New York’s “Roman” Archbishop

As readers of this site may already know, George J. Marlin and I have been at work for some time on a forthcoming book called Sons of St. Patrick: A History of the Archbishops of New York.

Writing history is a challenge on several levels – in terms of fact gathering and, above all, of interpretation, of understanding. And whereas most of the ten men who have served as the head of the Archdiocese of New York are easy to understand, a few are not. This is especially true of the third archbishop, Michael Augustine Corrigan, who served from October 10, 1885 until his death on May 5, 1902.

Based upon extensive reading of secondary sources (we’ve also had access to original documents available in the Archives of the Archdiocese of New York), it’s fairly clear that most historians – especially those who wrote about Corrigan between about 1920 and 1990 – have held a low opinion of the man.

There has been no “major biography” about him, although it may be that one or another of his immediate successors, John Farley and/or Patrick Hayes, had contemplated such a book (Farley’s name appears as author of a biography of Corrigan’s predecessor, John McCloskey), because there is a file in the Archives titled, “Material for use in a biography of Archbishop Corrigan,” although that may simply be what was prepared and submitted to The Catholic Encyclopedia or some other reference work at some point around 1902.

But why have later historians not been enamored of Corrigan? The answer, I believe, is that the archbishop was too much (and this is the title of the chapter about him in our book) “The Roman.”

Now calling him a Roman is not primarily a reference to his education in the Eternal City, where he was a member of the very first class at the North American College. Nor is it appropriate to call him Roman simply because he was fluent in Latin and in Italian. He was a Roman because he vigorously defended the prerogatives and positions taken by the Supreme Pontiff, and never more so than in Pope Leo XIII’s condemnation of what became known as Americanism.

Indeed, Corrigan was at least partially responsible for Leo’s decision to write the apostolic letter Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae (1899), addressed to Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, in which the Holy Father offered paternal correction to trends in the American church.

The Third Plenary Council of Baltimore (1884), chaired by Gibbons at the pope’s request, had debated certain Vatican suggestions pertaining to education (primary, secondary, and higher) in a way that set teeth on edge in Rome. The Council had been directed by the Vatican (and followed through with appropriate decrees) to order the construction of parochial schools in every diocese.

Portrait of Archbishop Corrigan by Joseph Sundwall, 2011 (
Portrait of Archbishop Corrigan by Joseph Sundwall, 2011 

But during Council discussions, there were some bishops who actually spoke out against Catholic schools, arguing that the integration into American life of Catholics (then a population dominated by immigrants) was ill served by separate Catholic school systems. These bishops also disliked the sort of ethnic enclaves that had arisen in major cities, and they were especially opposed to ethnic churches, with, say, German or Italian priests preaching in their native languages. They also thought the Church was put in the best light by supporting progressive politics.

Corrigan, who played an important role at the Baltimore Council, sensed that all this emphasis on integration and assimilation was fundamentally heretical, because it put American culture ahead of Catholic doctrine. Those who became known as Americanists, including Cardinal Gibbons, Bishop John Ireland of St. Paul, and many others, would protest that they simply sought a balance between Catholic truth and identity and the realities of the larger society.

In this they claimed to follow Isaac Hecker (1819-1888), the convert who founded the Paulist Fathers, in his belief that American ideals were rooted in Christian culture and that American culture provided ideal protection for the practice and proliferation of Catholicism.

But then as now, the question was (put appositely by our friend Russell Shaw): “How American can American Catholics afford to become without compromising their Catholic identity?”

For his part, Michael Corrigan stood firmly against Americanism, and – history being written by the victors – he has been rewarded with odium; called paranoid and dishonest, a believer in a “phantom heresy.” In fact, he was a figure of almost unimpeachable character and, surprising in an archbishop, considerable holiness.

But he had the temerity to agree with Pope Leo, who, after admitting in Testem that the Faith has always adapted itself to new cultures, nevertheless condemns the idea that the Spirit moves individuals to adaptations contrary to papal authority and the Magisterium. The true Church, he writes . . .

. . . is one: as by unity of doctrine, so by unity of government, and she is catholic also. Since God has placed the center and foundation of unity in the chair of Blessed Peter, she is rightly called the Roman Church.

Thus was the “spirit” of Americanism condemned, and Corrigan vindicated – at least for a short while. Soon enough, that adaptation to the splintering effects of democracy would strain relations with Rome, separating American practice from Catholic orthodoxy, which separation has only increased since Vatican II.

All this having been said, it’s remarkable (ironic by any measure) that the Third Plenary Council, in a sense the “coming out party” of liberal Americanism, gave Catholic conservatives a great and enduring gift: a guide to the Catholic faith that bears the name of the city in which the Council was held. Yes, the Baltimore Catechism.

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.