Professor Ave Maria’s book sees the roots of religious freedom in Catholicism


“Baltimore in 1752”, an 1817 illustration by artist John Moale and etcher William Strickland (The New York Public Library)

“We consider the establishment of the independence of our country, the formation of its freedoms and its laws, as a work of special Providence, its designers ‘building better than they knew it’, the hand of the Whole. Mighty guiding them. “

These words from Third Baltimore Plenary Council in 1884 formed the backdrop for the Jesuit Fr. John Courtney Murray’s brilliant and controversial effort to reconcile American ideas on religious freedom with Catholic teaching. Murray’s work has been contested in recent years, mainly by conservative academics like David Schindler Sr., all of whom questioned whether Murray’s synthesis really worked.

A new book by Professor Michael Breidenbach from Ave Maria University, Our Dearly Purchased Freedom: Catholics and Religious Tolerance in America’s Beginning, takes the Murray synthesis in a new and fascinating direction, arguing that Catholics were not simply the beneficiaries of the liberalism of the Founding Fathers. He insists that Catholic experience and thought laid the groundwork for the constitutional separation of Church and State which was, and is, a central feature of American politics.

Cover of "Our dearly purchased freedom"

Breidenbach’s thesis is that the controversies and negotiations over Catholics taking an oath of loyalty to English and Protestant kings after the Reformation, combined with the exposure of Anglo-American clerics to Gallicanism and Conciliarism, both led to the adoption of “anti-papalism,” a strict limitation of papal authority to the spiritual realm.

This separation of the spiritual and the temporal, he argues, laid the foundation for what we call the separation of church and state in the U.S. Constitution. And he provides a great deal of documentation to make his point.

Taking oaths was no easy task. L’Arche et la Colombe, the ships which transported the first Anglo-Catholic settlers to what would become the colony of Maryland, “had already left the mouth of the Thames when, on October 19, 1633, the Privy Council called them. ordered to return to the port of Gravesend, ”he wrote. “John Coke, the Secretary of State, had heard a complaint that those on board had not taken the oath of allegiance.”

King James I and his son Charles I asked the settlers of the English colonies to take an oath of allegiance to them and to their successors. Maryland’s founders and owners, the Calverts, spent a great deal of time negotiating the actual terms of an oath that would not contradict their faith but affirm their loyalty to the monarch.

Ever since Henry VIII had broken with Rome and demanded that all office holders take the oath of supremacy – an oath that Sir Thomas More refused to take, leading to his martyrdom – Catholics had sought a way to be faithful to the king and to the Pope.

Henry Elizabeth’s daughter had tolerated private Catholic worship for the first 11 years of her reign, after which a Catholic revolt in the north in 1569 was brutally suppressed. Elizabeth and her most ardently Protestant advisers ordered a crackdown on Catholics. In 1570, Pope Pius V issued the bull Regnans in Excelsis, excommunicating Elizabeth and freeing her subjects from all allegiance to the heretical monarch.

This was a radical papal claim, the power to lay down. Future iterations of the oath of allegiance to the monarch would include an explicit waiver of this claim, and Catholics negotiated with the papal court for permission to take such an oath. The leaders of the English Catholics, ecclesiastics and laity, divided into more lax and more rigorous camps. The Calverts simply eliminated the controversial phrase denying the Pope’s authority to depose.

The Stuart monarchs also didn’t want to push the issue too hard. King Charles married a Catholic queen, and his sons and heirs both converted to Catholicism, Charles II on his deathbed and James II before ascending the throne. It was complicated but, according to Breidenbach, all the back and forth about what could and could not be sworn in served to demonstrate that the spiritual and temporal powers of the papacy could be separated.

The Carroll family, who produced Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the sole Catholic signatory of the Declaration of Independence, and John Carroll, the first bishop of Baltimore, educated their children in Saint-Omer in French Flanders, where most of the English-speaking Catholic nobility sent their children. The college was run by the Jesuits, the order most loyal to the papacy, but Breidenbach nonetheless demonstrates how exposed John Carroll and others were to Gallicanism and Conciliarism. Gallicanism attempted to limit papal influence over the Catholic Church in France, and conciliarism emphasized the supremacy of councils over the papacy. Charles and John Carroll both cited these “anti-papalist” arguments and texts when discussing the situation of Catholics in the new American republic.

This is quite new. In his book The Premier See: A History of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, 1789-1989Thomas Spalding admitted that a “building block” of the Maryland tradition that John Carroll would “try to establish was a measure of autonomy in the local church’s relationship with the Holy See.” But Spalding also acknowledged that “Carroll had great reverence for the person of the Roman Pontiff and the throne he occupied as a symbol of unity.”

Spalding further notes that Carroll’s consecration as bishop at Lulworth Castle Chapel in England coincided with a division within the English Catholic community over the taking of an oath of loyalty to the government. “Although pressed by both sides, Carroll bypassed the engagement with consummate tact,” he observes.

Spalding also relates the tensions in the young diocese of Baltimore between the ex-Jesuits and the Sulpicians, the latter being much more receptive to Gallicanism. But the struggle was mostly over their competing academies in Georgetown and Baltimore respectively, not their ideological views on the local church’s relationship with the Pope. Carroll, interestingly, also experienced frustration with his former Jesuit brethren who fought him over property disposal and other issues.

An 18th century engraving of Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore (The New York Public Library)

An 18th century engraving of Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore (The New York Public Library)

The classic biography of Annabelle Melville John Carroll of Baltimore: Founder of the American Catholic Hierarchy does not tell of any conciliarist influence, still less Gallican, on the first bishop of the nation. She remembers when he had to defend Catholicism against those who misunderstood the teachings of the church, and his early years as a Jesuit when the storm hit the Order led to its deletion.

More importantly, it shows how deeply Carroll was determined to avoid the introduction of many non-Catholic ecclesiological habits, such as allowing lay administrators to choose their pastor, into the life of the early American church.

In American Catholic Preaching and Piety in the Time of John Carroll, edited by Raymond Kupke, Jesuit Bro. Charles Edwards O’Neill wrote an essay titled “John Carroll, the“ Catholic Enlightenment ”and Rome,” which deals with Carroll’s perspective on the relationship with Rome. O’Neill noted that Carroll’s visit to Rome from October 1772 to June 1773 left the future bishop “shaken”.

Well, it could be, because the month after his departure, Pope Clement XIV issued the papal bull. Redeemer Dominus ac, removing Carroll’s order. The Jesuits were gone. Of course, he wanted forever to deal with the Roman authorities, in particular those of the Propaganda Fide, who had long quarreled with the Jesuits and now approved of this suppression of the most faithful clergy in Rome.

O’Neill also places a different reading on Carroll’s attitude toward Gallicanism. For example, although he requested and obtained permission to form a cathedral chapter in 1793, he never did, largely because it would require investing the clergy with rights, such as not allowing a Bishop to withdraw him from a parish without cause, under canon law that the American clergy did not yet have, and that the American bishops would prevent them from doing throughout the 19th century! (A cathedral chapter is a group of priests who have the right to send the terna for a new bishop, approve sales and transfers of important properties, etc. The equivalent would be a diocesan college of consultors.)

Always sensitive to the possibility of a resurgence of anti-Catholic prejudices, Carroll clearly hoped that future American bishops would be elected by the clergy, as he had been. But when his diocese was erected as a metropolitan see in 1808, with three suffragan seats in Boston, New York and Philadelphia, neither the US government nor the new archbishop himself protested that the new bishops were not elected.

Instead of all the “anti-papalism” of the kind described by Breidenbach, O’Neill asserts that Carroll’s position “on the choice of bishops did not seek more in Rome than was common for diocesan chapters.” And his decision not to form a cathedral chapter shows how central other concerns were in Carroll’s mind.

So the question arises: does Breidenbach have what he thinks he has? Do we need to adjust our historiography of the role of Catholicism informing, and not just benefiting from, the American constitutional experience of church-state separation? I will address these issues on Wednesday.

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