Bishop Carroll: An Example for Applying Our Catholic Faith in the Public Square
Most Catholics know more about John Carroll’s relatives, often known as the “first family of Catholics” in America, than about him. His cousin, Charles Carroll, was the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence; his brother, Daniel Carroll, was the only Catholic to sign the Constitution. Today many Catholic grade-school students are aware of the Carrolls’ important political contributions, but too few can recount John Carroll’s critical service to the Church.
Living in a society that seems to be just as hostile to Catholic beliefs as that of the eighteenth century, we fail to follow Carroll’s example at our peril. In fact, Carroll’s efforts to defend Catholics’ rights, and to embolden lay Catholics to assert those rights, rings eerily similar to our present struggle in convincing Catholics to apply their faith in the public square. Our lay faithful and clergy would be wise to emulate Carroll, who shepherded his flock toward a vibrant, enduring — and public — identity.Rejecting the typical American Protestant idea of compartmentalizing one’s faith into a purely private pursuit, Carroll’s main thrust was to cement Roman Catholicism’s position as a legitimate, recognized force in the ideas, politics, and culture of the early republic. This was a tall order: on the eve of the American Revolution, only 24,000 Americans, or less than 1 percent of the nation’s population, were Catholic. Only 22 priests resided in the United States — all of them Jesuits, including Carroll.
Even beyond those stark numbers, most Americans possessed an incalculable hostility toward the Church, the result of Protestantism’s deep roots in the fledgling nation. That hostility often translated into legal proscriptions against Catholics, ranging from property ownership to voting rights. Thus, in the face of a newly-installed bishop whose project was to obliterate the compartmentalization of faith between private and public spheres, many non-Catholics in early America thought Bishop Carroll threatened the “order” of American society.
Nonetheless, in spite of those overwhelming obstacles, Bishop Carroll would not only protect his small flock but would build a bedrock foundation for the Church in America. By the time of his death in 1815, Carroll had overseen the quadrupling of the Catholic population in the United States, as well as the doubling in the number of clergy, the majority of whom were native-born.
Carroll secured this growth through a spirit of true ecumenism — not the empty pabulum of theological concession that some ecumenical efforts have become in the 21st century. Responding to a critic of the Church in 1785, then-Father Carroll argued that the young nation’s religious freedom ought not create religious pluralism but cohesiveness: "America may come to exhibit a proof to the world, by general and equal toleration, by giving a free circulation to fair argument, is the most effectual method to bring all denominations of Christians to a unity of faith."
It was that charitable but pointed approach that earned Carroll the respect of the founding generation, many of whom, such as Benjamin Franklin, considered him to be the single most important religious leader in the country. Carroll used that stature to insert into the nation’s discourse a distinctively Catholic view toward culture and politics.
Just as his tireless travels as a priest had offered a rich sacramental life to lay Catholics in Maryland and Virginia, his efforts as bishop promoted robust catechesis for the lay faithful and consistently clear leadership for the clergy. Carroll understood that the very absence of Church institutions and hierarchy in America provided too many opportunities for the laity, clergy, and external critics to define what Catholicism should be.
In particular, the bishop fought full-bore against the problem of lay trusteeism, a system in which the laity claimed the right to fire and appoint their pastors. Though trusteeism clearly violated the principles of governance in the Church, the problem for Bishop Carroll was that the very concept, typical in denominational churches, was taken for granted in such a Protestant nation.
In challenging trusteeism, therefore, and in laying the groundwork for its ultimate riddance in the mid-nineteenth century, Carroll was implicitly challenging Protestants. This eventually successful effort, however, accomplished two objectives, which today provide modern-day lessons for bishops and the laity, respectively.
First, Carroll’s defeat of trusteeism secured his own, and all bishops’, authority over the Church and lay Catholics. Never shying away from his obligation as shepherd, Carroll cemented a Church hierarchy in early America that would lead to a collective voice among all American bishops in future generations.Today, finding such a collective voice among American bishops has been difficult. Even when scores of bishops have spoken clearly on the same issue, such as Catholics’ obligations to vote pro-life, their leadership has had a minimal impact, no doubt the result of an insidious pluralism, internal to the Church, which Carroll would abhor.
Second, Carroll’s efforts against trusteeism altered the way lay Catholics viewed their faith—and, in particular, the application of their faith to the public square. The same type of faith compartmentalization that confounded Bishop Carroll has reared its head in a slew of high-profile, recent events involving Catholics. Simply put, the lack of civic engagement by Catholics, as Catholics , endangers our republic.
A modern Church leader in the vein of John Carroll, Archbishop Charles Chaput, focused on this point in his recent book Render unto Caesar . Chaput concludes, “American political life, though very practical, depends on ideas and beliefs that are large and long-term; that are not built low to the ground; that need a citizenry with right moral character in order to work.” John Carroll laid the groundwork for future Catholics to be at the vanguard of those lofty ideas, but too few of us have taken that civic and moral duty seriously.
Nearing his death in 1815, Archbishop John Carroll seemed to recall the irony of his consecration of the Feast of the Assumption twenty-five years earlier: “Of those things that give me most consolation at the present moment, one is that I have always been attached to the practice of devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary; that I have established it among the people under my care, and placed my diocese under her protection.” May we Catholics pray and work for a fidelity to the Church, through Our Lady, that honors and perpetuates the efforts of our first American bishop.
Kevin D. Roberts, Ph.D., a historian of Catholicism in America, is the founder and executive director of Catholic Families for America and the Catholic Youth Leadership Congress . He is writing a biography of Archbishop Carroll.
“Bishop Briand had his reasons, in that the British had guaranteed the Catholics of Québec freedom of religion, a freedom which was not guaranteed at that time in the original thirteen rebellious colonies, where Catholics were often discriminated against,” explained the cardinal.
“Bishop Briand saw no reason for Canadians to join the American colonies against the British, and he was very annoyed that a Catholics priest should be among those seeking to encourage Canadians to risk their religious liberty in what he considered to be a dubious cause. So he excommunicated Father Carroll—and there is no record of which I know that such an excommunication has ever been lifted.”