Catholicism and Catholics

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Non-Catholic Americans have sometimes imagined Roman Catholicism ill-suited for the American experiment. Authoritarian, dogmatic, ritualistic, and tradition-driven, the Catholic faith for some has stood in the face of the liberalism and individualism of American culture. Such a dichotomy, however compelling in theory, does not do justice to the actual history of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, particularly in the era of the American Revolution. Roman Catholics were among the nation's most ardent patriots. They not only celebrated America's democratic and republican culture, but also sought to adapt their religious practice to it. Faith in the holy Catholic Church did not diminish the passionate support of Catholics—both clerical and lay—for American ideals.

The earliest Roman Catholic growth in the New World principally followed Spanish and French colonization. In the St. Lawrence River Valley and in Florida, Louisiana, and the Southwest, Roman Catholic priests served as the religious arm of their respective empires. Although formidable in the seventeenth century, by the middle of the eighteenth century such mission work was drawing to a close owing to British supremacy in eastern North America, where the Roman Catholic presence was far weaker. Spanish Franciscan missions in Florida and French Jesuit missionary activity in Canada effectually ended in 1763 when the British gained control of these regions after the Seven Years' War. The Spanish retained a hold farther west for another half-century, allowing the Franciscans to establish dozens of missions stretching from Texas to San Francisco. But even this sovereignty ended in 1833 when an independent Mexico took over the region.

In contrast to the strategic and sometimes violent presence of the Spanish and French in the New World, English-speaking Catholic settlement in the mid-Atlantic in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries seems comparatively benign. Religious minorities who had found a small colonial niche in an increasingly Protestant empire, Catholic settlers would plant the seeds for a religious tradition that by the late nineteenth century emerged as the United States' largest. But growth was slow during the colonial and early national periods. On the eve of the American Revolution, Catholics comprised less than 1 percent of the European-stock population of British North America. They had clustered primarily in and around Maryland, the only colony founded by a Roman Catholic (Sir Cecil Calvert in 1634). Small pockets of Roman Catholic settlement also appeared in New York in the seventeenth century and Pennsylvania in the eighteenth. In general, Catholics settled wherever a commitment to religious liberty dampened the prevalent hostilities toward their faith.

The American Roman Catholic Church faced significant challenges in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. As several scholars have shown, anti-Catholicism was a leading feature of British nationalism during this period. Not surprisingly, British Americans shared this prejudice. Despite the prominence of several leading Catholics in the Revolutionary generation, including Charles Carroll, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, they were unable to escape the opprobrium associated with their faith. Even Maryland was not immune, and periodically Protestants there had tried to place bans on public displays of Catholic devotion. Added to this persecution, a crisis in European Catholicism provoked Pope Clement XIV in 1773 to dissolve the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), an order responsible for training and supporting the vast majority of America's small body of clergy. This institutional crisis was ameliorated only when American independence allowed the European hierarchy to appoint John Carroll the "superior of the missions" in 1784, an appointment that Benjamin Franklin, a deist, had recommended.

The American Revolution, and the political independence it achieved, was a watershed for Roman Catholics in America. Most, in fact, supported the Revolution, and some even helped to enlist the French in the Revolutionary cause. Like other marginal groups in the new American nation, Catholics looked to the new government for permanent provisions of citizenship. While the national polity did much to expand religious freedom, eventually leading to disestablishment in all the states, Catholics remained politically marginalized in most regions during much of the nineteenth century. Several of the early state constitutions, for example, contained anti-Catholic prescriptions, limiting office holding to Protestant "Christians."

The church experienced modest growth in the early Republic. To meet the needs of an expanding population, Georgetown University was founded in Maryland (in what later became Washington, D.C.) in 1789, and two years later St. Mary's Seminary was founded in Baltimore. For the first time, too, Rome allowed the election of an American bishop, John Carroll. Carroll helped articulate a distinct American Catholic identity, one that advocated Enlightenment ideals such as democracy, progress, and toleration as well as the relative self-governance of the national church. The historian Jay Dolan portrays this period in American Catholic history as one in which the American church shed its aversion to modernity. A chief exemplar of this Americanized Catholicism was Mathew Carey, a leading Philadelphia publisher responsible for many Catholic as well as Protestant books including the first U.S. edition of the "Catholic Bible," the Douay-Rheims version, in 1790. Carey's Catholic faith sought common ground both with Protestantism and with strains of Enlightenment thinking. So, too, the Catholic convert Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, America's first saint, mixed traditional Catholic practices with elements derived from her Protestant upbringing. From 1808 to 1810 Seton founded the Sisters of Charity as well as a Catholic school for girls that combined rigorous discipline with evangelical reformism.

The American Catholic hierarchy's commitment to republicanism was soon put to the test, however, when laity and clergy battled over the long-established trustee system of church management. The trustee system was a brilliant accommodation to a colonial situation in which resources were modest and clergy few. Ecclesiastical temporalities, in accordance with American law, were exclusively controlled by the laity, which meant that the laity had powers over church finances (including salaries) and the hiring and firing of employees. Thus empowered, the laity naturally pressed for the right to select their pastors or dismiss them when it proved expedient. In the early nineteenth century, bishops and clergy successfully suppressed lay opposition by appealing both to American ideals of separation of church and state as well as to notions of authority in which power descended downward from Rome. Clerical victory was assured by the migration to America of French clergy and bishops with distinctly Old World Catholic sensibilities. In the end, the lay-trustee controversies stimulated both a tradition of nativism among American Protestants and a strong suspicion of lay authority within the Roman Catholic hierarchy both in America and Europe.

An increase in immigration to the United States after 1820 profoundly altered the shape of American Catholicism. New immigrants crowded together in cities and swelled the proportion of Roman Catholics on the American religious landscape. Many of the new arrivals were impoverished Irish and German Catholics, who practiced their faith in ways that struck both American Protestants and some Americanized Roman Catholics as dangerously foreign. Nativists would focus their anti-Catholic polemics on this new wave of Catholic immigrants in the 1830s and 1840s.

See alsoImmigration and Immigrants: Ireland; Imperial Rivalry in the Americas; Professions: Clergy; Religion: The Founders and Religion; Religion: Spanish Borderlands; Religious Tests for Officeholding .


Dolan, Jay P. The American Catholic Experience: A History from Colonial Times to the Present. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1985; Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992.

Hennesey, James J. American Catholics: A History of the Roman Catholic Community in the United States. Oxford, U.K., and New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Light, Dale B. Rome and the New Republic: Conflict and Community in Philadelphia Catholicism between the Revolution and the Civil War. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996.

R. Bryan Bademan