instance, the King James Bible (KJV). . .for the development of students’ moral rectitude.

Some devout Catholics had no desire to enroll children in the Society’s schools: better not to go to Harvard for four years than to hell forever.

The Society wanted Catholic children for the government funding that would follow, and so convinced the city’s Board of Aldermen to pass legislation making it “an offence [sic] in a minor to be found idle and uninstructed and subject to commitment if reformation did not take place.” Commitment meant exiledto a farm-labor school.

A few years before Hughes’ arrival, Bishop John Dubois had gone, miter in hand, to ask the Society to accommodate Catholic kids; asking also for some say in choosing teachers, textbooks, and a Bible. Without irony, the Society said this would be unconstitutional: “religious and moral instruction is given in the schools entirely free from sectarianism.”

But to obtain those subsidies (and also for the reclamation of souls from popery), the Society added Catholic laymen to its board and agreed to consider removing any book from its curriculum that offended Catholic sensibilities, although not the KJV. Bishop Dubois might have said yes (or no). He decided not to decide.

Governor William H. Seward was aware of the plight of immigrant children in New York. Early in 1840, he told the state’s legislators that more than 25,000 immigrant children were not being educated. If Catholic, Seward said, they should be allowed to learn from Catholic teachers – and taught in the language of their heritage.

Bishop Hughes was in Europe at the time raising money for the diocese. His vicars general – the Irishman, John Power, and the Cuban, Félix Varela – did their best to rally support for Governor Seward’s position.

Six month’s after Seward’s speech, Hughes returned. He quickly assessed the pros and cons, and embraced Varela’s side: separate but equal schools, funded as were the Public School Society’s. Hughes wrote:

Whether we shall succeed or not in getting our proportion of the public money. . .the effort will cause an entire separation of our children from those [Public] schools – and excite greater zeal on the part of our people for Catholic education. 
Then Bishop Hughes committed a series of blunders.

He failed to understand that there were too many Protestants and too much anti-Catholic sentiment in New York.

He underestimated the extent of Catholic opposition to his plan. The ambition of not a few Catholic parents was to see their children rise up in American society, i.e., Protestant society.

          Archbishop Hughes by the Fratelli D'Alessandri (Rome, c. 1862)

He overestimated his support in Albany. Seward’s position was more political than moral.

But when the Society learned that the governor was parleying with Hughes, they offered to let the archbishop review all Society texts and promised to drop anything deemed anti-Catholic. The sides were now stuck only on which Bible to use.

Hughes, however, believed justice demanded public support for separate school systems. Period.

Nativists began attacking the notion of any public funding for Catholic education. The Methodist Episcopal Church issued a statement reminding New Yorkers of Catholicism’s intolerance: “the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day, the fires of Smithfield, . . .[and] the crusade against the Waldenses,” incidents of violent Catholic anti-Protestantism from 1629, 1572, 1531, and 1487 respectively.

At the end of October, arguments were made before the Board of Aldermen: Hughes spoke for Catholics; able and experienced lawyers represented the Society. These latter argued that, since no one was disputing Bible use, the sole issue was finding passages acceptable to both sides.

Hughes delivered a stem-winder that focused on Colonial anti-Catholicism, blaming the Society for reviving it. Thus: separate but equal schools were needed.

He believed he’d won the day, but the Board voted 15-1 against him.

Churlish in defeat, Hughes called the Society a “wicked monopoly which claimed to take charge of the minds and hearts of Catholic children.” And he told one cheering crowd: “The Union is repealed!”

Governor Seward went ahead and proposed a bill that affirmed “religious and moral instruction” ought to be part of every child’s education, seeming to imply support for state-funded Catholic schools.

Then the bare-knuckle politicking really began, so much so that Father Varela was forced to write:

The Church recognizes no political party, and the Ecclesiastical Authority is prepared to exercise its spiritual power, should in future any individual of any party whatever . . . [engage in “Catholic” politics.]

Then, on the eve of the 1841 elections, Hughes, who also and often pronounced the Church apolitical, stunned everybody by forming a Catholic Party, a slate of candidates offered as alternatives to Tammany Hall’s Democrats and Seward’s Whigs.

This was the greatest blunder.

Tammany’s “sachems” voted to “rebuke, censure, and renounce” Hughes. William Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald wrote that his “attempt to convert his Church into a political faction” was an instance of the “worn-out impudence of priestcraft imported from Rome.” And Bennett was Catholic!

In the end, a much-modified bill did become law. It established an elected school board for New York City, eradicating the Public School Society. It also forever banned public support for parochial schools.

Would conciliation have mattered? Almost surely not.

Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is the author of six books and is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His book, The Compleat Gentleman, read by Christopher Lane, is available on audio and as an iPhone app.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (12)Add Comment
written by Jack,CT, July 07, 2014
Fantastic Read Thanks-
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, July 07, 2014
Jules Ferry was simply more candid than most politicians, when he said that he purpose of public instruction was to cast the nation’s youth in the same mould and to stamp them, like the coinage, with the effigy of the republic, one and indivisible.
written by Dennis Larkin, July 07, 2014
It's my experience in Kansas and Nebraska and Iowa that government school Catholic parents and even priests are the implacable enemies of Catholic schools and of tax benefits for these schools. Masons and Methodists may think one way or anther, but to find real hatred of Catholic schools, one must find Catholic parents and priests. They hate the example of Catholic parents educating their children in the Faith by tithing and paying tuition.
written by Myshkin, July 07, 2014
Interesting historical piece. You write that Bishop Hughes made blunders. But then you write that conciliation would not have made any difference. But if it would not have mattered, then Bishop Hughes' blunders were inconsequential, no? The Protestant, nativist, majority would've acted in the same or similar fashion, no matter what he did. Maybe I'm not understanding what you mean by "conciliation" ... Can you elaborate?
written by Brad Miner, July 07, 2014
@Myshkin: This is a cut-down section from a very long chapter about Hughes in a forthcoming book, so its ideas are compressed. I suspect you'll agree that, given the history of America -- all of America, not just New York -- that courts would almost surely have struck down any law in any state that established public funding of religious schools. But we make such a judgment retrospectively. Had the Education Bill as originally conceived been passed; had the concept of public education broadly understood been accepted -- well, who knows what might have happened: an actual law in place, therefore necessitating repeal. Status quo is a powerful force. And, had Hughes or Dubois joined forces with the Public School Society, the NY legislature may not have stepped in, and a system of education for the sake of education might have evolved. And Hughes ever after became "Dagger John" (not simply because of the School Question), a cleric inextricably associated with politics. He claimed not to understand why, since he always said he was not interested in politics. "Why don't people believe me?"
written by Jeff, July 07, 2014
That is some of the most baseless bit of slander I've yet to read here. While I can't speak for Iowa or Kansas, as a parent of three Catholic-educated children I can in fact speak to our experience in the Diocese of Lincoln (Neb). It most certainly has NOT been my experience that "Catholic parents and even priests are the implacable enemies of Catholic schools." We are blessed with fantastic support from our last three bishops (Flavin, Bruskewitz and Conley), the parishes themselves, and finally the parents. Everyone is involved and feels a responsibility for being involved in Catholic education. There are no issues with tithing or paying tuition here. It is for these reasons we enjoy such an affordable tuition rate in our diocese, successful students and high vocations.

The only hate I see is the venom in your comment.
written by Sue, July 07, 2014
The clear problem with the bishops of the first American century was, like with the third - failure to unequivocally, by word and action, the intrinsic evil of slavery in the first, and abortion in the third.

Teach the children...if necessary use words. What if a modern day Uncle Tom's Cabin could be written about a sacrificial bishop who bucked the media drones and Soros groomers and aborted the abortions, annulled the annullers, and iced the IVF peddlers. Oh, and homophiled the homosexuals by teaching TOB so well they found their lifelong true love in the opposite sex, who had been waiting for them all this time.

Only if necessary, use words.
written by Myshkin, July 07, 2014
Hmm ... It seems from your reply comment that you hold if "Hughes or Dubois joined forces with the Public School Society ... a system of education for the sake of education might have evolved." But doesn't this imply some kind of "conciliation" between these people WOULD have mattered? This is what seems confusing to me. Would "conciliation" have made a difference or not? It seems you have it both ways right now ...
written by Seanachie, July 07, 2014
Informative and interesting item, Brad. I always find it ironic that U.S. citizens and their political representatives make clear distinctions re Public v. Parochial(for the most part Catholic) schools at the grammar and high school levels. Essentially no, or very limited funding, for Parochial schools. Yet, Catholic school students, especially in urban environments, consistently out-perform public school students in achievement testing...and, do it at approximately two-thirds the cost of comparable public education. Frankly, one has to wonder, would it benefit taxpayers to turn management/conduct of public education systems over to Catholic school systems to maximize "bang for the buck" in education expenditures? On the other hand, perhaps Catholic school systems are better off not receiving or relying upon public funding?
written by Brian J McFarland, July 07, 2014
I've reread this piece several times. While I am grateful for the historical perspective, I'm not sure what you consider a blunder. It is certainly true that, from Hughes through Spellman, Catholics remained in their ghetto to one extent or another but I don't think it's reasonable to think that Hughes could have improved public education by taking another tack. I do know that Catholic New Yorkers are increasingly cowed into assimilation since Spellman and I can speak firsthand of what that has brought us:

1. Closing of 25% (estimated) of NY parishes later this year.
2. The conversion of former Catholic hospitals, churches, and schools into condominium developments being sold at usurous profits.
3. Presumption of a lack of resolve by Catholic voters.

I would much rather find myself back in the faithful ghetto than were I am now. Much better to follow "Dagger" John into the fray that to find myself smiling and taking it like a man as I find myself now.

Vivat Jesus
written by kelso, July 08, 2014
Hughes did something very courageous when he confronted a No-Nothing rally in Central Park. He wore a long raincoat and walked through the crowd of fanatical bigots. Then, he mounted the speakers stage, opened his raincoat and harangued the crown in his episcopal robe. Took a lot of guts.
written by bill russell, September 01, 2014
Hughes decried bigotry while not seeing his own. Identifying Catholicism with tribalism: he notoriously neglected the Germans and did virtually nothing for the Italians who were just beginning to arrive in significant numbers. New York has never had an archbishop who could rank among great American leaders. To remedy that, Hughes has been made into a mythic figure, mostly based on legend (which ignores his anti-black racism.) A giant only when compared with midgets.

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