The American Catholic Church
Assessing the Past, Discerning the Future
Anthony T. Padovano
Catholic Theologian


 

In 1775, there were armed clashes between American and English forces in Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill. The next year, 1776, as Americans know well, the insurrection became a rebellion and a revolution. One of the great documents of human history, the Declaration of Independence, called for a new nation. The Declaration was a revolution in its own right. It affirmed God but not the Churches, stressed the Enlightenment but not Tradition, and it underscored inclusivity as the operating principle of the new nation ("all..are created equal"). Never before or since was a nation formed with so much boldness and imagination.


In that fateful year, 1776, the Continental Congress sent a small delegation to Canada to elicit Canada's support in the revolution. For a number of days, Benjamin Franklin and two prominent Catholics traveled north together.


One of these Catholics was a layman, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the richest person in the new nation. He had signed the Declaration of Independence, willing to face execution for treason if the revolution failed. He had also put his vast fortune at the service of the new nation. He had nothing to gain from this revolution. He supported it as an act of conscience. The founders of the new nation were impressed mightily by this Catholic commitment to what was then a very risky enterprise.


A second Catholic in the coach with Franklin was Charles Carrollton's cousin, John Carroll, a priest, forty one years of age. He was destined, as we shall see, to bring the principles of the American Revolution into the structures of the American Catholic Church.


Benjamin Franklin, a believer in God but not in denominationalism, a humanist who distrusted organized religion, a very shrewd judge of human character, grew to respect John Carroll in their time together.


We should focus on this journey north. Inclusive, tolerant, brave, Catholics were not deemed dangerous by the founders of the nation. They were sent on this congressional mission of the highest urgency in the hope that Franklin's diplomatic skills and the Catholic sensitivities of the Carrolls might bring strongly Catholic Canada in on the American side.


Let us move our story eight years forward. In 1784, the American Revolution has proved victorious against incredible odds. The Constitution for the new government will be written and ratified five years later. It is very early in the life of the new republic. It is 1784.


Benjamin Franklin learns that the Pope is seeking to appoint a priest superior of the American Catholic Church. Since this is an age when government leaders were expected to nominate Church officials, Franklin writes the Pope and highly recommends that John Carroll be that person. The Pope agrees.


Benjamin Franklin, a humanist, was then a key influence in the founding of this nation and a catalyst in the organization of the American Catholic Church. John Carroll, unmistakably Catholic, was comfortable with Franklin, unmistakably Deist. They found common cause in the life, liberty and equality of the Declaration of Independence, which brought them together and helped to define both of them.


With this scene in mind, I would like to consider the American Catholic Church in what I see as the three significant phases of its development:


The American Phase 1634-1850
The Roman Phase 1850-1960
The Catholic Phase - 1960-present