American imperialism and the Roman Catholic Church: A conversation with Jethro A. E. A. Calacday

Author: Philip Byers

Calacday Portraitcropped
Jethro A. E. A. Calacday

Jethro A. E. A. Calacday is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Cambridge. In 2022, he won a Peter R. D’Agostino Research Travel Grant from the Cushwa Center for his project, “A Catholic Empire? American Imperialism and the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines, 1898–1941.” He recently discussed his research with Philip Byers. 

Philip Byers: Your proposal described “a crucial collaboration between Rome and Washington” in the early 20th-century Philippines. In what ways have previous scholars misunderstood the Church’s presence in the Philippines, and what role did the Church play in U.S. imperial rule?

Jethro A. E. A. Calacday: Before I begin, allow me to express my deepest gratitude to the Cushwa Center for the generous grant that enabled me to research in Roman archives from September to December 2022. Many thanks as well for providing me now with this opportunity and privilege to share my work to a wider audience. 

I deliberately coined that phrase, “crucial collaboration between Rome and Washington,” to raise the eyebrows of Americanists and Philippinists who have long assumed that the advent of American colonial rule in the Philippines in 1898 signaled the reduction of the Roman Catholic Church’s power and influence in Philippine society. Church and state were united under the Spanish empire to which the islands were subjected until 1898, but the accession of the United States disentangled that union (with the institution of the principles of religious freedom and the separation of church and state) and thus presumably diminished the Church’s significance beyond the realm of the religious. This assumption relates as well to the accepted wisdom among American diplomatic historians that after 1867 when the U.S. federal government recalled its legate to the Holy See—compounded of course by the pervasive anti-Catholicism of 19th-century America—no significant diplomatic relation existed between the United States and the Vatican, the latter being both a religious body and a political organization with international diplomatic standing, very much unlike Protestant churches.

My dissertation argues against these assumptions because I have been constantly seeing in my research that the Roman Catholic Church played a central and significant role in the transition of the Philippine archipelago from Spain to America. There is strong evidential support for this argument in the archives of the Vatican (the Vatican Apostolic Archives and the Archives of the Secretariat of State), but also in the National Archives of the United States where, if one were to cursorily run through the catalog of RG 350 (Bureau of Insular Affairs), those holdings relating to religion or religious issues pertain mostly to the Roman Catholic Church. 

Rafael Merry del Val image
Rafael Merry del Val, pictured in 1897. Public domain.

With a lucrative agricultural export economy and a heritage of European intellectual culture, the Philippines was already Catholic for over three centuries at the time of the American invasion. The issues faced by American colonial officials concerning property rights, sovereignty, legal personality, and social pacification were not deliberately “religious” in nature but were often attended to or intertwined with the Roman Catholic Church. Vatican bureaucrats like Cardinal Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro, then secretary of state, and his successor Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val negotiated agreements with Secretary of War Elihu Root and William H. Taft, the first civilian governor of the Philippines.  

The Vatican’s explicit policy towards the United States was cooperation; beleaguered in the continent by anti-Catholic intellectual and political currents, the Vatican saw in the up-and-coming imperial power a possible ally in securing Catholic interests not only in the Philippines but also in the international community. Taft and Root in turn saw in the Church a partner in the promotion of social stability and pacification in an archipelago that had constituted itself as a republic in 1898, but was at that point recently subdued by the guns and cannons of America in the gruesome Philippine-American War (1899–1902).

PB: In your proposal, you mentioned the need for scholars to attend not just to “high politics and diplomacy” but to “the lived experience of the Philippine Church.” Elaborate on that for us—how does lived experience shape the story you tell? 

JC: Bureaucratic documents, whether they be in the Vatican or any state archive, tend to focus more on the activities of high-ranking officials at the expense of those from below. The rise of social history and subaltern history was a response to this skewed view of the past. In American Catholic studies we have the pathbreaking example of Robert Orsi’s The Madonna of 115th Street (1985); in Philippine historiography it was Reynaldo Ileto’s Pasyon and Revolution (1979). 

My dissertation is not an exclusive history of the subaltern, nor is it solely a history of bureaucratic activity. I want something that is much more holistic so that I could understand how the Church, as a hierarchic institution with international diplomatic standing, created and executed its policies towards the emerging American empire and the Philippine Catholic Church. At the same time, I want to know the effects of these policies: how did people respond to the American colonial state and the intervention of the Vatican? Much of church history written in the old paradigm tends to focus on the Curia, the clergy, and religious congregations at the expense of perhaps 90 percent of what constitutes the Church: the laity. Social histories (and “mainstream” history) for their part have not been patient in appreciating the intricacies of ecclesiastical thinking and procedure, sometimes ignoring altogether the importance of Rome in the life of the laity. 

Much of church history written in the old paradigm tends to focus on the Curia, the clergy, and religious congregations at the expense of perhaps 90 percent of what constitutes the Church: the laity. Social histories (and “mainstream” history) for their part have not been patient in appreciating the intricacies of ecclesiastical thinking and procedure, sometimes ignoring altogether the importance of Rome in the life of the laity.

When I say “lived experience of the Philippine Church” I am not referring to popular devotion, which has been studied by anthropologists and sociologists since the 1950s. What I want to offer is the story of lay participation in the life of the Church beyond liturgics. Following historical anthropologist Deirdre de la Cruz, I want to show that popular Filipino Catholicism did not always yield “folk” varieties and that it even aligned itself with the designs of the hierarchy. The salient example of this in my dissertation would be the forgotten history of the Centros Católicos established in the parishes of the Philippines in the 1900s. These centers, avowedly led by laypersons and patterned after the German Centre Party, had the express intention of promoting the interests of the Church under the new dispensation. This organization eventually morphed into Catholic Action in the 1920s and 1930s during the pontificate of Pius XI. Inspired by Christian democracy, the Centros participated in public life through their lobbies in municipal councils, the national legislature, and in popular elections. Their most significant work, however, was the promotion of what they termed as la buena prensa (“the good press”) which responded to anti-Catholic literature then abroad in the Philippines. The buena prensa movement addressed the introduction of American culture in (Hispanicized) Philippine society, the separation of Church and state, and religious freedom.

PB: You dispute a “secularization narrative in Philippine historiography” that ignores the Church’s present political and economic power. Why have other scholars gotten this secularization narrative wrong, and how did the colonial period lay a basis for the Church’s continued societal influence?

JC: Philippine history, according to Filipino and American pundits, is “three hundred years in a Spanish convent and fifty years in Hollywood.” However, this supposedly catchy “summary” of the differences in colonial legacy is but a slogan of the secularization narrative in Philippine historiography. Spain supposedly stood for the Old World with its concern for Catholicism, while America stood for modern governmental procedure without the “unenlightened” interference of religion. 

Certainly life wasn’t as it used to be under the Spanish: separation of Church and state was introduced by the Americans and religious freedom was instituted as a sine qua non. But I contend that the Church was not completely “absent” in civil affairs and that it continued to participate in and even shape them. I have previously mentioned the Centros Católicos, allow me now to provide further examples here. Seeing the intransigence of Catholic bishops and priests on the issue of (secular) public education, civil governor James F. Smith concocted a project, with the participation of American prelates like Archbishop John Ireland and Cardinal James Gibbons, to recruit Catholic public school teachers from America for service in the Philippines. The colonial government further conceded the teaching of religion (catechesis) in the public schools three times a week at half an hour per session, a privilege that was only rescinded in 1938 not by American officials but by the Filipino president of the Philippine Commonwealth. 

Much more illustrative would be the covert and deliberate intervention of American officials into the nomination and appointment of bishops in the Philippines, especially in the first decade of the 1900s. While Church historians have fought for the supposed “independence” of the Curia in making these appointments, sources from the Vatican archives hardly support this assertion. For example, in the nomination of the new archbishop of Manila, the Congregation for the Extraordinary Affairs of the Church (Sacra Congregazione degli Affari Ecclesiastici Straordinari [SCAAEESS]) deliberately opted for an American appointee; more specifically, it chose from a list of candidates (terna), some of whom were handpicked by William H. Taft.  

In The Garden Of The Pope Image
“In the Garden of the Pope,” a mosaic sent to President Theodore Roosevelt by Pope Leo XIII in 1902, during Civil Governor William Howard Taft’s visit to Rome to negotiate the purchase of Church lands in the Philippines. Original now held by Sagamore Hill National Historic Site, New York. Public domain.

Even after his election as president in 1909, Taft continued his intervention in ecclesiastical appointments, the most important of which was his obstruction of the Vatican’s appointment of Giuseppe Petrelli as apostolic delegate to the Philippines in 1911, on the grounds that Petrelli was persona non grata to him. The Philippine Church continued on without a Vatican representative until 1915 when, at the end of Taft’s presidency, Petrelli finally and officially assumed office as apostolic delegate. Writing to a colleague in 1903 while still civil governor in the Philippines, Taft jested with an air of false modesty but a very keen awareness of what he was doing: “It may be that I am a Churchman, for I have had so much to do with Episcopal and Catholic bishops, and bishops of the Independent Filipino Church, that I feel like a bishop myself; but I am afraid that, if the facts were looked into, I could hardly pass the examination necessary for that exalted place.” 

As I see it, such incidents were not adventitious and random. Rather than viewing secularism as the separation of the religious from the non-religious, of church and state, it would be beneficial to follow recent scholars of secular studies in thinking of secularism as the state’s mechanism in designating the boundaries of “what constitutes as religion” and therefore meriting the protection of the state. In this way, we consider the presence of religion not necessarily as a lingering cultural artifact but as a constant concern of governmentality. In other words, the Church is a concern of the state. 

Catholicism in the United States especially in the early 20th century had very much to do with the Catholic Philippines, as has been attested by some early works (e.g., by Frank T. Reuter, John T. Farrell, and David J. Álvarez). The full extent of such entanglement, however, is yet to be examined, though recent works in cultural history (e.g., by Katherine D. Moran, Tisa Wenger, and John T. McGreevy) have brought the question of Catholicism and the American empire to light yet again. Consider, for example, that Taft’s meteoric rise in American politics began with his stint as governor in the Philippines. In parallel, Dennis Dougherty started as a neophyte bishop in Nueva Segovia (northern Philippines), then as bishop of Jaro (central Philippines) before he returned to the United States as bishop of Buffalo, eventually becoming Cardinal Archbishop of Philadelphia.

I am convinced that what sustained the relationship between the United States and the Vatican through the first half of the 20th century was colonialism in the Philippines. This, even before the attempt of Franklin Roosevelt at formal diplomatic relations with Pius XII in 1939, and the collaboration of John Paul II and Ronald Reagan during the Cold War, which eventually led to the establishment of the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington in 1984.

PB: Before you began your doctoral work, you completed a master’s degree in religion. How has your cross-disciplinary training influenced your approach to this research? 

JC: I was trained in the Philippines as a historian under the mentorship of historical sociologist Filomeno Aguilar Jr., one of the leading scholars of Southeast Asian studies. I then proceeded to Yale Divinity School where I studied with Tisa Wenger and Erika Helgen who brought me into conversation with American religious history and Latin American Christianity. My exposure to different disciplines and geographical areas gave me the intellectual tools for more productive ways of studying the past, and convinced me that it is no longer possible to study the past with the delimitations of area and disciplinary boundaries. Historical sociology inculcated in me empirical precision, while the theoretical approach of religious studies liberated me to think beyond the obvious. To provide examples: a certain section of the dissertation will use statistical data derived from sacramental books (both Catholic and non-Catholic), while another section will involve the close reading of a Vatican document (in Latin, of course) with an analysis of its redaction.

PB: The grant you won subsidizes travel to Rome and is named after the late Peter R. D’Agostino, renowned advocate for the importance of transnational research in Catholic studies. What can you tell us about the part Roman archives have played in your scholarship? 

JC: I found an ally in Peter R. D’Agostino after reading his Rome in America (2004) because I agree with his proposal that Catholic studies is transnational. Researching in the archives of the Vatican gives one a rare and privileged view of things from the perspective of Rome. Perched from the dome of St. Peter’s, the Curia saw the world not merely in terms of individual countries, but it saw the world in its entirety. As I have reiterated in many conversations, Catholicism is always already transnational because the very word itself means universality and connotes capacity and possibility. For example, the SCAAEESS would, in one session, deliberate and decide about issues in the Philippines and Cuba, while at the same time deal with the Questione romana in Italy, secular government of France, and Kulturkampf in Germany. 

As I have reiterated in many conversations, Catholicism is always already transnational because the very word itself means universality and connotes capacity and possibility.

While in Rome I saturated myself with sources in the Vatican Apostolic Archives, the Archives of the Secretariat of State, the Propaganda Fide Archives, and the Roman Archive of the Society of Jesus. It is true that archival policies in the Vatican tend to be inefficient (e.g., the prohibition of photographing documents or limiting the number of archival units to be taken out per session) but these made me prioritize which documents to spend time on and taught me to be wise in the choice of documents to order each day. The temptation for budding historians like myself, especially in the era of the smartphone, is accumulation. One merely takes pictures of documents with the purpose of processing the materials later. But the slow, excruciating process in the Vatican archives forces new historians to be judicious, intentional, and deliberate: festina lente, make haste slowly. 

In addition to the fact that sources from the very center of Catholic power are necessary in any study of the Church, the systematic arrangement of documents in the Vatican archives facilitated the rethinking and restructuring of the questions I posed in my dissertation proposal. Much has changed in the way that I have initially thought about the dissertation, mostly for the better. There is indeed no shortcut in historical research: one needs to go to the archives and find out.

An additional note in that regard: much talk and discussion in the academy has been spent on moving beyond the confines of the nation-state as the unit of analysis to a much more “global” perspective in historical studies. That is laudable, but as I learned from my excursus in Rome, global history necessitates knowledge of multiple languages. In my case, one must have a working knowledge of Latin, Spanish, Italian, and French to do research in the Vatican. My only regret is that I do not have the time yet to study German and Dutch to access the archival materials of the Society of the Divine Word, the Scheut Fathers, the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, the Missionary Benedictine Sisters of Tutzing, and the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart —congregations that commenced work in the Philippines in the 1900s. But one must not stop there: to know what was really happening on the ground, researchers must be ready to learn multiple Philippine languages—Tagalog, Ilokano, Bikolano, Hiligaynon, and Cebuano—to access the wealth of materials produced locally such as newspapers, pamphlets, and ephemera which are now difficult to come by. I cannot claim complete mastery of the languages I mentioned above, but I could certainly comprehend them by reading and am ready to learn new languages if the necessity arises. To be able to view the world as the Vatican did, one must have the multilingual skills of a Curial Cardinal.

It has been a longstanding realization that studying the Philippines is a hard sell in the market-oriented context of academia especially in America. Very few care about it despite the fact that the Philippines was America’s largest overseas colony and that its annexation in 1898 was America’s debut as a world power. I guess, following one famous scholar, the United States continues its project of “hiding” an empire even in its practice of scholarship. Expressing his exasperation, Benedict Anderson, the great scholar of nationalism and a Philippinist in his later life, noted in an interview that the cause of scholarly indifference towards the Philippines is the perception that it is not “exotic” enough for many Western scholars to build a career on: too Christian and too Western.

I am undeterred, however, because I am convinced that studying the Philippines is not only a supplement to a lack of knowledge, but that it provides a needed intervention in the global academic conversation. For Americanists, it is imperative to realize that in order to fully understand the United States, a study of its imperial history is necessary. The example of Alfred McCoy in Policing America’s Empire (2009) and Patricio Abinales in Making Mindanao (2020, new ed.) are here extremely illustrative. Scholars of American Catholic history meanwhile have yet to appreciate the other side of the Pacific as instructive to the history of the mainland. If D’Agostino managed to turn our heads Romewards, it would not be impossible to start looking to the Pacific again.

PB: Where does your research stand at the moment, and when might we expect to see something in print? 

JC: I recently concluded the second third of my year-long archival research trip (four months in different provinces of the Philippines), and I am now moving to the United States for the next five months to continue my data gathering in various archives across the country. I am hoping to produce something within this year and the next as soon as I return to Cambridge to write up.

Philip Byers is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Notre Dame’s Cushwa Center.