xbn .
Catholic Re-Visions

Law and Order Catholicism Inside the Settler Colony

Using the example of nineteenth-century “Americanist” archbishop John Ireland, and his boarding school initiatives in Minnesota, this essay demonstrates how the US Catholic Church came to behave as an American institution by seeking common ground with liberal ideals of freedom, while simultaneously embracing state policing and punishment against populations marginalized from the body politic.

What is “law and order Catholicism,” espoused and practiced within an ostensibly liberal and “secular” settler colony like the United States? In his book Empire of Religion, David Chidester writes about the British empire. Though he doesn’t treat Catholicism directly, a passage from the book offers a useful starting place for answering this question. “The empire,” Chidester writes:

raised the contradiction between liberal ideals of liberty and the realities of colonial coercion [..] While politicians generally tried to deal with this problem by proclaiming political freedom at the center and enlightened despotism at the periphery, imperial theorists of the human sciences [who are the subjects of Chidester’s study] generated accounts of the primitive, whether African, Indian, or Irish, that could be used to justify coercion while awaiting the long evolutionary delay in their trajectory to civilized liberty.

Chidester, 6.

Here I begin with what Chidester calls the “central contradiction” of modern empire—that between liberty and coercion. Like England, the United States is also a modern empire, and specifically (amid its other imperial forms) a settler colony. Unsurprisingly, then, American law and order embodies this same contradiction. Arguably, the latter is essential to the former. The history of the Catholic Church coming to behave as a settler institution in the United States is, in large part, a story of its embrace of this peculiar, doubled, and contradictory sort of law and order. In other words—and as I’ll offer some evidence for—the Church and its actors came to identify, and to behave, as American by desiring after (if not always immediately finding) common ground with “liberal ideals of liberty,” while simultaneously embracing multiple modes of discipline and punishment. If discipline was the stuff internal to a liberal regime, those modes of punishment, to echo Chidester, were coercive, violent, and circulated vitally (as they still do) as mechanisms of control tailored to “bad” populations marginalized by and from the United States body politic. For United States Catholic institutions and actors, these two sides of a settler coin—the liberal and the coercive—have always enticed, like twin flames. To think about “law and order Catholicism,” then, is to consider Catholic attraction to multiple forms of state power, and to different methods of policing, disciplining, and punishing they take.

To demonstrate this, I will offer a story set in the late nineteenth century, and I will begin with two fairly obvious points. First, when Catholic immigrants from Europe arrived to North America, they became settlers. Second, Catholic immigration propelled territorial expansion, which relied in turn upon the elimination of Native people. Historians of US Catholicism like to talk about Catholic difference throughout the nineteenth century (anti-Catholicism, anyone?), but legal scholar Aziz Rana emphasizes Catholic inclusion, in this foundational regard. Importantly too, Rana locates Catholics immigrants within a political project that links freedom and conquest:

Settlers recognized that in order to sustain a project of republican freedom and territorial conquest, they would [..] need new migrants beyond the initial flows of English colonists. As a result, they created remarkably open immigration policies for Europeans deemed co-ethnics and thus co-participants in the republican project. This meant that for mist of the American experience, the U.S. border was essentially a port of entry for European immigrants who were often quickly incorporated into the political community.[..] On the one hand, the territorial need for immigrants checked the most xenophobic tendencies within settler society [..] by expanding the ethnic and religious categories for who could count as American. On the other hand, it also hardened the divide between social insiders and subordinate outsiders. Thus, while new European immigrants may have had immediate access to the conditions necessary for free citizenship and equal political participation, Indians, blacks, or Mexicans [..] were denied these basic rights.


“In essence,” Rana concludes, “caste division .. [was] built into the [..] political system, and the law” (13). In short, Catholic immigration expanded and diversified the settler political community and it aggravated the legal and political subordination of peoples excluded from that community.

Shifting vantage points, one can easily identify ways Catholic institutions and actors flexed to inhabit this settler positionality. Following Rana, a telltale sign of this flexing was the co-emergence of a Catholic strain of Americanism, marked by the embrace of “liberty” and democratic governance, on one hand, and a Catholic turn toward honoring state power, particularly when it materialized in the policing of people outside the body politic, on the other hand. To find this co-emergence, we need look no further than the “great” John Ireland, who was Archbishop of St. Paul from 1888 to 1918. Students of Catholic history know Ireland well; he is reliably cast as a hero in histories (and there are many of them) that emphasize the gradual achievement of common ground between “the Catholic” and “the American.” As one historian put it, “John Ireland [..] was a leading exponent of the Americanist movement” among some US Catholic clergy at the end of the nineteenth century. As archbishop, he “advocated for a number of important ideas—religious liberty, separation of church and state, interfaith cooperation [..]—[all] gleaned from the American experience.”

Other features of Ireland’s Americanism are less familiar, but no less consequential. In the 1870s, while he was still a priest, Ireland served as a land agent for railroad companies. Collaborating with these railroads, he oversaw settlement of more than four thousand Catholic families across 400 thousand acres of Minnesota. This scheme realized Ireland’s dreams of white Catholic land acquisition and use. His plans to erect schools on that land demonstrate the seamless way his Americanist bent—his enthusiasm for US liberal values and the nation-state that stood for them—bled into a devotion to colonial law and order. During the 1870s, Ireland also planned a network of residential institutions. At first, he meant these schools for the children of Minnesota’s new Catholic farmers. To quote a 1956 account of Ireland by historian James Shannon: “As a citizen, Ireland was convinced that the future of the nation depended on the caliber of education given to its youth” (134). He believed in institutions that could form—or discipline—children as Catholics and as Americans. Ireland opened three schools for this purpose in western Minnesota. Soon, though, he realized there was a “lack of [Catholic] children who were in a position to live away from home or who wanted to do so” (135). Facing low enrollments, Ireland quickly recast his institutions as boarding schools for Native children, who would travel to them mainly from reservations in Dakota territory.

Ireland relied on a host of civil laws and policies when he changed gears in this way. For example, as soon as Ireland converted his schools from white schools to Indian schools, he began receiving government money to pay for them. While Minnesota’s constitution prohibited public funds used for support of Catholic schools, federal Indian policy relied until the mid-1890s on Congressional appropriations to Catholic schools for the purpose of “civilizing” Native children. These differences—federal versus state, public-Catholic collaboration versus separation—had everything to do with the differential management of colonized populations, over and against a white Catholic population incorporated into the body politic and subject to its liberal code. Ireland navigated that difference to his benefit. Furthermore, by the 1880s, the US government and its BIA agents were coercing Native families to send their children to school, including off reservation facilities like the ones Ireland opened. John Ireland relied on compulsory education laws, and their brutal policing—which by the 1890s included punishments like withholding rations, and even the forcible seizure and transport of children—to fill his classrooms. Indeed, residents living near one of Ireland’s schools described “hunts” “organized to find and take back to the school Indian girls who had decided to return to their reservation” (138).

John Ireland, it turns out, welcomed liberal and coercive varieties of state power, tangled together in his schooling projects. And here—as elsewhere in the history of American Catholicism—it is in the doubled quality of a Catholic leader’s doubling down on the state and its techniques of rule where “law and order Catholicism” assumes its form. To be clear, it is not that hunting for children is a technique of the US state to the exclusion of the Catholic Church; Catholicism has its own theological and doctrinal justifications for coercion, particularly when it comes to children. What Ireland’s actions do demonstrate, however, is how Catholic engagement with liberal principles has always existed side by side with Catholic reverence for state violence, inhabiting specific forms and inflicted against specific populations. Empire, along with race, has produced those populations.

“It is precisely the coming together of reason-and-violence in the State that creates, in a secular and modern world, the bigness of the big S,” wrote Michael Taussig (116). In other words, it is this convergence that gives the State its “quasi sacred quality,” and empowers it to compete with (or sometimes compliment) the sacred authority of the Church. Taussig calls attention to “the intrinsically mysterious, mystifying, convoluting, plain scary, mythical, and arcane cultural properties and power of violence, to the point where violence is very much [..] a sign [..] of the existence of the gods” (116). To consider “law and order Catholicism,” as we are doing in this forum, is to think alongside Taussig in this vein. To posit a history of “law and order Catholicism” is to recognize an American Catholicism that came to be not only through experimenting with American principles, but also—and maybe more so—through adoration of the bigness of the State and the violence that manifests its gods.

Law and Order Catholicism

Symposium Essays

Law and Order Catholicism Inside the Settler Colony

Using the example of nineteenth-century “Americanist” archbishop John Ireland, and his boarding school initiatives in Minnesota, this essay demonstrates how the US Catholic Church came to behave as an American institution by seeking common ground with liberal ideals of freedom, while simultaneously embracing state policing and punishment against populations marginalized from the body politic.

Law and Order Catholicism in the Vietnam War

This post considers how the purportedly “secular” state strategically deployed “Catholicism” in its imperial actions abroad and how those reverberated at home. The Central Intelligence Agency found Catholicism to be a useful ideological ally in the struggle against communism during the Cold War, raising up anticommunist, conservative, and largely white US Catholics as ideal citizens at home to support their use of Vietnamese Catholics as anticommunist allies abroad.

White Catholics and “Law and Order Catholicism”

This essay invites readers to consider what white Catholics reveal about the history and meaning of the term “law and order,” and what that turn of phrase reveals about twentieth century Catholicism in the United States.

Racializing and Establishing Catholic Heterodoxy: Traffic Stops as Theological Spaces

As part of a larger project of racial profiling, officer testimonies reveal that the establishment of reasonable suspicion, the search and seizure of vehicles, and the violation of fourth amendment rights of Mexican and Mexican-American drivers often rely on faith-based determinations between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Officers in such cases incorporate information learned at privately-run law enforcement trainings and seminars, where religion, racial profiling, and crimmigration intersect.

Like what you're reading?

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This

Share this post with your friends!