Theologian, educator, editor. Corcoran was born in Charleston on March 30, 1820, the fourth child of John Corcoran, a grocer, and his wife Jane O’Farrell. The Corcorans emigrated from Ireland in 1816 and settled in Charleston, where they operated a small grocery on King Street. John Corcoran died in 1819, and James was born five months later. Jane Corcoran continued to run the grocery and later operated a dry-goods store, raising James and his older brother John alone. She died in 1832, having made arrangements for the boys’ care.
Corcoran attended the boys’ Classical Academy founded in Charleston by John England, Charleston’s first Catholic bishop. England sent him to Rome in 1833 for seminary studies, and he excelled in history, theology, and ancient and modern languages and was noted for his elegant Latin. In 1842 he was ordained and received a doctorate of theology. Returning to Charleston in 1843, he did parish work at St. Mary’s Church and St. Finbar’s Cathedral, and taught at St. John the Baptist Seminary and the Catholic English and Classical School.
From 1850 to 1861 Corcoran served as editor of the United States Catholic Miscellany, the newspaper founded by Bishop England. In its pages he defended Catholicism against its critics. He vigorously defended states’ rights and castigated abolitionists, whom he thought were motivated by anti-Catholicism and the nativist Know-Nothing movement. For Corcoran, the right to secede was “an imperative necessity, for the South to put an end to the insults, menaces and aggression from which she had so long suffered.” He maintained that his church permitted slavery, that is, the retention in bondage of descendants of those originally enslaved. When South Carolina did secede, Corcoran renamed the paper the Catholic Miscellany, expunging “those two obnoxious words” “United States.” The paper was destroyed in the great Charleston fire of December 1861. From 1861 to 1868 Corcoran was pastor at Wilmington, North Carolina, and distinguished himself by his work to alleviate suffering of both Catholics and non-Catholics. He served as vicar general of the Diocese of Charleston. Loyal to the Confederacy to the end, he resisted taking the oath of allegiance to the United States.
Corcoran’s theological learning and elegant Latin style earned him a national reputation. In 1868 he was chosen by the American bishops as their representative in Rome to participate in preparatory work for the First Vatican Council. There he successfully opposed European proposals to condemn the American principles of freedom of worship and separation of church and state. While believing in papal infallibility, Corcoran thought it inopportune to proclaim it as Catholic dogma. During the Vatican Council he assisted Archbishop Martin John Spalding of Baltimore in preparing a compromise definition of papal authority, one less emphatic than what was ultimately proclaimed.
Returning to America after the Vatican Council, Corcoran became professor of theology, scripture, and Hebrew at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Overbrook, Pennsylvania. Under his leadership, its educational program emphasized modern scholarship and student access to a good library. In 1876 he founded the American Catholic Quarterly Review, a national journal of Catholic opinion on theology, history, political, and social topics. After a long bout with Bright’s disease, Corcoran died in Philadelphia on July 16, 1889. He was buried in the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, Philadelphia.
Corcoran, James A. Stock Misrepresentations of Catholic Doctrines. Cleveland, Ohio: Catholic Universe Press, 1902.
Hennesey, James J. “James A. Corcoran’s Mission to Rome, 1868–1869.” Catholic Historical Review 48 (July 1962): 157–81.
Lofton, Edward Dennis. “Reverend Doctor James A. Corcoran and the ‘United States Catholic Miscellany.’” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia 93 (1982): 77–101.
Lowman, Mary Marcian, Sister. “James Andrew Corcoran, Editor, Theologian, Scholar (1820–1889).” Ph.D. diss., St. Louis University, 1958.
McNally, Michael J. “James A. Corcoran and St. Charles Borromeo Seminary-Overbrook, 1871–1907.” American Catholic Studies 110 (spring–winter 1999): 49–69.