Three 20-something women trying to figure out what it means to be lay, Catholic, and modern all at once.

September 4, 2009

Lesson in Our Roots: American Catholicism Part I

As promised, I am going to write a bit on the history of Catholicism in our country -- and cross reference it with some political history. I think a good place to start is with the very first bishop of our country: John Carroll. He is one my favorite historical figures, and vastly under-acknowledged. I did a term paper on him one year in grad school, and I was so impressed by his work.

He was born into a fairly aristocratic family in 1735, and one of his cousins, Charles Carroll, actually signed the Constitution. John was not the most political man, but he did accompany the US ambassadors to Canada to gain support for the Revolution. But Carroll put all of his energy into the building the Catholic Church in America. He used his own resources and land to set up missionary Churches (because there were not Churches), and he worked tirelessly to build up a system of Catholic education. We owe the institution of Georgetown to him.

One of the most important things he did for American Catholics was to help them gain the respect and equal status of citizenship with their Protestant compatriots. He did this by writing extensively on the Church's stance on religious liberty and freedom of conscience. Religious liberty and freedom of conscience were some of the most important issues for the American founders, and many did not believe that American Catholics would be able to support them. So Carroll wrote pamphlets and letters to defend Catholics and Catholicism in our nation. For example, in one pamphlet, he writes:

When men comprehend not, or refuse to admit the luminous principles on which the rights of conscience and liberty of religion depend, they are industrious to find out pretences for intolerance. If they cannot discover them in actions, they strain to cull them out of the tenets of the religion which they wish to excluded from a free participation of equal rights. . . . I am anxious to guard against the impression intended by such insinuations; not merely for the sake of any one profession, but from an earnest regard to preserve inviolate for ever, in our new empire, the great principle of religious freedom.

So Carroll challenged American citizens who were not Catholic to lay aside any ignorance as to the ability that Catholics would have in accepting religious freedom and freedom of conscience, assuring them that these were a proper expression of the Catholic faith, not inimical to its precepts.

When I first learned about Carroll, I wondered why no one has taken up his cause for sainthood--after all, he was a great friend to our own St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (who I will write on next!) I am sure they pray for us and for our country from above. Let's ask them to help us rediscover the greatness of our nation and rediscover the great responsibility we have because we have the liberty to worship, praise, and adore our God any way we wish.

1 comment:

Agatha Magdalene said...

i missed this post--but I love it! thanks, edith!

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