National Catholic Register


Modern Lessons From America’s First Bishop

BY Kevin D. Roberts

October 11-17, 2009 Issue | Posted 10/2/09 at 2:51 PM


Father John 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 Archbishop Carroll.

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.

Second, 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.