Timothy Verhoeven, Transatlantic Anti-Catholicism. France and the United States in the Nineteenth Century, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2010.

Timothy Verhoeven, Transatlantic Anti-Catholicism. France and the United States in the Nineteenth Century, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2010. £49.99, ISBN 0230102875 (hardcover), pp. ix + 230.


Reviewed by: Gemma Betros, Harvard Divinity School, February 2013.

In 1848, the young American doctor Augustus Kinsley Gardner published a memoir of his student days in Paris. Sighing over the display of ‘genuine’ relics in Notre Dame, he wondered why the works of Michelet, ‘who loses no opportunity to have a hit at the absurdities of the Catholic religion’ were not ‘translated and published in the United States? I imagine them to be exactly the works to sell.’[1] As Gardner suggests, there was a ready market across the Atlantic for publications that exposed the aberrations and abuses of the Catholic Church. Timothy Verhoeven’s study shows this market to be part of an ‘anti-Catholic’ network that, profiting from new paths of communication, was as transnational as the Church itself.


Transatlantic Anti-Catholicism examines hostility towards the Catholic Church between 1840 and 1870. It focuses on the United States and France, two nations whose belief in their own exceptionalism did not prevent dialogue—and frequently, agreement—on the dangers of Catholicism. One of the challenges of this type of histoire croisée is differences of scale: Verhoeven admits that few American anti-Catholic publications reached France (37). Yet the author shows how in each state, those keen to protect national values and institutions from the Church’s influence looked to the other to support their case. France, with its majority Catholic population, provided examples of the problems the Church could cause in society, while the prosperity and liberalism of the United States—attributed to its Protestant foundations—and its separation of church and state, became ‘a vital source of inspiration for French opponents of the Catholic Church.’ (38)

The narrative opens and closes with Père Hyacinthe, a French monk who left his monastery, attacked the Church’s failure to move with the times, and consequently attracted much attention when he visited the US in 1869. Chapter One sketches the varied paths and themes of transatlantic criticism of the Church, examined in more depth through four case studies. Two of these address high-profile scandals in which the Church was implicated: the Mortara Affair, concerning the kidnapping by papal authorities of a secretly baptised Jewish boy in Bologna in 1858, and the case of Barbara Ubryk, a Carmelite nun found captive in her convent in Cracow in 1869.  Two other case studies investigate medical views on celibacy, and the portrayal of the already shady figure of ‘the Jesuit’ as ‘androgyne’, possessing both masculine and feminine characteristics. The author considers throughout how concerns about gender, race, slavery, and class further shaped anti-Catholic debate.

Verhoeven’s main contribution is to explore the traffic in anti-Catholicism across the Atlantic. Here he builds on Christopher Clark and Wolfram Kaiser’s landmark 2003 study, in which Kaiser identified the transnational dimension of anticlericalism in nineteenth-century Europe.[2] Yet by focusing on France and the US, Verhoeven restricts our understanding of the scope of this transatlantic phenomenon. As Rene Kollar has shown for instance, the Ubryk case, coming just months after Britain’s Great Convent Case of 1869, caused outrage in Britain too.[3] More significantly, the author acknowledges that Americans mined the works of Protestants in Britain and Germany for material, and that Britain often published bestselling American anticlerical works (9 and 37). Transatlantic anti-Catholicism was not a two-way street, and expanding the analysis could have offered a more accurate sense of its operation.

The author’s second contribution is to trace the role of gender in this discourse, arguing that Catholicism ‘was understood to threaten the prevailing ideals of femininity, masculinity, and family life’ (14). This is particularly apparent in the frequent attacks on convents that were made in the nineteenth century, explored recently in Caroline Ford’s Divided houses: religion and gender in modern France and Emily Clark’s study of the French Ursulines of New Orleans, and addressed again here.[4] As Verhoeven reveals however, this fear can also be detected in debate over the Mortara Affair, the perceived sexual ambiguity of ‘the Jesuit’, and especially, celibacy, seen as a danger to individuals, society, and the state.

Given the study’s focus, there is surprisingly little on the episodes most often associated with American and French anti-Catholicism. Further investigation of the 1834 burning of the Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts, the Maria Monk scandal, the 1844 Philadelphia riots, or the Bluth affair—labelled ‘France’s Mortara affair’ by Ford[5]—could have uncovered the local developments that inspired wider opposition while strengthening our understanding of the contexts from which anti-Catholicism emerged. The Falloux Laws (1850-51), which extended the Church’s role in French schooling, perhaps also deserved more attention in light of the considerable anxiety in both countries about Catholic influence upon education.

The study is further limited by the author’s decision to focus solely on representations. This is not in itself problematic, although for a book that aims ‘to assess the manner in which historical events were understood and presented’ (16) there are a few too many examples from novels. Yet the purpose and impact of representations—usually the work of a select group of men and women—can be difficult to gauge unless linked to their creation and reception, something not consistently achieved here. The publications that circulated in Paris and New York did not, after all, represent the views of all French and American citizens. Without this type of analysis, it is still possible to see what is new, but difficult to assess what changes.

This is made more challenging by the author’s decision not to examine the responses of the Church which, as he acknowledges, was hardly a passive victim (29). As Vincent Viaene has shown, the nineteenth-century Catholic revival was international in scope and the Church worked hard to create a transnational public sphere.[6] One view of transnational history suggests that ‘prominent transnational networks thrive because rival ones weaken – or succumb – because of the activities of their competitors.’[7] Without an assessment of the Church’s own networks—especially the Catholic press, which Christopher Clark suggests was adept at building a transnational sense of solidarity[8]—we have only half the story.

For, as the concluding chapter shows, the Church did not succumb, despite the battle over papal infallibility at the Vatican Council of 1869-70. Opposition to the Church was not always as clear-cut as the idea of ‘two Frances’ or the US Protestant-Catholic divide might suggest. This needed further analysis: the author never unpacks exactly what he means by anti-Catholicism (anticlericalism? anti-Ultramontanism? secularism?), nor sets out its diverse proponents, including liberals, freemasons, republicans, free-thinkers, and more.

A few other points should be noted: celibacy is not a ‘rite’ (4 and 75) and Diderot’s Suzanne did not become a prostitute after leaving the convent (143-44). A study of representations should have included discussion of caricatures, widely available in this period and critical to understanding its anticlericalism. The book at times lacks a broader chronological awareness, especially concerning the Enlightenment and revolutionary legacy of anti-clericalism. More could also have been made of the impact of immigration upon American anti-Catholicism and the politics that fuelled French anticlericalism.

The separation of church and state was one of the ‘condemned propositions’ of the 1864 ‘Syllabus of Errors’. It was this line of separation—difficult to draw and difficult to police, even today—that motivated and shaped the anti-Catholicism of the period. Verhoeven concludes by suggesting that the transnational anti-Catholicism of the mid-nineteenth century provided ammunition for French and American opponents of the Catholic Church throughout subsequent decades (174). The significance of this phenomenon, dealing with an international and centralising religious institution seen to threaten the new boundaries of an age of liberalism and nationalism, is however more complex than this.

[1] Augustus Kinsley Gardner, M.D., Old wine in new bottles: or, spare hours of a student in Paris (New York: C.S. Francis & Co and Boston, J.H. Francis, 1848), pp. 93-94.

[2] Christopher Clark and Wolfram Kaiser (eds), Culture wars. Secular-Catholic conflict in nineteenth-century Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[3] Rene Kollar, ‘The myth and the reality of Sister Barbara Ubryk, the imprisoned nun of Cracow: English interpretations of a Victorian religious controversy’, in Sheridan Gilley (ed.), Victorian churches and churchmen: essays presented to Vincent Alan McClelland (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2005), pp. 139-62, reprinted in Rene Kollar, A foreign and wicked institution? The campaign against convents in Victorian England (Eugene, Or.: Pickwick Publications, 2011), pp. 57-85.

[4] Caroline Ford, Divided houses: religion and gender in modern France (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2005) and Emily Clark, Masterless mistresses: the New Orleans Ursulines and the development of a new world society, 1727-1834 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007).

[5] Ford, Divided houses, p. 131.

[6] Vincent Viaene, ‘International history, religious history, Catholic history: perspectives for cross-fertilization (1830-1914)’, European History Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 4 (2008), pp. 596-600.

[7] Simone Turchetti, Néstor Herran and Soraya Boudia, ‘Introduction: have we ever been “transnational”? Towards a history of science across and beyond borders’, British Journal for the History of Science, vol. 45, no. 3 (2012), p. 331.

[8] Christopher Clark, ‘The new Catholicism’, in Clark and Kaiser, Culture Wars, p. 35.