Fortnight for Freedom: U.S. Catholics and Religious Liberty

Several months ago, I came across a two-volume history of the Church in the United States that I’d never read before: Theodore Maynard’s The Story of American Catholicism, first published in 1941. Maynard was not a professional historian and his telling of the American Catholic story has a bit more of the apologetic edginess of early 20th century Catholicism than a 21st century audience might find congenial. Yet Dr. Maynard manifestly did his homework in the pioneering tomes of such giants of U.S. Catholic history as John Gilmary Shea and Peter Guilday; his judgments are usually judicious, even if his ecumenical sensibility is not overly developed; and every once in a while he comes up with an insight that is truly refreshing–and very neatly put.

Take, for example, the following passage–a bit baroque rhetorically, but nonetheless worth pondering:

“…[It] is very curious that men who admit no dogmatic bias in their own lives or their concept of the universe should so often retain a sentimental attachment to the legend that, because certain dissenting Protestant groups sought, among other things, their own liberty of conscience, they were the architects of American religious liberty. There is no special need to complain that, when in a position to enforce their will, they refused liberty to those with whom they happened to disagree–and particularly to Catholics.  …Instead, it may be gratefully acknowledged that their stern adhesion to their personal convictions contributed in the end greatly to bring about an extension of religious liberty to all.  …[Yet] such Catholic groups as came to the American colonies never thought of religious liberty as something that should be exclusively enjoyed by themselves. In this respect, the Catholic settlers of Maryland were Americans from the beginning, whereas the Puritans became Americans only by slow degrees.”

As Theodore Maynard readily admits, the legal construction of American religious freedom during the Founding was the work of many hands, most of which were Protestant and Deist hands. Yet it is also true that, from 1634 and the beginning of the proprietary colony of Maryland, Catholics were committed to a broad notion of religious freedom: a true “first liberty,” not just “liberty for us.” That was, of course, a matter of both conviction and pragmatic necessity, given the Catholics’ small numbers. But the convictions should not be forgotten. Because of their own theological tradition, Maryland Catholics (and their brethren in Pennsylvania) could have embraced something resembling the First Amendment in the days when New England Puritans were teaching their children to sing, “Abhor that arrant Whore of Rome/and all her blasphemies/And drink not of her cursed cup/Obey not her decrees.”

As the Catholic Church in the United States begins a Fortnight for Freedom to strengthen Catholics’ resolve to defend religious freedom for all, it’s good to remember that, from the Founding, the Catholic embrace of the First Amendment’s guarantee of the “free exercise of religion” has been unhesitating–and it has been principled. Maynard again, in High Baroque form:

“…[The] Church …has always maintained that, whatever may be the accidental inequality of gift and station between man and man, they are all essentially equal in the sight of God. It is only upon such a doctrine that democracy can repose. It is only democratic institutions that put that doctrine into visible practice. For despite the Declaration of Independence, with its’ ‘self-evident’ truth that all men are created equal, the thing is not self-evident at all. On the contrary, it seems to be at variance with self-evident facts. It is really a mystical dogma, and the one institution we can be perfectly certain will never renounce that dogma is the Catholic Church.”

But perhaps “mystic” is not-quite-right. There is a chain of ideas here, and it can be traced. From Thomas Aquinas to Robert Bellarmine to the Anglican divine Richard Hooker; then from Hooker to John Locke to Thomas Jefferson: that’s one plausible intellectual roadmap to the Declaration and the First Amendment. The American Thomas Jefferson, owed the Scholastic Thomas  Aquinas, more than the Sage of Monticello likely ever knew.

George Weigel


George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the author, most recently, of The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II⎯The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy.

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  • Caeifert

    Because the First Amendment begins “Congress shall make no law concerning the establishment of religion or the free exercise thereof” it is pretty clear that our government cannot dictate to the Catholic or any other church what may be taught or believed. How members of any religion carry out the doctrines of their respective religions is irrelevant. Therefor if so-called Catholic women wish to use birth control that has no effect on Catholic teaching. Attacks on our faith and on other faiths through governmental rules may soon lead to another state religion, secularism. Then attacks on religious liberty will increase and the danger to religions and their adherents will truly become un-American. Catholics are right to conduct their Fortnight for Freedom. I’m happy to join in.

  • J. Charles

    In these trying times, we have to stand by our Holy Church. But we need no lecturers by dissenters such as Weigel to know this. The Faith alone is sufficient, and don’t Roget that when dissenters like Weigel use secular reasoning to defend the Church, it can be just easily turned against – witness Mr. Weigel’s attack. on the Holy Father and is encyclical on the economy last year which I consider an indicator goof his hostility and dissent from the holy church’s social teaching

    • Gamartin

      You are right, J. Charles.  Belief in Christ the King is more powerful than secular arguements for “religious freedom for all”.   Weigel has always been a little weak knee’d in defending pure faith (maybe he feels it is not there any more) and falls back to using popular secular spin points as if it is a Catholic position.   I call him on it every time I see it.

  • Kate Wright

    Bravo!   My mother’s family are early Frankish: Leonard, as in “lion-hearted,” and Roche, as in “rock.”  They originally settled in Maryland, were friends of the Carrolls, then moved north to Pennsylvania.   You will (greatly) appreciate today’s homily delivered at my modest parish. May I send it to you?
    katygolf@aol:disqus .com

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  • Gamartin

    Religious freedom for all is not a uniguely Catholic issue.  Saving souls is.

    Although I support the Catholic Bishops in their efforts, the real emphasis should be on why Catholicism as a core faith matters.   Key to this is an old Catholic dogma that puts God as our savior and “King”.  As the creator of Heaven and Earth, all things should be in union with Christ, including government itself.  As terrific popes have articulated so well through various encyclicals, our belief is true to God Himself.  It is our faith and relationship with God, The Whole Christ (see Mensch), that really matters.  Secular government intrusion on our religious liberty, although repressive and inconvenient, is really an assault on Christ the King.

    Support the Bishops in their efforts based on our Catholic traditional belief.   Pray hard.

    • J. Charles

      Thank you, Gamartin. By the way, the great Catholic apologist, Msgr. Ronald Knox, has a great sermon made on the occasion of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth that Catholic approach to government must begin with Christ the King and not secular reasoning. So you are in good company, Gamartin. God bless you.

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