History Comes for the Archbishop (Part I)

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Abp. John Hughes of New York (1797-1864) (courtesy Library of Congress).

At a recent Nau Center event, J. Matthew Gallman asked a room of UVA graduate students who they thought was the most important 19th century American without a recent biography. As one might expect, the names that came forward were a combination of political, abolitionist, and other liberal figures popular with modern academic scholars. If I had been bold enough to intrude dusty, old “church history” into the discussion, I would have replied that the answer to Gallman’s query was without a doubt the first Archbishop of New York, John J. Hughes (1797-1864).

It has been almost forty years since the last biography of John Hughes, Dagger John, written by Richard Shaw (Paulist Press: 1977). A very readable and useful biography relying heavily on letters at the Archdiocese of New York Archives and newspaper accounts, Shaw praised the Irish-born Hughes as a “self-made man” who “made himself famous as a champion of the immigrant Catholics.” Hughes believed the church, in all its seemingly un-American hierarchical majesty, had a right to exist alongside the prevailing Protestantism of his day. He relished fighting, especially against the nativists and anti-Catholic opponents who seemed always eager to denounce his church and him personally. Shaw balances this positive portrayal by pointing out Hughes’s flaws, criticizing his authoritarian tendencies, his personal grudges, and pointing out that he was a “loner” with few friends.[1]

In the half century after his death, Archbishop Hughes was widely praised as a heroic figure by his fellow Catholics. His first biographer, John G. Hassard, praised him for fighting his battles not for personal gain but for “the good of the Church or the advantage of his flock.” Admitting that Hughes was not the greatest preacher or theologian, Hassard nonetheless argued that “there was none of his episcopal brethren that possessed his influence, and none whose general reputation stood so high with the public at large.” John Gilmary Shea, the preeminent American Catholic historian of his day, called Hughes “one of the greatest bishops of the Church in the United States.” “No man ever exercised greater influence in the Catholic Church in the United States than Archbishop Hughes,” Shea continued, “The archbishop had obtained this influence without an effort, held it without envy, and used it only for the highest ends.”[2] Writing at the turn of the century for The Catholic Encyclopedia, Patrick Hayes lavishly praised Hughes’s patriotism, his defense of the faith, and his building and charitable efforts in the New York Archdiocese.  Hayes’s assessment of the archbishop’s character, which demonstrated the high esteem that American Catholics had for Hughes at the time, is worth quoting at length:

He lived and passed away amid stirring times; it was providential for church and country that he lived when he did. His natural gifts of mind and heart, independent of his education, were of a high order and made him pre-eminent in leadership; not only was he a great ruler of an important diocese in a hierarchy remarkable for distinguished bishops, but also a master-builder of the Church in the United States and one of the most helpful and sagacious of the makers of America. Church and nation are indebted forever to the prelate and citizen whose strong personality, and indomitable courage and invaluable service constituted him the man needed in his day to meet critical conditions. He was resolute, fearless, far-sighted and full of practical wisdom based on the sanest and soundest principles. To bring out the innate powers within him required but the opportunity presented by the Church struggling for a footing in a rather hostile community, and by the nation endeavoring to cope with harassing questions at home and impending trouble abroad. His failures were few; his achievements many and lasting. He was feared and loved; misunderstood and idolized; misrepresented even to his ecclesiastical superiors in Rome, whose confidence in him, however, remained unshaken. Severe of manner, kindly of heart, he was not aggressive until assailed.[3]

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The Funeral of Abp. John Hughes, January 1864 (courtesy Library of Congress).

Hughes’s historical reputation from its heroic peak in the late 19th century, however, took a serious hit in the wake of the Second Vatican Council and the tendency of its most ardent opponents to denigrate practices or emphases associated with church ante 1965. Hughes, thanks largely to the efforts the sociologist priest, Fr. Andrew Greeley, became the poster boy for a combative, triumphalist, and segregated church. Acknowledging Hughes as the “most powerful figure in the American hierarchy,” Greeley argued that “Hughes’s influence can only be considered a major disaster.” Hughes’s battles with nativists aggravated Protestant versus Catholic tensions and led to “the adoption of an authoritarian and paternalistic style of ecclesiastical government… quite foreign to American society.” Greeley greatly preferred the more democratic approach of one of Hughes’s contemporary bishops, John England of Charleston, South Carolina. Resenting the fact that past Catholics had “rejected” this “ecclesiastical genius,” Greeley praised him as an “incredible man…. born ahead of his time.” As Greeley’s biographer noted, England was a “heroic” for trying to mend fences with other Americans while Hughes was a “villain” for foolishly stirring up anti-Catholic animosity.[4]

Part II will be published next week.


[1] Richard Shaw, Dagger John : the Unquiet Life and Times of Archbishop John Hughes of New York (New York: Paulist Press, 1977), 1, 181-2, 201-2, 304-7, 318.

[2] John R. G. Hassard, Life of the Most Reverend John Hughes, D. D. (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1866), 503-4; John Gilmary Shea, The Hierarchy of the Catholic Church In the United States: Embracing Sketches of All the Archbishops And Bishops From the Establishment of the See of Baltimore to the Present Time: Also, an Account of the Plenary Councils of Baltimore, And Brief History of the Church In the United States (New York: The Office of Catholic Publications, 1886), 136, 142.

[3] Patrick Hayes, “John Hughes,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910), accessed November 28, 2016 at New Advent, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07516a.htm.

[4] Andrew M. Greeley, The Catholic Experience: an Interpretation of the History of American Catholicism (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967), 63, 102; John N. Kotre, The Best of Times, The Worst of Times: Andrew Greeley and American Catholicism, 1950-1975 (Chicago: Nelson-Hall Company, 1978), 86-8.