American Catholic reaction to the war came in a time when Catholics were still a patchwork of immigrant groups, themselves divided in attitudes towards assimilation, ethnicity, and their lands of origin.
“Before the war, and especially before the turn of the century, the hierarchy of the American Catholic Church was dominated by Irish bishops, but the parishes were often drawn up along ethnic lines,” Matthew J. O’Brien, a history professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville, told CNA. “But in the years leading up to the war, a number of...bishops tried to curtail ethnic parishes in favor of territorial parishes, trying to foster greater assimilation into American society.”
“After the declaration of war in 1917, more Catholics stressed their military service rather than question the war effort, although there were ethnic newspapers that lost their mailing licenses during wartime for charges of sedition,” he added. “The effect of sedition laws was more indirect than direct, but they contributed to the overall pressure for Catholic Americans to ‘keep their heads down’.”
Other Catholics served with great prominence, such as the U.S. Army regiment known as the Fighting 69th. Part the historic Irish Brigade under the New York Army National Guard, it was still disproportionately Irish at the time of the war. The regiment was federalized and sent to Europe as the 165th Infantry Regiment.
The Catholic convert and poet Joyce Kilmer was a member of the regiment. His poetry featured deep piety, and at least one poem, “Trees,” still endures in popular memory: “Poems are made by fools like me / But only God can make a tree.”
At the age of 31, on July 30, 1918, he was killed by a sniper at the Second Battle of the Marne.
The week of heavy action killed or wounded half the men of the regiment.
The division’s chaplain, the Canadian-born Father Francis Duffy of the Archdiocese of New York, was responsible for boosting the morale of the soldiers and comforting the wounded in hospitals. As a Catholic priest, he would say Mass and move through the trenches after an artillery bombardment to give last rites to the dying.
Another of his primary duties as a chaplain was to bury the dead.
“I knew these men so well and loved them as if they were my younger brothers. It has been the saddest day of my life. Well, it is the last act of love I can do for them and for the folks at home,” he said in his diary at the conclusion of one battle, according to the New York archdiocese archives’ exhibit “The Great War and Catholic Memory.”
When the division learned of the armistice two days late, on Nov. 13, 1918, the troops celebrated. But the priest recorded in his diary: “I could think of nothing except the fine lads who had come out with us to this war and who are not alive to enjoy the triumph. All day I had a lonely and aching heart.”
Kilmer and Duffy served with another Catholic who would rise to prominence: William “Wild Bill” Donovan. Donovan would receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for his wartime service, and during the Second World War he would head the Office of Strategic Services, the U.S. covert agency that was predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency.
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The Fighting 69th became “the best-known face of Catholic soldiers in the U.S. Army,” O’Brien said. “Although they were linked by an overarching Irish-American imagery, they also proudly included Catholics from other ethnic backgrounds and Jewish-Americans as well.”
Its image became “iconic” due to the 1940 movie of the same name, which according to O’Brien had a “strong message of ethnic pluralism.”
As for Duffy, his influence would continue. He was a ghost writer for New York Gov. Al Smith during controversy over whether the Democratic presidential candidate’s Catholic faith would interfere with his ability to be president. Since 1937, five years after his death, his statue has stood in Duffy Square in the northern triangle of New York’s Times Square. It shows a priest standing before a 17-foot tall Celtic Cross.
At a time when Catholic bishops avoided forming national organizations, it was during World War I when the U.S. bishops organized the unprecedented National Catholic War Council, a forerunner to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In the 1920s the council, whose name had been changed to the National Catholic Welfare Council, proved an important platform for many programs and causes. It led the national response to an attempt to ban Catholic schools in Oregon backed by the anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan and the Scottish Rite Masons.
This council also proved to be the seedbed for future leaders like Msgr. John A. Ryan, who was “strongly influenced by the social justice message of Rerum Novarum,” the encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, O’Brien said. Ryan would play an important role in the Roosevelt administration and was a counterweight to the polemical populist “Radio Priest” Father Charles Coughlin, who turned towards anti-Semitism and fascism during the 1930s.
But during World War I, it was anti-German sentiment that ran high. Many German-Americans were Catholic.