Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Roberta L. Wollons

Second Advisor

Vincent J. Cannato

Third Advisor

Bonnie Miller


Throughout the historiography of the American Civil War, there has been significant research into the role of American Catholics, as historians such as William Kurtz and Christian Samito have argued that that Northern Catholics recognized the Civil War as an opportunity to validate themselves as loyal American patriots. This is particularly evident when the participation of Catholic immigrant communities – specifically, the Irish, German, and Italians – are concerned. Equally important, historians have addressed the spectrum of political and moral opinions on the institution of slavery among both American Catholic clergy and laity – ranging from outright tolerance to staunch moral opposition, as well as tepid indifference. However, one faction whose attitudes on the institution of slavery were the direct result of such diversity of opinions was the Vatican itself.

Combining singularity theory and historical analysis, this paper seeks to argue that the Vatican’s oscillation between tolerance to opposition of slavery resulted in American Catholic laity in both the Union and the Confederacy to espouse conflicting beliefs on the institution of slavery. Likewise, this paper argues that such evolving attitudes on the part of the Vatican coincided with the already bolstering tensions between antislavery and proslavery activists in the United States before and during the Civil War. Historical singularity theory is also used to describe how ethnic and regional identities factored into the American Catholic clergy and laity being polarized. The reason for this is Northern Catholics, spurred by decades of anti-Catholic xenophobia prior to the Civil War, saw the conflict as an opportunity to assert their own patriotism to the United States, and even assert their own antislavery credentials, by supporting the Union. By contrast, Southern Catholics, particularly Irish-American Catholics, were alienated by the latent anti-Catholic sentiment among some abolitionists, and so sympathized with the proslavery Confederacy. In short, historical singularity theory is useful in analyzing Catholic participation in the American Civil War.


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