The Southern (Catholic) Tradition
When asked why he was a Catholic, Southern author Walker Percy liked to provocatively respond, “What else is there?” Savannah-born writer Flannery O’Connor, a Catholic or Irish heritage, once asserted that she was a “hillbilly Thomist,” a nod to Thomas Aquinas, whose Summa Theologiae she piously read. Percy and O’Connor certainly saw no conflict between their Southern identity and their Catholic faith. The second volume of historian and seventh-generation Californian Kevin Starr’s history of Catholicism in the Americas, Continental Achievement: Roman Catholics in the United States, recently and posthumously published (Starr died in 2017), shows the deep roots of Catholic Southern identity.
As Starr explains in his first volume, Continental Ambitions, the colony of Maryland served as refuge of religious freedom, including for Catholics, such as the colony’s most illustrious family, the Calverts. Yet even then the Catholic population of early colonial Maryland was never more than ten percent, and a Protestant-dominated Maryland General Assembly in 1704 explicitly forbade celebration of Catholic sacraments and limited civic participation for Catholic residents. Nevertheless, Catholicism slowly grew in Maryland and other Southern colonies.
In many respects the Revolutionary War served as a
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