Appeared in Vol. 12 No. 1 Download PDF here

The history of the Catholic Church in America has been a colorful one lled with an amazing ethnic diversity. Although this diversity of ethnic culture has been a source of enrichment for the Church, it has also presented a number of dif culties. The Church’s efforts to deal with the problems of Catholic immigration makes for interesting reading. It is a topic quite timely, particularly in consideration of the large Hispanic immigration into the southwestern United States. In this historical and sociologi- cal investigation Dr. Varacalli focuses upon the dif cult story of the southern Italian immigrant and his relationship to the Church and American society. He foresees the emergence of a new “Italian problem” which can be placed in the broader context of an ongoing struggle between religious and secular culture.


In 1946 the American Catholic scholar, Henry J. Browne, wrote his classic analysis of the religiousity of the Italian immigrant entitled “The `Italian Problem’ in the Catholic Church of the United States, 1880-1900.”‘ As Catholic scholars approach the fourtieth anniversary of Browne’s article, it is perhaps appropriate to re-examine the question of the “Italian Problem” by extending it to an analysis documenting across time the changing nature of Italian-American moral attachments and religiousity vis-a-vis the changing nature of the Catholic Church in America. Writing from a perspective congenial to those concerned with keeping an authentic Catholic presence alive and well in the United States, it will be argued that the “Italian Problem,” albeit in a different form, is still very much a reality. Specifically, it will be argued that:

1) Despite compounding factors like that of the Irish clergy’s indifference and hostility to the religious sensibilities of the Italian-American immigrant, the primary explanation for the “Italian Problem” was to be found in the immigrant’s ultimate allegiance to the mostly non-Catholic culture of south Italy.

2) While the source of the original Italian problem was the immigrant’s primary attachment to southern Italian culture, the source of the continuing and changing nature of the Italian problem is to be found in the immersion of subsequent generations of Italian-Americans in American culture. Simply put, and viewed from the perspective of Church leaders, the original immigrants were “too Italian and not enough Catholic” and later ItalianAmericans were (and are) “too American and not enough Catholic.”

3) It is wrong-headed to place primary blame on the institutional Church and its leadership for the Italian problem, past and present. There are basicaly two reasons for this. The first is the reality that the “socializing” influence of the Church is, all things being equal, weaker than its non-Catholic surrounding environment; the relationship of the Catholic Church to either the early Italian-American inner-city enclave or, later, to the American society-at-large is one of “subculture” to “culture.” The second reason is related to the first and acknowledges the severely limited nature of the material and human resources that the Church possesses to aid its membership; this was especially the case during the period of heavy Italian migration.

4) Finally, the present-day Italian problem is, curiously enough, somewhat submerged due to the, at times, uncritical acceptance on the part of many Catholic leaders of cultural and religious pluralism. The fact that certain contemporary liberal or Americanist Catholics such as Andrew Greeley2 can label an Italian-American-Catholic like Mario M. Cuomo a “Catholic intellectual “-despite the latter’s stated position, contrary to official Catholic teaching, that he cannot fight against abortion qua Governor of New York-is indicative of the contemporary Italian problem in the Catholic Church of the United States.


Rudolph J. Vecoli has noted well the importance of the relationship between the Church and the immigrant:

The impact of the immigrants upon the Church, as well as the influence of the Church upon the immigrants, has clearly been a central feature of American Catholic history. The clash and accommodation of variant Catholic traditions, the conflicts between American and foreign clergy, the controversy over the Americanizing role of the Church, the institutional responses of the Church to the needs of the poor and exploited, and struggles between Catholic and Protestants for the fealty of the children of the immigrants-such phenomena expressed the ethnic diversity which has been fundamental to the shaping of American Catholicism.3

Speaking specifically of the relationship of the Italian immigrant to the Church in the period between 1880-1900, Henry J. Browne observed that:

All the time that the American Bishops were pondering over and discussing the secret societies, the labor movement, the new university, the school controversy, Cahenslyism and Americanism, many of them were confronted with what seemed a more lasting difficulty. It consisted in providing for the spiritual needs of the Italian immigrant.4

Browne defined the elements of the Italian problem as follows:

Racial antipathies, political religious conceptions brought from Italy, inadequate churches, Protestant proselytizing, immigrant priests of poor quality, and over and above all this a woefully uninstructed people-these elements went to make up the `Italian problem’ for the Church in the United States. Like all such problems it ultimately had to be faced by the hierarchy.5

Browne wrote his classic piece in 1946 stating that “who will say when this situation ceased to be troublesome or if it has been fully remedied.”6 Before talking of a “remedy,” one must first be clear about the nature of the “problem.” Simply put, the question is “what is a`problem’ for whom?” As Vecoli astutely notes, “the `Italian problem’ was many things to many people. “7 While Vecoli addresses the issue of the relationship of the Church to the immigrant from the Italian immigrant’s perspective, Browne’s perspective was that of the Church hierarchy concerned with the acculturation of unchurched peasants into the formal tenets, practices, and organizational life of the Catholic Church in America. It should be honestly stated at the outset that the bias of this paper is more a “Catholic” one than an “Italian” one, more addressed to the concerns of Browne rather than Vecoli.

Given the relative dearth of empirical information that bears directly on the subject of the changing nature of the Italian problem, any attempt will necessarily be tentative in nature. Hopefully, some readers will consider the ambitiousness of the attempt to be sufficient compensation for its speculative nature. In order to perform such an overall study, several separate analyses must be conducted and integrated. The first analysis is mostly theoretical, entailing a discussion of the relationship of the “sacred” to moral life. Following the general thrust of the work of Emile Durkheim, the sacred will be defined as something perceived by an individual to be extraordinary and constitutes to that individual, in a specific socio-historical context, a profound moral commitment.8 It is important to point out that the “sacred” thus defined is a more exclusive concept than that of “religion” defined in reference to some “supernatural” concept. Simply put, supernatural allegiances (in the case of this essay, as mediated by the Catholic Church) neither exhaust those ideas, entities, symbols, and activities that individuals (in this case, Italian-Americans) consider “sacred” nor necessarily constitute what Paul Tillich refers to as the most important “religious” concern of an individual, i.e., his/her “ultimate concern.”

The second analysis is, relative to the first, more concrete, analyzing the changing nature of the sacred, moral, and ultimate attachments of ItalianAmericans across generational and socio-economic lines starting with an investigation of the social life of “typical” southern Italian villages around the turn of the century. A socio-historical analysis along generational and socio-economic class lines indicates the usefulness of positing an idealtypical sequence of “frames of reference” or “social circles” through which Italian-American “sacredness” is “mediated,” i.e., is made “real” in everyday thought and activity. Such a sequence can be posited as follows: family-centered (in south Italy); ethnic or neighborhood-centered; institutional Church-centered; and nation or world-centered.10 This perceived movement is not to be considered absolutely uniform across generational and socio-economic class lines. Individuals from the third or fourth generation/middle-class may presently interpret Italian-American forms of sacredness from within differing frames of reference. As Vecoli observes, “rather than succeeding each other in orderly sequence, campanilismo, regionalism, nationalism, and Americanization contended for the loyalties of Italian immigrants and their children. By encapsulating each within a time period, (one) misses the tug-and-pull of these conflicting allegiances.”11 However, after noting Vecoli’s important qualification, it is still the case that the empirical possibility of mediation within progressively broader frames of reference or social circles is made more likely for third and fourth generation/middle-class Italians than for the first generation/lower class due to the greater inclusion of the former in the central value system of modern American/world society.

The third analysis is the most concrete of all, attempting to determine the impact of the Catholic Church on the moral attachments of Italian-Americans. Such factors as Catholic theology, social policy, social organization, and history will be incorporated in such an endeavor. Basically it will be argued that this impact is secondary to that of, initially, southern Italian culture and, later, American culture. All three analyses, when integrated, produce a dynamic and longitudinal picture of the Italian problem from the perspective of the Catholic Church, defined as hierarchy, in the United States.


The question of the relationship of the sacred to moral life was first addressed by Emile Durkheim in his The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life in which he enunciated the distinction between the “sacred” and the “profane,” the ultimate from the everyday, the extraordinary from the merely ordinary. Durkheim’s distinction is important but of limited usefulness. It is useful because it sheds an important emphasis on the human need of, attraction for, and revulsion from the mysterious, awe-inspiring, and morally-compelling. It is limited because it lends itself to the erroneous conclusion that individuals are in a constant and direct communion with the extraordinary. The truth of the matter is that all individuals (some more so than others) are in a highly fragmented and intermittent contact with the sacred. The majority of any population across time and space is, rather, much more preoccupied with the concrete and practical problems posted by everyday existence. Conversely, the distinction is also limited because it pictures the everyday, “profane” exigencies of life that are addressed through the institutional network of society as themselves in an utterly disjunctive relationship with the sacred. This is equally incorrect. The so-called “profane” problems and everyday decisions faced by an ItalianAmerican father or mother in caring for their family, by the immigrant child caught between the “old world” of family and the “new world” of school, by the second or third generation Italian-American daughter who falls in love with someone outside of the “clan” and must decide between the authority of her parents and the authority of the “self’ or of American society, are clearly moral issues related, if in attenuated form, to the sacred. The relationship between the “sacred” and the “profane,” then, should not, most fruitfully, be viewed as a dichotomy; rather it ought to be viewed as a continuum. At each end of a bell curve are to be found, respectively, a relatively minor segment of individuals characterized as either “religious virtuosi” (in a highly articulate and constant relationship with the sacred) or a religiously musically deaf (seemingly totally devoid of any “spark of divinity” or contact with the sacred). The middle of the continuum, conversely, represents the large segment of any population who are in a moderate relationship with the sacred and for whom the sacred is inextricably interwoven with the profane.

What, then, of the relationship of the “sacred” to “religion?” Sociologists have historically defined “religion” either “functionally” as does Andrew Greely or “substantively” as does Peter L. Berger.12 A “functional” definition equates the “sacred” with “religion;” a “substantive” definition with only those forms of sacredness that involve the “supernatural,” of what Rudolph Otto has referred to as the “numinous”-that is, the “totally other” than human or what Mircea Eliade has referred to as “hierophanies”manifestations of a reality that does not belong to this world but are to be found incarnate within objects and symbols which are an integral part of our natural, everyday, profane world.13 For reasons both methodological and pertinent to the author’s own faith commitment as a Catholic, the latter, less inclusive, “substantive” definition of religion will be accepted.

The religion, therefore, of Italian-Americans has been either Catholic, pagan/magical, Protestant, or Jewish, although overwhelmingly the former. However, the “religious” attachments of Italian-Americans neither exhaust their “sacred” attachments nor necessarily constitute the most important elements of the latter. It is quite possible, for instance, to be very “religious” (as were most southern Italian peasants during the turn of the century) and be quite poor Catholics. It is also quite possible to be “nominally” Catholic in terms of a passive participation in Catholic ritual and a highly selective acceptance of Catholic dogma (as is the case with many contemporary Italian-American Catholics) and be significantly less “religious” than were most first-generation Italian immigrants in the United States. It is possible to be in a highly articulate relationship with the sacred (as were a few first-generation Italian-American intellectuals in their relationship to the ideal of the nation-state of Italy), be very “religious,” and yet be very anti-clerical and violently anti-Catholic. It is also very possible, especially for many contemporary surburban and middle-class Italian-Americans, to be in a moderately articulate relationship with the sacred (in this instance, in their embrace of the secular materialism of the “American Dream”) and be active Church-goers and participants in the network of Catholic organizations and activities. The possibilities regarding the relationship and interplay between the “religious” and “sacred” attachments of Italian-Americans, controlled by the respective “intensity” and hierarchial ordering in human consciousness of these commitments, are seemingly endless. Yet an analysis of this interplay is necessary if one wanted to understand the changing nature, across generational and socio-economic lines, of the Italian problem in the Catholic Church in the United States from the perspective of the hierarchy. One way to start to sort out such complexity is to study the changing nature of the moral commitments of Italian-Americans through an analysis that allows the sacred to be expressed in various forms and in various degrees of intensity within different “frames of reference” corresponding roughly to certain stages in their acculturation process into American society and the world community.


The Moral Life of the Southern Italian Peasant

The overwhelming majority of Americans of Italian descent trace their heritage to village life in “Il Sud.” Thus, our analysis starts with an under standing of the moral life of “typical” southern Italian village life around the turn of the century. Admittedly, the analysis ignores that much smaller segment of Northern and Central Italians who had, for the most part, migrated to the United States earlier.

Regarding the question of the “frame of reference” which bounded and gave form and articulation to the everyday existence of i contadini del Mezzogiorno, the available evidence is clear: the social circles that the peasant tread within alternated within the respective boundaries, less inclusively, of the family as discussed by Edward Banfield and, more inclusively, of the village as discussed by Joseph Lopreato.14 The reasons for this narrow vision of the world are numerous, well-known, and include historical, cultural, linguistic, geographical, and other considerations that need not concern us here. The term continually referred to in the literature that is here relevant is that of “campanilismo”. Lopreato, writing in 1970, defines the concept as follows:

Deriving from the word campana (bell) and campanile (church tower), campanilismo refers to a view of the world that includes reluctance to extend social, cultural, and economic contacts beyond points from which the parish or village bell could still be heard. In short, it suggests a marked tendency among Italian-Americans of sixty or more years ago to move and act in very narrow social circles.15

Given the form of the moral life of the southern Italian peasant, the question now shifts as to its content. Simply put, what did il contadino hold sacred? What role did “religion” (as previously defined) play in his/her life? Were either the “sacred” or “religious” conceptions of the peasant compatible with Catholicism or even with Christianity? What subsequent implications, if any, did any of this have for what Henry Browne has previously termed the Italian problem in the American Catholic Church?

An analysis of the following quote, taken from Richard Gambino’s Blood of My Blood, is perhaps a useful way to start answering the above questions:

Italian-American religious attitudes are unique. They are rooted in a fantastic amalgam of pagan customs, magical beliefs, Mohammedan practices, Christian doctrines, and, most of all, contadino pragmatism. And the old religious attitudes have evolved in a distinct way in the United States because of the Italian experience here, especially the experience with the American Church. ..Whoever thinks he understands Italian-American religion because he knows American Catholicism or Catholicism in Rome, is deluding himself.16

Similarly, for Iorizzo and Mondello:

A spirit of campanilismo and the black arts characterized the folk religion of the South Italian… Deeply religious, the South Italian contadini found their patron saints, village priest, and local sorcerers (mago and strega) more meaningful in relieving daily problems than the seemingly distant and impersonal Roman Catholic hierarchy. In the Mezzogiorno the Catholic Church did not influence the moral values of social life; God and the King of Italy were unapproachable figures, but local saints, like the signori, were significant personages whose favors were valuable to the peasants. The humble contadini were Roman Catholics who preserved characteristics of pagan civilization. Special powers were attributed to individual saints; and the evil eye (malocchio or jettatura) was feared by the contadini, for they believed that witches were responsible for crop failures, sickness, and even death.17

As Joseph Lopreato put it:

The people in southern Italy have never been pious. Barring special occasions–the Christmas and Easter holidays plus various feasts of the patron saints and the many manifestations of the Virgin Mary-churches in the agricultural villages are quite likely to be empty. ..The peasant believed in God and the various saints. ..But his private conception of religion was nevertheless heavily strewn with all sorts of beliefs in the forces of good and evil and included faith in various sorts of magical practices. At the heart of such beliefs and practices was the religious festa, which basically was a social occasion for merrymaking or an excuse for a special meal and a few hours off from hard work. The festival-this light-hearted expression of godliness-was religion for the masses. It gave a concrete indication of heaven. It was ever so joyful. It gave respite from the endless toil. 18

As this author sees it, the most “sacred” consideration, the “ultimate concern” if you will, of il contadino was the welfare of his family and himself in what he saw as a life and death struggle against the forces producing la miseria. I am here in agreement with Gambino’s, Iorizzo and Mondello’s, and Lopreato’s assertion of the ultimate pragmatism of the peasant. The religious judgements of the peasants as Banfield noted, simply were “made on practical grounds.“19 The “religion” of the peasant-and he had a vivid sense of the “supernatural”-was very earthy, practical, and self-centered. It was not characterized, following the work of Max Weber, by a high degree of articulation, abstraction, rationalization, and “worldrejection” as is the case with the high traditions of the various world religions.20 On the other hand, this earthy, fatalistic, supernatural worldview (unlike the case for many contemporary individuals) did infiltrate, influence, and integrate all spheres of the peasant’s existence. While very religious, il contadino was a very poor Catholic. To be a practicing Catholic involves not merely belief in the supernatural existence of Christ nor even in the perceived experience of this phenomenon but also in an understanding of Catholic belief and dogma, participation in Catholic ritual and the sacramental system, and worldly behavior that is at least minimally influenced by such belief and activity. Such a definition, let me add emphatically, is not an “Irish” or “Roman” definition of Catholicism but is constitutive of any legitimate variation of the Catholic faith. For a variety of reasons (mostly because of the pre-modern context that surrounded the peasant and only secondarily because of an indifferent and exploitative “Roman” or “northern Italian” institutional Church), the average peasant was, at the very best, a marginal Catholic. He was even a marginal Christian when one understands not only the “amalgam” of beliefs that constitutes his total worldview but also, more importantly, the utilitarian, practical, “magical” nature of his faith. Instead of a submission to the figure and symbol of Jesus Christ, incorporation into the tenets and practices of Catholicism, and even a partial and qualified rejection of “this world,” the clever peasant “used” Christ and the saints for his own bidding in his fight against an oppressive social and physical environment and in a very “world-affirming” way. In short, the average turn-of-the-century contadino was, referring back to Tillich’s concept, “ultimately concerned” with the survival of his family, was very “religious,” and also very marginally Catholic and Christian.

The implications of this for the Italian problem, from the viewpoint of the Catholic hierarchy, is clear. Unlike the case of the German and Polish immigrant, well-versed in his Catholic heritage and for whom the “problem” was that of a possible “leakage” as he/she changed location from “old” to “new” worlds, the Italian immigrant presented to the United States Catholic hierarchy the problem of an initial conversion to Catholicism. While it is no doubt true that, among other factors, the enthnocentrism of an Irish-Catholic hierarchy (who too often confused their Irishness with Catholicism) compounded the Italian problem, its base was to be found, as Browne has previously asserted, with a “woefully uninstructed people.” To a certain degree and because of a different set of circumstances, the Italian-American population (at least vis-a-vis certain other Catholic ethnic groups) have remained, across generation lines and the acculturation process, “a woefully uninstructed people” (or at least for the most part).

The Moral Life of the First Generation Italian Immigrant in the United States

Italian-American scholars have long noted that the Italian-American immigrant not only was not attached to the symbol of the Italian nation-state (minus a relatively few intellectuals) but, originally, did not even identify himself as an “Italian” or “Italian-American.” His social-psychological identity was initially wrapped up with that of his family, clan, or village in Italy. As Femminella and Quadagno put it, emigrants from Italy had learned to define themselves by their association with their parents and immediate neighbors. They belonged not to Italy but first to their families and then to their villages.21 Indeed, this village identity probably persisted for a considerable period for those earliest southern Italian male immigrants who did not originally intend to settle permanently in the United States. Rather such a group-which did not bring their wives and families with them-was primarily concerned with earning enough money in the United States to economically stabilize and improve their family life back home. Behaviorally, these “birds of passage” made many trips back and forth between their homelands and the United States, while emotionally their hearts and minds belonged to their villages.

For a variety of reasons-primarily the relative failure of the socioeconomic situation at home to improve and the relative success met in the new world-many of those immigrants did start to eventually settle in the urban areas of American society with family and kin. And with such settling came the development of ethnic institutions-benevolent societies, the ethnic press, political organizations, the ethnic parish Church among others-geared to assist the immigrant and provide for him a “home” world. While originally identifying with their more parochial attachments (e.g. Calabria or, more accurately, a village in Calabria) the immigrants soon learned, from the American population-at-large, that they were “Italian.” Slowly, a process of mental transformation occurred mirroring the social integration of various, at one time, village groups into a more inclusive ethnic group with the crystallization of an “Italian-American” identity.

The Italian-American immigrant, located in various urban inner-cities for the most part, created a neighborhood life that Morris Janowitz might be tempted to call a “community of total liability”22 or as Raymond Brenton (quoted in Tomasi) might state was “institutionally complete.”23 As Glazer and Moynihan put it, “It is impossible to divide the community, neighbor hood, and peer group from the family in their impact on immigrant and second generation Italian-Americans.”24 James Crispino summarizes what I call the neighborhood/ethnic-centered stage of the moral attachments of Italian-Americans as follows:

For early generation Italians the neighborhood was the spatial equivalent of the social structure. Its boundaries, and those of one’s social circle, were in many instances coterminous and circumscribed a geographic and social space with which one could feel secure in the knowledge that he was surrounded by persons he could trust. The neighborhood provided a haven to which one could retreat to avoid contacts with strangers and to shut out the influence of the outside world which threatened to intrude on or even destroy the social fabric of the community. Thus, the congregation of Italians into “Little Italics” was the result of both an attempt to preserve the “ethnic way” and a defense against out-group hostility. The neighborhood, as an insulating agent, worked well for first-generation ethnics.25

For Silvano Tomasi in a similar vein:

The rise and growth of ethnic labor unions, ethnic Churches, hospitals, and social agencies, took place immediately after the first impact of the adoptive country on the immigrants and the consequent cultural shock, economic insecurity, and psychological anomie. The institutional completeness of the ethnic community is correlated to its degree of ability to perform all the services requested by its members… Therefore, the Italian immigrants built a network of clubs, unions, churches, and newspapers, which brought about a “we feeling” or consciousness of ethnicity and community. This newly formed solidarity absorbed many internal conflicts, developed ethnic leadership and an institutional network which the established social system had to take into account.26

Assuming that the primary and most exclusive social circle or “frame of reference” that gave form to the moral life of the first generation immigrant was the neighborhood, the question, again, shifts as to the nature of its content. What did the immigrant hold as sacred? What role did “religion” play in his/her life? Were either the “sacred” or “religious” conceptions of the immigrant compatible with Catholicism? What implications did all of this have for the Italian problem in the American Catholic Church during the Italian immigrant period?

There is little evidence to support the contention that the ultimate concern of the typical first generation Italian-American immigrant was substantially different from il contadino del Sud. As Iorizzo and Mondello state:

The South Italians transplanted their religious practices to the New World. Religious lucky charms, especially in the shape of horns (corne) were employed by Italian women in America to ward off evil spirits who seemed as ubiquitous in the dingy tenements of East Harlem as in the villages of Sicily and Calabria. Women who suffered from migraine headaches or arthritis sought relief from these illnesses by purchasing wax statues of heads, hands, and feet which were offered to their saints and the Madonna. ..The immigrants especially bargained with their patron saints and Madonna during the annual feast days when these personages were honored… These feasts, of course, were… an expression of nostalgia for the world the contadini had left behind.27

As Joseph Lopreato analogously put it:

Nothing about religion was more important to Italians than the festa. Without it, religion was cold, formal, and lacking significance. They fought hard for it and eventually in many cases they either organized their own Church or had their own way despite the Irish hierarchy’s accusations of paganism.28

In this regard, Humbert S. Nelli observed that:

Critics could consider Italians’ addiction to festivals, processions and feasts as a perversion of religion, although to participants they formed an integral part of it. In America immigrants celebrated these functions not only in an effort to re-establish those elements of religion which had strongly appealed to them in Italy, but also to counteract Irish influences in their new Churches. Thus what seemed to Americans to be a falling-away from religion was at least in part a modification of old world habits to new world conditions. Prior to 1921… the Catholic Church did not occupy the position of prestige among Italian-Americans that it has since assumed, particularly since 1945.29

William Foote Whyte in his classic Street Corner Society indicates the limited significance of the Mass (by Catholic law the central or universal celebration of the Church) vis-a-vis the Feast for immigrant and workingclass second generation Italian-Americans:

The Mass represents the only direct connection of the Church with the Festa. While it formed a part of the general religious life, the Festa was entirely a people’s ceremonial. ..The Festa was a religious and social ceremonial and a sort of carnival at the same time.30

Similarly, Herbert Gans, in his The Urban Villagers, observed that second
generation working-class Italian-Americans were, in a sense, “Catholic”,
but Catholic in culture and not in an institutional allegiance to the Church:

West Enders were not closely identified with the Church… Yet, West Enders are a religious people and accept most of the moral norms and sacred symbols of the Catholic religion. ..Thus, they identify with the religion, but not with the Church, except when it functions as a moral agency.31

The first generation immigrant was primarily concerned with recreating, as much as practically possible given a new set of environmental circumstances, his old village life in his new urban context. It was this sense of reconstructed southern Italian culture and social organization which represented the most “sacred” allegiance of the immigrant. As Glazer and Moynihan have succinctly put it, “the Italian neighborhood and the Italian family in the first decades of heavy Italian migration, offered strong barriers to the organizational and intellectual influence of Catholicism.”32

As Tomasi analogously observed, “For (the immigrants) religion was fused with all the institutions of society. It was more a way of life than a prescribed set of beliefs and practices.”33 As Nicholas John Russo similarly states:

The sense of community was strong among Italians and this helped them become integrated into American life. To the Italian immigrant, his family, peer group, and his neighborhood were more important than institutions such as the Church, the school, or the place of occupation, because the first three elements provided him with security and a feeling of solidarity.34

Did this mean that the first generation was in no way “religious” or “Catholic”? The answer is “no,” but it must be understood that those religious/ Catholic practices and beliefs were subordinate to the southern Italian way of life and, moreover, functioned to buttress and support the latter. Speaking of the function of the Italian ethnic parish, Silvano Tomasi states:

We can conclude that the ethnic parishes with their saints and festivals, novenas and processions, and their “indifferent” congregations, held together the Italians in America, for they embodied the ideals in which the people believed and united them structurally through strong group ritual and social functions. The network of ethnic parishes became the basis of “religious success.”35

Similarly, for Nicholas John Russo:

The national parish helped to maintain ethnic solidarity and thus checked rapid assimilation. It, therefore, prevented widespread social disorganization but prepared the immigrants and their children for gradual assimilation into American life. The national parish enabled newcomers to retain their ethnic ties while becoming Americanized, thereby acting as a bridge between the old world and the new.36

It is important to point out, following the work of Silvano Tomasi in his Piety and Power, that in certain respects, the Italian national parishes were, relatively speaking, “Catholicizing” agents in comparison to the earlier arrangements of “duplex parishes” of Irish and Italians which almost completely alienated the latter from any Church participation whatsoever. Nonetheless, it is safe to conclude that the Catholicism of the typical ethnic parish participant was secondary to his newly-created, and by far and away more totally encompassing, Italian ethnic identity situated as he was in his ethnic neighborhood enclave. To the degree that this was true, it is clear that there really was a first generation Italian problem from the perspective of the Catholic hierarchy. However, even if one accepts this author’s reinterpretation downplaying the Catholicizing influence of the Italian ethnic parish, one can go even further arguing that Silvano Tomasi, in his Piety and Power, has perhaps slightly overstated the degree to which, as he puts it, “the Italian ethnic Church emerged as a central and creative force in the life of the immigrant community.”37 As Andrew Greeley has put it, “surely the parish was and still is an important institution in the life of ethnic communities in the United States. But we don’t know how important and we don’t know whether it was more important to some groups than to others, although there is some indication that it was more important to the Poles than to the Italian. ..”38Similarly, a reading of the analyses put forth by Richard M. Linkh (American Catholicism and the European Immigrants); Rudolph Vecoli, “Prelates and Peasants”; Francis X. Femminella, “The Impact of Italian Migration and American Catholicism”; and Nicholas John Russo, “Three Generations of Italians in New York City: Their Religious Acculturation” all modify the thesis of the assimilating role of the ethnic parish Church, pointing out that a simple indifference to any form of organized religion was a significant option for many first generation Italian immigrants.39 If this latter observation is correct, the Italian problem for the first generation and second generation working-class becomes far more serious indicating, as such, not merely a matter of marginal Catholic practices and beliefs but that of an out-and-out standing outside of the pale of the Church itself. Indeed, as Richard Gambino states:

This brings us to an inescapable truth, the historic bitter animosity between the Church and people of the Mezzogiorno, an antipathy which is far from resolved in today’s relations between the Catholic Church in America and Italian-Americans. The ill-understood paradox is that, although a majority of Italian-Americans consider themselves to be true Catholics, to a large extent they retain the anticlerical views of their forefathers, stubborn individualism concerning doctrinal interpretation, and also intense distrust and scorn for the Church as an institution. This is not to mention the large proportion of Italian-Americans who have left the Church in favor of private religious postures or completely secular ones. One study leads to the conclusion that two-thirds of the Italian-Americans were either only nominally Catholics or had left the Church entirely.40

The Moral Life of the Emerging Middle-Class, Suburbanized Italian-American in the United States

The form of the moral life of the first generation immigrant and second generation working-class urban Italian-American was, as previously argued, neighborhood-centered. For some second generation middle-class Italian-Americans and for many of the third generation, the form of the moral life changed to that of an institutional Church-centered one. Writing in 1963, Glazer and Moynihan noted that “Italian-Americans have moved from the working-class to (in increasing measure) the middle-class, from the city to the suburbs, and from secularization to Catholicism.”41 This stage in the acculturation process is marked by a de-emphasis of ethnicity as an ordering principle for Italian-Americans and the subsequent merging of an Italian-American identity into a larger American Catholic identity which fuses together the various ethnic Catholic groups into basically one large socio-religious grouping. Silvan Tomasi briefly summarizes three major stages in the relationship of Italians to the institutional Church:

At first, an attempt was made to include the Italian immigrants in the existing Irish parishes. Then, a policy of clear separation was adopted and a building period (of Italian ethnic-centered parishes) followed. Finally, a return seems to take place to a fusion of Italian, Slav, Irish, and other groups into a new and still emerging social amalgam defined as “Middle America”.42

Writing in 1961, Gerhard Lenski noted a similar movement:

Communalism along socio-religious group lines seems to have been gaining strength in recent years… This development is one which has been greatly hastened by the rapid decline of the older ethnic subcommunities in recent years. ..Until about a generation ago, the American population was sharply divided into a rather large number of relatively small ethnic subcommunities which. . . served as basic points of reference for the masses of Americans. These groups, however, were unable to preserve their organizational integrity in the face of the powerful and pervasive pressures to Americanize the immigrant and intermarriage across ethnic lines has now become quite common. As a result, loyalities to the various subcommunities cannot be maintained. The successor to the ethnic subcommunity is the socio-religious subcommunity, a group united by ties of race and religion.43

For Glazer and Moynihan:

In the third generation, the influence of Catholicism has become formidable. From a collection of village cults with a distinct and marked character that made Italian immigrants very different from Irish or German Catholics, the religion of Italian-Americans has slowly become incorporated into the large and efficient structure of American Catholicism… as the mobility of Italians has become a large-scale phenomenon since World War II, the Catholic Church has assimilated this rising group into the new American Catholicism. The Irish and Italians, who often contended with each other in the city, may work together and with other groups in the Church in the suburbs and their separate ethnic identities are gradually being muted in the common identity of American Catholicism.44

For Nicholas John Russo:

Since World War II, the children and grandchildren of the immigrants have left the Italian national parishes and have moved to more residential areas within the city, as well as to the suburbs. Thus, they have encountered many Irish-American priests and teaching nuns and have been subjected to “Hirbernization.”45

Given that the frame of reference of many second and third generation Italian-Americans was that of an institutionally-defined Catholicism, the questions now focuses as to the content of those moral allegiances. What did the Italian-American of this time and place hold ultimately sacred? What role did “religion” play in his/her life? Were either the “sacred” or “religious” conceptions of the suburbanized Italian-American compatible with Catholicism? In what way, if any, was there an Italian problem at this stage of the acculturation process?

It is a very difficult task to answer the question as to what the newly suburbanized Italian-American Catholic held as ultimately sacred. This is the case because of the apparently tight and hard to disentangle relationship of the Catholicism and the Americanism of the middle-class Italian at the time. As Glazer and Moynihan state:

As Italians emerged from the grip of neighborhood and family which have maintained the peculiar cast of southern Italian culture, they did not enter directly into an unmodulated and abstract Americanism. By the 1950’s, the American temper as reflected in the age of suburbia and Eisenhower, emphasized the fact that every man must have a religion and Catholicism was indeed one of the best and most American. Thus, the Italian migrant to the suburbs, who had perhaps never taken the village-type Church of the dense ethnic neighborhood seriously (though his wife and perhaps his children had), found in the new ethnically mixed Roman Catholic Church of the suburbs an important expression of his new status as a middle-class American… This new suburban Catholicism is stronger than the Catholicism of the old neighborhood.46

Crudely put, the question is this: what was more important for the Italian-American Catholic at the time, his Catholicism or his Americanism? Writing in 1959 in the introduction to Andrew Greeley’s The Church and the Suburbs, the then Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Chicago, Monsignor Edward M. Burke, P.A., asks some very pertinent questions in this regard:

The suburban life seems to be pleasant and prosperous. Is it too pleasant and too prosperous to be compatible with the truly Christian life? On the other hand, the new suburbanite is usually a regular churchgoer. Does this mean a deeper religious life made possible by favorable circumstances?. . .Is religion in the suburbs the real thing or merely the fashionable thing? These are some of the questions which we must ask ourselves as Catholics viewing the present scene.47

Greeley’s response to the questions of Monsignor Burke is itself intelligent and nuanced. As Greeley states, “there are good things in suburban living and bad things; which will dominate in the future depends entirely on the free-will decisions of human beings.”48 On the one hand, for Greeley:

The Catholic suburbanite is not a crass materialist. He does not pile up possessions for mere love of wealth. He is extremely generous to all sorts of charitable endeavors. He will spare no expense to provide a Catholic education for his large and growing family. He is, in all likelihood, more fervent in his religious duties than were his parents. He is probably an active parishioner and by his own lights an excellent Christian. In fact, he and his fellows have, it would seem, reached a level of observable religious practice seldom, if ever, surpassed by a large group of people in the history of the Church.49

On the other hand, Greeley acknowledges what may be “the most perplexing. ..difficulty facing the Church in the suburbs:”

For in the suburb, the Catholic is regarded, at last, as a full-fledged American. The ghetto walls are crumbling. The old national parishes are breaking up… This Americanization of the immigrant groups is a good thing; but it is not an unmixed blessing. Catholics can accept much of the American way of life with little hesitation; but in certain matters-birth control, divorce, and premarital sex experience, for example, we must part company with many Americans. In national parishes and the old neighborhoods, Catholics were somewhat insulated from the infection of (the) pagan influences (of American society). In the suburbs, they are in the main line of the enemy’s fire. This is not to argue that we should retreat into our ghetto. We could not if we wanted to. But the fact must be faced that the suburban Catholic could become too American. There is some danger that he will begin to share the common American notion that one religion is practically as good as another. When this happens he has ceased to be much of a Catholic, no matter how American he may be.50

Whether or not the “ultimate concern” of the second or third generation middle-class suburbanized Italian-American was his/her Catholicism or his/her Americanism, it is quite clear that he/she was more Catholic than the immigrant and working-class generations of Italian-Americans. In his impressive study, published in 1961, Gerhard Lenski states that:

Among white Catholics, the third generation… was more active in the Churches than the second generation. ..Among Catholics, the second generation showed a marked increase in attendance over the first… our data suggest a pattern of increasing religious (i.e. Catholic) activity linked with increasing Americanization.51

In his very important study specifically addressed to the analysis of the changing nature of the Catholic religious observances of three generations of Italian-Americans, Nicholas John Russo stated that:

As regards religious practices among Italian-Americans, the evidence presented supports that of Lenski’s Detroit study which shows that increasing Church attendance is associated with increasing Americanization. . .These findings are in conformity with those of Glazer and Moynihan, who in 1963, noted that the third-generation Italian-Americans were being integrated into the American forms of Catholicism. . . Our research has indicated that social assimilation of Italian-Americans into primary Catholic groups is well under way.52

Similarly, as James Crispino, in his The Assimilation of Ethnic Groups: The Italian Case, puts it:

The evidence for Italians supports Lenski’s findings of increasing religiousity in latter-generation ethnics. One reason for this may be the absence of a close link between ethnicity and religion for this group, which means that less ethnicity entails more religiousity.53

While the institutionally-Church-centered suburban Italian-American Catholic may have been more “Catholic” than his predecessors, does this automatically mean that he was more “religious?” The answer is here “no.” The worldview of il contadino or the first generation immigrant was one in which all spheres of his thought and activity were influenced by a belief in the efficacy of the supernatural. This was reflective of the social world in which il contadino/immigrant lived; a world in which all social institutions were fused together under what Peter L. Berger54 has termed a religious “sacred canopy.” Modern-day institutions, in contradistinction, following the work of Talcott Parsons” and illustrated by the work of Benjamin R. Mariante, are structurally differentiated-that is, separated out from direct religious influence. Spheres of institutionalized activity (education, science, work, politics, etc.) once held together under a religious canopy now tend to possess their own mostly autonomous value systems.56 Subsequently, the religious thought and activity of many modern-day individuals-Italian-American Catholics included-tends to be what Berger calls “compartmentalized” and relegated to restricted areas and moments in life (parish, family, periods of personal and social crisis, etc. )57

Was, then, the “sacred” conceptions of the suburbanized Italian-American or his “religious” state compatible with an authentic Catholicism? The answer is “yes” and “maybe.” As Greeley has previously stated, at the level of “observable religious practice” such an Italian-American was never more Catholic. Whether or not such external behavior was reflective of a vivid understanding and experience of the Catholic faith is a question both disputable and disputed. Andrew Greeley, in his The Catholic Church and the Suburbs and displaying his liberal optimistic Americanizer position, basically says “yes.” Will Herberg, in his Protestant, Catholic, Jew and displaying the sentiments of a more cautious, pessimistic, conservative and orthodox thinker, basically disagrees. As Herberg states, “the Americanization of religion has meant a distinct loss of the sense of religious uniqueness and universality. ..This is true even among rank and file American Catholics, whose official theology places the strongest possible emphasis on the uniqueness and universality of the Roman Catholic Church as the `one true Church”‘.” The answer to the question of the compatibility of the early Italian-American Catholic suburban life with Catholicism proper, in the final analysis, can only be answered definitively by the recording angel. Nonetheless, it is clear that the Italian problem from the perspective of the Catholic hierarchy, and relative to earlier relationships of the Italian-American to Catholicism, was lessened during this period. As Joseph Lopreato states:

Since the 1930’s, there has been no “religious problem” to speak of. Indeed, as the Italians have adapted themselves to American society, the Catholic Church has succeeded not only in winning their loyalty but also in gaining their respect. (Humbert) Nelli considers 1945 the year in which the Catholic Church assumed a position of social importance among the Italians in America.59

But is it the case that “increased Americanization”, following Lenski, Glazer and Moynihan, Russo, Crispino, and Lopreato, will always continue to produce a behaviorally (and perhaps internally also) conformist and active Catholic? Or is it possible, following even the overtly “Americanist” Andrew Greeley, that Catholics can become “too American” and much less of a Catholic? The answer here, I will argue, is not only a theoretical “yes” but presently is an empirical reality. The “Italian problem”, albeit it in very different form, is presently very much alive from the perspective of the Catholic hierarchy (although, ironically, some of the more liberal Catholic advocates of a so-called “cultural and religious pluralism” don’t seem to recognize it as such.)

The Moral Life of the Thoroughly Middle-Class Post Vatican II ItalianAmerican

It is no doubt the case that there still is today a not insignificant group of working-class family and urban neighborhood centered Italian-American Catholics. It is even more obviously the case that the modal type of contemporary Italian-Americans is the institutional-Church-centered individual discussed in the previous subsection. Nonetheless, there is a new movement on the Italian-American scene, a movement not just located at the periphery of Italian-American life, but day by day moving closer to the center. This is the movement of the mostly fourth generation of Italian American Catholic-the sons and daughters of our modal type-born/raised in the post-Vatican II period of the American Catholic Church. They are individuals who are not only more thoroughly middle-class than their parents (especially in the area of life expectations) but who are now twice removed from the immigrant experience.

These Italian-Americans are nation (and, for a few, world)-centered. The fourth generation need neither their family, neighborhood, Italian, or Catholic identity as a means to place them on the map of American society. These Italian-Americans-betraying the nature of the “mass society” that they live in-are thoroughly Americanized and (at least to a great degree) participate socially and rely emotionally on the great “public sphere” institutions of American society (economy, polity, education, mass media, etc.) Playing around with Morris Janowitz’s concept of “neighborhood of limited liability”,60 the contemporary fourth generation Italian-American’s “liability” on what Peter Berger and Richard Neuhaus call the “private sphere” institutions of the family, neighborhood, ethnicity, and parish, is, indeed, exceedingly limited.61 Put another way, the contemporary fourth generation lives in a society in which, following respectively, Durkheim62 the “intermediate institutions” and Berger and Neuhaus63 the “mediating structures” of society are weak. Going back to Glazer and Moynihan64 the fourth generation’s relationship to American society is, at least relative to previous generations, direct, unmediated, and “unmodulated and abstract.” If the form or frame of reference of the fourth generation Italian-American is primarily nation-centered, what of its content? What is the “ultimate concern” of this generation? How “religious” and “Catholic” is this generation? What is the nature of the Italian problem, again viewed from the angle of the Catholic hierarchy?

The most sacred attachment of the fourth generation is between, or perhaps alternates from, what Will Herberg has called the “American Way of Life” and what Robert Bellah has termed the “American Civil Religion.”

For Herberg:

The American Way of Life is the symbol by which Americans define themselves and establish their unity. If the American Way of Life had to be defined in one word, “democracy” would undoubtedly be the word, but democracy in a peculiarly American sense. On its political side it means the Constitution; on its economic side, “free enterprise”; on its social side, an equalitarianism which is not only compatible with but indeed actually implies vigorous economic competition and high mobility… The American Way of Life is individualistic, dynamic, pragmatic. It affirms the supreme value and dignity of the individual; it stresses incessant activity on his part, for he is never to rest but is always to be striving to “get ahead”; it defines an ethnic of self-reliance, merit, and character, and judges by achievement. ..The American Way of Life is humanitarian, “forwardlooking”, optimistic. Americans are easily the most generous and philanthropic people in the world, in terms of their ready and unstinting response to suffering anywhere on the globe. The American believes in progress, in self-improvement, and quite fanatically in education. But, above all, the American is idealistic… The American Way of Life is, of course, anchored in the American’s vision of America. The Puritan’s dream of a new “Israel” and a new “Promised Land” in the New World, the “novus ordo seclorum” on the Great Seal of the United States reflect the perennial American conviction that in the New World a new beginning has been made, a new order of things established, vastly different from and superior to the decadent institutions of the Old World.65

For Herberg, the American Way of Life is not to be confused with an authentically religious dimension:

In this kind of religion there is no sense of transcendence, no sense of the nothingness of man and his works before a holy God; in this kind of religion the values of life, and life itself, are not submitted to Almighty God to judge… In this kind of religion it is not man who serves God, but God who is mobilized and made to serve man and his purposes; whether these purposes be economic prosperity, free enterprise, social reform, democracy, happiness, security, or “peace of mind.”66

The overarching value system of American society, for Robert Bellah and unlike Will Herberg, is an authentically religious dimension, one that is demanding and challenging. As Bellah put it:

Few have realized that there actually exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America. . . I conceive of the central tradition of the American Civil Religion not as a form of national self-worship but as the subordination of the nation to the ethical principles that transcend it and in terms of which it should be judged.67

Writing in 1963, the principal mentor of Bellah, Talcott Parsons, describes the development over time of the American Civil Religion:

The dominant “faiths” of American society have come to be integrated into a single socio-religious system, a development that even in the late 19th century seemed highly unlikely. This system has evolved under the historical leadership of American liberal Protestantism but has very much involved and modified all three faiths. For instance, the pariah status of the Jewish faith. .. has been modified, not only through greater “toleration” of Jews by Gentiles, but also by a new level of Jewish acceptance of the legitimacy of the outside order in which Jews come into contact with Gentiles, especially in the occupational system. For all Jews, except the most rigidly orthodox, a religiously sanctioned life is no longer confined to the internal life of the Jewish community. The position of the Roman Catholic community in the U.S. is undergoing similar modifications, of which visible indices can be found in the broad acceptance of a Roman Catholic president and the American Catholic hierarchy’s failure to repudiate the president’s expressed position on the separation between Church and state. These changes have occurred by a developmental restructuring, without a prophetic break with the established order. The basic value pattern common to all three faiths has been at least partially institutionalized at a higher level of generality.68

Andrew Greeley, in comparing Herberg with Bellah, states that “there is validity in both viewpoints but, as in so many other dimensions of American religion, one can keep one’s perspective only if one balances the paradox which is involved in affirming that both the best and worst in American religious tradition can be found in the nation’s civil religion.”69 Nonetheless, Greeley, and again betraying his liberal, “Americanist” roots, basically comes down on the side of Bellah (and Parsons). As he states:

In reapprais(ing) this civil religion of Americanism, particularly with the help of the insights of Robert Bellah, (I) conclude that it may not be nearly as worthless a phenomenon as some writers have thought. Instead of being a “watering down” of denominational religion, it-might also be considered as a distillation of what is best in the denominations.70

Even assuming that Greeley is correct and that the primary religious dimension of most modern-day Americans-including the fourth generation of Italian-American Catholics-is an authentic distillation of the best of the Judaic-Christian heritage, it is the case that the fourth generation is a less “religious” generation than the third. The American Civil Religion is clearly a less transcendent religion than the Catholicism of the third generation and, moreover, the processes of “structural differentiation” and “compartmentalization” of human consciousness have accelerated since the third stage of the acculturation process of the Italian-American experience. And, regardless of whether the forces of Americanization have produced a “watered down” American Way of Life or a vitalized non-denominational civil religion, it is clear that the ultimate concern of most fourth generation Italian-Americans is not Catholicism. The original Italian problem in the Catholic Church in the United States around the turn of the century primarily revolved around the non-Catholic culture that the immigrant brought with him from il Sud. Today the Italian problem is no less real but its source is different; it primarily revolves aroung the internalization of non-Catholic American culture. Richard Gambino offers one possible scenario for the contemporary Italian-American Catholic that is consistent with the viewpoint developed throughout this paper:

The old inheritance’s strong pragmatic preoccupation with this-world combines with a similar American attitude in the young people, making a turn toward organized religion even less likely. Thus, young Italian-Americans might give up their energies to the secular values which function in place of orthodox religious lives–education and work, recreation and family. In short, this view sees the young people evolving new forms of the old preoccupations of their grandparents with a distinctly American twist.71

In his Why Can’t They Be Like Us? Andrew Greeley acknowledges, through use of a 1963 survey, that religious differences still persist between two ethnic groups coming to America at the same time, the Poles and Italians: “And whereas Italians are the least pious of all the American Catholic groups, the Poles are almost as devout as the Irish… (Italians) score rather low in measures of canonical religiousness…72 Indeed, as late as in a 1979 study, “Ethnic Variations in Religious Commitment,” Greeley could conclude that “Italian Catholics would appear to represent an ethnic variance in religious adherence that requires further investigation.”73

Perhaps the most celebrated example of the changing nature of the “Italian problem” in the American Catholic Church today involves the controversy during the summer of 1984 between New York Governor Mario M. Cuomo and Archbishop John J. O’Connor of the Archdiocese of New York over the issue of the Catholic politician’s obligation to oppose proabortion activities sanctioned by the Supreme Court.74 Cuomo has indicated that his obligation, qua Governor and in his public life, is not only to enforce but to morally support the pro-abortion law of the land. O’Connor’s position is that the Governor’s duty is to follow the Law of God, as understood by the teaching authority of the Catholic Church. From O’Connor’s position, Cuomo’s “personal opposition” to abortion, if not supported by a similar public stance, is insufficient proof of good standing within the Church. The point here is that if Mario M. Cuomo is a truly religiously inspired man-and I think he is-he is, nonetheless not very much of a Catholic. Cuomo’s religious sensibilities are mediated, are made “real” in thought and action, through the frame of reference of the nation and not that of the Catholic Church. While nominally Catholic, a conservative Catholic could plausibly argue that the true religion of Mario Cuomo (a second-generation ItalianAmerican whose biographical experience has accelerated sharply the Americanization process in his specific case) is the liberal Protestant influenced American Civil Religion with its emphasis on “individual conscience” and, conversely, de-emphasis on external authority. At best, one could argue, following and using the terminology of the liberal “Americanist” Andrew Greeley, that Mario Cuomo is a “communal Catholic.” A “communal Catholicism” is a highly individualistic Catholicism in which the individual, while being thoroughly imbued with Catholicism as a cultural way of life, is nonetheless highly selective in his/her approach to basic doctrine as espoused by the Magisterium or hierarchial teaching authority of the Catholic Church.75 Simply put, the conservative Catholic would place Cuomo outside the pale of the Church; Greeley’s liberal celebration of a “stretched out” Catholicism may locate Cuomo at the edge of a Church “defined as hierarchy” but well within a Church “defined as the people of God.” Indeed, both Greeley76, in a June 1984 article published in America, and Bill Kenkelen, in an August, 1984 lead story in the radical National Catholic Reporter, have referred to Cuomo as a leading “Catholic intellectual”.77 From the viewpoint of an “official” Catholicism, however, it is clear that Cuomo’s “ultimate concern” is not that vision of the relationship of God to both society and man as espoused by the Magisterium.


Thus far in our analysis, the changing nature of the Italian-American’s moral (sacred, religious, Catholic) attachments through the acculturation process has been, in an ideal-typical manner, chronicled. It has been argued that the initial “Italian problem” in the American Catholic Church clearly present in the immigrant and working-class second generation has returned in the form of the thoroughly Americanized, post-Vatican II Italian-American of the fourth generation. The purpose of this section is to determine the nature and relative impact of the changing theological positions and social policies of the institutional Church on the previously discussed developmental sequence of the moral attachments of Italian-Americans.

Any such analysis must consider certain theoretical points and pieces of historical evidence. Three important considerations must be analyzed. They are:

  • Whatever the nature of official theological and social policy decisions of the national Catholic Church hierarchy, one should never overestimate the impact of such on the daily life of the average Italian-American. In any modem, structurally-differentiated society like the United States, (and unlike the situation in medieval Europe where the Church’s position was “monopolistic”), the Catholic Church is only one institution among many American institutions. The American Catholic Church is a “voluntary institution” with no ability to force compliance and participation among its members, many whose affiliation is very partial and nominal. Even more fundamentally, the “socializing” ability of the Catholic Church is limited in such a pluralistic context as the Church’s ideas and practices must compete in what Peter L. Berger, in his The Sacred Canopy, calls an “open market situation”, in which individuals can select, adapt, combine, and reject bits and pieces of culture from a wide variety of social sources. The average Italian-American is, then, almost by definition more influenced by his total social environment then he/she is by the institutional Church which, at best (with relatively few exceptions) serves only as a sub-cultural influence within the more inclusive social environment. The primary source of the “Italian problem”, both past and present, lies with the non-Catholic nature of, respectively, southern Italian and American culture. Factors such as Protestant proselytizing, Italian nationalism, a lack of Italian priests in America, and an unsympathetic (and, at times, hostile) Irish clergy were important factors adding to the severity of the early Italian problem but, in the final analysis, they were only secondary factors. For instance, a sympathetic and generous Irish leadership would have no doubt lessened the alienation of the Italian immigrant from the Catholic Church but the far more fundamental problem of an ultimate sacred attachment to the southern Italian cultural lifestyle would have remained. Likewise, as James Hennesey notes in his monumental American Catholics78, Italians and Slavs have recently gained strong footholds in the contemporary American Catholic hierarchy. Such a relative de-Irishization of the hierarchy (approximately, according to Greeley79, 50 per cent of the hierarchy is presently Irish while at the turn of the century nearly the total hierarchy was Irish) has not eliminated, however, the contemporary Italian problem, as the presently thoroughly Americanized Italian-American population couldn’t, for the most part, care less about internal Church politics. There is, after all, the far more serious problems of ending the proliferation of nuclear weapons, buying a nicer house in a better neighborhood, and acquiring tickets to a Frank Sinatra or Michael Jackson concert.
    2) Whatever the nature of internationally and nationally oriented theology and social policy, the Catholic Church is (and, despite the recent strengthening of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference in the mid-1960’s, remains) a “state’s rights” Church. By this I mean that, with the exception of either a direct Papal intervention or by virtue of mandated conciliar legislation, the monopoly of authority and power resides in the Bishop’s hand in his diocese. The Bishop rules over his diocese by virtue of his “Ordinary Power” and it is he who dictates the nature, tone, rate of implementation, of theological insights and social policies that come “from above.” The relevant point here is that it is foolish to overestimate the impact of theology and social policies (either “Americanist”/anti-ethnic parish or “anti-Americanist”/pro-nationality centered parish) that come eitherfrom Rome or from the national assemblies of Bishops on policy within a particular diocese. Put ever so bluntly, diocesan and parish life during the turn of the century was very different for those living under the “Americanizer” Archbishop John Ireland than for those living under “anti-Americanizer” Bishop Bernard McQuaid of Rochester. (While the overwhelming percentage of the Catholic hierarchy during the late 19th century was Irish, it is important to remember that not all were sympathetic to the Americanist position or as fanatical in their sympathy as was Archbishop Ireland.) Likewise, it is a fair guess that today Church life under “conservative” John Cardinal Krol of Philadelphia is somewhat different than life under “liberal” Archbishop Peter Gerety of Newark despite their professed allegiance to the same Pope, Church law, and Catholic tradition. In order, then, to chronicle accurately the nature of the Church’s impact on the changing nature of the moral attachments of Italian-Americans more fully, one would have to conduct a case by case study of the biases and policies of every Bishop in charge of a particular diocese. Such an historical investigation, while in principle possible, is clearly outside the scope of this paper.

For whatever degree of relevance it has on the nature of the Italian problem, one can discern certain periods in which the national orientation of the Church hierarchy was either pro-ethnic or 4nti-ethnic Church. Very briefly, I argue that the Americanizers won out over the anti-Americanizers during the “Cahensly Affair” which ended in 1892 and which united both Rome and the vast majority of U.S. Bishops against the national parish; that the anti-Americanizers won a major victory with the issueing of Testem Benevolentiae (“On the Heresy of Americanism”) in 1898 by Pope Leo XIII that slowed down considerably the opposition to the national parish; and the Americanists won a major victory in the establishment of the National War Council in 1917 (now the N.C.C.B./U.S.C.C.) which, combined with the restrictive immigration laws of 1924 ushered in a sustained victory for the Americanist camp that would last until the post-Vatican II era. In the mid-1960’s, and in light of a very liberal and selective interpretation of Vatican II theology, advocates of a “cultural and religious” pluralism shape the national orientation. Such a recent development, needless to say, is irrelevant in regards to the original “Italian problem.” Interestingly enough, however, it is this present celebration of cultural and religious pluralism that, in a sense, “covers up” (somewhat) the contemporary Italian problem. Simply put, while the moral vision of many contemporary ItalianAmericans, like Mario M. Cuomo, have extended past the horizons of the institutional Church, the institutional Church in the post-Vatican II “ecumenical” era, has stretched itself out toward the pluralistic world, “covering up” somewhat the American/ethnic vs. Catholic discrepancy in values held. It is important to point out that the ecumenical activities of the Catholic Church are officially “contained” within strict and legal guidelines; nonetheless it is the “spirit” and not the “law” of Vatican II which is mostly apprehended and utilized by the lay public. In the case of articulate Catholic liberal professionals (whether clergy or lay) Vatican II is consciously and selectively interpreted to favor a virtual merger of Catholicism with many outside secular values and the discrepancy between American and Catholic or non-Catholic and Catholic values is consciously ignored. Andrew Greeley, again celebrating the very same phenomenon that more orthodox Catholics consider to be the capitulation of a once distinctively Catholic religion and culture, offers an interesting biographical example in the case of an unnamed sociological colleague of his who stated in Greeley’s The American Catholic that “I left the Church when I was twelve years old. At forty-five I woke up one morning to discover I was back in it-not because I had changed but because the Church has moved its boundaries out so far that I was inside once again.”80

3) In assessing the question of how much material assistance the Catholic Church could afford the Italian immigrant during the initial period of the “Italian problem”, it is important to bear in mind the financially impoverished condition of an American Catholic Church at a time when it was confronted and almost overwhelmed with millions of poor and ill-educated European immigrants. As Richard M. Linkh, in his valuable study, American Catholicism and European Immigrants notes, when the immigrant was helped by Catholics, he was necessarily helped more by Catholics of his own nationality background than by the institutional Church. Linkh’s study indicates that some ethnic Catholic groups were far more successful than others in helping themselves and integrating themselves into the Catholic faith by building their own parishes and schools. According to Linkh, the Germans, Poles, and Lithuanians could be fairly labeled the “selfsupporting” ethnic Catholic groups while Bohemians and Italians were far less self-supporting and could be labeled as “missionary groups.”81

One can easily speculate as to some of the reasons why the Italian immigrant was less self-supporting vis-a-vis the Church than other ethnic groups. The peasants from Il Sud were, relatively speaking, from a cultural background more deprived than most-less money, education, and ability to engage in civic enterprises of all sorts. Indeed, Linkh’s findings here are quite consistent with Rudolph Vecoli’s insight in his “Contadini in Chicago: a Critique of The Uprooted” in which he documents nicely the inability of Chicago’s Italian-Americans, because of overriding loyalties to family and village, to work together effectively at building a viable ethnic community, (parishes and schools included). Given the situation that the institutional Church faced around the turn-of-the-century, it is wrongheaded to place most of the blame on it for the initial emergence of the Italian problem.”82 The Italian-American community, in this specific instance, was unable to help itself because of the, relatively speaking, internal weaknesses of southern Italian culture-weaknesses, as students of “il problema del Mezzogiorno” understand, that were in no way the “fault” of il contadino but were weaknesses nonetheless. As Richard Linkh concludes, “realizing the magnitude of the task it had at a time when it lacked the resources necessary to minister to the immigrant, one wonders if more elaborate efforts could reasonably have been expected from the American Church.”83



There will be, no doubt, many Italian-American scholars who will not be sympathetic to the line of argument presented in this paper. Some detractors would prefer to place the primary blame for the “Italian problem” on Irish indifference and hostility; others would prefer to “neutralize” the “Italian problem” by relativizing it. In essence this latter scenario argues that all forms of Catholicism are necessarily mediated through cultural forms, hence the Italian Catholicism of the southern Italian peasant/immigrant or the contemporary Catholicism of the fourth generation is as “authentically Catholic” as was the Irish Catholicism of the turn of the century America or, for that matter, any socio-historical manifestation of Catholicism empirically available throughout time and space. Indeed, both these arguments are combined by Iorizzo and Mondello in the following passage in which they make reference to the work of the Italian historian, Grazia Dore:

Viewing Italian religious practices as superstitious relics of a seemingly backward civilization, Irish-American Catholicism had failed to recognize that the deeply felt religion of the South Italians was totally devoid of nationalistic bias and represented the only cultural form in which these peasants, ostracized by an insensitive officialdom, both lay and papal, could express their worldly concerns. An Italian historian has recently noted: “It is probable. … thano one then in America felt the universality of the Church as the Italian immigrants did and certainly no one was further from the temptation of a nationalistic Catholicism.” This folk ecumenism of the South Italians had been viewed with abhorrence by America centered Catholics … who ironically reflected in the religious practices the very parochialism which they attributed to the newcomers.84

The first argument, in the author’s judgement, is by far and away the most common yet the least convincing. As I have argued, the Irish clergy’s enthnocentrism was clearly secondary to the deeply ingrained southern Italian culture as a cause of the Italian problem. The second, “relativizing” argument is, however, more intellectually interesting. At one level it is true that all Catholic conceptions concerning the supernatural are necessarily “mediated”, i.e., made real in thought and action through various social forms or “frames of reference” whether it be the family, neighborhood, nation, etc. On the other hand, the relativizing implications of such a sociology of knowledge analysis is, in the final analysis, checked by the nature of the content of Catholicism itself. All cats, alas for the relativist, are not gray in the dark. Catholicism does stand for something-a definable collection of beliefs and practices that, while accruing and being modified over the ages, have coalesced into a structure and form a standard according to which the “Catholicity” of an individual or group can be judged in any one juncture in time and space. Put another way, there are limits to the acceptable interpretation of Catholic dogma and practice. The question here is not so much the degree to which the Irish-American Catholics misinterpreted Catholicism-for surely they did to some degree-but how close Italian-Americans have themselves correctly lived out their Catholicism. The multifaceted analysis offered here-making distinctions between the “sacred”, “religious”, and “Catholic” attachments of Italian-Americans across the generations-helps one to understand better the changing nature of the Italian problem in the Catholic Church in the United States.


1Henry J. Browne (1919-80) was a prominent Catholic social historian and sociologist. His 1946 article on the Italian problem serves as the point of departure for this essay on the changing nature of the relationship of Italian-Americans to the Catholic faith. I am, of course, solely responsible for the specific line of argument presented in this paper, a line of argument that the later, more radical Harry Browne may not necessarily have concurred with.

2Andrew M. Greeley, “American Catholicism: 1909-1984”, America, June, 1984, pp. 23-30.

3 Rudolph J. Vecoli, “Prelates and Peasants: Italian Immigrants and the Catholic Church”, Journal of Social History, Vol. 2, #3, Spring, 1969, p. 219.

4 Henry J. Browne, “The `Italian Problem’ in the Catholic Church of the United States, 1880-1920”, New York: Historical Records and Studies, The United States Catholic Historical Society, Vol. XXXV, 1946, p. 46.

5 Ibid., p. 53.

6 Ibid., p. 46.

7 Vecoli, op. cit., 1969, p. 268.

 8 Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, New York: Free Press, 1947.

   9 Paul Tillich, The Courage To Be. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952.

   10I have developed this analysis in great length and depth in my Toward the Establishment of Liberal Catholicism in America, Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1983.

11Rudolph J. Vecoli, “Change and Continuity in the Immigrant Experience: A Review of Dino Cinel’s From Italy to San Francisco: Reviews in American History, March, 1984.

12Andrew M. Greeley, The Denominational Society, Glencoe, Illinois: Scott, Foresman, and Company, 1972; Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy, New York: Doubleday, 1967.

13 Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy, New York: Oxford University Press, 1950; Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1959.

   14 Edward C. Banfield, The Moral Basis of a Backward Society, Toronto: The Free Press, 1958; Joseph Lopreato, Peasants No More, San Francisco: Chandler, 1967 and Italian-Americans, New York: Random House, 1970. For purposes of this paper, it will suffice to merely mention the Banfield-Lopreato debate on this issue. At its simplist, Lopreato feels that Banfield overstates the degree to which members of “Montegrano” (the pseudonym given to the village that Banfield studied in the late 1950’s) were “amoral familists” and incapable of concerted joint civic endeavors. Lopreato also questions the general i zabil ity of Banfield’s findings to all the South across time and space. It is interesting to note, regarding the latter, that a careful study by Jon Galtung, Members of Two Worlds (1971) did indicate some variability in social-psychological orientation to the world and in social behavior among three Sicilian villages that are produced by their different ecological settings, i.e., by the sea, hills, and mountains. Regardless of this debate, it is clear that, vis-a-vis the more modern character, the moral vision of the southern Italian peasant was truncated and limited.

15 Lopreato, 1970, op. cit. p. 104.

16 Richard Gambino, Blood of My Blood, New York: Doubleday, 1974, p. 213.

17 Luciano J. Iorizzo and Salvatore Mondello, The Italian-Americans, New York:

Twayne Publishers, 1971, p. 179.

18 Lopreato, 1970, op. cit. p. 89.

19 Banfield, 1958, op. cit. p. 125.

20 Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion, Boston:’Beacon Press, 1963.

  21 Francis X. Femminella and Jill S. Quadagno “The Italian-American Family” in C.H. Mindel and R.W. Habenstein (eds.) Ethnic Families in America, New York: Elsevier, 1976, pp. 61-2.

 22 Morris Janowitz, The Community Press in an Urban Setting, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952.

 23 Silvano M. Tomasi, Piety and Power, Staten Island: Center for Migration Studies, 1975.

  24Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan, Beyond the Melting Pot, Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1963, p. 194.

25James A. Crispino, The Assimilation of Ethnic Groups: The Italian Case, Staten Island: Center for Migration Studies, 1980, pp. 89-92.

26 Tomasi, op. cit., 1975, p. 8.

27 Iorizzo and Mondello, op. cit., 1971, pp. 179-80.

28 Lopreato, op. Cit. 1970, p. 90.

29 Humbert S. Nelli, “Italians in Urban America: A Study of Ethnic Adjustment”, The International Migration Review, Vol. 1, No. 3, Summer, 1967, p. 49.

30 William F. Whyte, Street Corner Society, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970, pp. 269-70.

31 Herbert Gans, The Urban Villagers, New York: The Free Press, 1962, p. I 11.

32 Glazer and Moynihan, op. cit., 1963, p. 202.

33 Tomasi, op. cit., 1975, p. 3.

34 Nicholas J. Russo, “Three Generations of Italians in New York City: Their Religious Acculturation” in S.M. Tomasi and M.H. Engel (eds.) The Italian Experience in the United States, Staten Island: Center for Migration Studies, 1977, p. 200.

35 Silvano M. Tomasi, “The Ethnic Church and the Integration of Italian Immigrants in the United States” in S.M. Tomasi and M.H. Engel (eds.) The Italian Experience in the United States, Staten Island: Center for Migration Studies, 1977, p. 192.

 36 Russo, op. cit., 1977, p. 197.

  37 Tomasi, op. cit., 1975, p. 61.

   38 Andrew M. Greeley, The Church, The National Parish, and Immigration: Same Old Mistakes, Staten Island: Center for Migration Studies, 1972, p. 4.

39 Richard Linkh, American Catholicism and European Immigrants, Staten Island: Center for Migration Studies, 1975; Rudolph J. Vecoli, op. cit., 1969; Francis F.X. Femminella, “The Impact of Italian Migration and American Catholicism”, American Catholic Sociological Review, Vol. 22, Fall, 1961; and Gambino, op. cit., 1974.

 40Richard Gambino, op. cit., 1974, p. 229.

41Glazer and Moynihan, op. cit., 1963, p. 216.

 42Tomasi, op. cit., 1975, p. 62.

   43Gerhard Lenski, The Religious Factor, New York: Doubleday, 1961, pp. 362-3.

44Glazer and Moynihan, op. cit., 1963, pp. 202-4.

 45Russo, op. cit., 1977, p. 198.

46 Glazer and Moynihan, op. cit., 1963, p. 203.

47 Monsignor Edward M. Burke, P.A., “Introduction” to Andrew M. Greeley, The Church and the Suburbs. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1959, pp. xi-xii.

 48 Greeley, op. cit., 1959, p. 201.

49 Ibid., p. 54.

 50 Ibid., p. 57.

51 Lenski, op. cit., 1961, pp. 44-45.

 52 Russo, op. cit., 1977, pp. 201, 209.

53 Crispino, op. cit., 1980, p. 142.

54 Berger, op. cit., 1967.

 55 Talcott Parsons, Societies: Evolutionary, and Comparative Perspectives, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1966.

 56 Benjamin R. Mariante, Pluralistic Society, Pluralistic Church, Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1982.

57 Berger, op. cit., 1967.

 58 Will Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, 2nd edition, New York: Doubleday, 1960, p. 262.

59 Lopreato, op. cit., 1970, p. 92.

60 Janowitz, op. cit., 1952.

       61 Peter L. Berger and Richard J. Neuhaus, To Empower People, Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 1978.

  62 Emile Durkheim, The Division of Labor in Society, New York: Free Press, 1964.

63 Berger and Neuhaus, op. cit., 1978.

64 Glazer and Moynihan, op. cit., 1963, p. 203.

   65 Herberg, op. cit., 1960, pp. 78-80.

  66 Ibid., p. 268.

 67 Robert Bellah, “Civil Religion in America” in Beyond Belief, New York: Harper and Row, 1970, p. 168.

 68 Talcott Parsons, “Introduction” in Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion, op. cit., 1963, p. Ixii.

69 Andrew M. Greeley, The Denominational Society, op. cit., 1972, p. 174.

70 Ibid., p. 156.

 71 Gambino, op. cit., 1974, p. 242.

72 Andrew M. Greeley, Why Can’t They Be Like Us?, New York: E.P. Dutton, 1975, pp. 68, 79.

73 Andrew M. Greeley, “Ethnic Variations in Religious Commitment” in Robert Wuthnow (ed.) The Religious Dimension, New York: Academic Press, 1979, p. 131.

74 A few references to the O’Connor-Cuomo abortion debate include: Dick Ryan, “Theology a la Cuomo” (National Catholic Reporter, August 17, 1984); “Cuomo and O’Connor Clash Over Role of Religion in Politics,” (National Catholic News Service in The National Catholic Register, August 19, 1984); James Manney, “Mario Cuomo’s `Hot Stuff”‘ (National Catholic Register, August 26, 1984); Kenneth A. Briggs, “Politics and Morality: Dissent in the Catholic Church” (The New York Times, August 11, 1984); John Herbers, “Abortion and School Prayer Become Campaign Issues” (The New York Times, August 12, 1984); Andrew M. Greeley, “Not as Pawns of the Church” (The New York Times, August 12, 1984); Joseph Sobran, “Religion Comes First” (The New York Times, August 12, 1984); Michael Oreskes, “Cuomo Adds to Debate with Church on Policy” (The New York Times, August 14, 1984); and Patty Edmonds, “Cuomo `Theology’: A National Event” (The National Catholic Reporter, September 21, 1984).

75 Andrew M. Greeley, The Communal Catholic, New York: Seabury Press, 1976; The American Catholic, New York: Basic Books, 1977.

76 Greeley, op. cit., 1984.

77 Bill Kenkelen, “Mario Cuomo: Rise of an `Ethnic, Catholic Intellectual”‘ National Catholic Reporter, August 3, 1984.

78 James Hennesey, S.J., American Catholics, New York: Oxford University Press, 1981, p. 324.

79 Greeley, op. cit., 1977.

80 Ibid., p. 273.

81 Linkh, op. cit., 1975, pp. 109-110.

 82 Rudolph Vecoli, “Contadini in Chicago: A Critique of The Uprooted,” Journal of American History, Vol. 51, September, 1964.

83 Linkh, op. cit., 1975, p. 196.

84 Iorizzo and Mondello, op. cit., 1971, p. 192.