Thursday, January 5, 2012

Catholics on the Courthouse Lawn

Charles Carroll
only Catholic signer
of the Declaration
of Independence
Well, as to our being a “Christian Nation” we have looked at a New England Congregationalist and a Unitarian, a Pennsylvania Deist usually mistaken for a Quaker, a Virginia Episcopalian (one of them; there are more and we will look at them), and a Virginia Deist.  What’s the tally?  John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington would probably not support the idea of an officially religious society.  Sam Adams, the only evangelical in the group we have looked at, well might have.  Now on to our fellow Catholics.  There were few Catholic in the New Republic at the time of our Independence and they were centered primarily in Maryland and Pennsylvania.  Maryland had been founded as a colony where Catholics could openly practice their faith, but in 1655, during Cromwell’s Puritan interregnum in England, a Puritan Army defeated Governor William Stone at the Battle of the Severn, and ended the control of the Lords Baltimore over the colony.  With the Puritans in charge, Catholicism was outlawed and the Catholic churches were burned.  In 1658 the 2nd Lord Baltimore regained control and re-enacted the Toleration Act guaranteeing religious freedom in the colony.  Peace was somewhat short lived, however.  In 1689, after the defeat of Catholic King James II by his Protestant son-in-law, William of Orange (the “better-half” of William and Mary), Maryland Puritans again rebelled against proprietary Government in Maryland and the Calvert family (the Lords Baltimore) lost power. With their fall Catholicism was again outlawed.  In 1704 the legislature passed “An Act to prevent the growth of Popery in this Province” which barred Catholics from public office.  It wasn’t as bad as it might have been, however, and Catholics (including the clergy who were all Jesuits) were tacitly permitted private chapels on their estates where they could worship discreetly.  In 1776 Charles Carroll, the patriarch of the vastly networked Carroll Family, was a Maryland Delegate to the Continental Congress and has the distinction of being the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence.  Catholics understood from their experience in Britain, Ireland, and the colonies, how important it was for there to be religious freedom.  After 1689 Pennsylvania was the only colony where Catholics were given freedom to worship openly and Catholicism was actually illegal in most colonies including Virginia (where being a priest was a capital crime), New York, and Massachusetts.  In signing the Declaration of Independence, Carroll claimed that he was seeking: “not only our independence of England but the toleration of all sects professing the Christian religion and communicating to them all equal rights.”   Carroll, in the Recusant Tradition of English Catholicism, was not a man given to external pieties however.  In speaking of religion he also said: “I detest screwed up devotion, distorted faces, and grimace.”  But he added: “I equally abhor those, who laugh at all devotion, look upon our religion as a fiction, and its holy mysteries as the greatest absurdities.”  How would he feel about the brouhaha on the Leesburg Courthouse Lawn?   I think that final statement would be a strong indication that he would not support displays that attack religion but at the same time as a Marylander he would have seen no purpose in a public display of religious symbols either.  In colonial and Revolutionary War days in America, Catholics would have been the only religious groups displaying something such as a crèche or nativity scene.  We have seen in our earlier blogs about Anglicans that eighteenth-century Anglicans (and their American branch, Episcopalians) did not so much as display a cross on the communion table much less statutes on the lawn. Congregationalists (who once had made Christmas illegal), Reformed, Presbyterians, Mennonites, Baptists, and those new-fangled Methodists (who were just coming on the scene) would be even more appalled at such “popish” displays.  Lutherans had known some such customs in Germany and Scandinavia—though I don’t think crèches were common—but the trip across the Atlantic had pretty much purified them of what Catholic heritage had survived among European Lutherans.  Maryland Catholics, with their recusant traditions, were used to keeping religious practice out of the public square and confining it to chapel and home.  Personally, I would be pretty much in that Maryland Catholic tradition.  In the Church, in the home (and on their lawns)—let there be nativity scenes.  In the public square—well, I think trees and other symbols of the Winter Solstice festival are fine, but not religious symbols. 

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