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‘Great War’ Brought US Catholics Into Mainstream

A group of newly minted Catholic chaplains pose for a July 31, 1918, photo at Camp Zachary Taylor in Louisville, Ky. The chaplains helped meet the spiritual needs of U.S. military service members during World War I. April 6 will mark the 100th anniversary of the entrance of the United States into the war. (CNS photo/courtesy American Catholic History Research Center)

By Mark Pattison

April 6 marked the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entrance into World War I. 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, 1917.

WASHINGTON (CNS) – World War I was dubbed “the Great War” because of the near-global scale of the fighting.

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, Washington, D.C.

Devout Catholics and Loyal Patriots

“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, Benson 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 military.

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, Md., 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.”

National Catholic War Council Formed

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 (NCWC).

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 “Conference.”

The National Catholic Welfare Conference was the precursor to today’s U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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, Calif., who has written on U.S. Catholic history.

“By 1934,” 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 said.

One thought on “‘Great War’ Brought US Catholics Into Mainstream

  1. Wonderful article [“‘Great War’ Brought US Catholics Into Mainstream”]! As a retired History teacher, I’m always grateful to find articles on history on the pages of The Tablet and would welcome many more — on parishes, on the Diocese itself and its noteworthy persons especially from the founding and beginnings, and of course like this one on the rich experience of the Church in America. I’m sure the diocesan archives are teeming with fascinating information about a diocese that for more than a century stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to Long Island Sound, from the East River to Montauk Point, a treasure trove to be explored and mined. Many thanks and looking forward.