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BY Kevin D. Roberts
Carroll’s consecration as America’s first bishop — fittingly, on the feast of
the Assumption 1790 — marked the Church’s transition from infancy to
adolescence in our country. More than being mere Catholic history trivia,
Archbishop Carroll’s tenure provides important lessons, especially in the realm
of civic engagement, for Catholics today. The week of Columbus Day is a good
time to consider them.
Living in a society that seems to be
just as hostile to Catholic beliefs as that of the 18th century, we fail to
follow Archbishop Carroll’s example at our peril.
Rejecting the typical American
Protestant idea of compartmentalizing one’s faith into a purely private
pursuit, Archbishop Carroll’s main thrust was to cement the Catholic faith as a
legitimate, recognized force in the ideas, politics and culture of the early
republic. This was a tall order: On the eve of the American Revolution, only
24,000 Americans, or less than 1% of the nation’s population, were Catholic.
Only 22 priests resided in the United States — all of them Jesuits, including
Even beyond those stark numbers,
most Americans possessed an incalculable hostility toward the Church, the
result of Protestantism’s deep roots in the fledgling nation. That hostility
often translated into legal proscriptions against Catholics, ranging from
property ownership to voting rights. Thus, in the face of a newly installed
bishop whose project was to obliterate the compartmentalization of faith
between private and public spheres, many non-Catholics in early America thought
Archbishop Carroll threatened the “order” of American society.
In spite of those obstacles, by the
time of his death in 1815, the country’s first bishop had overseen the
quadrupling of the Catholic population in the United States — as well as the
doubling in the number of clergy, the majority of whom were native born.
Archbishop Carroll secured this
growth through a spirit of true ecumenism. Responding to a critic of the Church
in 1785, then Father Carroll argued that the young nation’s religious freedom
ought not create religious pluralism, but cohesiveness: “America may come to
exhibit a proof to the world, that general and equal toleration, by giving a
free circulation to fair argument, is the most effectual method to bring all
denominations of Christians to a unity of faith.”
It was that charitable but pointed
approach that earned Archbishop Carroll the respect of the founding generation,
many of whom, such as Benjamin Franklin, considered him to be the single most
important religious leader in the country. Archbishop Carroll used his stature
to insert into the nation’s discourse a distinctively Catholic view toward
culture and politics.
Just as his tireless travels as a
priest had offered a rich sacramental life to lay Catholics in Maryland and
Virginia, his efforts as bishop promoted robust catechesis for the lay faithful
and consistently clear leadership for the clergy. Archbishop Carroll understood
that the very absence of Church institutions and hierarchy in America provided
too many opportunities for the laity, clergy and external critics to define
what the Catholic faith should be.
In particular, the bishop fought
full bore against the problem of lay trusteeism, a system in which the laity
claimed the right to fire and appoint their pastors. Though trusteeism clearly
violated the principles of governance in the Church, the problem for Archbishop
Carroll was that the very concept, typical in denominational churches, was
taken for granted in such a Protestant nation.
In challenging trusteeism, and in
laying the groundwork for its ultimate riddance in the mid-19th century,
Archbishop Carroll was implicitly challenging Protestants. This eventually
successful effort, however, accomplished two objectives, which today provide
modern-day lessons for bishops and the laity, respectively.
First, Archbishop Carroll’s defeat
of trusteeism secured his own, and all bishops’, authority over the Church and
lay Catholics. Never shying away from his obligation as shepherd, he cemented a
Church hierarchy in early America that would lead to a collective voice among
all American bishops in future generations.
Archbishop Carroll’s efforts against trusteeism altered the way lay Catholics
viewed their faith — and, in particular, the application of their faith to the
public square. The same type of faith compartmentalization that confounded
Archbishop Carroll has reared its head in a slew of high-profile recent events
involving Catholics. Simply put, the lack of civic engagement by Catholics as Catholics
endangers our republic.
A modern Church leader in the vein
of John Carroll, Archbishop Charles Chaput, focused on this point in his recent
book Render Unto Caesar. Archbishop Chaput
concludes: “American political life, though very practical, depends on ideas
and beliefs that are large and long-term; that are not built low to the ground;
that need a citizenry with right moral character in order to work.”
Nearing his death in 1815,
Archbishop John Carroll seemed to recall the irony of his consecration on the
feast of the Assumption 25 years earlier: “Of those things that give me most
consolation at the present moment, one is that I have always been attached to
the practice of devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary; that I have established it
among the people under my care, and placed my diocese under her protection.”
May we Catholics pray and work for a fidelity to the Church, through Our Lady,
that honors and perpetuates the efforts of our first American bishop.
Kevin D. Roberts is founder and
executive director of Catholic Families for America
and the Catholic Youth
Leadership Congress. He is writing a biography of Archbishop Carroll.