The odds are high that, at some point, you have noticed the pamphlets that tend to be offered in the vestibules of churches and other houses of worship. Often cheaply designed and produced, usually free to take or sold for a trivial cost in religious bookstore racks, pamphlets of this nature often offer advice to the first-time visitor for following the proceedings, argue for the veracity of the denomination’s theology, or stake out a position on a moral or social issue. Among the most ephemeral of literary productions – lost or discarded, as a rule, more often than kept – such pamphlets may appear at first as an odd thing for a library to archive. The John J. Burns Library does, however, maintain a collection of these pamphlets – no fewer than 319 boxes of them, organized by subject as part of the Liturgy and Life collection. The collection’s value lies, perhaps paradoxically, in the very cheapness and ephemerality of its constituent items. These pamphlets, published for maximum accessibility, form the record of the printed advice and argumentation that would have been most familiar in the discourse of popular Catholicism, particularly among the poor and the working class, in the years 1925-1975. Astute readers will note that that fifty-year span covered by the collection begins at the tail-end of the First Red Scare and ends in the midst of the Cold War. Perhaps unsurprisingly for their time, several entire boxes consist entirely of pamphlets devoted to attacking Socialism and/or Communism; without exception, the pamphlets addressing the issue weigh in on the side of Western capitalism. These pamphlets afford us an often quirky and surprising look into mid-century popular American Catholic propaganda.
The Catholic Left does find occasional representation in the pamphlet collection. The November 1939 issue of Christian Social Action (price, $0.10), while rejecting Communism per se and dismissing its leaders as Utopian “phonies,” does denounce Catholic publications printed without the “union bug” (indicating that it had been produced by unionized labor) and contains some harsh critiques of the West. A feature titled “Why This War?” asserts that “A liberal bourgeois’s condemnation of Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia was as convincing as an inebriate’s harangue against drunkenness. There were never wars more unjust than those in which Americans robbed and murdered Mexicans, Spaniards, and Indians” (173). The source of these unjust wars? “The trouble comes from the inherent tendency of Capitalism toward imperialism” (171), a view the author might well have pulled straight out of Marx. The author’s bold and unvarnished conclusion that “Industrial Capitalism is not the American way” (174) seems to open a space for a Catholic Left rethinking of its role in American politics and economic life. Unfortunately, the author fails to follow through with what that would look like, leaving the readership outraged but without a plan.
This sort of Left-friendly discourse is rare among our pamphlets; the irreligious nature of 20th century Communism more often inspires in our pamphlet writers a vitriolic backlash that sometimes shades into the most hysterical of red-baiting propaganda. “The inviolability of the purity of our women,” threatens Joseph Davoli, author of Communism and the Masses, “will hold no fear for the ravishing Communists imbued with an intense hatred of God” (4). Indeed, we find the earliest Catholic pamphleteers, perhaps conscious of Catholicism’s marginalized position in the early 20th century, attempting to out-flank Protestants as the most anti-Communist (therefore, implicitly, pro-American) of churches. Readers raised in the ecumenism-friendly post-Vatican II church may be startled to find such unvarnished attacks on Protestantism as J. B. Matthew’s “Reds and Our Churches,” the sum total of which can be summarized in one quote: “The largest single group supporting the Communist apparatus today is composed of Protestant clergyman” (3). C.A. Windle’s Bolshevism, or The Truth About Socialism, likewise, cannot resist firing an inter-denominations volley: “Bolshevism is the last word in Protestantism. It protests not only against Catholicity, but all religion, and every form of government except its own special brand of despotism…” (3). Moral panics and political hysteria often turn intra-national factions against one another, and the American Catholic Church in the early twentieth century was, sadly, not immune.
Among the multiple boxes of pamphlets the Burns Library holds on this topic, a few stand-out publications merit special mention. One is in fact a novella printed cheaply for easy mass distribution – AA 1025, by Marie Carre. AA 1025 tells the story – purportedly left in a manuscript discovered by a nurse, according to its frame narrative – of a Communist infiltrator in the Roman Catholic Church. The narrator seeks to bring the Church down by instigating for modernist reforms: vernacular Masses, cooperation with Protestant clergy, and women priests. While he works to convince the Church to suppress Christmas, he falls in love with a woman he identified only as “Raven Hair,” who is, perhaps predictably, Catholic. In lieu of a plot, AA 1025 lingers on the narrator’s conspiracies and sends “Raven Hair” to a Carmelite convent. The narrator concludes with the revelation that his conspiracies have seen only partial fruition in Vatican II, and announces his hope for a Vatican III. AA 1025’s ultimate target is not even Communism, but the mainstream official Catholic Church, which it associates with Communism. It is one of the few items in our pamphlet collection to take the side of radical Traditionalist Catholicism, its own perspective being less conventionally Catholic than schismatic.
A somewhat slicker production published in 1947, Is This Tomorrow [sic], tells the tale of America’s takeover by Communists in comic-book format. Sinister men in New York meet to plan a crisis as an excuse for their sleeper agents to seize power, then seize the nation’s food supply and use it to control the population. The reader is left to assume that these characters understand their plan better than their author does, as the latter seems unconcerned with how poorly the logic of the plan works out. Yet it hardly matters – the work is a propagandistic masterpiece, surprisingly entertaining in its execution. A quietly sinister introduction leads to an increasing build-up of tensions as it presents an America where capital and labor, white and black, urban and rural factions complain about, demonstrate against, and finally openly clash with and riot against one another. Terrorists plant bombs and looters fight for food as the country spirals out of control, until finally the nefarious Communist overlords feast in celebration as children inform on their families. One can hardly read the book without thinking of Joseph McCarthy, who had been sworn into his Senate seat in January of the year this publication came out. Is This Tomorrow exemplifies the atmosphere of fear that McCarthy would exploit several years later.
Today, there are approximately 85,000 official members of the Communist Party in the United States. There are hundreds of additional members whose names are not carried on the Party roles because acting as disciplined fifth columnists of the Kremlin, they have wormed their way into key positions in government offices, trade unions, and other positions of public trust. (1; “rolls” misspelled in original)
One can easily imagine the Junior Senator from Wisconsin taking inspiration.
The Liturgy and Life pamphlets constitute a subset of the broader Liturgy and Life Collection, the brainchild of Father William J. Leonard, SJ, who collected (via calls for donations placed in 1978) a vast array of objects relevant to twentieth century American Catholic culture. The full collection occupies 655 boxes taking up fully 513 linear feet of shelf-space, and includes statuary, rosaries, sick-call sets, medals, candlesticks, triptychs, and pew-cushions. The purpose of the Liturgy and Life Collection was to document, in material artifacts, a record of American Catholicism as lived during the movement for liturgical reform, during the Second Vatican Council in which that reform movement’s hopes culminated, and on to the establishment of that Council’s reforms, primarily spanning the years 1925-1975. If you want to learn what else there is in our Liturgy and Life Collection, please contact the Burns Library at email@example.com or call (617) 552-4861.
- Eric Pencek, Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant & PhD Candidate in the English Department
Anonymous. Is This Tomorrow. St. Paul, MN: Catechetical guild Educational Society, 1947.
Carre, Marie. AA 1025: The Memoirs of an Anti-Apostle. 2nd Ed. Sherbrooke, Quebec: Éditions Saint-Raphaël, nd.
Davoli, Joseph C. Communism and the Masses. New York: The America Press, 1937.
Hugo, John J. “Why This War?” Christian Social Action, Nov. 1939. Detroit.
Matthews, J. B. “Reds and Our Churches.” American Mercury reprint; nd.
Windle, C.A. Bolshevism, or The Truth About Socialism. Chicago: The Iconoclast Publishing Company, 1919.