Catholic education played a vital role in the founding of our nation.
Among the signers of the Declaration of Independence was Charles Carroll, a Catholic landowner who had been educated in Catholic schools in Maryland and in France—even receiving a Catholic legal education in France. Charles Carroll was one of the earliest advocates for American independence. In the early 1770s, he began writing newspaper columns supporting independence. He funded the early tea-protests against British rule. And while many revolutionaries were content writing pamphlets and columns against the King, Charles Carroll was among the first to call American patriots to armed revolution.
Charles Carroll signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. After the war, he became a United States Senator, and he spent the remainder of his political career fighting for the abolition of American slavery.
The ideas about freedom and justice Charles Carroll encountered in Catholic schools led him to envision the American quest for democracy, and for liberty. When he saw injustice, and tyranny, and greed, it was his Catholic formation, and his Catholic conscience that impelled him to support fights for freedom—first the fight of the American patriots, and later, that of the American slaves.
Charles Carroll’s cousin John—the first Archbishop of Baltimore—was also an ardent supporter of the American Revolution. So were thousands of Catholic Americans who fought valiantly to support the American cause. Some of the Revolution’s most successful generals were Catholics. And Catholics disproportionately volunteered to serve in the Continental Army. In fact, the very first Mass celebrated in the city of Boston was a funeral Mass for a Continental soldier, a French volunteer killed during the Revolutionary War.
From the very beginning, Catholics have played a vital role in the success of the American experiment. And our involvement in public and political life is still essential to the well-being of our nation. After the Revolution, Senator Charles Carroll spoke to the importance of religious faith in public life.
“Without morals a republic cannot subsist any length of time;” he observed, “they therefore who are decrying the Christian religion…. are undermining… the best security for the duration of free governments.”
Charles Carroll—and all of the founding fathers—built a nation that reflects Christian principles of human dignity and personal freedom. But our nation’s founders understood that unless people of faith participate in public life, our democracy could become a very dangerous tool.
Our nation depends, said Charles Carroll, on “the solid foundation of morals.”
Faith allows us to discern the common good. To make good choices about the best policies for our communities. To understand the importance of living in accord with who God made us to be—the importance of making law which respects the dignity of every human person, created in the image of God.
Without the influence of truth on public life, the rights of the unborn, the poor, and the marginalized can be discarded. Without the participation of religious believers, the principles of justice and freedom are replaced with reckless pursuit of comfort and pleasure. Without active protection of rights, religious liberty—and indeed, all liberty—stands perilously close to being lost entirely.
Our democracy can serve the common good. But only when believers, capable of discerning the common good, participate in public life.
This election year, we’ll consider candidates for state and national offices. And, if we want our state and nation to serve the common good, we have a moral obligation to vote. And when we do vote, we ought to consider the candidates and their position in light of the received teachings of our Church. In light of justice. In light of truth.
Catholics helped to form our nation. And over the past two centuries, Catholics have bled and died to protect it. Their legacy is in our hands. To be faithful Catholics, we’re called to be faithful citizens. May each of us work to build a just and free nation. And may we bring the principles of our faith to the public square, and to the voting booth.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared May 9, 2014 on the website of the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska. The image of Charles Carroll above was painted by Michael Laty ca. 1846.