April 2006 - Volume 10, Issue 9

Corned Beef And Cabbage

By The Most Reverend William E. Lori, S.T.D., Bishop Of Bridgeport

Photo of corned beef and cabbage

Last week, corned beef and cabbage seemed to be on everyone's mind. People stopped to thank me for dispensing them from the Lenten practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays, so that they could enjoy corned beef and similar delicacies on Saint Patrick's Day - with the understanding, of course, that another day would be chosen for a serious penitential practice. Someone did ask me if I got in trouble for giving this dispensation. Actually, I would have gotten into more trouble had I refused it!

But Saint Patrick's Day means a lot more than corned beef and cabbage. It's a day when we pray to a saintly bishop who preached the Gospel so effectively that he converted a nation and transformed a culture. It is a day when we recall the tremendous sacrifices which the Irish people have made through the centuries to practice their Roman Catholic faith. Saint Patrick's Day also reminds us of the obstacles which Irish immigrants faced when they came to the United States in the 19th century in the hope of escaping starvation, chronic poverty, and unremitting religious persecution.

Those Irish immigrants, once they left Erin's shores, continued to face poverty, discrimination, and religious persecution. Although they were in the ranks of those who built the infrastructure of our great nation, they suffered not only for their Irish heritage but also for their Roman Catholic faith. As you may recall from history, Irish Roman Catholics faced politically-organized opposition. It was called the "Know Nothing Party" and it reached the peak of its power in the 1850's.

Whether or not we marched in a Saint Patrick's Day parade, we all need to know something about the "Know Nothings." They may be making a subtle comeback.

The Know Nothings believed that all were created equal - except for Catholics, foreigners, and African-Americans. When questioned about their political philosophy, members of this secretive party replied, "I don't know." In fact, everyone knew that their main target was Irish Catholics. They did their best to deprive Irish Catholics of their rights. They organized mob violence against them. Above all, they sought to ensure that no Irish Catholic and no one who married an Irish Catholic would ever be elected to public office or serve in any responsible government position.

For a while, the Know Nothings had political traction. In 1855 they won elections in nine states and some 75 members of Congress were Know Nothings. After that, their power as an organized political party waned - but their bigoted views continued to have currency in mainstream American culture. After all, it wasn't too long ago that business establishments posted signs that read, "Irish Need Not Apply" and pursued "Catholics Need Not Apply" policies. It took generations of courageous and hard-working Irish-Americans, aided greatly by our Catholic parishes, schools, and universities, to overcome such bigotry and to achieve that better life which their ancestors long ago had sought.

A lot has changed since the 19th century. It is unlikely that a political party organized specifically against Roman Catholics would have even the brief respectability that the Know Nothings achieved. But we would be wrong to imagine that their philosophy has gone away. Alas, it is alive and well and enjoys considerable political respectability not only in Connecticut, but also in other parts of the country. Not unlike our ancestors, we are paying a high price for defending life, for upholding traditional marriage, and for seeking to influence the wider society with values that flow not only from faith but also from reason.

Today's Know Nothing-ism often takes the form of legislation that pretends to be for the common good but in fact targets the Catholic Church's social and educational institutions. A number of public officials have strongly suggested that Catholic hospitals should be forced to implement medical protocols that violate Catholic teaching - or else be penalized. Those who seek to impose their will on our Catholic institutions seem not to know that they are endangering religious liberty. They also seem not to know about the immense amount of charitable work which Catholic healthcare institutions provide.

In the recent past, bills were introduced that would have imposed serious financial burdens on Catholic Charities and our Catholic schools - institutions that serve not merely the Church but the wider community. Last year, our Catholic schools in the state saved taxpayers over $400 million and provided an excellent education not only for those who can afford it but also for many who have no other decent educational options. Catholic Charities continues to be the largest non-governmental source of social services, not only in Fairfield County but indeed in most parts of the country. Why would legislators ever consider bills with such damaging consequences? They claim not to know the harm they would do!

It's time we begin to know! It's time for us to know the immense good accomplished by our Church's educational, health care, and social service institutions. It is also time for us to know the positions of our legislators on bills such as these and to demand better from those who represent and serve us in public life.

Saint Patrick's Day is not just about corned beef and cabbage. With the courage of Saint Patrick and with the help of his prayers, we need to find our voice as a Catholic community and send our representatives the unmistakable message that they must know that religious liberty is not a grant from the State to the Church but rather a God-given human right.

I hope you will join me in Hartford for Catholic Concerns Day on Wednesday, April 5, and send that message loud and clear. Learn more about Catholic Concerns Day

I also hope, if you haven't done so already, that you sign on to the Connecticut Catholic Advocacy Network to receive, by e-mail or regular mail, important updates on happenings and legislation at the Capitol. Learn more about Connecticut Catholic Advocacy Network

Only by staying informed can we support the Church we know and love so well.