For the first century of its existence the American hierarchy enjoyed a tremendous amount of autonomy with very little oversight from Rome. According to the website of the Archdiocese of Baltimore:
“In its relationship with the Holy See (Archbishop John) Carroll wished a measure of autonomy for the American Church. Although he overcame his initial distrust of the Congregation of the Propaganda, he was not overly generous in the information he supplied the Roman authorities nor overly conscientious in following their directives. At the same time, he instilled in his spiritual children a deep loyalty to the pope as a symbol of unity.”
The bishops and archbishops who followed John Carroll were not much different in jealously guarding their semi-autonomy from Rome. There were a number of reasons for this. In the first place, the world of the late eighteenth through mid-nineteenth centuries was not a highly communicative world. Rome was far away—a message to the papal curia would take six to eight weeks to reach Rome and six to eight weeks to return—not to consider the time it would take to shuffle from one curial desk to another. Six, eight, ten months, a year would not be an unreasonable amount of time for an issue to be dealt with—and then what if there were a need for clarification and the second or even third round of letters. No, it made much more sense to deal with issues at home and not refer them to the Holy See. If some question needed to be resolved, a bishop could always consult his metropolitan Archbishop and one Archbishop could confer with two or three others. Secondly, there were no diplomatic relations between the American Republic and the Holy See that would have stationed a permanent papal representative in the United States. In the third place, unlike England where the Venerable English College in Rome—often with a “Cardinal Protector of England” in residence—could serve as a conduit of information between the Church in England and the Holy See, the Americans—neither government nor Church—had a permanent presence in Rome until the establishment of the North American College in 1859 and even then neither the Holy See nor the American bishops turned to it for any purposes other than education of clergy. In 1853 the Nuncio to Brazil, Gaetano Bedini, stopped in Washington on his way to take up his post and he made a report back to Rome suggesting the appointment of a Nuncio to the American Republic, but nothing ever came of it. I cannot imagine what Bedini was thinking in recommending such a move. A Nuncio would have required reciprocal diplomatic relations and, as you may remember from the blog on the Know-Nothings, this was a period of rampant anti-Catholicism in which it would have been politically impossible for the United States to consent to diplomatic ties to the Holy See. In fact, Archbishop Bedini’s visit had stirred anti-Catholic demonstrations protesting his temporary presence.
In 1879 George Conroy, Bishop of Ardagh in Ireland, visited the States on the occasion of Archbishop (later Cardinal) Gibbon’s of Baltimore receiving the pallium. Conroy also made a report to the Holy See, suggesting an Apostolic Delegation but only if the Apostolic Delegate were an American. (A Nuncio is the papal representative to a nation; an Apostolic Delegate is his representative to a Church within a nation with which the Holy See does not have diplomatic relations.) Conroy picked up on the xenophobia of Americans and realized that a European Archbishop would be seen as a threat to the sovereignty of the American people, Catholic or otherwise. If an American could not be found who could serve in this role, then Conroy thought only a temporary Delegation—a sort of periodic visitation—should be sent. In 1886 the Holy See sent Monsignor Paolo Mori to inquire about the possibility of Diplomatic Relations between the Holy See and the American Government. Such a move would have meant a nunciature; it was not a possibility of course since with the loss of the Papal States there could not have been even a masque of diplomatic relations between governments and it would have meant (at least in popular perception) establishing ties with the Roman Catholic Church, something constitutionally questionable and politically out of the question.
With Conroy’s visitation it became clear to at least some of the American bishops that the period of benign neglect was at an end and that the Pope’s commissioning an Apostolic Delegate was only a matter of time. Mori’s mission, though unsuccessful, confirmed it. The liberal party decided to be proactive on this so that the Delegate, once appointed, would be favourable to their point of view. Gibbons had to go to Rome the same year that Mori visited the States and he sized up the situation. In 1889 the Holy See sent Francesco Satolli as its representative to the centenary celebrations for the appointment of the first bishop in the United States—John Carroll—in 1789. Satolli returned to Rome and reported to the Secretary of State, Cardinal Rampolla, that the American bishops (or at least those whom he consulted) were in favour of a Delegation as a means of improving communication with Rome. Unfortunately it is not known which bishops, other than Gibbons, that Satolli consulted, but it can be surmised from the way things played out, and from the preeminent role of Gibbons in the whole event, that it was the liberal wing. Cardinal Rampolla wrote Gibbons and asked him to bring perhaps two of the more prudent Archbishops with him to Rome for some consultation. Then Rampolla added a rather curious note advising Gibbons not to tell the Congregation Propaganda Fide about this proposed meeting between the Americans and the Secretariat of State. Given that Propaganda Fide had oversight of the American Church, Rampolla’s request is most strange. Hmmm, it seems that they may play politics in Rome as well. Fancy that. More to come. The image today is John Carroll, the first Catholic Bishop in the United States