Worth the Price: Colonial Catholics, Religious Tolerance, and the Post-Liberal Right

Catholics in colonial America pioneered a vision of liberty of conscience grounded in human dignity that would eventually be affirmed as doctrine by the second Vatican Council. A new book by Michael Breidenbach illustrates how unsettled the issue of papal temporal authority was in the founding era, and how damaging papal insistence on it was to the survival of Catholic minorities in English and colonial life.

Michael D. Breidenbach has written one of the most comprehensive and well-researched histories of American colonial Catholicism of our generation: Our Dear-Bought Liberty: Catholics and Religious Toleration in Early America, recently published by Harvard University Press. Breidenbach’s conclusions touch on numerous debates beyond colonial Catholicism, from the true origins of American religious toleration to the shifting factions within Catholicism over papal temporal authority. Along the way, Our Dear-Bought Liberty even examines the subtleties of portraiture and church architecture. In short, the book is a triumph of academic scholarship yet also a pleasure to read.

The book is rich in its account of how Catholics contributed to the American tradition of religious liberty. A surprising amount of that contribution is tied up with intra-Catholic divisions over ecclesiology.

Breidenbach published this book at precisely the right time. Currently, American Catholics, at least on the political right, are reconsidering the once prevailing view that American Catholics could be loyal Americans. So-called “postliberals” or “integralists” believe that the American Constitution is, at its foundations, an ideologically liberal document that is incompatible with Catholic social teaching. Such views take on face value the interpretation of the American founding as chiefly Lockean, wherein religion becomes a private affair for individual believers and religious institutions lack any claim on temporal affairs.

These interpretations are, as Breidenbach shows, too selective in their sourcing. The American Founding does owe some of its language to John Locke. However, Locke reached his conclusions too late. By the time Locke published Two Treatises on Government in 1688, colonial Catholics had already extended religious toleration in Maryland beyond what Locke stipulated in his own writings. In short, colonial Catholics in Maryland were decades ahead of Locke and more consistent in the application of religious liberty as well.

A Tale of Two Catholic Families

Before, during, and after the American Revolution, American Catholics found themselves alternately opposed and aligned with Anglicans, Puritans, Jesuits, secular clergy, and the Holy See itself. In most of the conflicts, American Catholics held the weaker hands.

Breidenbach examines these conflicts through historical accounts of two prominent Catholic colonial families: the Calverts and the Carrolls. When George Calvert, first Baron Baltimore, chartered Maryland in 1632, he did so as a recently professed Catholic with a vital friendship with King James I. After the king’s death, the Calvert grasp on the colony loosened and eventually gave way. In 1715, George Calvert’s grandson, the adolescent fifth Baron Baltimore, Charles Calvert, regained the colony, having also recently joined the Anglican Church. After Maryland was lost to a Protestant establishment in the wake of the Glorious Revolution and placed in the hands of the now Protestant Calverts, a new family finds its way into Breidenbach’s narrative: the Carrolls. The Carrolls used the two instruments available to them to defend themselves from suspicion and outright hostility: their enormous wealth produced by large-scale slave labor (of which Breidenbach offers a justifiably searing indictment) and the principles of conciliarism.


Conciliarism, the Crown, and the Mitre

While conciliarism is a broad topic, Breidenbach focuses on two tenets that are particularly relevant for his history. The first is “a corporation theory of the Church in which the pope was a magistrate elected by the church’s representatives, limited in his spiritual jurisdiction by the authority of other bishops, and susceptible to doctrinal error.” The second is the belief that the “pope could therefore be reprimanded or even deposed by his fellow bishops in a general council.”

In Catholic confessional states, conciliarism was a challenge to the authority of the Catholic Church. In Protestant Britain and its colonies, by contrast, Catholics drew on conciliarism to separate their spiritual fealty to the pope from their loyalty to a Protestant sovereign.

Take a concrete example: the question of oaths. Catholics under English Protestant rule faced a dilemma. On the one hand, they wished to show that they were reliable subjects of the Crown.  Taking the Oath of Supremacy and Oath of Allegiance would illustrate as much. On the other hand, some versions of these oaths required renouncing papal authority to unseat temporal sovereigns and, in some cases, repudiating the doctrine of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist. English Protestants sought to preserve the exclusionary language of the oaths and to mandate that English Catholics swear them. The Holy See, meanwhile, insisted that either the oaths should be revised to take out the offending language or that English Catholics should not be required to take them.

The result was a generations-long struggle. The Calverts and other sympathetic English Catholics sought to satisfy both the Crown and the Mitre by drafting oaths that made no reference to papal temporal power or matters of faith, but the politics behind the oath was really one of the Crown securing absolute control over temporal affairs. Only when the Crown had secured this control did the religious politics of oaths eventually become moot. Indeed, as Breidenbach explains, so resolved was the matter by the late eighteenth century that the Holy See actually sided with England during the American Revolution.

The Temporal Authority of the Pope: Internal Disagreements

The Calverts and then the Carrolls also had to deal with internal Catholic disagreements over the temporal authority of the pope. For colonial Catholics, religious liberty referred not merely to independence from Protestant establishment but to resisting papal claims to political power. The Holy See insisted on its indirect temporal power and the obedience of the faithful to observe and obey its use.

However, after the formalization of the Gallican Church in France in 1682, English-language conciliarists insisted that the authority of the Catholic Church rested not in papal power alone but in the councils of bishops, of which the pope was the head. In addition, they argued, this power was purely spiritual. In other words, Catholics did not need to accept any papal claims to temporal power, direct or indirect. Colonial Catholics used these arguments to insist that they were loyal subjects of the king. They rejected, sometimes implicitly and other times quite explicitly, the role of the Church in temporal affairs.

Caught up in this dispute were the steadfastly conciliarist English Catholic bishops. They fought tenaciously with the Society of Jesus, which defended the temporal authority of the Holy See. When the Jesuits ran afoul of Pope Clement XIV, however, the Supreme Pontiff suppressed the order, causing the ex-Jesuits suddenly to perform an about-face. Hence, ex-Jesuits in the colonies joined the ex-Jesuit Father (eventually Bishop) John Carroll, who had always held conciliarist beliefs. Carroll suddenly found in his ex-Jesuit brother priests new allies. Breidenbach explains:

The pope’s suppression of the Jesuits had demonstrated the devastating effects of being in a state of dependence on an arbitrary power—one that had terminated the Jesuits’ constitutions and even their existence by his singular will. The consequence of the Jesuit suppression went beyond hostility toward one pope: it had exposed the paradox of an absolute view of papal prerogative. The Jesuits had owed their existence to a papal bull, Regimini militantis Ecclesiae (1540), but they had been suppressed by another papal decree, Dominus ac Redemptor (1773). If the pope was absolutely sovereign and unbounded by previous papal decrees, then one pope could theoretically oppose another. The suppression made Jesuits question the limits of papal authority, although they obeyed the pope as their final vow required.

Breidenbach illustrates how conciliarism was a natural fit for American Catholics as they sought to square the republicanism of the broader American settlement with the Church. Councils of bishops voting together on spiritual affairs bear, in their spiritual authority, a close resemblance to assemblies of representatives deliberating over temporal matters. When figures like Thomas Paine suggested in Common Sense that “monarchy in every instance is the popery of government,” conciliarists could simply agree, as they rejected papalist ecclesiology as well.


The Lasting Impact of the Conflict Between Conciliarism and Papalism

However, even in the years prior to its repudiation in the First Vatican Council in 1870, the problems of conciliarism were obvious. After the French Revolution drove the Holy See to become increasingly intransigent in defending its temporal authority, American Catholics became increasingly emphatic in its repudiation.

For example, toward the end of Our Dear-Bought Liberty, Breidenbach explains how Catholic lay trustees arrogated to themselves the ius patronatus (or the right of the sovereign to exercise some discretion over the appointment of bishops) to establish their own parishes and name their own priests and bishops. Such a claim might seem bizarre to a modern reader, but the logic of popular sovereignty extended, for American Catholics, beyond the temporal realm to the religious. If sovereign kings and queens could exercise discretion over spiritual affairs, as they did in Gallican regimes, so then could the sovereign people in America in their own would-be dioceses and parishes.


Even for the staunch conciliarist Bishop Carroll, this position went too far, especially when considering how many of these churches had foreign financial sponsors who had a better claim to the ius patronatus than the local trustees did. Indeed, as Breidenbach is certainly aware, such was the problem behind Cahenslyism in the late nineteenth century, wherein German businessman Peter Paul Cahensly sought to organize Catholic clergy in Germany to exercise control over German Catholic affairs in America.

Breidenbach concludes his book with a very brief reflection how the conciliarism of the early American Church remained a consistent part of its defense against anti-Catholic diatribes in the years following the American Founding. In fact, as ultramontanism arose in the years following the French Revolution, the American Church seemed increasingly out of step with the social teaching of popes from Pius IX to Leo XIII, only to regain the upper hand with their influence over the Second Vatican Council’s Dignitatis Humanae. Such a conclusion is a little rushed, but it also points to a greater need for attention to the early American Church. Indeed, the best way to read the conclusion, in my view, is as a syllabus of renewed research in American Catholic political development. Our Dear-Bought Liberty assists greatly in performing this research, with its voluminous notes. Alas, the book lacks a bibliography.

If there is anything of substance to criticize in the book, it would be that Breidenbach presents neo-scholastic arguments against conciliarism too simply. Certainly, St. Robert Bellarmine and Francisco Suarez would reject conciliarist claims, but at least Bellarmine would happily concede popular sovereignty as the legitimate source for temporal authority, as would Francisco de Vitoria. Part of what made the papalist position so difficult was its own internal contradictions, which gave way to the absolutism of nineteenth-century reaction to the French Revolution. Even this criticism I offer lightly, because Breidenbach simply has no choice but to refer to these thinkers briefly. His focus is not the debate between conciliarists and papalists, in itself, but rather the central role that the debate played in the development of American Catholic concepts of religious liberty.


Relevance to Current Debates

As for the book’s relevance to the debate over “postliberalism,” Breidenbach’s scholarship is of great use. Breidenbach illustrates how unsettled the issue of papal temporal authority really was at this time, and how damaging papal insistence on it was to the survival of Catholic minorities in English and colonial life. While papalism has long been a school of thought within Catholicism, its predominance during the nineteenth century was brief. Hence, as Russell Hittinger has shown, even as the First Vatican Council finally condemned conciliarism, the Council fathers began their movement away from claims to indirect temporal authority.

It is simply bad history to regard papalism as the “perennial teaching of the Church.” After all, the Church in America has taught otherwise from the beginning, with only one gentle correction in Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae (1899), for which Pope Leo XIII more or less apologized in his 1902 encyclical, In Amplissimo. Moreover, subsequent American clergy like Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen preached “Americanism” with papal approval.

For these reasons, one might consider the nineteenth-century popes not as promulgating doctrine but rather offering a change in policy to navigate a Europe of secular ideologies and nation-states. Looking back, the policy was imprudent. At the Second Vatican Council, the Council Fathers abandoned the failed policy but learned lessons from the experience. These lessons they build into what Dignitatis Humanae affirmed as doctrine: the liberty of conscience grounded in human dignity that, as Breidenbach shows, American Catholics pioneered.

One finishes the book agreeing that this liberty was “dear-bought” but worth every penny.

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