In these United States our Religious system
has undergone a revolution, if possible,
more extraordinary than our political one. —John Carroll, 1783

John Carroll and his fellow priests did not go so far as to declare independence in the religious sphere as the American patriots did in the political realm. Doing so would have obliterated their identity as Catholics. To the contrary, Carroll would always prove himself to be an obedient son of the Church. “I shall never fail in that faith and obedience to the Holy See,” Carroll promised Pope Pius VI, “without which, as I have learned from ecclesiastical history and the Holy Fathers, faith totters.”[1] Carroll vowed to encourage similar obedience among all American Catholics, and he assured the Vatican “that nowhere in the world has it children more attached to its doctrine or more filled with respect for all its decisions.”[2]

But in making his case for the property rights of the American clergy, Carroll did make a revolutionary case for the nature of the American Church’s relationship with Rome. In the matter of the Jesuit estates, Carroll drew an important distinction between the spiritual power of the Church “and the common rights of the missioners to their temporal possessions, to which as the Bishop, or Pope himself have no just claim, so neither can they invest any persons with the administration of them.”[3] The “Constitution of the Clergy” ratified by the American priests in 1784 explicitly stipulated that “the Person invested with Spiritual Jurisdiction in this Country, shall not in that quality have any power over or in the temporal property of the Clergy.”[4]

There was a tradition in English Catholic thought, echoed in the apologetic writings of American Catholics, that denied the Pope’s temporal authority.[5] But this theory generally defined the Pope’s temporal power as his power to interfere in the civil concerns of countries—to depose kings, for example. By arguing that that the Pope had no legitimate power over the property of priests, Carroll was giving the traditional theory a new rendering and making a bold claim. The suggestion was that the Church hierarchy wielded no power over Americans in non-ecclesiastical matters, especially in the area of property rights.[6]


St. Mary’s, Maryland

In his eagerness to assuage Protestant fears, Carroll tried to downplay the spiritual authority of the Pope. He was aware that not a few Protestants held the false notion “that our faith demands a subjection to His Holiness incompatible with the independence of a sovereign state.”[7] The Papacy itself was perhaps the most important issue that divided Catholics and Protestants. Opposition to the office had been at the heart of the Reformation of the sixteenth century, and American Protestants had imbibed the European Protestant prejudices. To many non-Roman Christians, the Papacy was at best an illegitimate, unbiblical station held at any particular time by a misguided man. At worst, it was an abomination, and the Pope was the Antichrist himself, wielding mystical powers over the mind-numbed rank-and-file of the Catholic Church. Whether fraud or fiend, Protestants believed that the loyalty of American Catholics to such a foreign potentate made them unfit citizens in a free republic. “The Spiritual supremacy of the Pope,” Carroll believed, “is the only reason why in some of the United States, the full participation of all civil rights is not granted to the R.C.”[8]

American Protestants were particularly alarmed by the notion of Papal infallibility, which they took to mean that Catholics believed themselves obliged to accept every assertion of the Pope as true and to obey him in all matters, temporal as well as spiritual. But papal infallibility was not an official doctrine of the Catholic Church at the time, and few Catholics at the time adhered to the broad formulation given to it by Protestants.[9]  John Carroll certainly believed in a watered-down version of the doctrine. In his Address to the Roman Catholics of the United States, an apologetic work, Carroll asserted that it was the teaching of the great fathers of the Church that infallibility resides “in the body of bishops united and agreeing with their head, the bishop of Rome.” The idea that the Pope was infallible independent of the episcopate, Carroll claimed, was an “opinion” which every Catholic was “at liberty to adopt or reject.”[10] Though he may eventually have come to believe that the Holy Father could not—independent of the agreement of the bishops—err in matters of faith and morals, Carroll was certainly careful not to advertise his views to the general populace.[11]

Whatever his exact position, Carroll clearly rejected Papal authority in temporal matters and de-emphasized the spiritual authority of the pontiff. In a 1784 letter, Carroll proclaimed that the American clergy desired only “that spiritual connexion with the holy See, which shall be an evidence of our sincere attachment to & union with it.”[12] Earlier that year Carroll had beseeched the English theologian-bishop, Joseph Berington, to compose a work on the limits of the Holy See’s spiritual jurisdiction.[13] When Berington obliged, Carroll even found some merit in the English prelate’s controversial ecclesiastical version of popular sovereignty, though the American priest warned that it should be made clear that the Pope was de jure divino the head of the Church.[14] To Father John Thorpe, Carroll declared that “we neither must request or admit any other foreign interference than such, as being essential to our religion, is implied in the acknowledgement of the Bishop of Rome being, by divine appointment, head of the universal Church; and the See of S. Peter being the center of ecclesiastical unity.”[15] Yet Carroll never contemplated spiritual independence from Rome; soon after his consecration as bishop, he fretted that the size of the country posed the danger of “a disunion with the Holy See” and suggested that his diocese be divided so as to guard against the danger of a “schismatical separation from the centre of unity.”[16]

Carroll’s distinction between the spiritual and temporal authority of the Pope mirrored his thought about the wider issue of the separation of church and state. Marylanders in the colonial and early national period were drawing on a distinctively English tradition of separation of church and state, dating back to Thomas More and ultimately to St. Augustine, in which the two realms were deemed as distinct sovereignties that ought to refrain from encroaching on each other’s authority.[17] Carroll expressed this idea clearly in 1797: “To our country we owe allegiance, and the tender of our best services and property, when they are necessary for its defence: to the Vicar of Christ we owe obedience in things purely spiritual. Happily, there is no competition in their respective claims on us, nor any difficulty in rendering to both the submission, which they have a right to claim.”[18]

The suppression of the Jesuit order by the French government in 1762 must have played a role in Carroll’s thought about the separation of church and state.[19] The suppression was a result of political intrigue, and Carroll drew the conclusion that the mixing of politics and religion would corrupt the church. Carroll therefore feared religious establishments of any kind. In a letter to Charles Plowden, Carroll praised a recent work on church-state relations by Plowden’s brother that challenged the idea of religious establishment promoted by a certain William Warburton. “I am very glad to see his triumphant overthrow of Warburton’s fanciful alliance of church & state,” Carroll exclaimed, “in which that author, followed in this by the generality of the English clergy, builds the edifice of their religious establishment on a surrender made by the Church to the State of the independence, it derives from God, & the nature of its destination.”[20] Carroll’s goal in advocating the separation of church and state was the protection of the Church from political interference.

The great reward of separation of church and state was toleration, which would ensure the religious freedom of Catholics in a Protestant land. Like his cousin Charles, John Carroll worried that Protestants would whip up anti-Catholic prejudice in an attempt to exclude Catholics “from the honors and emoluments of society.”[21] Urging his cousin, then serving in the Maryland legislature, to oppose a state law that discriminated against Catholics, the bishop added that Charles ought to work “to obtain a general repeal of this and all other laws and clauses of laws enacting any partial regards to one denomination to the prejudice of others.”[22]

It ought to be noted that Carroll’s advocacy of the separation of church and state corresponds little to the modern version of this theory, which seeks to confine religious belief to the private sphere. To the contrary, Carroll was an enthusiastic proponent of the Christian state set up in Maryland by its new constitution of 1776. This document proclaimed that “all persons professing the Christian religion are equally entitled to protection in their religious liberty” and required a declaration of Christian belief as a qualification for holding office. The constitution also allowed the legislature to “lay a general and equal tax for the support of the christian religion,” though it permitted taxpayers to designate their money to help the poor rather than any particular church. Though it guaranteed non-Christians the right to vote and provided for the protection of their persons and property, the constitution clearly was designed to foster the principles of Christianity, which many of its architects deemed as essential to the promotion of virtue and republican government.[23]

By making all Christian denominations equal before the law, the Maryland constitution effectively disestablished the Episcopal Church and placed Catholicism on a par with Protestantism. For John Carroll and other Catholics, this was the great promise of separation of church and state. At last treated by law as religious equals, Maryland Catholics were jealous of any action by the legislature which they perceived to favor Protestantism at their expense. “We have all smarted heretofore under the lash of an established church,” Carroll declared, “and shall therefore [be] on our guard against every approach towards it.”[24] In 1785, when the Maryland Assembly considered a bill pursuant to the constitution that would have required Christians to pay a tax for the support of the clergy of the denomination that they preferred, Carroll vehemently opposed the plan, believing “that it is calculated to create a predominant and irresistible influence in favour of the Protestant Episcopal Church.”[25] The Catholic clergy had little need of state financing, supported as it was by the incomes of its estates, and besides, Carroll, as noted above, was skeptical of any measure that made the Catholic Church dependent upon the state. He did, however, believe that such state-sanctioned support of Christianity was not only constitutional but salutary if the bill were properly crafted to ensure that no denomination was favored above others. Indeed, the clergy bill of 1785 alarmed Carroll not only because it seemed to prefer the Episcopal Church but also because it exempted Jews, Muslims, and non-believers from paying the tax. “A bill for the encouragement of Infidelity, Judaism, and Mahometism,” Carroll harrumphed.[26]

gw-march-1754Carroll hoped to extend the principle of religious freedom for Catholics beyond the borders of Maryland. Writing in 1789 as “Pacificus” in the Gazette of the United States, he maintained that freedom of religious belief was one of “the common rights of nature.” Of toleration, Carroll proclaimed, “no one has a fuller persuasion than myself of its consonancy with the laws of God.”[27]  Religious liberty, moreover, was a positive right in addition to being a natural one; because it had been enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution it was one of “the stipulated rights of the political society.”[28] Moreover, religious freedom for Catholics was a matter of justice. “Freedom and independence,” Carroll declared in an editorial in The Columbian Magazine, “acquired by the united efforts, and cemented with the mingled blood of protestant and catholic fellow-citizens, should be equally enjoyed by all.”[29] Catholics had proven themselves to be loyal republicans; to exclude them from the equal enjoyment of civil liberty was demonstrably unfair.

Carroll added a utilitarian argument to his exegesis. Toleration, he pointed out, could also promote civil peace and national harmony. In his Address to the Roman Catholics, Carroll encouraged America to be a shining example to other nations of the blessings of toleration. “America may come to exhibit a proof to the world,” the American priest opined, “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.”[30] Toleration, Carroll told Joseph Berington, would establish “a reasonable system of universal Forbearance, and Charity amongst Christians of every Denomination” and “greatly contribute to bring mankind to an unity of Opinion on matters of Religious Concern.”[31]

In rejecting the temporal power of the papacy, advocating the separation of church and state, and referring to religious belief as “opinion,” Carroll revealed his intellectual debt to Enlightenment liberalism as interpreted and modified by the English Catholic thinkers of the so-called “Cisalpine” school. These men, including Joseph Berington and John Fletcher—both of whom Carroll admired—advocated reasonable religious belief, toleration, and a contractual theory of ecclesiastical government.  Enlightenment Catholicism opposed the traditionalist “Ultramontanism,” which held that church and state should of necessity be joined and emphasized papal power.[32] From the Jesuits at St. Omer’s and the seminary at Watten, Carroll had received an education shaped by Enlightenment ideals, and he continued to read the writings of English Enlightenment theologians after his ordination.[33] Like the Protestant founders of the nation, Carroll relegated religious truth to the realm of conjecture in an attempt to promote civil harmony in a nation composed of various Christian denominations.[34]

Though the effect of viewing religious belief as opinion may be to mitigate the intensity of one’s own faith, this was not the case with John Carroll. He was innocent of the charge of religious indifferentism so often hurled at the Cisalpines by the traditionalists. To the contrary, Carroll clearly believed that the Roman Catholic Church was the one true church and that all others were in error. His library contained several apologetic works that proclaimed the unique truth of the Roman Catholic Church.[35] In private he often sounded like the most ardent triumphalist, frequently referring to Protestants as “heretics.”[36]  In the journal he kept of his European tour of 1771-1772, which was perhaps intended for the private use of a student under his tutelage, Carroll referred to the “pernicious tenets” of Protestantism and praised the Council of Trent’s attempt to combat “the progress of errors” and “new heresies” that grew out of the Reformation.[37] In a private letter of 1801, Bishop Carroll refused to grant a request to allow a Catholic church in Mississippi to be used by a Protestant minister. “Would not those holy places be profaned,” he asked the petitioner, “& the character of sanctity acquired by their consecration be effaced, by their becoming the seminaries of error & false doctrines?”[38] In his public sermons, too, Carroll contrasted the verities of the Catholic faith with the errors of the Reformed church. In his first sermon as bishop, he declared to the Catholics under his care that one of his duties was “to preserve their faith untainted amidst the contagion of error, surrounding them on all sides” and to save them “from that fatal & prevailing indifference, which views all religions as equally acceptable to God & Salutary to men.”[39] This was not the language of indifferentism.

Carroll’s belief in the exclusive truth of his Church was demonstrated by his willingness to defend the faith publicly. Though initially fearing that he “would disturb the harmony now subsisting amongst all Christians in this country,” the Maryland priest became an outspoken apologist for the Catholic faith in America’s newspapers.[40] He entered into open disputes on at least four occasions, always in response to what he deemed an unwarranted attack. His Address to the Roman Catholics was written in response to an attack on the faith by Charles Wharton, a Marylander and former Jesuit priest who had left the Church a few years earlier. Though Wharton in turn responded to the American superior’s essay, Carroll retired from the contest, fearing that he would inflame anti-Roman prejudice.[41] Three years later, however, he re-entered the fray by composing a short reply to a hostile article about the Church in The Columbian Magazine.[42] In 1789, shortly after his election as bishop, Carroll submitted a letter to the Gazette of the United States, in which he criticized a recent editorial in that paper proposing the establishment of Protestantism as the national religion.[43] And in 1792, in response to a Protestant’s outlandish criticism of Carroll’s use of the appellation “Bishop of Baltimore,” Carroll composed a brief and skillful defense of his episcopal title.[44] In spite of his fear of inflaming religious strife, Carroll simply could not allow attacks to go unanswered.[45]

Indeed, Carroll would never compromise his Catholicism in the service of ecumenical accord. To the contrary, he believed that a free search for religious truth would inevitably bring Protestants to recognize the truth of the Roman Catholic faith. The concept of ecumenism is by its nature an idea that is more amenable to Catholic than Protestant theology. The Protestant Reformation was primarily responsible for the fragmentation of the Christian Church.[46] Protestantism by definition chooses a separate, pure church as superior to one unified in error. But Catholics see the division of Christianity as a great tragedy that runs counter to the wishes of God. Protestants, in Catholic eyes, are less in error than they are deficient in the full splendor of truth. The goal for all sincere Catholics, therefore, is to bring wayward Protestants back into the loving arms of Holy Mother Church. Protestants, on the other hand, constrained by their own history, must see Catholicism as corrupt and its adherents as irreconcilables. Carroll himself perceived this difference between the attitudes of the Roman and Reformed churches. In one of his published apologetic tracts, the bishop asserted that whereas it was a tenet of Catholicism to view Protestants as brothers in Christ, “some pretended reformers” reject a similar attitude toward Catholics.[47]

But Carroll’s belief in the truth of his faith did not lead him to adopt a narrow, sectarian view. Declaring that he made “an allowance to every denominn. freely to pursue their mode of worship,” Carroll sought to foster a spirit of toleration among his co-religionists.[48] In his inaugural sermon as bishop, Carroll averred that he was charged with instilling in the hearts of his flock “a warm charity & forbearance towards every other denomination of Christians.”[49] Indeed, one of the goals of his apologetic works was to bridge the gulf between the Roman and Reformed churches. In his Address to the Roman Catholics, for example, Carroll narrowed the definition of a heretic to include only those who stubbornly clung to a mistaken belief. “He is no heretic,” the Marylander opined, “who, though he hold false opinions in matters of faith, yet remains in an habitual disposition to renounce these opinions, whenever he discovers them to be contrary to the doctrines of Jesus Christ.”[50]

Carroll’s ecumenism, his promotion of a toleration for all Christian denominations, and his espousal of the separation of church and state were consistent with the “Maryland tradition” of religious liberty that dated to the settlement of the colony by the Calverts.  His example in championing these principles made it possible for American Catholics of later times, such as William Gaston of North Carolina, to espouse toleration without worrying that such a policy involved a compromise of their religious beliefs.

* * * * *


John Carroll

Soon after the final approval of the Constitution of the Clergy in 1784, word reached Carroll that Rome had named him “Superior of the Mission in the thirteen United States of North America.” Carroll was dismayed rather than flattered by the news, for he worried that the appointment established an ominous precedent for Roman control.[51] Less than a year earlier, Carroll had advised Rome of the Americans’ preference for John Lewis as Superior, but Rome had seemingly discounted the American clergy’s wishes.[52] Carroll also objected to Rome’s designation of the United States as mission territory, for this presumed the new Superior’s complete dependence upon Propaganda. “Perhaps this denomination was heretofore proper enough: but it cannot now be so deemed,” Carroll opined in a letter to Ferdinand Farmer shortly after receiving word of the appointment. “By the Constitution, our Religion has acquired equal rights & privileges with that of other Christians: we form not a fluctuating body of labourers in Christ’s vineyard, sent hither, & removeable [sic] at the will of a Superior; but a permanent body of national Clergy, with sufficient powers to form our own system of internal government, &, I think, to chuse our own Superior.”[53] Propaganda’s action, moreover, put Carroll in an awkward spot; a few months earlier, he had assured Charles Plowden “that no authority derived from the Propag[an]da will ever be admitted here.”[54]

Carroll also feared the reaction of American Protestants to Rome’s unilateral action. “I consider powers issued from the Propaganda not only as improper, but dangerous here,” he told Farmer. Americans would be suspicious of a Church leader whose strings were seemingly pulled by Roman officials. “The appointment therefore by the Propaganda of a Superior for this Country appears to be a dangerous step, &, by exciting the jealousy of the governments here may lend much to the prejudice of Religion.” In the end, Carroll accepted the appointment with the most serious reservations. “Nothing but the present extreme necessity of some spiritual powers here could induce me to act under such a commission,” he told Farmer, “which may produce, if long continued, & it should become public, the most dangerous jealousy.”[55]

Carroll was also informed that his appointment as Prefect Apostolic was only a temporary measure, a prelude to Rome’s establishment in America of a Vicar-Apostolic with full espiscopal powers. This alarmed Carroll. “A Bishop Vicar Apostolic,” he told Farmer, “would give great umbrage here, on acc[oun]t of his entire dependance, both for his station and conduct, on a foreign jurisdiction.”[56] The consequence, Carroll feared, would be “that some malicious or jealous-minded person would raise a spirit against us, & under pretense of rescuing the state from foreign influence, & dependance [sic], strip us perhaps of our common civil rights.”[57] At the time Carroll believed that any kind of bishop in America was unnecessary.[58] He preferred instead that he, as Prefect-Apostolic, be empowered with certain episcopal powers. But if Rome were determined to set up episcopal government in America, Carroll urged that she create an ordinary, diocesan bishop, “in whose appointment Rome shall have no share.”[59] The nation’s first bishop, Carroll insisted, “should be chosen by the Catholic Clergy themselves.”[60] The distinction between a Vicar Apostolic and an ordinary bishop was a crucial one for Carroll. The former, receiving his authority from Propaganda, was entirely dependent on that body, while the latter’s power derived from the nature of the office itself and could not be altered by the Holy See.

Carroll conveyed his concerns directly to Rome in a letter of February 1785 to Cardinal Antonelli. In choosing between a bishop and a Vicar Apostolic for the United States, Carroll asked that Rome consider the question: “What person will serve more for the betterment of the Catholic position, for the removal of hatred toward Catholics, for removing the alarm over foreign jurisdiction?” To make sure that his point was clear, Carroll provided the answer himself. “I know that alarm will certainly be increased,” he asserted, “if the people know that an ecclesiastical superior has been appointed in such wise that he may be removed from office at the will of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith or of any other foreign tribunal.” Carroll also requested that the American clergy be permitted to nominate a bishop, or failing that, he implored the Roman authorities to “decide upon some way of nominating a bishop by which offense to our people both Catholic as well as sectarian may be averted.”[61]

On July 23, 1785, Antonelli informed Carroll that Rome had decided to create a Vicar Apostolic and intended to appoint Carroll himself to the post. “If, however,” the cardinal told Carroll, “you judge it more expedient and more consistent with the constitution of that Republic that the missionaries themselves, at least for the first time, recommend some individual to the Sacred Congregation to be promoted to the office of Vicar-Apostolic the Sacred Congregation will not hesitate to perform whatever you consider to be most expedient.”[62] But Carroll, reconciled to Rome’s decision to create some sort of episcopal leadership in the United States, refused to give up the fight for an ordinary bishop. In November 1786, he issued a call for his fellow priests to assemble for a Second General Chapter. The meeting produced a statement calling for the establishment of a diocesan bishop for America, elected by the representatives of the native clergy.[63]

There was, however, lingering opposition among the American clergy to the establishment of any type of bishop in the country. Led by Father Bernard Diderick, this anti-episcopal faction had written to the Holy See in 1784, claiming that a bishop was at the present unnecessary and that the creation of one would alarm American Protestants. An unspoken concern was that a bishop might confiscate Jesuit lands in America as had been the case in Europe. Indeed, this concern had long animated the American clergy’s wariness of Roman authority.[64] Carroll was aware of Diderick’s letter, but he was increasingly unsympathetic to its central claims. First, he judged Protestant opposition to a Catholic bishop in America to be on the wane.[65] Second, contrary to the assertion of Diderick’s faction, he had come to believe by 1787 that episcopal government had become a necessity in America. “Such an extensive Continent as this,” Carroll told his fellow priests, “can never be left long without a Bishop of some sort to superintend the Clergy.”[66]

But it was not just the sheer size of the country that necessitated apostolic leadership. Carroll tacitly worried that his authority as Superior was insufficient to overawe recalcitrant priests and unruly congregations imbued by the Revolution with an anti-authoritarian spirit. On a recent visitation to New York City, Carroll had encountered a congregation at St. Peter’s Church that had split into two factions on the question of who should be their pastor. The rightful pastor—confirmed by Carroll himself in April 1785—was Father Charles Whelan, an Irishman and member of the Capuchin order. But Whelan was an uninspiring preacher and a poor leader, and when another Capuchin, Father Andrew Nugent, appeared in New York, the trustees of St. Peter’s—the laymen who administered the temporal affairs of the church—attempted to remove Whelan in favor of the newcomer. Carroll refused to countenance the change, and soon the trustees were in open rebellion against Whelan. Carroll was infuriated at this outright defiance of his authority as Superior of the American Church. When the trustees threatened to bypass Church procedure and initiate a civil lawsuit to achieve their ends, Carroll shot back, cautioning that they could “take no step . . . more prejudicial to the Catholic cause,” and warning “that no Clergyman be he who he may, shall receive any spiritual powers from me who shall advise or countenance so unnecessary & prejudicial a procedure.”[67] The unruly trustees, however, succeeded in forcing Whelan to flee to upstate New York, and Carroll, realizing that Nugent was the only priest left in the city, admitted defeat and reluctantly granted him faculties in March of 1786.

The controversy did not end there. Some parishioners of St. Peter’s soon became disillusioned with Nugent, brought charges of misconduct and initiated a civil suit to have him removed. Carroll also learned that the clergyman had been suspended in his priestly duties by the Archbishop of Dublin before coming to America. Carroll thereupon removed Nugent, and, cognizant of his obstinacy, traveled to New York in order to inform the Capuchin personally that his faculties in America were to be suspended. At St. Peter’s Church, an irate Nugent burst into the sanctuary as Carroll was preparing to say Mass on Sunday morning. The Capuchin berated Carroll and his own accusers who were present in the church. “A tumult ensued,” Carroll recalled, and “abusive language, most unbecoming the sacredness of the place, was exchanged between him and others.” Nugent and his supporters then denied to Carroll’s face his right to suspend the priest’s faculties, claiming that “since my jurisdiction comes from the Holy See it was foreign, and for this reason in conflict with the law.” Incensed, Carroll suspended the fractious priest’s faculties on the spot and stormed out of the church. This was not the only time that the spirit of ecclesiastical democracy would cause trouble for Carroll.[68]

The Nugent schism erased any remaining doubt in Carroll’s mind about the need for episcopal authority in America.[69] Still, it failed to persuade the anti-episcopal faction to alter its stand. Knowing that internal dissension would weaken the case with Rome, Carroll attempted to rally his fellow ex-Jesuits to the cause. He reminded them, first, that in the wake of the suppression of their order, they had signed an oath, vowing obedience to the bishop and thereby to episcopal government. Consequently, they had no philosophical grounds for opposition to an American bishop. Carroll also pointed out that diocesan bishops in Europe had historically been friends of the Society of Jesus; they “were the means of its getting footing & flourishing in all Catholic Countries, and were the most strenuous in the support of its existence in its last period.”[70] Perhaps such a bishop in America could help to realize the dream of reconstituting the Society. Besides, Rome had already made its decision, and an American bishop was basically a fait accompli. “The only question therefore between us,” Carroll stated flatly, “is this: Are you for a Bishop of your own choosing, & who in the nature of things will be well affected to us & the reestablishment of the Society? Or are you for leaving it to the Propaganda to appoint one over you, who in the ordinary course of things will be inimical to both?”[71]

Carroll’s arguments succeeded in uniting the body of the clergy behind his call for an ordinary bishop. He and two fellow priests—Robert Molyneaux and John Ashton—wrote directly to the Pope, declaring “that in our opinion the time has come” for “the dignity and authority” of episcopal government to be established over the American Church. The letter cleverly cited the recent challenges to Carroll’s authority in New York as the catalyst for the request. Insubordinate priests, Carroll and his co-authors claimed, “offer as the reason for their unruliness and disobedience that they are bound to obey a bishop who wields personal authority, but not a simple priest who has only delegated authority, such as is forbidden by our laws.” Carroll pointed out that the Nugent faction justified its disobedience by claiming “that the authority of the ecclesiastical superior put over us by the Sacred Congregation was illegal, because it was set up by a foreign tribunal and was dependent on this tribunal both as regards its exercise and its duration.” The implication was, of course, that a Vicar-Apostolic would meet with similar opposition, whereas an ordinary bishop, whose independent authority stemmed from his office, would command the respect of his flock. It is doubtful that the Nugent faction ever expressed a willingness to obey even a bishop; nevertheless, Carroll had deftly turned the Nugent schism to his advantage.[72]

Carroll, Molyneaux, and Ashton then attached to their request for a bishop the two essential conditions. Expressing their desire to “arouse the least suspicion and opposition among those with whom we live,” the priests asked that the Pope “establish an episcopal see in the United States of America, one immediately under the Holy See; and, secondly, that the choice of a bishop, at least in this first instance, be left to the priests here who have the care of souls.”[73] By indicating that they would settle for the right to elect only their first bishop, the petitioners provided Rome with a way to placate the Americans and yet avoid setting a precedent. Pope Pius VI took advantage of this opening and granted the request; in July 1788, Cardinal Antonelli informed the American clergy that “his Holiness as a special favour and for this first time, permits the priests who at the present time duly exercise the ministry of the Catholic religion and have care of souls to elect as bishop a person eminent in piety, prudence, and zeal for the faith, from the said clergy, and present him to the Apostolic See to obtain confirmation.”[74]

Carroll had won his victory: America would have an ordinary bishop elected by the American clergy. Accordingly, the American clergy chose electors who assembled at Whitemarsh Plantation in May 1788 and elected Carroll their first bishop. The choice was confirmed by Rome on September 14, 1789, and two months later, the Pope created the first Apostolic See in the United States at Baltimore, which encompassed the entire territory of the United States. On August 15, 1790, Carroll was consecrated bishop in the chapel of Lulworth Castle in England.[75]

jesuit-priest-17th-centuryHaving won Rome’s permission to elect their first bishop, Carroll and his fellow priests then pushed for the right of the American clergy to elect future bishops as well. At the meeting of the General Chapter that culminated with Carroll’s election, the clergy passed a series of resolutions designed to enshrine a permanent system of episcopal election in which the body of the clergy would first choose electors who would then assemble and select a bishop.[76] Carroll ardently hoped that his election had established a precedent—in spite of Rome’s stipulation that it was a unique procedure—and that Rome would acquiesce in the American clergy’s right of election from then on. “Otherwise,” Carroll confided to Charles Plowden, “we shall never be viewed kindly by our government here, and discontents, even amongst our own Clergy, will break out.”[77]

But Carroll’s hopes were dashed. In 1792, citing the great burden of his office, he requested that Rome divide the Baltimore See into two dioceses or at least appoint a bishop-coadjutor to assist him. Carroll proposed that “the election of a new bishop be left to fifteen priests, ten of whom have labored a good while in the vineyard of the Lord—are veterans in fact,—and the others chosen by me as bishop from among the priests whose prudence is well known.” Carroll did not push Rome too far; he added that this election take place “with the proviso that the Holy See retain the right to reject candidates until someone is chosen who meets the full approval of the Pope.”[78] But, though Pius VI wished to avoid an open clash with the American clergy over the sensitive question, he was determined not to concede the right of election. He therefore shrewdly skirted the issue by choosing the option of a coadjutor for Carroll. “While on the one hand His Holiness could never agree that a new bishop be freely chosen from among the members of your clergy,” Antonelli informed Carroll, “on the other, as you yourself fear, an unwelcome choice by the Roman Pontiff would arouse great opposition among them. Therefore, with the designation of a simple coadjutor, this difficulty will be removed and will even disappear since no one can complain if a bishop requests the Holy See to grant him a coadjutor.” Antonelli directed Carroll to “consult with the older and more experienced members of your clergy and then to propose a suitable and experienced American missionary whom the Holy Father will designate as your coadjutor.”[79] Thus, Rome allowed the American clergy another election while making it clear that this was again an exceptional case and would in no way establish a principle.

Carroll would never win Rome’s recognition of the American Church’s right to have a say in the selection of its bishops. In 1808, when the Holy See reorganized the United States into six dioceses, the Roman authorities explicitly proclaimed that they had the right to choose bishops “now and hereafter whenever a vacancy occurs” in any of the dioceses.[80] Nevertheless, Rome had accepted Carroll’s recommendations for four of the five new sees created in 1808, and this had encouraged him to try to salvage some remnant of the plan of native consultation by offering to Rome a less democratic plan.  In 1810, he and his fellow bishops petitioned the Holy See “to allow the nomination for the vacant Dioceses to proceed solely from the Archbishop and Bishops of this Ecclesiastical Province.”[81] But even this degree of consultation would not be granted to the American clergy. John Carroll would be the only bishop in the history of the United States to be chosen by his fellow Americans.

Next: A Church of Their Own: American Catholics and Rome

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1. Carroll to Pope Pius VI, September 27, 1790, Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 1:470.

2. Carroll to Giuseppe Doria-Pamphili, November 26, 1784, ibid., 1:153.

3. Carroll, “Plan of Clergy Organization,” 1782, ibid., 1:62.

4. “Constitution of the Clergy,” 1783-1784, ibid., 1:73.

5. See Joseph P. Chinnici, The English Catholic Enlightenment: John Lingard and the Cisalpine Movement, 1780-1850 (Shepherdstown, Maryland, 1980), 36, 55-56; Agonito, Building of an American Catholic Church, 60-63. As early as the sixteenth century, Thomas More had declared that Catholics were bound to defend their country against the Pope’s armies in any temporal conflict. See Hanley, Their Rights and Liberties, 33.

6. The bishop’s oath sanctioned by Carroll acknowledged the Pope as possessing at least some degree of temporal authority. In the oath, the bishop swore not to alienate any church property in his diocese “without consulting the Roman Pontiff.” Of course, Carroll approved this oath in 1794 after he had been consecrated bishop and had somewhat moderated his anti-Roman views. See “Oath for Episcopal Consecration,” August 1794, Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 2:125.

7. Carroll to Giuseppe Doria-Pamphili, November 26, 1784, ibid., 1:152.

8. Carroll to Plowden, September 26, 1783, ibid., 1:78. On this subject, see Mary Augustina Ray, American Opinion of Roman Catholicism in the Eighteenth Century (New York, 1936; reprint, 1974), passim.

9. The doctrine of papal infallibility would be proclaimed as an article of faith at the Vatican Council of 1870. The Council declared that the Pope was infallible only when he spoke officially (ex cathedra) on issues of faith and morals. Those who favored the doctrine met stiff opposition from a bloc of American bishops. See James Hennesey, American Catholics: A History of the Roman Catholic Community in the United States (New York, 1981), 168-171. John Carroll claimed that no Catholic believed that the Pope was infallible in factual matters. See Carroll to Plowden, February 3, 1791, Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 1:491. For statements by other contemporary American Catholics on papal infallibility, see Agonito, Building of an American Catholic Church, 68-69.

10. An Address to the Roman Catholics of the United States of America By a Catholic Clergyman, 1784, Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 1:105-106.

11. See Carroll to Plowden, September 2, 1790, ibid., 1:453-454.

12. Carroll to Ferdinand Farmer, a fellow ex-Jesuit, [Dec. 1784], ibid., 1:157.

13. Carroll to Joseph Berington, July 10, 1784, ibid., 1:148.

14. Carroll to Berington, September 29, 1786, ibid., 1:218.

15. Carroll to John Thorpe, February 17, 1785, ibid., 1:162.

16. Carroll to Charles Plowden, October 12, 1791, ibid., 1:524.

17. This has been argued most forcefully by Thomas O’Brien Hanley. “The church and state were viewed, not so much in terms of union or separation, but as two sovereignties . . . . This tradition demanded reserve in the exercise of authority by each sovereignty in mixed temporal and spiritual matters.” See Hanley, Their Rights and Liberties: The Beginnings of Religious and Political Freedom in Maryland (Westminster, Maryland, 1959), 120.

18. Carroll, “Disciplinary Decree to the Holy Trinity Congregation,” February 27, 1797, Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 2:202.

19. On Carroll’s mindset in the wake of the French government’s suppression of the Society, see Carroll to Daniel Carroll, May 24, 1764, ibid., 1:3-5. See also Melville, John Carroll, 16.

20. Carroll to Plowden, September 3, 1800, Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 2:319-320.

21. Carroll to John Fenno of the Gazette of the United States, June 10, 1789, ibid., 1:365.

22. Carroll to Charles Carroll of Carrollton, November 11, 1783, ibid., 1:82.

23. For the provisions of the Maryland Constitution of 1776, see H.H. Walker Lewis, ed., The Maryland Constitution 1776 (Baltimore, MD, 1976), 57-90, quotations on 62-63. For the idea of the Christian state, see Thomas O’ Brien Hanley, The American Revolution and Religion: Maryland, 1770-1800 (Washington, D.C., 1971), chap. 3. The Maryland Constitution was hardly unique in its endorsement of Christianity. Nearly all the other new state constitutions promoted Christianity or at least belief in a Deity. Also, the federal constitution of 1789 tacitly acknowledged the legitimacy of religious tests for voting. Though it precluded Congress’ erection of a religious establishment in the First Amendment and explicitly dispensed with religious tests for federal offices in Article Six, it mandated in Article I, Section 2, that the electors in each state for the federal House of Representatives “shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature.” At that time, of course, several state constitutions still required a religious test for voting.

24. Carroll to Plowden, February 27, 1785, Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 1:168.

25. Carroll to Plowden, February 27, 1785, ibid., 1:168.

26. Carroll quoted in Agonito, Building of an American Catholic Church, 263; see also Carroll to Plowden, February 27, 1785, Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 1:168.

27. Carroll to William Vousdan, September 10, 1801, ibid., 2:362.

28. Carroll to John Fenno of the Gazette of the United States, June 10, 1789, ibid., 1:366.

29. Carroll to the Editor of The Columbian Magazine, September 1, 1787, ibid., 1:259.

30. Carroll, An Address to the Roman Catholics of the United States of America by a Catholic Clergyman, 1784, ibid., 1:140.

31. Carroll to Joseph Berington, July 10, 1784, ibid., 1:148.

32. On Carroll’s initial admiration for Berington, see, for example, his letter to the Englishman of July 10, 1784, in Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 1:147-149. Carroll borrowed from Berington’s work in his Address to the Roman Catholics. To Plowden, Carroll claimed that he had read Fletcher’s Reflections on the Spirit of Religious Controversy “at least four times” and that he had it reprinted in America; see Carroll to Plowden, December 5, 1808; to Plowden, February 21, 1809, in Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 3:73; 3:82. The Cisalpines were especially appealing to Americans because they fused Whig political principles with their theory of ecclesiastical government. The Ultramontanes, on the other hand, were sympathetic to Toryism; the conservative bishop and theologian, John Milner, equated republicanism with infidelity. See Chinnici, The English Catholic Enlightenment, 36-38. In embracing some elements of Enlightenment thought, American Catholics were following the example of the Protestant majority, which had reconciled its faith with the principles of the Age of Reason through an intellectual development that historian Henry May has dubbed the “Moderate Enlightenment.” See Henry May, The Enlightenment in America (New York, 1976).

33. On the program of education at St. Omer’s, see Thomas E. Muir, Stonyhurst College, 1593-1992 (London, 1991); Thomas O’ Brien Hanley, Charles Carroll of Carrollton: The Making of a Revolutionary Gentleman (Washington, D.C., 1970), chap. 2; Chinnici, The English Catholic Enlightenment, 6-7. Carroll’s library, which is housed at Georgetown University and The Catholic University of America, contained numerous books that emphasized the reasonableness of Christianity in general and the Catholic faith in particular. Examples include Robert Manning’s A Plain and Rational Account of the Catholic Faith, Andrew Baxter’s An Enquiry into the Nature of the Human Soul, wherein the immateriality of the soul is evinced from the principles of reason and philosophy, George Hay’s The Scripture Doctrine of Miracles Displayed: in which their nature, their different kinds, their possibility, their ends, instruments, authority, criterion, and continuation are impartially examined and explained, according to the light of revelation, and the principles of sound reason. Carroll even flirted with the thought of Voltaire; he owned Marie Maximilien Harel’s The History of the Life and Writings of Mr. Arruet de Voltaire.

34. In his letter to John Fenno’s Gazette, Carroll argued that it was unjust to deny men their rights “merely on account of their religious opinions.” See Carroll to John Fenno of the Gazette of the United States, June 10, 1789, Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 1:365. The twentieth-century classicist, Allan Bloom, argues that the American founders sought “to palliate extreme beliefs, particularly religious beliefs, which lead to civil strife.” In order to attain civil harmony, “there was a conscious, if covert, effort to weaken religious beliefs, partly by assigning—as a result of a great epistemological effort—religion to the realm of opinion as opposed to knowledge.” See Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York, 1987), 28. Martin Marty suggests that the diversity of religious belief in the United States led Americans to forge a tacit settlement in which religion was legally disestablished while a Christian ethos was retained. See Marty, Righteous Empire (New York, 1970), chap. 4.

35. An example is Henry Turberville’s A Manual of Controversies: clearly demonstrating the truth of the Catholic Religion by texts of Holy Scripture, Councils of All Ages, Fathers for the first 500 years, Common sense and reason.

36. See, for example, Carroll to Antonelli, July 2, 1787, Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 1:255.

37. Carroll, “Journal of European Tour,” [1771-1772], ibid., 1:21-23. Hanley, citing Leonard Brent’s early biography of Carroll, speculates on the use made of this journal. See ibid., 25.

38. Carroll to William Vousdan, September 10, 1801, ibid., 2:362.

39. Carroll, “Sermon on Occasion of Possessing his Pro-Cathedral,” December 12, 1790, ibid., 1:477.

40. Carroll, An Address to the Roman Catholics of the United States of America by a Catholic Clergyman, 1784, ibid., 1:140.

41. An Address to the Roman Catholics of the United States of America by a Catholic Clergyman, 1784, in Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 1:82-141. On Carroll’s reluctance to continue the controversy, see Carroll to Plowden, June 29, 1785, ibid., 1:191.

42. Carroll to the Editor of The Columbian Magazine, September 1, 1787, ibid., 1:259-261.

43. Carroll to John Fenno of the Gazette of the United States, June 10, 1789, ibid., 1:365-368.

44. Carroll, “An Answer to Strictures on an Extraordinary Signature,” November 21, 1792, ibid., 2:69-71.

45. Carroll’s anxiety about antagonizing Protestants is perhaps most clearly expressed in his letter suspending a French priest’s faculties on account on his seemingly deliberate attempts to annoy Protestants. Among other things, the Frenchman prayed for the King of France at every Mass. Carroll told the priest that “more caution is required in the ministers of our Religion, than perhaps in any other Country.” See Carroll to Claudius de La Poterie, April 3, 1789, ibid., 1:354.

46. The first major break in the universal Church, of course, was that between the Orthodox East and the Roman West in 1054.

47. Carroll, An Answer to Strictures on an Extraordinary Signature, November 21, 1792, Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 2:71. Robert Gorman states that this apology was later reprinted in The Metropolitan in 1830. See Gorman, Catholic Apologetical Literature in the United States, 1784-1858 (Washington, D.C., 1939), 10.

48. Carroll to William Vousdan, September 10, 1801, Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 2:362.

49. Carroll, “Sermon on Occasion of Possessing his Pro-Cathedral,” December 12, 1790, ibid., 1:477.

50. Carroll, An Address to the Roman Catholics of the United States of America By a Catholic Clergyman, ibid., 1:89.

51. Carroll was probably heartened by one aspect of the letter, for Antonelli indicated Propaganda’s “wish not to meddle with temporal things.” Antonelli to Carroll, June 9, 1784; quoted in Guilday, John Carroll, 203-204.

52. Lewis was passed over because of concerns about his age (sixty-three). In addition, Benjamin Franklin, the United States’ minister to France, had recommended his friend Carroll for the post to Cardinal Doria-Pamphili, the Papal Nuncio in Paris. The Pope apparently took Franklin’s endorsement as an indication that the American government would be amenable to Carroll’s appointment.  See letter of Cardinal Antonelli to Carroll, June 9, 1784, in Shea, John Carroll, 243-244; Agonito, Building of an American Catholic Church, p. 18, footnote 13.

53. Carroll to Farmer, [Dec. 1784], Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 1:156-157.

54. Carroll to Plowden, April 10, 1784, ibid., 1:146.

55. Carroll to Farmer, [Dec. 1784], ibid., 1:156-157.

56. Carroll to Farmer, [Dec. 1784], ibid., 1:157.

57. Carroll to John Thorpe, February 17, 1785, ibid., 1:163.

58. As late as February 1785, Carroll wrote to Charles Plowden: “The want of a Bishop will not be felt amongst us, for some few years.” See Carroll to Plowden, February 27, 1785, ibid., 1:167.

59. Carroll to Plowden, April 10, 1784, ibid., 1:146.

60. Carroll to Farmer, [Dec. 1784], ibid., 1:157.

61. Carroll to Antonelli, February 27, 1785, ibid., 1:173.

62. Antonelli to Carroll, July 23, 1785; quoted in Agonito, Building of an American Catholic Church, 30-31.

63. Minutes of the Second General Chapter of the Clergy, November 13-22, 1786, quoted ibid., 31-32.

64. Clergy’s Memorial to Rome, December, 1784; quoted in Agonito, Building of an American Church, 29, footnote 27. The American Jesuits’ concern about the fate of their estates under a bishop was not without foundation. Guilday points out that upon the suppression of the Jesuit order in 1773, Rome had instructed the Vicar-Apostolic of London, Richard Challoner, to appropriate the Jesuits’ property; Challoner, however, had ignored the order as impractical in the case of the American Jesuits. See Guilday, John Carroll, 51-52.

65. Carroll to Antonelli, February 27, 1785, Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 1:173. The fact that the Episcopal church in America had just appointed bishops probably influenced Carroll’s gauging of anti-episcopal sentiment in general.

66. Carroll et al. to “The Gentlemen of the Southern District,” [1787], ibid., 1:228.

67. Carroll to Dominick Lynch and Thomas Stoughton, January 24, 1786, ibid., 1:205-206.

68. Carroll to Antonelli, March 18, 1788, ibid., 1:283. For more on the Nugent controversy, see Melville, John Carroll, 77-83; Shea, John Carroll, 323-326; Patrick Carey, People, Priests, and Prelates: Ecclesiastical Democracy and the Tensions of Trusteeism (Notre Dame, Indiana 1987), chap. 1; Agonito, Building of an American Catholic Church, 77-82. Nugent refused to vacate the church despite Carroll’s decree and the opposition of the majority of St. Peter’s lay trustees. The matter eventually ended up in a New York state court, which ruled in the trustees’ favor. Though banished from St. Peter’s, Nugent defiantly continued to say Mass in a private house for a handful of his supporters. See Carroll to Antonelli, April 19, 1788; April 14, 1789, Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 1:301; 1:356.

69. See Carroll to William O’Brien, May 10, 1788, in Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 1:309.

70. Carroll et al. to “The Gentlemen of the Southern District,” [1787], ibid., 1:227.

71. Carroll et al. to “The Gentlemen of the Southern District,” [1787], ibid., 1:233.

72. Carroll, Robert Molyneaux, and John Ashton to Pope Pius VI, March 12, 1788, ibid., 1:279.

73. Carroll, Molyneaux, and Ashton to Pope Pius VI, March 12, 1788, ibid., 1:280.

74. Antonelli to Carroll, Molyneaux, and Ashton, July 12, 1788; quoted in Guilday, John Carroll, 352.

75. See ibid., 352-362 and chap. 21. Guilday speculates as to why Carroll chose England as the site of his consecration. See 361-362.

76. See ibid., 354-355. Carroll was probably the driving force behind the idea of electors, which he seemed to favor more for philosophical than practical reasons. To Plowden, Carroll declared that the right of electing a bishop “I hope will never be vested in the whole body of officiating clergy; but only certain select persons.” Carroll also expressed his opposition more than once to “ecclesiastical democracy.” Carroll perhaps was influenced by the example of the electoral college system created by the United States Constitution. See Carroll to Plowden, November 12, 1788; December [?] 22, [1791-1792]; to John Troy, July 12, 1794, Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 1:332, 1:548, 2:120.

77. December [?] 22, [1791-1792], Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 1:332, 1:548. See also Carroll to John Ashton, April 18, 1790, ibid., 1:436. In the Papal Bull that officially announced Carroll’s appointment, the Holy See indicated that Carroll’s election was a one-time occurrence and that in the future Rome would appoint American bishops; Carroll was so concerned about Protestant reaction to this that he attempted to remove or alter this clause when the Bull was published in the United States. See Carroll to Plowden, September 2, 1790, ibid., 1:454-455.

78. Carroll to Antonelli, April 23, 1792, ibid., 2:32-33.

79. Antonelli to Carroll, September 29, 1792; quoted in Agonito, Building of an American Catholic Church, 43.

80. Papal Bull Ex debito pastoralis officiiRecords, quoted ibid., 48. Regulations, Bishop’s Meeting, November 1810, quoted ibid., 49.

81. Regulations, Bishop’s Meeting, November 1810, quoted ibid., 49

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