To further reinforce the Know–Nothings’ fears, the Catholic Church did have designs on the United States. Specifically, it wanted what every proselytizing religion wants of unbelievers: conversion. Conversion would naturally bring increased influence for Catholicism and the Catholic hierarchy, just as American Protestantism meant similar advantages for the Protestant clergy. Fairness demands we admit that the united Catholic hierarchy would probably use that power more effectively than diffuse and divided Protestantisms, but it seems unfair to blame Rome for divisions that the Protestants eagerly forged amongst themselves. Nativist fears received further stoking through the visit of the first Papal Nuncio to the United States, Gaetano Bedini.
For some time, the faithful disagreed as to who owned and controlled Catholic property. In Europe, no question existed. The Church, as a corporate entity, owned everything outright and often with extraordinary privileges beyond those of a normal landholder. On paper, the land belonged to the bishop and transferred with the office. In the United States, a corporate body also generally owned church property. That corporate body, however, took its governors from among the local faithful. Some Catholic Church property in America ran under European lines, with the bishop’s name on the deed. But American Catholics often didn’t care to join congregations dominated by Catholics of different ancestry. German Catholics, in particular, disliked the Irish and so often threw in together to buy a plot of land and build their own church. The local bishop, usually Irish, still assigned the priest. If these parishioner-owned parishes didn’t care for the appointment, they could refuse to pay said priest.
All of this sounds very arcane, but when the board of trustees and the bishop disagreed persistently those disputes landed in the courts. In March, 1854, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania overturned a lower court and awarded church property held by the trustees to the local bishop. When similar disputes erupted in upstate New York, the archbishop of New York had a bill put forward in the state legislature to assign all Catholic property to the bishops. That, of course, meant taking it from Americans to give it to agents of a corrupt, reactionary, despotic foreign power. If the state would seize land for Rome, where would it stop? The bill failed in 1852, but came back in 1853.
Into this fervor, which ran together with disputes over taxing Catholics to fund Protestant public schools while the Catholics had to pay for their own Catholic schools and the related dispute over whether Catholic children should participate in Protestant Bible readings if they went to the public schools, Pius IX sent his friend Gaetano Bedini. He would, Pius hoped, sort out the whole business over Church property and generally put American Catholicism’s house in order.
The Pope must have taken a lesson from the Franklin Pierce school of diplomatic appointments. Bedini, though his personal friend, came to America with a record as a dangerous reactionary. He served as military governor of Bologna and there put down a liberal revolution in 1849. He had never before operated in a nation with a Protestant majority. Bedini further lacked much in the way of the expected diplomatic tact. Though he arrived without incident, the Forty-Eighters knew how Bedini earned his bones and went to work agitating against the so-called “Butcher of Bologna”. They even had a priest from Bologna, who split with the Papacy over Italian unification, to tell Americans about the devil in their midst. Native-born Americans and immigrants alike soon met the Nuncio at each appearance, bringing violence in New York, Wheeling, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, and Richmond. In Cincinnati, matters escalated to a full-blown riot.
Bedini complicated matters by lingering, staying more than six months. He could not resolve the church property issue, but toured the country and generally hung around regardless. Even some Catholics thus suspected that he had secret orders from the Pope to do something aside from his official remit. Maybe Rome wanted him to work on Pierce until he consented to a permanent Catholic representative, at which point Bedini would take the job. Maybe he organized a secret Catholic political machine to dominate American politics. Maybe, given late tumult in Italy, he paved the way for the Pope’s relocation to the United States. Bedini did finally leave, incognito, in February 1854. By that point, his fellow churchmen feared for his life.
Bedini’s departure, to the sufficiently paranoid, meant only that this one mission failed. That he came at all proved that Rome had a subversive agenda for America. Godly Protestants had no choice but to put a stop to it. Fortunately, they had a new political party just for that. Just as the Slave Power seemed to have the free states under siege, so too did Rome seemed poised to invest American Protestantism.