Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

American Catholics and the Spanish Civil War

by Donald Prudlo


Donald Prudlo's essay provides a thorough examination of the American Catholics' position to support Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 and subsequent ramifications felt by the United States.

Larger Work

Faith & Reason


243 – 273

Publisher & Date

Christendom Educational Corporation, Front Royal, VA, Summer 2006

The conflict in Spain of 1936-1939 was a singular battle in the war for the survival of western civilization. As such, it had worldwide repercussions. In the United States, during the period of the conflict, divisions manifested themselves along lines of religion. Shocked by the astonishing anti-clerical and anti-religious brutality manifested by the different factions of the left, American Catholics tended to favor the military-traditionalist uprising led by Francisco Franco. American Protestants, by far the majority of the country's population, thought they saw a fascist-backed uprising against a legitimately elected and constituted government, something that they found totally unacceptable. American Jews, a small but significant religious minority with a deep stake in the developments in Europe, tended to take the Protestant position on the conflict. These latter two groups staunchly supported the forces of the leftist Popular Front against the rebellion of the right.

The vocal dissent of Catholics on the Spanish Civil War threatened to roll back the tremendous strides that Catholics had made in national politics during the 1930s. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, after all, owed much of his electoral success to the Catholic vote. Leading American churchmen could claim to exert a significant influence on Roosevelt's New Deal. Even more surprising, the thirties saw an ad hoc alliance between the liberal intelligentsia of the United States and American Catholics united in common concerns for social justice and military isolationism. This alliance cracked under the intense strain of the difference of opinion about the war in Spain. Despite their differences, both sides in the American debate over the Spanish Civil War failed to understand the root causes of the war in the distinct history and character of the Spanish nation.

Though many excellent histories of the Spanish Civil War exist, very few have touched on the relationship of America to the conflict. Those books that do address this dimension emphasize either the diplomatic history or its relationship to the coming World War. Most notable in this respect are Foster Jay Taylor's The United States and the Spanish Civil War from 1956, Richard Traina's American Diplomacy and the Spanish Civil War, and the more recent Malevolent Neutrality: the United States, Great Britain, and the Origins of the Spanish Civil War by Douglas Little. Readers in the United States are most familiar with the literary output of American authors who sympathized with the leftist government, such as Ernest Hemingway's novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls. Very little scholarly work has been done on the religious aspect of the conflict, especially as it related to America; Warren Carroll's excellent history, The Last Crusade, has helped to fill in this gap. General histories of American Catholicism usually make some brief mention of the reaction to the war in America. Significantly, those who dissented from the mainline Catholic position, notably Commonweal and the Catholic Worker, have attracted the most interest. Stories about these can be found in Roger Van Allen's The Commonweal and American Catholicism and in David Valaik's 1968 article "American Catholic Dissenters and the Spanish Civil War." What has not been done is a comprehensive examination of the whole American Catholic movement in favor of the Franco uprising and the later effects of that position in the United States. We have to discuss why American Catholics backed the Spanish General and his allies, and to prove that their reasoning, while sometimes flawed, was right in the end.

Historical Background

Catholicism has deep roots in Spanish history. Even before the coming of the Muslims in 711 AD, Spanish Catholicism understood itself as a fighting faith. Spanish national Christianity was baptized in the blood of St. Hermenigild, the son of the Arian King of Spain. His murder converted his brother and set the nation firmly in the grasp of orthodoxy. For over one hundred years Spain was a center of Christian study and culture. This all came to an abrupt end with the incursion of the Muslim armies in the early eighth century. The character of Spain was further forged as they waged a seven-hundred year war for the reconquest of their country and for the expulsion of the Moors. Thus tried and trained in centuries of warfare, Spain burst forth in the sixteenth century for a brief 150 years of world empire, attaining dizzying heights of wealth and power. She became the center of the Counter Reformation and a touchstone for Tridentine Catholicity. Such worldly success however is fleeting.

Spain's Golden Age was followed by a long decline that persisted through the heroic resistance to Napoleon's armies. A liberal monarchy was set up that espoused many of the tenets of the Enlightenment. This government betrayed many of the ideals that had forged Spain. Arrayed against it was a legitimist-traditionalist reaction which resulted in three civil wars in the nineteenth century. These have been termed the Carlist Wars after the group that claimed Carlos VII as the rightful heir, instead of the Borbon monarchs. These wars sapped the strength of Spain and helped to make possible the national embarrassment of the Spanish-American war, in which the United States (a late entry in the empire-building game) stripped her of the last vestiges of her once great worldwide empire. It must be remembered that throughout all of this the Spanish people remained intensely Catholic, especially in the northern regions and the eastern mountains. The liberal monarchy made a last gasp in the 1920's, when it appointed the Rightist Primo de Rivera dictator, but his regime was corrupt and ineffectual. The stage was set for its overthrow.

In 1931 King Alfonso XIII was forced to abdicate. This paved the way for the establishment of a constitutional government. Great inroads were made at this period by several groups that were entirely new to the Spanish scene. The Comintern of Soviet Russia in 1932 made infiltration into Spain a priority, thus insuring a strong communist presence. Many workers, dissatisfied with the remorseless face of the liberal capitalism that had grown up under the late monarchy, began to turn in increasingly radical directions. Two separate extremist groups began to forge an alliance. One was the anarchists, those dedicated to the overthrow of any government; the other was the syndicalists, who wanted no government but only a series of disparate workers communes. The anarcho-syndicalists were especially strong in the ethnically separate Basque region and in the autonomous region of Catalonia, around Barcelona. It is important to note that the strength of the anarcho-syndicalists was not primarily among the farming peasantry, but rather took root with the working classes attached to industry in large cities. In the elections of 1933, a center-right coalition was voted in, but this was largely ineffective due to the destabilizing influences of the anarcho-syndicalists and the operations of the new communist party of Spain. New elections were to be held in 1936. These would be decisive in determining the course of Spanish history.1

Election to the Cortes, or the parliamentary assembly of Spain, was an exceedingly complex process. It was anything but a direct popular election and many places, especially cities, were assigned a disproportionate number of representatives. This will be shown by the vote totals.2

One can see that even though the center-right, which had governed since 1933, received over 500,000 more votes, the Popular Front had a majority of 26 seats over the old coalition. As a salient example of unrepresentative allotment, the center, which polled only 340,000 votes, received half the number of the seats that the right obtained with their 4.5 million votes. Ultimately, it was the socialistic Popular Front that formed a government. As each month passed, the regime acted in an increasingly despotic and radical manner, successively casting off ministers who were not liberal enough. Against this regime the military, the Carlist traditionalists and the political right rebelled. American Catholics went to great lengths to explain the facade of this "democratic" election process to the general public.

Appraisal of the War from Four Different Catholic Perspectives

The outbreak of war in Spain found American Catholics in substantial agreement about their own position. At a meeting of the editors of most major Catholic periodicals in New York City at the outbreak of hostilities, Francis X. Talbot, S.J., the editor of America, called for a common Catholic editorial position.3 They all agreed to research the situation further and seek advice from experts, but all seemed to be heavily committed to Franco's cause. Indeed, there was only one Catholic periodical that consistently dissented throughout the course of the war, the Catholic Worker. Going by numbers, however, the editorial consensus of Talbot's meeting reached millions of Catholics, as opposed to the specialized audience of 75,000 that the one-cent monthly commanded. The public face of Catholicism in America was from the very beginning committed to the uprising against the illegitimate government of the Popular Front.

Some background on American Catholicism is also pertinent here. Since the founding of the first colonies on the Atlantic seaboard, Catholics had found themselves in the minority. They had engaged in an uphill struggle for acceptance among their Protestant neighbors. The efforts of generations had gone into attempting to convince the majority that they too were good Americans. Considering the balance of opinion on the Protestant and Jewish side, one must ask why the Catholics were so solidly behind such an apparently un-American and un-democratic rebellion. An even more pertinent question is why were they so publicly committed to it in the face of the opposition of their countrymen? One answer is that American Catholics had found new power and new political acceptance in the running of their co-religionist, Al Smith, for president in 1928. Following this they exerted great influence in the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. By the 1930's, the Church had swelled to include almost one quarter of the nation's population. The Church could see its social doctrine applied on the national level under the auspices of the New Deal, a major architect of which was the Roosevelt advisor Msgr. John Ryan. The American Catholic Church had indeed come into its own.

The advent of the Spanish conflict reopened old wounds. Anti-Catholics asserted that the American Church was still essentially committed to an undemocratic outlook. Protestants saw Catholics as willing to collude with fascist dictators in order to achieve the overthrow of what they saw as a legitimate government. Perhaps as at no other time in American history was the public opinion of the faithful of the Roman Church so divided from that of their countrymen. Still, the American Church had the courage to contradict popular opinion in the defense of justice by supporting the Spanish Catholics.

We will look at four periodicals as representatives of the Catholic positions. The first is the Sign, published by the Passionist Fathers. This can be seen as the general type of Catholic journal totally committed to the cause of the nationalists in Spain.4 To say that 95% of the Catholic newspapers and magazines in this country shared the position of the Sign is no exaggeration; though I will give equal attention to each of the four journals, the Sign best represents the general and popular Catholic editorial position. The second is the Jesuit journal America. This periodical takes a more qualified position on the war at first, but under the direction of Francis X. Talbot, comes totally into the Franco camp, presenting more intellectual and theoretical arguments than generally found in the great mass of contemporary Catholic journalism. Commonweal, a weekly published by laymen, presents an interesting third case. It vacillates throughout the conflict: first offering qualified support for Franco, then calling for neutrality, next succumbing to the unqualified approbation of the rest of the Catholic media world, and finally near the end of the war returning to a conscientious neutrality. We must also analyze the unique and separate case of the Catholic Worker, as it was the only Catholic paper that professed neutrality and pacifism from the very beginning. It is important to note that no Catholic publication of any type ever advocated support of the Popular Front government. To have supported this government would have been completely immoral, especially in light of the horrible bloodletting it inflicted upon the Church. All American Catholics, even those on the far left, discerned the danger of the Spanish Republican cause, though they disagreed on practical responses. I will use these four journals as touchstones to analyze the American Catholic approaches to the Civil War.

How Catholics Justified the Rebellion

Sharing the isolationist mentality of many post-World War I Americans, the Catholic press initially called for total non-intervention. The European war had been of terrible cost and few were wont to begin any more adventures across the ocean. Both America and the Sign stated that the United States ought to remain militarily neutral in the conflict and both decried the violence of the Popular Front that led to the uprising. A more Christian age might have called for crusade-like intervention, but in the historical context of the time, the Catholics were behaving with prudence and temperance. Francis X. Talbot had the first word on the subject and stated that non-intervention ought to be the rule for Americans.5 Owen McGuire, one of the most vocal of Franco's proponents, also began his series of articles on the situation with a cautionary tone. He stated that he did not support the military coup (as the Civil War had first been reported in American newspapers) even though he would change his tone the next month as new information was received.6 When Commonweal entered the fray in January of 1937, it made a more developed claim that all American aid to either side should be stopped at once.7 This was the basis of the Catholic position, eventually adopted by the Roosevelt administration, that America ought to remain completely neutral and refrain from supplying any military aid to either side. Though this seemed a betrayal of the Spanish Catholics, it was actually politically expedient in achieving the desired end. Leading Catholics saw that an arms embargo by America would only aid Franco's cause, as most aid would have gone to the government forces. Loyalist sympathizers would realize this only too late in 1938 when a major push was made to lift the embargo to save the floundering Popular Front.8

Along with these initial reactions, some periodicals decried the social situations that had led to the government repression and the uprising. In his initial editorial, Father Talbot lamented that while peasants in Andalucia had to work on great latifundios for absentee landlords, those in Galicia suffered from the excessive subdivision of estates. He noted that urgent social reform was needed, but rejected any association with Marxism.9 One can see that arguments against communism and socialism were already beginning to be made part of the Catholic position regarding the existing Popular Front government. One month later, Lawrence Patterson, S.J. wrote an article expressing concern that a victory by the right would reestablish liberal capitalism and the landed aristocracy without the much needed social reforms.10 The Catholic Worker also shared many of these concerns, but one may suspect that they had much more sympathy with the economic programs of the socialists and syndicalists than they did with any military uprising, especially considering their unwavering pacifism.

Fears for the future of the Spanish peasantry were exacerbated by stories of an elitist rebellion of Army officers and nobles, backed by an extremely wealthy ecclesiastical establishment that had much to lose by a leftist takeover. This was no more than Communist propaganda, but the secular western news media accepted it as fact. The Catholic press challenged the veracity of this frame for the situation. In the November 1936 issue of The Sign, Francis McCullach wrote an article arguing that the rebellion was a popular uprising. He was especially interested in countering the assertion of a rich Church. In response to the claim that the Jesuits owned one-third of the property in Spain, he reminded American readers that the Jesuit order had been banned in Spain three years earlier. He also listed the incomes of several bishops, not one of them earning a quarter of a normal canon's salary in England, and that included the Primate, Cardinal Goma. McCullach also cited the support of farmers and of common soldiers for the cause of the Right. He made one of the first references to the concerted traditionalist uprising of the province of Navarre, with the mobilization of the Carlist requetes.11 These Carlists represented legitimist monarchy, traditional regionalism, and militant Catholicism. They had fought and lost three wars before, and this time they once again intrepidly took up arms at Franco's side in the dark days of the early uprising. Their alliance with Franco further convinced the Catholic press which side stood for the Church and justice.

It was this religious aspect that so inflamed the Catholic journalists of America. One of the most pervasive and brutal campaigns ever waged against the Catholic Church was occurring in the Republican-controlled areas of Spain. Editors printed story after story to the families of Catholic America about the terrible toll inflicted by the forces of the Popular Front against the Church and its clergy.12 Conversely, they also detailed the crusade-like atmosphere of the nationalist armies. The Carlists speak for themselves. They went into battle with the Sacred Heart pinned to their chests and died with "Viva Cristo Rey!" on their lips. Franco himself many times wore the Carlist red beret. Catholic sources never tired of stories of Catholic heroism, especially of the astonishing narratives of the Simancas barracks and the defense of the Alcazar. These began in about November of 1936 and never let up throughout the course of the war.13 Many authors emphasized that American Catholics could not come to terms with this level of clerical and ecclesial persecution. They had no historical reference point, as they had been raised in an atmosphere of pluralism and tolerance. The suffering of Spain was so great that even the pacifist Catholic Worker never ceased to call for prayers for the Church in Spain, where "members of the Mystical Body were being rent asunder."14

In response, Catholics were beginning to dust off the doctrine of legitimate rebellion. In order to do this they had first to prove the illegitimacy of the constituted Popular Front government. Owen McGuire, in his first article on the subject in September of 1936, asserted many of the points referred to earlier: that the Center-Right had won a majority of popular votes, that the apportioning of representatives to the cortes was unjust, and that the government had progressed from a republican-socialist coalition through successive radical stages and was now no more than a puppet of Moscow, supported by mobs of anarcho-syndicalists.15 In one of the most influential writings of the Catholic Press during the war, America dedicated three issues in May 1937 to the political situation. The articles were authored by Gil Robles, who was very popular among American Catholics because he had been the leader of the Catholic Action party in the old cortes. This meant that he was a politician who had been in the midst of the administration and thus involved in the Republican form of government, important for Catholics born and raised on ideals of American democracy. He made it clear that the Popular Front was not a popularly elected and constituted government and that he wholeheartedly supported Franco.16 This article went a long way towards allaying the fears of American Catholics that Franco was rebelling against a democratically elected body, something which did not sit well with those brought up in the United States.

Another tactic to emphasize the illegitimacy of the government was to underscore its communist bias. Successive iterations of the government had gone from socialist to communist in short order. As stated in Father Talbot's opening editorial, Marxism could not be tolerated by Catholics. Allan Guttmann asserts, probably correctly, that the Catholic response was not so much pro-fascist as it was anti-communist.17 The Catholic press treated its readers with detailed evidence that Moscow was behind the Popular Front government. This knowledge served to salve many American consciences burdened by the fact that Franco was accepting men and material from Hitler and Mussolini.18 Catholics were further confirmed in their anti-communism by the promulgation of Divini Redemptoris by Pope Pius XI on March 19, 1937, which condemned the political movement in no uncertain terms. Spain, while not referred to by name, was clearly cited as an example in the document. American Catholics now knew that the Pope shared their suspicions that the Madrid government was nothing but a Red puppet.

All of these factors led leading Catholic writers to declare that the Catholic doctrine of just rebellion had been fulfilled. The bitter persecution of the Church, they argued, in itself more than justified the faithful taking action. By 1937, almost all Catholic publications including Commonweal (with the salient exception of the Catholic Worker) declared that the situation met all of the necessary conditions and the war was justified. The Catholic press cited four main factors in defense of their position. First, the Popular Government was either illegitimate or it had forfeited whatever legitimacy it might have had. Second, the religious persecution demanded the defense of the Church. Third, cooperation with communism was forbidden. Fourth, the able military under the leadership of Franco with his crack Moorish and Carlist traditionalist troops occupying half of Spain in the first weeks of the war, had sufficiently demonstrated that the rebellion had a reasonable chance of success.19

In their battle to justify Franco to the American public, Catholic journalists faced an extremely difficult battle. One of the most basic obstacles encountered was the persistent "Black Legend" regarding Spanish history, a view that had taken root in Reformation England and spread from there to all of the English-speaking countries of the west. This legend excoriated Spain as a backwards, religiously dominated gothic land of torture and inquisition. Hilaire Belloc was credited by Catholics as the first historian to plow through the patina of prejudice and hatred to offer a balanced English-language account of Spanish history.20 McGuire was concerned with showing that all of the news correspondents in Spain were infected with this, and as a result were not being impartial. These correspondents presented Franco as standing for the forces of Church, inquisition, privilege and repression, against idealistic socialists, communists, and anarchists trying to shed some light on backward Spain.21 The editors of The Sign were constantly warning American Catholics not to trust major media outlets, but rather to get their news from the National Catholic Welfare Council News Service, as mediated through the 300 or so Catholic periodicals in the country.22 America attempted to reshape the terms used to describe the conflict. The editors railed against the tyranny of calling the Rightists "rebels" and the communists "loyalists." The rebels, "not the government forces, are fighting the battle of world democracy," the writers stated.23 Catholic journalists refused to let Protestant and popular news outlets cast the struggle in terms of democracy vs. totalitarianism.

In their eagerness to drum up support for the rebellion, some journals vied with each other to prove just how liberal and democratic General Franco actually was. Some of these attempts were even comical. One writer asserted that the Carlists were not really monarchists and that their red berets represented nothing more than esprit de corps. Anyone who has read about or who has spoken with a real Carlist knows this to be a total prevarication. Carlists, even today a political force, are still totally committed to legitimist monarchism, traditional Catholicism, and regionalism. This was only one of a string of attempts to make the rebellion more palatable to an American audience. This was indeed either an extreme naiveté on the part of American Catholics or otherwise an incredibly wishful philosophical projection upon an alien situation.

Commonweal's February 1936 editorial argued that America was founded by a revolution against a tyranny that pales in comparison with that of the Popular Front.24 The American Catholic press repeatedly drew parallels that equated General Franco with George Washington, declaring that Washington would have been wholeheartedly behind the uprising. Stories of this ilk were very common, as were those that condemned the secular and Protestant press for insisting on drawing the battle lines between democracy and despotism. American Catholics responded by claiming the war to be a religious battle between atheism and Christian civilization. Other Americans simply would not accept this, in spite of the great mass of evidence indicating a religious massacre on one side and a religious fervor on the other. Commonweal attempted to convince American readers that communists and anarcho-syndicalists could not possibly be the pro-democracy movement, as they were called by the Protestants.25 The problem here was that the Protestant press absolutely refused to see the Popular Front government as a communist one. It seems that on this issue both sides were idealizing the factions. On the Protestant side, the Popular Front was the democratically elected government, trying to suppress a military/elitist rebellion. To the Catholics, Franco was an enlightened democrat who was fighting Red domination. Each position misses the true nature of the conflict: it was a battle for the soul of Spain itself.

Catholic journalists also tended to downplay any un-American tendencies that cropped up among the fighters. The Carlists, as in the above example, were either not mentioned or were simply transmuted into a regionalist militia under Franco. The Catholic Press never referred to any desire on the part of the Nationalist fighters for a restoration of the monarchy. One can see this tendency repeatedly in the attitude of The Sign. Its editorials constantly deny the monarchist elements of the struggle and present Gil Robles as the definitive spokesman for the uprising because of his Catholic and democratic proclivities. Father Patterson also tried to emphasize that it was not a battle of Republic vs. Monarchy, but a real organic revolution against an unjust governmental order.26 America, in October 1937, printed an ostensible interview between Nena Belmonte and General Franco. Nowhere does Franco mention the monarchy, and he specifically de-emphasizes the aristocracy. Both he and Gil Robles declare the need for a temporary dictatorship. Belmonte reported that Franco saw the mission as the salvation of Spain and the defense of western civilization against communism.27 It was to these American principles that the Catholic editors of the United States appealed, in the hope of casting the rebellion in a positive light to citizens of a country unacquainted with Spanish history and raised in an atmosphere of peace and religious liberty.

Division in the Catholic ranks?

As has been seen from the beginning of the conflict, the Catholic Worker was unalterably opposed to the war in Spain and refused to take sides. They had several reasons for taking this position, which was greatly at odds with the majority of Catholic opinion. Primarily they were absolute pacifists, condemning all war.28 They did not believe that force of arms could be used in defense of the Catholic Church, nor could fighting save it from destruction in a particular country.29 The final critique, and one which had the widest effect on Catholic opinion, was that there was much evil on both sides.30 The Catholic Worker devoted the whole of its December 1936 issue to a translation of Emmanuel Mounier's condemnation of both factions in the war. This was taken from Esprit, a French Catholic magazine that shared many of the aims of the Catholic Worker. Mounier made an argument that had as its thesis the notion that Catholics had a moral responsibility not to adhere to either side. He based his position on the doctrine of just rebellion. While he admits that there was tyranny under the Popular Front government he denies that all peaceful means for a reconciliation had been attempted. In addition to this, he cites the ongoing nature of the conflict (and it would go on for more than two more years) as evidence that there was no reasonable certitude of success.31 The Catholic Worker stated that Mounier's opinions were entirely in accord with the thoughts of its own editorial board. One must remember that the one-cent sheet had a limited circulation of 75,000. Its scope was very limited to certain sections of Christian socialists, trade unionists, and other leftist groups (which were already probably convinced against Franco). The influence of the Catholic Worker was not great, but some of its arguments managed to get a hearing in certain sections of Catholic journalism.

Commonweal editor George Schuster had apparently been thinking along Mounier's lines. On April 2, 1937, he expressed very similar concerns in an article in the magazine. Previous to this there had only been editorials about the situation, presumably with the entire board being in concord. The common themes of these editorials are non-intervention, attacking the popular media for misrepresentation, and a call for an establishment of a non-military relief fund. Schuster's article was not printed as an editorial but rather simply as a piece in the middle of the issue. Michael Williams, the other very pro-Franco editor, printed the article with a caveat of his own that he did not agree with all of the article's content. The heart of Schuster's very well written piece was that the Pope was committed to neutrality. This position was dubious at best, especially considering the publication of Divini Redemptoris only two weeks before. The next year the Pope would send his blessing to Franco and the Vatican would be one of the first to recognize his government. It was very difficult to make a case for the Pope's neutrality, though perhaps one could be made for his desire for peace. Like the Catholic Worker, Schuster also argued that both sides had committed atrocities and thus had no claim to the unqualified adherence of Catholics. He closed with a very poignant meditation on how the Church grows most in suffering. Nowhere did he condone the Popular Front. He was merely calling for impartiality and rejecting an uncritical acceptance of the nationalist movement.32

The response was swift and sudden. All over the country Catholic periodicals decried Schuster's position as communist-sympathizing. Many churches removed Commonweal from their parish shelves. Francis X. Talbot led the charge with an immediate counter-editorial in America the next week. He wrote that he was dismayed by this chink in the armor of the united Catholic front. He stated, quite correctly as it turned out, that Schuster's article would be used as ammunition by communists and anti-Catholics alike. All the Catholic papers of western Europe and America, with the exception of "one or two minor sheets" (one imagines that he was thinking of the Catholic Worker and Esprit) were all strongly behind the nationalist cause. He made the rhetorical point that he was in entire agreement with the assertion made by Schuster in the first line of his article. That line was "I know very little about Spain." Talbot derived Schuster's position from the fact that the Commonweal editor was totally preoccupied with his anti-fascist crusade. He acknowledged that Schuster was very well acquainted with affairs in Germany and commended him as a tireless opponent of Hitler's regime, but felt this excessively colored his view of Spain. Talbot ultimately simplified Schuster's argument by condensing it to the formula that anyone who accepts aid or even consorts with the fascist dictators must themselves be unreliable and not to be tolerated.33 This piece by Talbot may stand in for the great numbers of articles written against Schuster in early April 1937.

Schuster, recognizing that he needed to clarify himself, wrote again some two weeks later to respond to Father Talbot. In this article he seemed somewhat muted and it was not really as good or well written as his first article. He stated that many letters had poured into Commonweal calling him a communist. He averred that he was not. In the piece he really did not make any new arguments. He simply reasserted his position as contained in his first article.34 Father Talbot, who was not about to let Schuster get the last word, composed another editorial in response to this clarification. The tone of the second two articles is much friendlier than the initial works. Talbot expressed that he shared many of the same concerns as Schuster, but that his fundamental disagreement was on the issue of neutrality. He simply asked Schuster to look at who is for God and the Church and who is against it. The answer to that question, says the editor of America, should determine where Catholics ought to stand.35

The Catholic Worker emphasized a different question, one also of concern to many Catholics: have the murders and atrocities committed by the nationalists deprived them of any claims to legitimacy or support? This question was answered in October of 1936 in America in an article by Jaime Castiello, S.J. Writing for a journal interested in the theory behind the facts, he asserts that the nationalists are not saints. He acknowledges it is a war of sinner vs. sinner, but insists Americans ought to look at the reason why each side fights. "It is the cause, the final end, the ideal, which colors an enterprise, which gives it its moral quality." This in no way justifies any alleged nationalist atrocities. It rather accepts them as the terrible accompaniment to a war which is just. To insist that because the nationalists are not saints they deserve no support, "is either miserable sophistry or unpardonable muddle-headedness." He clearly states that one must look at the message and not the messenger.36

The response to Schuster's Commonweal articles was almost wholly negative in the Catholic press. This led the managers of the financially-troubled magazine to reconsider their editorial position. For Michael Williams, the pro-Franco editor, the choice was simple: Schuster had to go. By June 11, 1937, Schuster had been dismissed from the board and the paper took on a militantly nationalist outlook. Williams, who had set up a Spanish Relief Fund similar to one formed by America and the Brooklyn Tablet, now undertook to organize a mass meeting in order to collect relief funds and to rally Catholics to the nationalist cause. This meeting, which was to take place in Madison Square Garden, was to be an extravaganza of music, speeches, and fund raising. It was less than successful, a fact that did not reinforce Williams' position at Commonweal. He had fired one of the best journalists in the English-speaking Catholic world and had taken the paper on a crusade for Franco, a position with which many of the readers and managers of the periodical were uncomfortable. After his unproductive mass meeting he too was relieved of his post, but the board was unwilling to fire him for the reason that he had supported Franco too strongly; they remembered the backlash against Schuster all too well. He was dismissed for financial mismanagement and for alcoholism, both of which, to tell the truth, he was guilty.37 After his departure Commonweal reverted to an editorial position stressing neutrality in June of 1938.38 So Commonweal switched its editorial position back and forth throughout the conflict.

In the end, this was the extent of the Roman Catholic reaction in the United States against the nationalist uprising. One extremist journal and one maverick yet erudite editor; there were no other defections within the Catholic press. It is clear that the Catholic writers of the United States manifested a monolithic unity which, in the absence of formal ecclesiastical pressure, is somewhat amazing in itself. Most scholarship on this subject has tended to give a disproportionate amount of space to these few dissenters. This can only be explained by the fact that many were later embarrassed by the Church's position at the time. Taken in context however, the position taken by the Catholic journalists of the country was moral, logical and prophetic. They held in the mid-thirties what the nation would embrace in the 1950's; ardent anti-communism unencumbered by excessive isolationism. But the nation was bigger than the confines of the Roman Catholic community. The Catholics, for taking such a universal and unpopular opinion, would have to face their Protestant and Jewish neighbors who were once again suspecting them of un-American ideas and activities.

National Division

Polls taken throughout the duration of the Spanish conflict are unequivocal. A majority of Roman Catholics supported the Franco uprising whereas the Protestant and Jewish communities were virtually unanimous in their support of the Popular Front government. Rarely in American history had there been such division along denominational lines. All the Catholic work done in the interest of becoming accepted as Americans, which seemed so possible in the 1930's, was crashing down by their determined opposition to the Protestant majority.39

The extent of this division was minimized for several reasons. The first was that there was near universal agreement on non-intervention. America in the midst of the isolationist thirties was in no mood for another European adventure. Another reason was that the religious aspect of the conflict was not made plain outside of the Catholic press, and neither the Pope nor the American Bishops had made any formal statement taking sides. This would not be possible forever, and the underlying currents were brought to a head when the Spanish episcopacy issued a pastoral letter addressed from their beleaguered Church to the whole world. This letter appeared in its entirety in the New York Times on September 3, 1937 under the incendiary title "Spanish Prelates Justify Rebellion."40 The war of words was on.

We need to look at the actual text of the letter in order to gain some sense of context. They began by decrying the presentation of the conflict in the secular papers of the world. Most correspondents, they asserted, had been openly sympathetic with the leftist regime, especially in English language journals. They also were at pains to thank Catholic periodicals for their spirited defense. They protested their preference for peace and disavowed any complicity in the fomenting of the rebellion. They took special care to detail the illegitimacy of the February 1936 elections, the actions of the Soviet Comintern, the arming of anarchist revolutionaries by the government and the ceaseless attacks on the Church. They defended the rebellion using the doctrines of St. Thomas, and claimed that violence was now the only way to return some semblance of order. In response to popular misconceptions, they framed the conflict in terms of resistance to "the Asiatic slavery of Bolshevism" by "Christian Civilization," thus clearly stating the religious purpose of the Civil War. They declared that the Nationalist movement was also a Christian one. They ended by disclaiming the fiction that the Church was rich. They protested that, like the rest of Spain, the Church was extremely poor and that almost all of the clergy was taken from the ranks of the peasantry. A letter such as this caused immediate outcry among the nation's Protestants.

One month later, 150 prominent Protestants of all denominations signed a letter against the Spanish Prelates. They were outraged that the Catholic Church would bless a rebellion against what they saw as a legitimate government. The Spanish Church confirmed what they had long thought about Catholicism in general: it is against popular democratic government, opposed to freedom of worship, and against the separation of Church and State (the tired old saws of American anti-Catholicism). In the letter one can discern that if there is not a positive contempt for Spanish culture, there is at least no effort to appreciate the nation. The Protestants did not miss the chance to take a swing at Catholics closer to home. Does this document, they asked, have the complete support of the Vatican and of the domestic Catholic Church? They tried to force American Catholics into a corner by attempting to get them either to support the document, wherein they believed anti-American ideology is displayed, or to abandon their Spanish co-religionists. Above all they rejected the assertion that this was a war against religion on one side and for religion on the other. In their minds, it was still merely a war between democracy and fascism.41

The American Catholics would waste no time in their reply. Only two days later a response from Msgr. Michael J. Ready, the general secretary of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, made a preliminary sally. He accused the Protestants of being victims of communist propaganda, and merely rehashing old arguments that had long since been refuted. He accused the authors of the letter of creating a "straw man" against which they hurled their invective, as their letter was not translated into Spanish and sent back to the Spanish Hierarchy (an action which would have been in poor taste in any case as the members of that body had already lost eleven of their episcopal brothers to leftist death squads). He answered their objections one by one, not using their own arguments but by citing examples drawn directly from the Pastoral Letter. He attempted to show that they had misrepresented the words of the bishops, and betrayed their ignorance in the process.42

Not to be outdone by 150 Protestants, 175 prominent Catholics wrote a joint response which was published in the New York Times on October 14, 1937.43 Most of the leading Catholic laymen and priests of the day affixed their signatures. Some of the signatories included Msgr. John Ryan, Father Talbot of America, Msgr. Fulton J. Sheen, Edmund Walsh of Georgetown, Carlton Hayes of Columbia, Alfred E. Smith the politician, Peter Guilday the historian, and Martin Carmody of the Knights of Columbus. The list reads like a Catholic Who's Who. 96 of these were clerics and 79 were laymen. This very balanced proportion showed that it was not only the leading intellectuals and journalists of the Church but also prominent laymen who were totally behind the Spanish bishops. Most of the list is made up of writers, professors and college presidents, with the leaders of the main Catholic lay bodies also being present. All-in-all it was an extremely effective and broad presentation of the unity of Roman Catholic opinion on the topic. There was no Protestant response this time; the American Catholics had answered the question of where they stood.

As to the content of the reply, the authors of the document considered the alternative proposed by the Protestants to be a false one. They refused both to be un-American or to abandon their brothers in Spain. They constantly emphasized the incursions which Soviet Russia had made in the Spanish Popular Front government. They made a comparison to the American revolution of 1776. They spoke in wholly Americanizing language. The salient paragraph of the letter reads

The citizens of Spain, therefore, were justified by the right of self defense in rising up against a malign power that was surely and inevitably destroying their country. Those who would deny them the exercise of this inalienable right would with equal logic have denied the American people in 1776 the exercise of their inalienable right to rebel in arms against a government which suppressed their liberties.

They went on to excoriate Protestants for supporting such a regime. The writers said it was not necessary for them to adhere to the nationalists, but it was incumbent upon them to denounce the Popular Front. The American Catholics implied that the rebels were fighting for the same principles as George Washington. In a brilliant move they employed the paradigmatic language of the American republic in such a manner as to preclude further indictment from the Protestants. The fact that the comparison between Washington and Franco was far from adequate did not really matter; they had made their statement. They were American Catholics standing for their brother coreligionists who were fighting the Red menace. Ironically their strong anti-communism in the face of the majority would help them to be portrayed as very good Americans during the period of anti-communist feeling which developed after the Second World War. All that was left was to publish the official response of the American bishops.

In a document that is the only official American Catholic response to the war in Spain, the United States bishops in November of 1937 published a letter to the Spanish hierarchy thanking them for their missive. Up to this point, Bishops of lesser dioceses had been much more vocal in their support for Franco, while those of larger sees were sometimes very reticent, perhaps for political reasons. This was especially true in the case of Cardinal Mundelein, a strong Roosevelt partisan. However, all of the hierarchy endorsed this important document in their convocation. The actual text of the reply is couched in very general terms, calm and neutral in tone. Perhaps this was to allay Protestant criticisms, but as will be shown the statement was anything but a generic letter. It first expressed sorrow over the many sufferings of the Church in Spain, especially from the religious persecutions. The bishops decried in general, unspecific language the misstatements of the media and the misrepresentation of Spain's contributions to Western Civilization. The bishops stated that atheism and irreligion were the enemies which should be immediately confronted. They allude to "Christian leaders who have allowed themselves to be sponsors of principles which, if given wide sway, would destroy the very last vestige of Western Civilization." They may have meant the 150 Protestants or George Schuster and Dorothy Day. The Bishops seemed excessively concerned with social justice, which was strange when the Spanish hierarchy spoke of daily massacres and unrestrained war. Once again the Bishops reaffirmed their belief that their democratic system was a "thing of sound reason and wholly consonant with Christian teachings." Some of the achievements of the Spanish Church in America were listed and the Bishops assured the Spaniards of their prayers.44 There was nothing that specifically confirmed the justice of the nationalist cause, nor anything which called for any type of American Catholic action.

When read in isolation the letter sounds like a vague statement of general support. I believe that this must be read in the context of the other two letters which were released by the Bishops that same day, November 18, 1938. These two documents are the keys that unlock the meaning of the Spanish Letter. In addition to addressing the Spanish Bishops, a statement of solidarity was sent to the German hierarchy then embroiled in an actual battle for the church in a fascist controlled state. They urged the German prelates to stand firm against Bolshevism (odd, considering their situation) and every other enemy of peace. In their indictment of the German regime every instance of the word "Germany" could have replaced with "Red Spain." There was also an instruction on Papal Encyclicals released at the same time. It declared even more unequivocally:

In the world-wide conflict of today between two diametrically opposed philosophies of life, the spiritual and the supernatural on one side, and the materialistic on the other, there is no place for indifference or neutrality. The forces of atheism and neopaganism with their offspring communism and despotism are attempting to rob life of all that is spiritual and supernatural. The fate of Western civilization which is rooted in Christian principles is bound up with the outcome of this struggle.

It then went on to speak of the overthrow of legitimate governments, where the overthrow of the monarchy and legitimate rule in Spain was described in detail but not called by name. This document has clear echoes of both Divini Redemptoris and Mit Brennender Sorge. It closed with a call to arms: "To remain indifferent to what is happening before our very eyes is not only blameworthy but criminal."

Neither of the specific letters calls the enemy by name. In the Spanish letter, communism is not named but "atheism and irreligion" are the targets. In the German letter it is not fascism, but Bolshevism which is decried. It is only the generalized letter about Papal encyclicals that makes any kind of demand for action. It is also important to note that the most recent encyclicals dealt with the condemnation of atheistic communism and Nazism. It is conceivable that the American Bishops had two objectives in mind in releasing all of these documents, with implied internal cross references, as a group. The first was to allay the suspicions of American Protestants, who would have recoiled at any unconditional approbation of the nationalist uprising. This was accomplished by making another declaration of adherence to democratic principles in the Spanish letter. The second purpose could have been to protect both the German clergy in Nazi-controlled territories and the Spanish church where it was still under the dominion of the leftist government in Spain. Nazi officials would wholeheartedly agree with the condemnation of Bolshevism, and the Popular Front would have been mollified by a lack of any unqualified ecclesiastical approbation of the military rebellion. But if one reads all three documents together, one can see the common thread that the American Bishops were trying to communicate. In the letter on Papal Encyclicals the enemies were "atheism and neo-paganism with their offspring communism and despotism." I cannot think of any clearer way to implicate every single anti-Catholic government up and down the continent of Europe. To those who had ears, the American Bishops would have had them hear.

Though the war would drag on for almost two more years, the official position of the American Catholic church was clear. The editorial line was maintained in the overwhelming majority of Catholic publications. The Church in the United States did not waver in its position against the leftist government in Spain. This position was finally confirmed by the blessing of Franco by the Pope and his recognition of the nationalist government in 1938. The American liberals realized too late that the Catholic-backed embargo was only harming the Popular Front. Another mass expression of Catholic political power enabled the embargo to be maintained until the end of the war. The Catholic Church had indeed come into its own in this struggle, and set itself up as a primary political, social, and cultural motive force in American society.

Ramifications of the Catholic Position

American Catholics had withstood the withering criticism of the Protestant majority and had the satisfaction of seeing the ultimate defeat of the forces of the leftist government in Spain in early 1939, and later would be comforted in the fact that Franco's government would not ally itself with the axis powers, as everyone had expected. What had they as a Church body in America gained from their stand? It could have had the effect of weakening their moral and social standing among their non-Catholic neighbors. It might have perpetuated the anti-Catholic bias in American culture that was just then beginning to thaw. Catholics could have been driven from political influence and thrown back into their figurative ghetto. In reality, none of these things happened. It was rather the opposite.

This conflict was extremely formative for the young American Church and would reflect its coming-of-age. Catholics of the period were confirmed in their unflinching anti-communism. It would make them be considered as a group among the most loyal of citizens when the frenzy against communism swept across America in the 1950s. This would lead to their installation in more and more political roles and increase their influence in American society. Anti-Catholicism would give way to anti-communism as the preferred prejudice of the 1950s. On the converse, the conflict also provided ammunition for such Catholic baiters as Paul Blanshard, who were convinced that the Church was secretly wholly committed to absolute monarchism and the union of Church and State in majority Catholic countries.

Socially there was a pause in the general trend of Americanization which had been taking place since the beginning of Catholic history in America. Catholic political power was evident in the great influence exerted by churchmen on the Roosevelt administration. This power would culminate with the election of a Catholic president within a generation. Confident in their large population and their newfound political clout, the community began to form a very public Catholic culture-within-a-culture that paralleled the old ethnic Catholicism in a post-immigrant church. This led to great growth and strength in the Catholic Church in America throughout the 1940's and 50's. The liberal wing of the Church also experienced a moment of notoriety during their writings on the war debate. Commonweal would go on to be one of the leading Catholic periodicals with a liberal outlook.

In the end the unpopular position of the Catholic Church in the war resulted in very few negative repercussions. Perhaps if World War II had not followed hard on the heels of the Spanish conflict there would have been more time for a backlash, but as it was the Church was prepared for war. Had Catholics remained in the camp of the old liberal isolationists one can only imagine what a shock the coming of the next war would have brought. As it was, the Church entered the forties and fifties as a unified group with a common identity ready to face the challenges of those decades. It is ironic that the terrible bloodletting of Spain helped to bring forth a strong and tightly knit American Catholic presence. Sometimes great good can come from the most unexpected of directions.

Votes in the Spanish elections of 1933

Right (Carlists, Catholic Action, Liberal Monarchists, Falange), 4,570,744 votes, 133 seats

Center 340,073 votes, 77 seats

Popular Front (Communists, Socialists, Catalan Separatists, Left Republicans), 4,346,559 votes, 263 seats


  1. For a good introduction to the history of Spain see, Joseph F. O'Callaghan, A History of Medieval Spain (Ithaca, NY Cornell Press, 1975) and for the Spanish Civil War specifically see Warren H. Carroll, The Last Crusade (Front Royal, VA: Christendom Press, 1996).
  2. Carroll, The Last Crusade, 20.
  3. Rodger Van Allen, The Commonweal and American Catholicism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974), 61
  4. The Sign had a circulation of near 100,000 during the Spanish Civil War.
  5. Francis X. Talbot, "Editorial," America, Jun 6, 1936.
  6. Owen B. McGuire, "Spanish Turmoil," The Sign, Sep 1936.
  7. Commonweal Editorial Board, `Aid to Spain," Commonweal, Jan 8, 1937.
  8. Richard P. Traina, American Diplomacy and the Spanish Civil War, Indiana University International Studies (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University, 1968).
  9. Talbot, "Editorial," America, Jun 6, 1936.
  10. Lawrence K. Patterson, S.J., "Right and Left Battle for Spain," America, August 8, 1936.
  11. Francis B. McCullach, "Long Live Spain," The Sign, Nov 1936.
  12. The toll inflicted on the Church by the Republican forces: 12 Bishops, 6,832 priests, 283 nuns. The Spanish Hierarchy estimated 20,000 out of 42,000 churches and chapels were destroyed. Carroll, The Last Crusade, 212.
  13. Harry Chapin Plummer, "Twin Despots of Spanish Democracy," America, Nov 28, 1936.
  14. Catholic Worker Editorial Board, "The Mystical Body and Spain," Catholic Worker, September 1936.
  15. McGuire, "Spanish Turmoil."
  16. Gil Robles, "Gil Robles," America, May 1, 8, 15, 1937.
  17. Allen Guttmann, The Wound in the Heart: America and the Spanish Civil War (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1962), 30.
  18. Franco indeed was pushed to this by the neutrality of the west and their unwillingness to provide military aid.
  19. Owen B. McGuire, "They Had to Revolt," The Sign, Jan 1937. Also Commonweal Editorial Board, "Help the Catholics of Spain!," Commonweal, Feb 5, 1937.
  20. In order to better see how pervasive the tradition was, even Belloc's friend G. K. Chesterton was somewhat tainted by it, see his poem Lepanto where he speaks of Philip II.
  21. McGuire, "They Had to Revolt."
  22. The NCWC was at the time under the administration of Edward Mooney, who became an archbishop during the course of the conflict. In order to see how Mooney, in his leadership position, supported Franco see, Leslie Woodcock Tender, Seasons of Grace, a History of the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990).
  23. John P. Delaney, S.J., "Call Not These Men Rebels," America, Aug 22, 1936
  24. Commonweal Editorial Board, "Help the Catholics of Spain!"
  25. Commonweal Editorial Board, "An Attack on Democracy," Commonweal, Mar 12, 1937.
  26. Patterson, "Right and Left Battle for Spain."
  27. Nena Belmonte, "General Franco Rescues New Spain," America, Oct 2, 1937.
  28. Indeed they would be opposed to American participation in World War II, even after Pearl Harbor. They also helped to organize a group of Catholic conscientious objectors.
  29. Catholic Worker Editorial Board, "The Use of Force," Catholic Worker, Nov 1936.
  30. Catholic Worker Editorial Board, "The Mystical Body and Spain," Catholic Worker, Sep 1936.
  31. Emmanuel Mounier, "Spanish Catholic Flays Both Sides!," Catholic Worker, Dec 1936
  32. George Schuster, "Some Reflections on Spain," Commonweal, Apr 2, 1937.
  33. Francis X. Talbot, "In Answer to "Some Reflections on the Spanish Situation," America, Apr 10, 1937.
  34. George Schuster, "Some Further Reflections on Spain," Commonweal, Apr 23, 1937
  35. Francis X. Talbot, "Further Reflections on the Spanish Situation," America, Apr 24, 1937
  36. Jaime Castiello, S.J., "The Alcazar Repeats Pamplona," America, Oct 10, 1936.
  37. Van Allen, 71.
  38. Foster Jay Taylor, The United States and the Spanish Civil War (New York: Bookman Associates, 1956), 154.
  39. Allen Guttmann, The Wound in the Heart: America and the Spanish Civil War (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1962), 46.
  40. Spanish Hierarchy, "Text of Pastoral Letter Signed by Spanish Prelates Justifying Franco Rebellion," New York Times, Sep 3, 1937.
  41. "Spanish Hierarchy Is Denounced Here," New York Times, Oct 4, 1937.
  42. "Catholic Reply Hits Letter of 150," New York Times, Oct 6, 1937.
  43. "175 Catholics Back Aid to Insurgents," New York Times, Oct 14, 1937.
  44. United States Catholic Bishops, Pastoral Letters of the United States Bishops, vol. 1 (Washington DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1984), 416-418

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