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The Catholic Church and American Government

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The Catholic Church and American Government

Today certain countries are very dangerous places for people to live because of religious differences that separate them from their neighbors and even themselves. Acts of terrorism are committed almost everyday by people, strictly because of differences in religion. In 1776, the framers of the United States constitution made sure that the young country would have no predominate or official faith. The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights prohibits Congress from establishing an official state religion and from preventing Americans from the free exercise of their religion. The United States may have no official religion; however that does not mean that it is not influenced by it. With so many different religious views in the world, Catholicism is interesting to learn about for many reasons including its history, hierarchy, social programs, and the experience of attending mass.

The history of Catholicism in North America started in the 1500s, with the Spanish conquest of South and Central America. During this conquest, Spain colonized areas north of Mexico, and Spanish missionaries established settlements in what are now the states of Florida, Texas, New Mexico, and California. The first Catholic settlement in New World was the colony founded at St. Augustine, Florida in 1565. Catholicism became the first European religion to arrive in America, but it remained a very small percentage of the overall population for hundreds of years. "When the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, Catholics made up only one percent of the total population of the thirteen colonies, which were predominately protestant" (Sandoval). With lack of religious followers, George Calvert found the state of Maryland for a safe haven where Catholics could live without fear of persecution for their religious beliefs. Following shortly the first U.S. bishop John Carroll was appointed by the Pope as bishop of Baltimore in 1789. The Pope also designated Baltimore the first Catholic diocese in America. In 1850, millions of Irish and other European Catholics began a massive migration from their home lands to the United States, because of a potato famine and other catastrophic events affecting their countries. With these events the population of Catholics rose drastically in the United States. "By the early 1900s, Catholicism became the single largest religious denomination in the country" (Appleby). In 1960, the United States elected its first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy. "Today there are 64,199,000 Catholic Church members in the United States, making up approximately twenty-three percent of the nation's population" (Encarta).

The hierarchy of Catholic Church could remind some people of the similarities between the church and the political structure of the United States. The top of the pyramid begins with the Pope, who is the head of the Catholic Church and also the bishop of Rome. Being the head of the Catholic Church he has the final say in almost all matters pertaining to the church. Once a pope is elected, they have a lifetime commitment to the position, a lot like Federal Judges in the United States. The next in line of authority after the pope are the Cardinals, and they are appointed by the pope and part of the supreme council of the church. At the time of the Pope's death, the Cardinals elect another person to fill his position. After the high position of a Cardinal, come the bishops, which are in charge of individual Christian churches. Bishops differ from priests, because they have the power to confer holy orders and act as the usual minister of confirmation. They also have the right to admit priests into their church or to exclude them. Directly under the Bishops are the clergy, who fall into two different categories, the secular and the religious clergy. The secular clergy are not members of religious orders and fall under the authority of the local bishop and usually serve as pastors. The religious clergy on the other hand are stationed in schools, hospitals and other institutions related to the church.

The Catholic Church relates and helps the American government in many ways through services, education and health care. "In the United States there are more than 200 archdioceses and dioceses, 19,000 Catholic parishes, 400 bishops in the U.S catholic clergy, 15,000 priests, and 75,000 nuns" (Sandoval), that help and provide services to people. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is the administrative organization for the Catholic Church in the United States. The USCCB supervises programs which address issues such as prayer and worship, the state of the economy, and the church's role in the pro-life movement. The Catholic Church's involvement in education is another major rule the church plays in the government. Catholic schools have been an important part of the U.S educational system since the early 1800s. "Today there are about 7,000 Catholic elementary schools, 1,300 Catholic high schools and 238 Catholic colleges and universities with a total number of approximately 700,000 students and employs more than 175,000 educators" (Lamont). The church also provides numerous social services for many people. Catholic hospitals and health care centers are also an integral part of the American health care system. "There are 597 Catholic hospitals that treat more than 82 million patients each year" (Lamont). Catholic social service agencies help millions of people in the United States every year by providing services through soup kitchens, food banks, pregnancy care, adoption services, foster care, and drug awareness and prevention services through programs operated by the Catholic Church in every state.



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