The American Phase 1634-1850


After a voyage of four months, two ships, the Ark and the Dove, land in present-day Maryland. It is March 5, 1634, fourteen years after the 1620 founding of Plymouth Plantation farther north. Catholics and Protestants crossed the ocean and together they created a colony where Catholics were free to worship. John Carroll will be born in that colony a century later in 1735. When Carroll becomes the first American bishop, in that same colony, in 1789, there will be 35,000 Catholics in a national population of four million (about 1%).

I have designated this time period the American Phase. In the first century and a half, Benjamin Franklin recommended John Carroll for a Church office and Protestants worked to create a colony where Catholics were welcome. Protestants were willing to do this just about a century after the bitter excommunication of Martin Luther in 1520. In America, Protestants gave land for Catholics to build Churches and, later, sent their children to Catholic schools.

We need to inquire why these promising beginnings did not continue.

There is more.

There could hardly have been a better choice than John Carroll to lead the American Catholic Church. His family heritage and culture were steeped in democracy and, as we shall see, in many of the characteristics we now identify as typically American.

Immediately after the American Revolution, in 1782, Carroll drafted a "Constitution for the Clergy" in Whitemarch, Maryland, after a series of three meetings over a two-year period.

The "Constitution" gives priests voting privileges in determining their ministry and their leaders. In 1783, Carroll writes that "…in the United States our religious system has undergone a revolution, if possible, more extraordinary than our political one." It is clear, then, that Carroll is deliberate and intentional in these innovations and that his model is the emerging American philosophy of government. In 1784, Carroll is named "Superior of the Catholic Clergy in America" at Franklin's suggestion, as we have noted. When Rome nominates him as the first American bishop a few years later, he demurs. He tells Rome that bishops appointed by a foreign government, albeit papal, will not have credibility in the new Republic. He asks that the clergy choose their own bishop. An election takes place on May 18, 1789 and Carroll is chosen 24-2.

In 1789, the United States Constitution is ratified, George Washington is inaugurated, John Carroll becomes the first United States bishop and Georgetown is established by Carroll as the first Catholic institution of higher learning.

Carroll allows English in the Liturgy and he supports a strong voice for the laity in the American trustee system. There are three characteristics of this trustee system:
  • the laity nominates candidates as pastor and the bishop appoints
  • the bishop has limited rights to dismiss a pastor
  • disputes are settled in an arbitration committee, half of whose members are lay

    Carroll, furthermore, promotes open discussion and allows the dissent which accompanies it. He observes that "…a free circulation to fair argument is the most effectual method to bring…Christians to…unity…" Notice the words: the best method is open discussion; this discussion does not promote division but unity. It sounds counter-intuitive to Europe; Americans know it works.

    As we take our leave of Carroll, we note that a number of initiatives are in place:
  • a substantial voice for the laity
  • the right of clergy to choose their bishop
  • a sense that democracy is good for the Church
  • a written constitution for the clergy with a clear definition of authority and its limits
  • a preference for public debate and dialogue on Church issues
  • ecumenism
  • a warning that foreign and papal interference will diminish the credibility of Church leaders

    John England

    In 1823, thirty-four years after Carroll's ordination as Bishop of Baltimore, John England of Charleston, South Carolina, issues a "Constitution of the Roman Catholic Church of South Carolina."

    John England researched the document thoroughly going back to the theology of conciliarism in the 1415 Council of Constance. That Council forced three popes to resign and declared ecumenical councils superior to papal authority.

    This Church Constitution of South Carolina notes that the bishop is not the "deputy of the Pope" any more than the governor of an American State is a deputy of the President of the United States. As each American State can have its own laws, in general agreement with the Constitution of the United States, so each diocese can formulate its own laws and culture, in general agreement with the universal Church. The Constitution adds that "We are not required by our Faith to believe the Pope is infallible."

    The Constitution calls for a vestry of laity to supervise the finances of each parish. The vestry settles salary for clergy and pays them directly. It selects all lay ministers and personnel for the parish; no lay person can be removed from office except by decision of the vestry. If the vestry has a problem with its priest, it meets without him and sends its report directly to the bishop for resolution.

    On the diocesan level, a board of "General Trustees" is in charge of all diocesan funds. This board consists of five clergy (the bishop, a vicar and three clergy chosen by the clergy) and six laity, chosen by the laity.

    The "Constitution" continues and advances characteristics of John Carroll's approach:
  • a substantial voice for the laity and the right to elect trustees
  • a written constitution
  • a preference for public debate and dialogue

    A special feature of this "Constitution" is an annual convention of clergy and laity. This convention takes place every year from 1823 until John England's death, some twenty years later, in 1842.

    The annual meeting of the convention has a house of clergy and a house of laity. The lay house selects its members, elects its president and meets on its own. No act of the convention is valid unless a majority of clergy, a majority of laity and the consent of the bishop are in harmony. If a majority of both houses disagree with the bishop, delegates can appeal to Rome to have the bishop do what they wish.

    For some twenty years, John England is, perhaps, the most powerful voice in the American Catholic hierarchy. A sign of his influence is the two-hour address he is invited to deliver before the United States Congress. He will be a leader in assembling the plenary councils of bishops in Baltimore, as we shall see in a moment. These councils are the most successful example of collegiality in the universal Church of the nineteenth century:

    There are final vestiges of this thoroughly American and yet Roman, free and yet traditional style in three surprising developments in the late nineteenth century:
  • nation-wide meetings of the entire American episcopate, plenary sessions at Baltimore, convene in 1855, 1866, and 1884; they are consciously collegial in their approach as we have noted; they anticipate the regular national conferences of bishops called for in Vatican II
  • the American bishops arrive at Vatican I opposed to a definition of papal infallibility; they believe it will inflame American and Protestant fears of foreign interference, idolatry, and papal control of free speech; indeed, almost half of the American bishops (22) leave the Council as approval of infallibility becomes inevitable
  • the first Parliament of World Religions takes place in Chicago in 1893 at a time when Catholics and Protestants do not dialogue with one another freely; three episcopal leaders of the American Church participate, on an equal footing with major world religious leaders, much to the subsequent anger of Rome: James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore (from the North); John Keane of Richmond, Virginia, first rector of Catholic University (from the South); John Ireland of St. Paul, Minnesota (from the Midwest)

    In these late nineteenth-century developments we see a stress on collegiality, concern for free speech in the Church and a sensitivity to ecumenical and even interreligious dialogue. We find the roots of this in John Carroll's and John England's ecclesiology.

    So what went wrong?

    There are two possible explanations. The first is suggested by Alexis de Tocqueville, the most astute observer of American culture in history. In 1831, in the latter years of the American Phase, he notes that American Catholics are "the most democratic class in the United States…very sincere" but also "very submissive."

    This submissiveness will end the American influence on the Catholic Church when Rome turns harshly against it. Submissiveness and Roman censure terminate the American Phase and bring us to the Roman Phase of the American Catholic Church.

  • Previous | Next