Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Political Science


John Mollenkopf

Subject Categories

Political Science | Public Policy


Archdiocese; Catholic; Ethnic Shifts; New York; Urban Crisis; White Ethnics


From 1850-1950, the New York Archdiocese welcomed newly arriving Irish and Italian Catholics and forged a political block that influenced local, state and national politics with political leverage sufficient to influence the city's commercial sectors. This mobilization transformed the once penniless and discriminated-against Irish, and later Italians, by enabling the Archdiocese of New York, through the power of the vote, to promote its religious interests as its adherents rose to positions of political and economic power. The Archdiocese of New York became the owner of vast real estate, a provider of social and educational services, and an arbiter of morality and power. In essence, the Archdiocese functioned not only as a religious entity but as a political institution, relying on a large population of parishioners as the foundation for its ability to affect local democratic governments.

As the latter half of the twentieth century approached, however, the descendants of those whom the Archdiocese had helped left the city for the suburbs. The deindustrialization of the New York economy coincided with growing preferences for the suburban lifestyle, which included single family homes with ample parking, consumer amenities, and good schools. Low cost VA / FHA mortgages, as well as the interstate highway system, encouraged this exodus. Although it is well-documented that, in the decades after World War II, large numbers of white, Catholic, blue-collar workers moved to the suburbs of New York City, research has typically focused on why they left and what impact this newly mobile population had on suburban demographics and culture. Missing from these accounts has been how the political vacuum left by diminished Catholic populations in New York City undermined the political influence of the Archdiocese.

In fact, New York City in 1950 was about to enter a period of great political flux. Aside from the flight of Irish and other white Catholics, the Archdiocese would have to contend with a number of radical alterations in the fabric of New York City that would challenge its power. These included: the mass immigration of Puerto Ricans; the end of the waterfront as both a job creator and ethnic enclave; the decline of manufacturing in New York City; the rise of the reform Democratic movement and the decline of Tammany Hall; the rise of public sector labor; and the new politics mobilizing women, minorities, and gays. These unforeseen social and political movements were highly significant agents of change in the American urban landscape and its institutions, including New York's Catholic Church.

Faced with all these factors, the Archdiocese of New York could have adopted a number of strategies to either replenish its numbers or find new instruments of political influence in city politics. Indeed, there were many nascent political institutions--public sector labor unions, groupings of new immigrant populations, and civic organizations--that evolved during this period. Evidence suggests that the Archdiocese was aware of the transformative environment around it. But its fall from political grace over the next 50 years is apparent, demonstrated in particular by the Archdiocese's inability to stop the passage of laws that eroded its moral authority, including measures that liberalized divorce and legalized abortion.

Given the Archdiocese of New York's prominence and influence for over a century, its failure to rebuild its power base when confronted with change, followed by its subsequent transition from an urban to a suburban powerhouse, raises questions this dissertation will seek to address. Why did the Archdiocese of New York not use its political power to save jobs, protect industries, and keep its flock from leaving? Were the failures caused by Irish domination and the inability of the Archdiocese's hierarchy to adjust to new ethnic realities? Were the factors confronting the Archdiocese simply too much for it to adjust to at that time? Why did this organization, perceived in the city to be powerful and perceived by its flock to be infallible, appear to falter? What in this organization led to its changed role as an urban political power player? In short, did the Archdiocese of New York foster the loss of its own political influence? This dissertation will show the extent to which the Archdiocese was organizationally rigid and impervious to signals in the environment, and how this rigidity was linked to domination by the Irish, who were disinclined to allow other ethnic groups to have leadership or decision-making roles.

This dissertation will describe the socioeconomic and political landscape of New York City in the mid-twentieth century, the problems facing the New York Archdiocese, and its reaction to the above issues. Further, this dissertation frames the Archdiocese's shifts in power as it transitioned from a classic urban powerhouse to a more suburban institution. The research illustrates these shifts over the last half century based on an understanding of the changing Catholic population; of a different definition of the "American Catholic"; of the still potent but more nuanced Catholic power in the financial, labor and political arenas; and finally, of a new understanding of the charismatic Catholic.

It is hypothesized that the Archdiocese functioned well in a static environment but was incapable of adjusting in times of flux because of its lack of flexibility in maneuvering to accommodate changing realities and its adherence to rigid policies. Citing the reservoirs of information noted above and focusing in particular on urban power research, this dissertation will show that the Archdiocese of New York's rigidity resulted in a decline in its political influence and power within the city. This decline precipitated the Archdiocese's changing focus from the city to the suburbs so that it could survive and begin to exercise power and political influence within its new suburban constituencies.