Catholics and the Urban Crisis: Religion, Politics, and Race in Northern Cities

Chair: Karen Johnson, Wheaton College
Commentator: Thomas Sugrue, New York University

Under the Shield of Saint Michael: Catholics, Cops, and the Urban Crisis
Matthew Pehl, Augustana University

Investing in Whiteness: Race and the Catholic Schools Crisis of the 1970s
Matthew Cressler, College of Charleston

Taming the Activist Church: Catholic Conservatives in Brooklyn
Cassie Miller, Marquette University


Catholicism has been particularly understudied in mainstream American history. Nonreligious historians have tended to overlook lived religion, and Catholic historians have adopted a parochial habit of writing largely for one another. This panel seeks to highlight and remedy these historiographical blind spots through case studies that intertwine Catholic history with modern American social and political histories during the urban crisis. Scholars cannot fully understand the lived history of this period of significant transformation without reference to Catholics, who stood at the vanguard of efforts to resist desegregation. Additionally, historians also cannot fully explain the impact of the economic and social restructuring of the city without considering how these forces reshaped institutions, and especially – as the largest private institution in Northern cities – the Catholic Church.

In illustrating the dual role of Catholicism as (1) a religious practice that interacted with American political culture and (2) an urban institution that mediated social movements, we will explore the ways Catholicism governed and defined the contours of the urban crisis, a period in which Catholicism and the Church were indelibly altered and fractured by the politics of race. The Black Freedom Movement, combined with the liberalizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council, pushed the Church and its parishioners in conflicting directions. As black Catholics and liberal priests used their parishes as spaces to engage in black community building and the politics of Black Power, white working-class Catholics shifted toward the nascent conservative movement. Yet all ostensibly adhered to the same doctrinal beliefs. How can we explain this divergence, and how can it refine our understanding of the politics of the urban crisis?

Each presenter in this panel takes up the question of how the religiosity of Catholic parishioners interacted with their lived experiences during the turbulent period of the 1960s and early 1970s, and how, in turn, these factors shaped their political identities and the character of their church. Matthew Cressler’s paper examines the urban crisis through the lens of Catholic schools, demonstrating that investment in parochial schools shifted from city to suburb and, in effect, eliminated educational opportunities for black children. Matthew Pehl provides a portrait of working-class white Catholics in a labor history of urban police departments. His paper shows that racially charged fears about rising crime rates in American cities created rifts between “traditional” parishioners and “liberal” priests, and explores how Catholic police chaplains attempted to bridge the gap. Cassie Miller’s paper demonstrates that the Church’s increasing rhetorical and material support of anti-poverty initiatives in black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods frustrated white urban parishioners, and contributed to a more general sense of dispossession that led working-class whites to embrace conservatism. Through this panel, we hope to raise questions about the relationship between religion, race, and politics, and, more broadly, to demonstrate that religious identity and religious institutions are subjects valuable to historical inquiry.

Recorded in April 2018 at the OAH Annual Meeting held in Sacremento, California as part of the Mellon-funded Amplified Initiative.

Full Session


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Catholic and Urban - Full Session / System Administrator / February 11, 2019

Matthew Pehl


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Catholic and Urban - Matthew Pehl / System Administrator / February 11, 2019

Matthew Cressler (read by Karen Johnson)


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Catholic and Urban - Matthew Cressler read by Karen Johnson / System Administrator / February 11, 2019

Cassie Miller


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Catholic and Urban - Cassie Miller / System Administrator / February 11, 2019

Thomas Sugrue


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Catholic and Urban - Thomas Sugrue / System Administrator / February 11, 2019

OAH Members can access all of the recorded panels by logging into the member portal at the OAH website.