Saturday, January 22, 2011

A lull in Anti-Catholic America

Continuing with the theme of a history of Anti-Catholicism in America, Catholics in the newly independent nation fared quite well. While society in general and political power in particular remained in the hands of the old English-now-American gentry who were, with the exception of the Marylanders, all but universally Protestants of the Congregationalist or Unitarian types in New England or Episcopalians (New York, Virginia and the Southern States), Catholics had at least been given the freedom to build churches and openly practice their faith. Catholic communities sprang up in Boston, New York, and Charleston. Philadelphia had a Catholic community even before the Revolution and indeed the Continental Congress had, on at least one occasion, repaired to Old St. Joseph’s Church for public prayer. Catholicism was long accustomed to being publically acknowledged in Maryland. Moreover many Marylanders were among the most avid settlers pouring through the Cumberland Gap into the Ohio Valley settlements in what is now Kentucky. Indeed within eighteen years of John Carroll’s being named first Archbishop of Baltimore, his See would be named an archdiocese with four suffragens—Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Bardstown Kentucky. A few years later dioceses were created in Charleston, Richmond, and Cincinnati.
John Carroll, the first Catholic bishop, was well known to the leading figures in American politics. He was a Carroll, of the Maryland Carrols. His cousin Charles had signed the Declaration of Independence. Another member of the family was Daniel Carroll who served in Congress. Several Carrolls, including the Bishop’s Mother, Elizabeth Carroll, and the aforementioned Daniel Carroll, were among the landowners whose estates were purchased for the establishment of the new national Capital, Washington City, on the banks of the Potomac. Daniel Carroll was the owner of Jenkin’s Hill—the site that was picked for the new national Capitol and is now called Capitol Hil. John Carroll had served on a diplomatic mission to Canada with Benjamin Franklin and Franklin was among those who urged the Pope, Pius VI, to confirm Carroll’s election as first bishop in the nascent nation.
That is not to say, however, that Franklin or others—despite their regard for Carroll personally—held Catholicism in high esteem. Many of these founders including George Washington (though not Franklin) were free-masons and free-masonry was ardently opposed to traditional Christianity which they saw as intellectually incompatible with their enlightenment consecration to rationalism. Washington was a nominal Episcopalian—indeed a vestryman in his parish—but he attended church primarily to please his wife, and his participation in Christian worship was limited to attendance at Morning Prayer. Martha would stay for Holy Communion, but the General would leave church before the Communion Service began. From various comments he made, verbally or in writing, it is clear that Washington was not committed to the doctrine of Christ’s divinity and he saw religion’s main purpose as encouraging moral behavior among the less educated populace. This view was shared by Thomas Jefferson who himself might best be described as an Agnostic and who, while baptized an Anglican in infancy and buried according to the Anglican (or technically, Episcopalian) rites, saw Jesus as a great moral teacher and nothing else. Indeed, Jefferson went through his bible and sliced out all the miracle stories (including the Virgin Birth and Resurrection) and claims to Christ's divinity, leaving only the parables and moral teachings of Jesus. Jefferson did make several contributions towards the building of Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian churches because he saw them a offering good moral training to the yeoman farmers of Virginia whose political cause he championed. There is no record of him ever making a contribution towards the building of a Catholic church. (Washington, on the other hand, did make a contribution towards the building of Old Saint Mary’s in Alexandria, mostly because his much favored equerry, a Colonel John Fitzgerald, was among the sponsoring parishioners.) Jefferson and Franklin had served as envoys to the French Court and saw the unattractive side of European Catholicism with the great prelates of France living in lordly splendor at the expense of the underclasses and exerting great (and usually self-interested) influence over the King and his decisions. It did not leave them as admirers of Catholicism.
In the new republic Catholics tended to be Federalists—the party opposed to Jefferson and his “Republicans.” (This will get confusing, but the “Republican Party" of Jefferson is not related to today’s Republicans—indeed, to the contrary, they are the first generation of the modern Democrat party.)
Catholics in the new republic tended to be conservative and in favor of a strong central government. They were, for the most part, Maryland slave-holding gentry farmers. Also, after 1789 Jefferson and his followers were enamored—blindly so—of the French Revolution. The Revolution’s anti-Church fervor was very off-putting to Catholics who, though they might want to see a more democratic France did not think it worth the bloodshed of its king, so many priests and religious, and its many devout laity. Men like Jefferson, Franklin, and Washington were Gentlemen, however, and it was required of gentlemen to show tolerance if not respect; while there may not have been an enthusiasm for the Catholic Church there was no hint that Catholics should not take a full role in American public life.
Catholics for their part were making a contribution to the new republic. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s Sisterhood, the Sisters of Charity, was growing and its women undertook ministries both of education and nursing—needed services in the new nation that had not yet developed much of an infrastructure for these services to be provided at public expense. Only a few years after Elizabeth Seton’s Sisterhood, Catherine Spalding, a nineteen-year-old woman from an old Maryland family—and a family that would prove very prominent in the history of Catholic America—established the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in 1812. A laywomen, Teresa Lalor, opened a girl’s school on the campus of Georgetown College in 1799. The school drew young women from the best families—Catholic and Protestant—of the national capital. It was a tradition in the school's first two decades that the President of the United States attended the commencement and gave the girls their diplomas. Lalor and her companions had developed into a community of Visitation nuns by 1816. Ursuline nuns had come from Quebec and opened a convent and school in Charlestown, outside Boston. Like the Visitation in Georgetown, it drew young women from the best families and more Protestants than Catholics. This was an age of peace for the Church—but a peace that was not to last. Catholics had successfully integrated themselves into American society. They proved their loyalty to the Republic and their usefulness to the larger society. Their bishops and clergy showed themselves interested not in political clout but in building a Church that was anxious to show its gratitude for its freedom under the laws of the Republic by being the best and most loyal of citizens and making its contribution to a nation that was neither Catholic or Protestant, but granted freedom to all.
The image today is the Cathedral of Saint Joseph, Bardstown

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