Did Catholics Establish Religious Freedom in America?
From the earliest colonial settlements to the time of its founding, the vast majority of white Americans were Protestants (98% in 1776). Many of these Protestants believed the Roman Catholic Church had been betrayed, if not in league with Satan. Catholics were banned from many colonies and men and women wishing to immigrate to British North America were expected to take expressly Protestant oaths beforehand.
Maryland was founded in 1632 as a haven for English Catholics. But even in the earliest days, Catholics were a minority. Protestants eventually took control of the colony, made the Church of England an established church and forbade Catholics from voting and holding political office.
Our Beloved Freedom: Catholics and Religious Tolerance in Early America, by Michael D. Breidenbach, shows why and how Catholics stood up for their own religious freedom in America and how they contribute to the ability of all citizens to worship God according to the dictates of conscience. The author highlights the roles that two families played in these debates: the Calverts and the Carrolls.
The Calverts and Religious Tolerance
When Pope Clement VII refused to annul the marriage of King Henry VIII with Catherine of Aragon, Henry encouraged Parliament to pass a number of laws which, among other things, declared him “Supreme Head of the Church of England”. Pope Clement and later popes were not amused. In fact, they claimed they had ecclesiastical authority in England and had the power to depose monarchs.
To ensure that English citizens remain loyal to the crown, King James I asked them to take an oath of allegiance in 1606, recognizing that he was “the rightful King of England and that the Pope did not have the power to depose him. . . They also had to swear that they “abhor, abhor, and swear off this damned doctrine and position as godless and heretical, that princes who are excommunicated or robbed by the Pope can be deposed or murdered by their subjects or others. ”
Despite what many Protestants believed about “papists,” there was serious debate among Catholics on two key issues. Catholics influenced by the conciliarist tradition, a reform movement within 14th-century Catholicism, rejected the doctrine of papal infallibility, despite supporters believing that a general council of Catholic bishops, which could or may not include the Pope, would speak could with such authority. Catholics in this tradition also denied that the Pope could depose monarchs.
George Calvert (1580-1632) was born a Roman Catholic son but had to adapt to the Church of England. He eventually became an important advisor to James I. In 1624 he returned to the Catholic Church and decided that he could not swear allegiance. He did not believe that the Pope could depose a monarch, but he was reluctant to label “damnable” and “heretical” what the Pope had believed to be true.
In 1632, Charles I gave Calvert a charter establishing the colony of Maryland. Under the leadership of George’s son Cecil, the colony only required citizens to swear allegiance to the crown and simply avoided those parts of the 1606 oath of allegiance that Calvert and others found offensive.
The Maryland Congregation passed a “Law on Religion” in 1649, one of the first religious tolerance laws ever passed. The law stated that all Trinitarian Christians are free to worship God according to the commandment of conscience. Despite requests from Jesuit priests in the colony who believed that the Catholic Church should be made the official established church, Calvert decided not to have an established church. Historians often describe these acts as purely pragmatic, and Breidenbach admits that Maryland’s citizens had regulatory concerns. But it also shows that these decisions can be traced back to the influence of the conciliar tradition.
During the English Civil War, some of Maryland’s Protestants, who made up three-quarters of the colony’s population, took up arms against Cecil Calvert and later Charles Calvert. After the glorious revolution of 1688, the Protestants took control of the colony and made the Church of England the “de facto founded church in Maryland in 1692 and the de jure founded church in 1702”. From 1715 the Calverts joined the Church of England to keep their property.
The Carrolls, Tolerance and Revolution
Charles Carroll the Settler came to Maryland in 1688 just before Protestants took control of the colony and placed numerous restrictions on Catholics. He and his descendants, beginning with his son Charles Carroll of Annapolis, fought long and hard for religious freedom and political equality. Like the Calverts, they were influenced by the conciliarist tradition and rejected what they viewed as tyrannical forms of government, whether civil or ecclesiastical. On the way to Maryland, Charlemagne changed his family motto to “Ubicu[m]que cum libertate ”(everywhere, as long as there is freedom).
The freedom for Catholics in Maryland was severely restricted. In 1692 they were forbidden from exercising their rights, and in 1704 the legislature forbade priests from proselytizing or celebrating mass. The latter law was repealed in 1718, but other restrictions and penalties remained in place – including a £ 100 fine for parents who have a child in Catholic schools in Europe. From 1718 to 1776, Catholics were not allowed to vote in citizen elections.
When Charles Carroll von Carrollton was a student in France, he wrote a poem “which defends the free exercise of religion in the face of state tyranny”. As a conciliarist, he argued that papal infallibility was an “opinion” of the Council of Trent that good Catholics could reject. He was committed to freedom for white Americans (but not enslaved Africans, who were central to the Carroll family’s wealth) and was an active supporter of the war for American independence.
American Protestants were alarmed when Parliament passed the Quebec Act in 1774. The statute tolerated the Roman Catholic Church and expanded the colony of Quebec to what is now the Upper Midwest. Many American Protestants, including representatives of the Continental Congress, protested vehemently. The Quebec Act has been condemned in a series of official Congressional proclamations and petitions.
When the constitutional convention met in the summer of 1787, eight states demanded that citizenship holders must be Protestants. Yet Article VI of the new federal constitution forbade religious examinations for the citizenship office.
In 1776, Congress named Charles a member of a committee that went to Quebec and encouraged French Catholics to join the patriotic cause. At the urging of Congress, Charles asked his cousin, Reverend John Carroll, to join the commission. John was reluctant to join the commission because he was a priest, but he relented and the group went to Quebec. Unfortunately for the Patriots, the venture was a complete failure.
After Quebec, Charles joined the Second Continental Congress, the first Catholic to do so. He later signed the Declaration of Independence. Catholic Americans fought in the Continental Army and State Militia, and some commanded troops and ships. The participation of Catholics in the war for American independence, as well as the aid of Roman Catholic France, helped many Protestants to become far more accepting of their fellow citizens.
Catholics and America’s Constitutional Order
When the Constitutional Convention met in the summer of 1787, eight states required that citizenship holders must be Protestants. And yet Article VI of the new federal constitution forbade religious examinations for civil offices. Charles Carroll’s second cousin Daniel Carroll and Thomas Fitzsimons of Pennsylvania no doubt supported this ban. The first federal convention, attended by Daniel Carroll and Fitzsimons in the House of Representatives and Charles Carroll in the US Senate, passed an inclusive oath of allegiance that requires those who take it to swear (or affirm) to support the United States Constitution .
Unsurprisingly, Catholic members of Congress were in favor of the first amendment, and Charles Carroll was one of three senators on the conference committee who put the Bill of Rights into its final form. Far too many academics pretend that the First Amendment came entirely from James Madison’s forehead. Breidenbach does an important part in reminding us that other founders played an important role in drafting this and other amendments, and that they were shaped by traditions that existed before John Locke. But he goes too far in calling Carroll the “godfather” of the First Amendment.
By the 1790s, Catholics became widely accepted and states began the slow process of removing religious tests that prevented them from holding state offices. But as Breidenbach briefly recounts, the 19th century saw great waves of Catholic immigrants, many of whom were ultra-Montans, who rejected the conciliar tradition. In addition, the Catholic Church decidedly renounced this tradition in the course of the 19th century. During this period, the popes published numerous encyclicals denouncing religious freedom, the separation of church and state, republicanism and freedom of the press. In 1870 the First Vatican Council declared papal infallibility the official dogma of the Church. These shifts sparked fears among Protestants that Catholics might not be good citizens and led to new manifestations of anti-Catholicism.
Our beloved freedom is the ultimate treatment of the Catholic pursuit of religious tolerance in America from early colonial Maryland to the founding of the American Republic. Breidenbach shows that leading American Catholics were influenced by conciliar thoughts and did not simply compromise prudently or accept Protestant or curious ideas.
Breidenbach justifies his arguments with a detailed and comprehensive examination of the relevant primary source documents. His report is careful and nuanced, although he occasionally overestimates the influence of his subjects, for example when he writes that Catholics played a “critical role”. . . in introducing American church and state separation. ”Catholics played a role, but it is hard to imagine that American approaches to church-state relations would have been vastly different if the Calverts and Carrolls had never come to America .
However, such exaggerations are rare. All in all, Our Dear-Bought Liberty is an excellent piece of work that should be read by anyone interested in church-state relationships in early America.