Catholics in the U.S. and Religious Liberty: The Origins
Several months ago, I came across a two-volume history of the Church in the United States I’d never read before: Theodore Maynard’s The Story of American Catholicism, first published in 1941.
Maynard was not a professional historian, and his telling of the American Catholic story has a bit more of the apologetic edginess of early-20th century Catholicism than a 21st-century audience might find congenial. Yet Maynard manifestly did his homework in the pioneering tomes of such giants of U.S. Catholic history as John Gilmary Shea and Peter Guilday; his judgments are usually judicious, even if his ecumenical sensibility is not overly developed; and every once in a while he comes up with an insight that is truly refreshing — and very neatly put.
Take, for example, the following passage — a bit Baroque rhetorically, but nonetheless worth pondering:
“[It] is very curious that men who admit no dogmatic bias in their own lives or their concept of the universe should so often retain a sentimental attachment to the legend that, because certain dissenting Protestant groups sought, among other things, their own liberty of conscience, they were the architects of American religious liberty. There is no special need to complain that, when in a position to enforce their will, they refused liberty to those with whom they happened to disagree — and particularly to Catholics. … Instead, it may be gratefully acknowledged that their stern adhesion to their personal convictions contributed in the end greatly to bring about an extension of religious liberty to all. … [Yet] such Catholic groups as came to the American Colonies never thought of religious liberty as something that should be exclusively enjoyed by themselves. In this respect, the Catholic settlers of Maryland were Americans from the beginning, whereas the Puritans became Americans only by slow degrees.”
As Theodore Maynard readily admits, the legal construction of American religious freedom during the Founding was the work of many hands, most of which were Protestant and Deist hands. Yet it is also true that, from 1634 and the beginning of the proprietary colony of Maryland, Catholics were committed to a broad notion of religious freedom: a true “first liberty,” not just “liberty for us.” That was, of course, a matter of both conviction and pragmatic necessity, given the Catholics’ small numbers.
But the convictions should not be forgotten. Because of their own theological tradition, Maryland Catholics (and their brethren in Pennsylvania) could have embraced something resembling the First Amendment in the days when New England Puritans were teaching their children to sing, “Abhor that arrant Whore of Rome/and all her blasphemies/And drink not of her cursed cup/Obey not her decrees.”
As the Catholic Church in the United States begins a “Fortnight for Freedom” to strengthen Catholics’ resolve to defend religious freedom for all, it’s good to remember that, from the Founding, the Catholic embrace of the First Amendment’s guarantee of the “free exercise of religion” has been unhesitating — and it has been principled. Maynard again, in High Baroque form:
“[The] Church ... has always maintained that, whatever may be the accidental inequality of gift and station between man and man, they are all essentially equal in the sight of God. It is only upon such a doctrine that democracy can repose. It is only democratic institutions that put that doctrine into visible practice. For, despite the Declaration of Independence, with its ‘self-evident’ truth that all men are created equal, the thing is not self-evident at all. On the contrary, it seems to be at variance with self-evident facts. It is really a mystical dogma, and the one institution we can be perfectly certain will never renounce that dogma is the Catholic Church.”
But perhaps “mystic” is not quite right. There is a chain of ideas here, and it can be traced. From Thomas Aquinas to Robert Bellarmine to the Anglican divine Richard Hooker; then from Hooker to John Locke to Thomas Jefferson: That’s one plausible intellectual roadmap to the Declaration and the First Amendment. The American Thomas — Jefferson — owed the scholastic Thomas — Aquinas — more than the Sage of Monticello likely ever knew.
George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His column is distributed by the Denver Catholic Register, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Denver.