In 1776, at the time of the Declaration of Independence, there were no more than twenty-five thousand Catholics in all of the thirteen colonies, mostly located in Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York — 1 percent of the two-and-a-half-million total population. There were only twenty-three priests in all, and the next highest authority was the vicar apostolic in London, who held jurisdiction over the British colonies and islands in America.
Roman Catholics, led by Christopher Columbus, had been active throughout the continent during the era of exploration, leaving the American colonies a legacy of Spanish missions and French Jesuits. Maryland had already contributed an important chapter in American history by establishing religious freedom under its Catholic proprietors in 1649. But outside of these areas the colonial history of the Church was mostly nonexistent. The civilization behind the future United States was overwhelmingly English and Protestant.
Nevertheless, the meeting of Catholicism and republicanism in the New World remains of great significance for both Church and nation and forms the first full chapter of the history of Catholicism in America. Suspicious Americans, who only knew the Roman Catholic Church through the eyes of corrupt European politics, learned that Catholics were not the enemies of free government. Catholics, placed in the midst of republican America, learned that free government was not the enemy of the faith.
The Pilgrims and the Puritans who had first settled in Massachusetts came from the dissenting wing of English Protestantism, which was strongly Calvinist and staunchly opposed to Roman Catholicism. As a result, many colonial charters and laws contained restrictions against Catholics. A 1647 Massachusetts statute declared that every priest was an “incendiary and disturber of the publick peace and safety, and an enemy to the true Christian religion, and shall be adjudged to suffer perpetual imprisonment.” Even Maryland repealed its Religious Toleration Act in 1654 and passed another stating that “none who profess to exercise the Popish religion, commonly known by the name of Roman Catholic religion, can be protected in this province.” At the start of the eighteenth century only two of the original thirteen colonies, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, allowed Roman Catholics any degree of religious and civil freedom.
The enlightened atmosphere in revolutionary America was hardly better. Sam Adams believed that “much more is to be dreaded from the growth of Popery in America than from the Stamp Act.” Harvard College sponsored a series of lectures devoted in part to “detecting, convicting and exposing the idolatry, errors and superstitions of the Romish church.” In New York, John Jay (later the first chief justice of the Supreme Court) argued that Catholics should be denied property and civil rights unless they denounced “the dangerous and damnable doctrine that the Pope, or any other earthly authority, hath power to absolve men from their sins.”
The political spark that ignited latent anti-Catholicism in America was the Quebec Act of 1774. The settlement of the French and Indian War in 1763 left Great Britain with the whole of Canada and everything west of the Mississippi River. The British, in the Quebec Act, retained French civil law in Canada, protected feudal land tenure, and mandated that the existing religion of the French Canadians — Roman Catholicism — was to be tolerated. The British-American colonists were outraged and considered the law to be one of the “Intolerable Acts” of the British Parliament. If the British had any regard for “the freedom and happiness of mankind they would not have done it,” wrote Alexander Hamilton. “If they had been friends to the Protestant cause they would not have done it…. They may as well establish Popery in New York and the other colonies as they did in Canada.”
The general assumption was that Roman Catholicism, by its very nature, is incompatible with republican government and that any toleration of it would, ipso facto, threaten its establishment. Consider two addresses issued by the Continental Congress in October 1774 in response to the Quebec Act. Congress wrote the Canadians, asking “What is offered to you by the late Parliament? …Liberty of conscience in your religion? No. God gave it to you; and the powers with which you have been and are connected, firmly stipulated for your enjoyment of it…. We are all too well acquainted with the liberality of sentiment distinguishing your nation, to imagine that difference of religion will prejudice you against a hearty amity with us.” Yet five days earlier they issued an “Address Written to the People of England” (penned by John Jay), which expressed “our astonishment that a British Parliament should ever consent to establish in that country [Canada] a religion that has deluged your island in blood, and disbursed impiety, bigotry, persecution, murder and rebellion through every part of the world.”
Besides, Roman Catholicism was thought to be a superstitious religion, best suited for the ignorant and unenlightened. John Adams’s vivid description of a vespers service he attended out of curiosity in 1774 was probably representative of non-Catholic opinion of the day:
This Afternoon’s Entertainment was to me most awfull and affecting; the poor Wretches fingering their beads, chanting Latin, not a Word of which they understood; their Pater Nosters and Ave Marias, their Holy Water, their crossing themselves perpetually; their bowing to the name of Jesus, whenever they hear it, their Bowings, Kneelings and genuflections before the Altar…. The Altar-Piece was very rich, little Images and Crucifixes about; Wax Candles all lighted up. But how shall I describe the Picture of our Savior in a Frame of Marble over the Altar, at full Length, upon the Cross in the Agonies, and the Blood dropping and streaming from his Wounds! The Music, consisting of an Organ and a Choir of Singers, went all Afternoon except Sermon Time, and the Assembly chanted most sweetly and exquisitely. Here is everything which can lay hold of the eye, ear and imagination — everything which can charm and bewitch the simple and the ignorant. I wonder how Luther ever broke the spell.
Thus, on the eve of the American Revolution, American Catholics seem to have had few reasons to support the move for independence. The brief period of religious freedom they had enjoyed in Maryland was under British rule; their loyalty to Rome had always been through London, not Philadelphia. The British had shown a willingness to tolerate their religion in Canada while many of the Americans thought Catholicism to be the enemy of free government. Yet over the course of the American Revolution a great transformation occurred that made Americans tolerant and respectful of Catholics and proved Catholics to be zealous patriots and loyal citizens.
The first reason for change was geographic. In seeking to defend their independence, the Americans had to deal with a number of Catholic communities along their borders — the remnants of the French and Spanish empires in North America. The Indian tribes of the Northwest were a peculiar problem, for a few of them had been converted by the French. “We want a Father or a French priest,” one tribe leader told the Massachusetts legislature. “Jesus we pray to, and we shall not hear any prayers that come from England. We shall have nothing to do with Old England, and all that we shall worship or obey will be Jesus Christ and General Washington.”
More important was Canada. The aid, or at least the neutrality, of Canada was essential to the success of the Revolution. At first, Congress hoped for French Canada’s active participation in the Revolution, and sent troops to “liberate” Quebec. That having failed, they sent their first diplomatic mission to Canada to negotiate, made up of Samuel Chase, Benjamin Franklin, and two prominent Catholics, Charles Carroll and Father John Carroll. Although without success, the mission marked an important turn-around in American opinion. Immediately upon taking command of American forces, Washington, who never had any sympathy for religious intolerance, issued strict orders against anti-Catholic shenanigans in the military and condemned “Pope Day” — an annual revelry that included burning the pope in effigy — as “ridiculous and childish.”
Strategy came into play as well. With independence declared, America immediately looked for a foreign ally. The result, of course, was a commercial and military alliance with Catholic France against Protestant England. The Loyalist papers had a field day. One warned that approaching French ships carried “tons of holy water, and casks of consecrated oil, reliques [sic], beads, crucifixes, rosaries, consecrated wafers, and Mass books, as well as bales of indulgences” — not to mention the machinery necessary for the inevitable American Inquisition. The patriotic leadership was more levelheaded. When the French fleet appeared at Newport, for instance, Rhode Island repealed its 1664 law that prevented Catholics from becoming citizens. With the additional entry into the war of Catholic Spain, Americans realized they should be not just tolerant but thankful for their new compatriots in arms. The victorious battle of Yorktown, in which eight thousand French troops and the French fleet played the decisive role, sealed the relationship. (The anti-Catholic French Revolution a decade later further transferred American Catholic loyalty from France to America.)
On a number of occasions the French and Spanish foreign ministers brought members of Congress and the American military to St. Mary’s Church in Philadelphia. (Benedict Arnold later complained that he had seen “your mean and prolifigate [sic] Congress at Mass for the soul of a Roman Catholic in purgatory, and participating in the rites of a Church against whose anti-Christian corruptions your pious ancestors would have witnessed with their blood.”) While some declined to attend the Mass, others went. One delegate was pleased “to find the minds of people so unfettered with the shackles of bigotry” and reported that the congregation’s “behavior in time of worship was very decent and solemn… there was not a smiling or disengaged countenance among them.”
Even more important were the many revolutionaries who were Roman Catholic. Unlike the British, who legally forbade Catholics from holding an officer’s commission, Washington’s officer corps was notably inclusive of Catholics. A number were foreigners who came to fight for the American effort, such as Marquis de Lafayette (a major general and Washington’s “adopted son”), Count Pulaski (commander of artillery) and General Thadeus Kosciusko (chief engineer). There were many native Americans as well, such as Colonel John Fitzgerald, Washington’s aide-de-camp; Captain Thomas FitzSimons, who later signed the federal Constitution on behalf of Pennslyvania; Brigadier General Stephen Moylan, quartermaster general and then commander of a cavalry regiment; and Captain John Barry of the U.S.S. Lexington, the first American to capture a British warship and considered the father of the U.S. Navy.
While there were some Catholic loyalists, and one loyalist Catholic regiment, the overwhelming majority of Catholic Americans (and virtually all of the prominent ones) sided with the patriots for independence. “Their blood flowed as freely (in proportion to their numbers) to cement the fabric of independence as that of any of their fellow-citizens,” wrote John Carroll. “They concurred with perhaps greater unanimity than any other body of men, in recommending and promoting that government, from whose influence America anticipates all the blessings of justice, peace, plenty, good order and civil and religious liberty.”
The Carroll family of Maryland was of particular importance. They were the Kennedy clan of their day — and not only patriotic but devout. Charles Carroll, the grandfather, came to Maryland from Ireland, served as Lord Baltimore’s attorney general and received several estates in return. His son, Charles Carroll of Annapolis, enlarged the inheritance, founded the Baltimore Iron Works, and quickly became one of the wealthiest men in the colonies. Daniel Carroll, one of his sons, served in the Maryland senate and the Continental Congress, signed both the Articles of Confederation and the federal Constitution and played a key role in framing the First Amendment. The two most prominent were son Charles Carroll of Carrollton and cousin John Carroll, respectively the most important Catholic statesman and Catholic churchman of the day.
Charles Carroll served on committees of correspondence and in the Continental Congress and was the first, the last surviving, and the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence. After the American Revolution, he was concurrently a state senator in Maryland and a United States senator. Respect for Charles Carroll was such that in 1792, when Washington was considering stepping down from the presidency, James McHenry of Maryland suggested and Alexander Hamilton agreed that Carroll would be run as a Federalist candidate for president of the United States. Washington, who trusted and admired Carroll, would have concurred. Had President Washington retired at that time, it is possible that the first Catholic president would have been Charles Carroll in 1792 rather than John F. Kennedy in 1960.
Like his cousin Charles, John Carroll was an ardent patriot. As a young priest he had studied at a Jesuit school in Maryland before attending Saint Omer in France and teaching at Liege. John Carroll returned to his homeland in 1774, just after Pope Clement IV disbanded the Jesuits and as America prepared for war with England. With both the Jesuit and British ties to authority in disorder, Carroll spent the war years as a parish priest laying the groundwork for the Catholic Church in the new nation. A close friend of Benjamin Franklin, he exerted considerable influence in France in favor of aid and support. He was first made prefect apostolic and, in 1789, became the first bishop of the United States. John Carroll was the founding father of the American Catholic Church.
The most significant change was the establishment of religious freedom. The ground of political obligation in the new nation was not sectarian theological claims or the divine right of monarchy but the consent of the governed, based on man’s natural freedom and equality. As a result, there would be no established national church and no religious requirements for national office. It was this, more than anything else, that wedded American Catholics to the patriotic cause. Consider the following (written by John Carroll) from a committee of Catholic clergy reporting to Rome in 1790:
In 1776, American Independence was declared, and a revolution effected, not only in political affairs, but also in those relating to Religion. For while the thirteen provinces of North America rejected the yoke of England, they proclaimed, at the same time, freedom of conscience, and the right of worshipping the Almighty, according to the spirit of the religion to which each one should belong. Before this great event, the Catholic faith had penetrated two provinces only, Maryland and Pennsylvania. In all the others the laws against Catholics were in force. Any priest coming from foreign parts, was subject to the penalty of death; all who professed the Catholic faith, were not merely excluded from offices of government, but hardly could be tolerated in a private capacity…. By the Declaration of Independence, every difficulty was removed: the Catholics were placed on a level with their fellow-Christians, and every political disqualification was done away.
The truly revolutionary aspect of American independence for Catholics, then, was not political separation from England but the birth of religious liberty. It was “this great event” that made them equal citizens. “When I signed the Declaration of Independence,” Charles Carroll explained years later,
I had in view not only our independence of England but the toleration of all sects, professing the Christian Religion, and communicating to them all great rights. Happily this wise and salutary measure has taken place for eradicating religious feuds and persecution, and become a useful lesson to all governments.
In America, the separation of church and state was necessary to assure to Catholics the civil and religious freedoms enjoyed by other citizens; without such separation, politics would continue to be swamped by sectarian strife and religious warfare.
The politically astute Charles Carroll wrote even more emphatically to a Protestant chaplain:
To obtain religious, as well as civil, liberty I entered zealously into the Revolution, and observing the Christian religion divided into many sects, I founded the hope that no one would be so predominant as to become the religion of the State. That hope was thus early entertained, because all of them joined in the same cause, with few exceptions of individuals. God grant that this religious liberty may be preserved in these States, to the end of time, and that all believing in the religion of Christ may practice the leading principle of charity, the basis of every virtue.
It is significant that both Carrolls saw the origin of religious freedom in America stemming from the Declaration of Independence, prior to the Constitution or the passage of the First Amendment. Granted, many state constitutions and laws continued to discriminate against Catholics throughout the nineteenth century, and religious intolerance is far from extinguished even today. Yet both Carrolls believed that a dedication to the unalienable and equal rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and by extension the freedom of conscience, meant the eventual extinction of religious establishment throughout America.
Of the two Carrolls, John Carroll presented the fuller understanding of America. Writing in a 1789 National Gazette article, he disputed the claim that America was an exclusively Protestant nation and that liberty flourished only where Protestantism prevailed: “The establishment of the American empire was not the work of this or that religion, but arose from a generous exertion of all her citizens to redress their wrongs, to assert their rights, and lay its foundations on the soundest principles of justice and equal liberty.” As long as men did not comprehend “the luminous principles on which the rights of conscience and liberty of religion depend,” he posited, they would continue to find theological reasons to exclude some religions from the free exercise of their equal rights. “I am anxious to guard against the impression intended by such insinuations; not merely for the sake of any one impression, but from an earnest regard to preserve inviolate for ever, in our new empire, the great principle of religious freedom.” Carroll believed that the American people, as a nation, must place the preservation of their liberties and the legitimacy of their government “on the attachment of mankind to their political happiness, to the security of their persons and their property which is independent of any religious doctrines and not restrained by any.”
At the same time, support for religious freedom did not mean the rejection or questioning of Church doctrine. A nonsectarian state did not mean a society without religion or with a religion that must itself become secular. Note John Carroll’s careful wording in a letter to Cardinal Borromeo in 1783:
This is a blessing and advantage, which is our duty to preserve & improve with the utmost prudence, by demeaning ourselves on all occasions as subjects zealously attached to our government & avoiding to give any jealousies on account of any dependence on foreign jurisdictions, more than that, which is essential to our Religion and acknowledgement of the Pope’s spiritual Supremacy over the whole Christian world. (emphasis added)
Carroll did have a number of prudent concerns about the Catholic Church in republican America: he argued that the Church in America should be headed by an American bishop recommended by the American clergy; he thought that American Catholics would best be served by American-born and American-trained priests; and he believed English-speaking Americans would never be converted as long as the Church insisted on “the Latin Tongue in the publick Liturgy.” But his support of republicanism in a nation of enormous religious diversity (and Church practices adapted to the circumstances of free government) did not mean the rejection of Church authority in matters spiritual and moral. “We must use extreme circumspection in order not to give pretexts to the enemies of Religion to deprive us of our actual rights,” Carroll wrote the Papal Nuncio in Paris.
It is very important that the prejudices entertained for so long against Catholics be eradicated. Above all, the opinion which several hold that our faith demands a subjection to His Holiness incompatible with the independence of a sovereign state, quite false as it is, cannot help giving us continual anxiety. To dissipate these prejudices it will take time, the protection of divine Providence, and the experience they will have of our devotion to the nation and to its sovereignty. The wisdom of the Holy See cannot fail to contribute to it. Your excellency could, and I dare in the name of the Catholics [in America] beg you to assure the Apostolic See that nowhere in the world has its children more attached to its doctrine or more filled with respect for all its decisions.
Indeed, John Carroll expected that religious freedom would be a great boon to the Catholic Church in the United States. The end of religion’s direct control over the state also meant that religion was free from state entanglement, and as a result, Catholics were free to publicly worship and openly evangelize. “An immense field is opend [sic] to the zeal of apostolical men,” Carroll noted in 1783. “Universal toleration throughout this immense country, and innumerable R. Cats. going & ready to go into the new regions bordering on the Mississippi, perhaps the finest in the world, & impatiently clamorous for clergymen to attend them.” A natural right to freedom of conscience would not lead to despair and the rejection of religion, but a growing and deepening commitment to the Faith. “I truly believe that such solid foundations of Religion can be laid in these American-States,” Carroll predicted to Cardinal Antonelli in 1785, “that the most flourishing portion of the Church, with great comfort to the Holy See, may one day be found here.” In this opinion he was joined enthusiastically by Father Charles Plowden, who gave the sermon at Carroll’s consecration as bishop on August 15, 1790:
Although this great event may appear to us to have been the work, the sport, of human passion, yet the earliest and most precious fruit of it has been the extension of the kingdom of Christ, the propagation of the Catholic religion, which hitherto fettered by restraining laws, is now enlarged from bondage and is left at liberty to exert the full energy of divine truth.
In late 1789 the American Catholic community — Bishop-elect John Carroll, representing the clergy, joined by Charles Carroll, Daniel Carroll, Dominick Lynch of New York, and Thomas FitzSimons of Philadelphia — wrote a congratulatory message to newly-elected President George Washington. The letter spoke of their great admiration and respect for Washington, and expressed complete confidence in America’s protection of their liberties:
This prospect of national prosperity is peculiarly pleasing to us, on another account; because, whilst our country preserves her freedom and independence, we shall have a well founded title to claim from her justice, the equal rights of citizenship, as the price of our blood spilt under your eyes, and of our common exertions for her defense, under your auspicious conduct — rights rendered more dear to us by remembrance of former hardships.
In March 1790 Washington responded in an open letter “To the Roman Catholics in the United States”:
The prospect of national prosperity now before us is truly animating, and ought to excite the exertions of all good men to establish and secure the happiness of their country, in the permanent duration of its freedom and independence. America, under the smiles of a Divine Providence, the protection of a good government, and the cultivation of manners, morals, and piety, cannot fail of attaining an uncommon degree of eminence, in literature, commerce, agriculture, improvements at home and respectability abroad.
As mankind become more liberal they will be more apt to allow that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community are equally entitled to the protection of civil government. I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations in examples of justice and liberality. And I presume that your fellow-citizens will not forget the patriotic part which you took in the accomplishment of their Revolution, and the establishment of their government; or the important assistance which they received from a nation in which the Roman Catholic faith is professed.
The old hymn, “Faith of Our Fathers,” inspires Catholics to be true — “in spite of dungeon, fire and sword” — to the spirit and wisdom of the Church fathers. John Carroll hoped that Catholics would not only be faithful but would always play a patriotic part in maintaining the piety of the nation and the principles of the American Revolution, and so be true to the faith of our American Fathers as well. In his eulogy of Washington on February 22, 1800 — the Sunday he had designated for sermons commemorating the first president — Bishop Carroll prayed that
these United States [may] flourish in pure and undefiled religion, in morality, peace, union, liberty and the enjoyment of their excellent constitution, as long as respect, honor, and veneration shall gather around the name of Washington; that is, whilst there still shall be any surviving record of human events.
Roman Catholics, especially through the leadership of Charles Carroll and John Carroll, made important contributions to the American Revolution and the subsequent founding of the new nation and continued to play a special role in the establishment and extension of civic and religious liberty to Catholics and all Americans. Of even greater significance, this early period of American Catholicism began a dialogue within and between the Church and the Catholic community in America over the status of religious freedom in the modern world — a dialogue that stretches all the way through the Americanist debate in the nineteenth century to the Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration on Religious Liberty” and the writings of Pope John Paul II in the twentieth century.
This article originally appeared in the May 1996 issue of Crisis Magazine.