John Hughes, the first Archbishop of New York, is known to history as Dagger John. The moniker stuck because of the sword-like manner of his episcopal signature, but more so because of his fierce defense of the Church.
During the Nativist controversy in the middle part of the nineteenth century, Dagger John protested the riots which had burned churches in the northeast and threatened Catholic life in the city that never sleeps. Hughes famously demanded that the riots would end and no Catholic church in New York would be burned; or else, without his episcopal instruction, no one would be able to stop Catholics from responding in kind. No more churches were burned and peace through the strength of Christian conviction came to the Big Apple.
Hughes’ defense of the Church in our country recalls a time when Catholics did not stand for anti-Catholic bigotry. They recognized that elements of the ambient culture were incompatible with Catholic faith. They were aware that religious bigots fueled by ignorance opposed Catholic participation in public life. Mid-nineteenth century Catholics knew that some Americans failed to see that Catholic engagement in public life enriches political discourse. Authentic Catholic faith does not impose anything but rather proposes a way of living in conformity with the natural moral law.
President Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to serve as Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court has met with the expected partisan rancor. A vibrant democracy requires lively political debate. In the coming days, jurists and politicians will consider the proper role of the judiciary in our republic. Rightly so. However, the religious bigotry at play in the opposition to this nomination has no place in America.
Evidently, Judge Barrett is a faithful Catholic. Right-thinking people will commend the President for nominating someone of evident moral character and religious commitment. In particular, the Catholic community will welcome such a nomination and rejoices when one of her members can be of service to the common good. The Senate will debate her qualifications to serve on the high court. Even if good people disagree about the merits of a particular nominee, no Catholic should be excluded from service because of his or her Catholic faith.
Catholics should be aware that many social commentators hold that anti-Catholicism remains the last acceptable prejudice in America. As the noted historian Arthur Schlesinger observed, anti-Catholicism represents “the deepest bias in the history of the American people.”
There was a time in American history when Catholics — clerics and laity alike — would have recognized the prejudice against the faith of one of their members. There was a time when they would have responded to such ignorant bigotry with righteous anger. There was the time of Dagger John Hughes.
Hopefully, the courage of Dagger John is not a relic of history. Hopefully, the Catholic people will not tolerate bigotry and will stand behind a Catholic persecuted for living fully and faithfully the truths of Catholic faith. Hopefully that truth, or you might say, that dogma will live loudly within us all.
Rev. Ryan Connors, a priest of the Diocese of Providence, serves as Professor of Moral Theology at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Mass. He holds a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas.