By Mark Pattison
Editor’s Note: This CNS backgrounder
was first posted Aug. 4, 2014, to mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning
of World War I. We are reposting it today, because April 6 marks the 100th
anniversary of the United States’ entrance into the war. On April 2, 1917,
Democratic President Woodrow Wilson asked a special joint session of Congress
to declare war on the German Empire. Congress issued the declaration April 6,
WASHINGTON (CNS) — World
War I was dubbed “the Great War” because of the near-global scale of
Some called it “the
World War,” and many had thought it was “the war to end all
wars.” But its status as World War I was cemented when World War II
commenced just 21 years after it ended.
On July 28, 1914, World
War I began in earnest. The United States entered the war April 6, 1917,
playing a decisive role in its outcome. But U.S. Catholics were watching and
worrying long before the nation — what was for many of them their adopted
homeland — entered the hostilities.
Catholics accounted for
about 16 percent of the U.S. population at the war’s outbreak. Their numbers
and proportion had grown because of immigration from many of the European
nations and territories engaged in the conflict.
“There was a lot of
anti-Catholic feeling in the country before the war, based on the large amount
of Catholic immigrants coming into the country,” said W. John Shepherd, an
associate archivist at the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives at The Catholic
University of America in Washington.
“I think the war was
very important to Catholics to show themselves and the rest of the country —
anybody who’s paying attention — that they could be devout Catholics and loyal
patriots,” Shepherd said.
There are as many stories
in war as there are participants. One participant was Robert O’Connell, a
Connecticut lad who was one of Gen. John Pershing’s Doughboys after training at
Washington Barracks — now Fort McNair — and shipping “over there.”
Once in Europe, he asked
his kin to write, “but don’t expect me to write much. Censor is
nuisance.” In October 1917, O’Connell said, “Some of the boys must
have expected to begin killing Germans the week after they enlisted and are
disgusted with the Army.”
Combat came soon enough.
In July 1918, he was wounded. O’Connell, after being examined, was told to walk
to a cave to get fixed up. “Cave was almost two miles farther along. I’d
have walked 20, I think, to get some relief from those shells,” he wrote.
“When you get this, I’ll be back with the company again, but I’ll have had
this rest, anyway, just for a little hole less than half an inch deep.”
Another story — like
O’Connell’s, found in Catholic University’s WWI archives — is that of Adm.
William Benson, the highest-ranking Catholic in the armed forces during the
war. Born a Methodist in Georgia, he joined his wife’s Catholic faith after
marrying. Benson never saw any combat during his military career. He became
chief of naval operations, a post created by Congress before the U.S. entered
the Great War. Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels was convinced Benson was a
trustworthy officer who would not challenge civilian leadership of the
Benson retired in 1919
after the war ended. He was 64 and became one of the country’s most
high-profile lay Catholics after his military career. After just a year as a
member of the Knights of Columbus, he became a fourth-degree Knight. In 1920,
Pope Benedict XV bestowed on him the military insignia of the Order of St.
Gregory the Great. He was the first president of the National Council of
Catholic Men. He received the University of Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal in 1927,
and became chairman of the board for the Cardinal Gibbons Institute, the first
high school in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, to educate African-Americans.
For a church with a
long-held just-war theory, it took war for the Catholic Church and its members
to move more into the American mainstream.
“However, it was an
easy war for them to support, especially with the German atrocities against the
church in Belgium, the execution of as many as 13 priests,” Shepherd told
Catholic News Service. “There were also the German sinking of neutral,
Allied ships, ships with neutral American passengers aboard, who were being
killed, so there’s a humanitarian reason to oppose the German war effort.
“But there’s a
convenient reason for America to be against Germany, for the Catholic Church to
support the war effort. As a despised minority, it gives them a chance to show
that they’re good citizens.”
To that end, the National
Catholic War Council was founded to support U.S. military efforts and oversee
war-related activities in the church.
It was not the first
attempt by the U.S. bishops to be part of the national conversation. The U.S.
bishops had held plenary councils in 1852, 1866 and 1884, in part to deal with
nativist backlash to the ongoing waves of Irish immigration.
But with the Great War,
there were Catholics in the training camps and the battlefields, and those
soldiers were every bit deserving of spiritual care as their Protestant
counterparts. Working with the Jewish Welfare Board, the YMCA and other
organizations, the bishops joined in a “United War Work” campaign to
support the war effort and get Americans to buy war bonds. After the war’s end,
these organizations coalesced into the United Service Organization, or the USO,
which supports the U.S. military both at home and overseas.
After the armistice was
signed Nov. 11, 1918, a National Catholic War Council was no longer needed.
However, then-Father John Burke, a Paulist, who for years before World War I
had envisioned some kind of entity for the U.S. bishops to make their voice
heard on temporal as well as spiritual matters, convinced the bishops to look
beyond war to peace. And thus was born the National Catholic Welfare Council.
Two American cardinals
were strongly opposed to this council: William O’Connell of Boston and Dennis
Dougherty of Philadelphia. They feared a nationwide body would usurp the
bishops’ authority in general, and theirs specifically.
The U.S. cardinals
convinced a new pontiff, Pope Pius XI, to suppress the NCWC in February 1922.
But after Bishop Joseph Schrembs of Cleveland, Msgr. Burke and their supporters
successfully argued their case to the pope and the curia, the suppression order
was lifted that July. The name was changed from “Council” to
The National Catholic
Welfare Conference was the precursor to today’s U.S. Conference of Catholic
The U.S. model was later
adopted by other nations’ bishops as a way to lead the Catholic faithful and
suggest policy to governments, according to Douglas Slawson, a professor at
National University in San Diego, who has written on U.S. Catholic history.
Slawson told CNS, “the hierarchies of Austria, England and Spain had
founded organizations patterned on NCWC.” Canada’s bishops had tried to do
the same as early as 1928, but was forbidden to do so by the Vatican, he noted.
“The Canadian Catholic Conference was finally organized in 1943,” he
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