Tracing the painful path towards religious toleration for American Catholics

Our Dear-Bought Liberty: Catholics and Religious Toleration in Early America  
by Michael Breidenbach
. Harvard UP. 2021

Our Dear-Bought Liberty is the new book by Michael Breidenbach, Chair of History at Ave Maria University in Florida.

Breidenbach examines a particularly interesting aspect of America’s founding: the story of how American Catholics sought to reconcile their religious and national identities, first within the Protestant Empire which established the American colonies, and then within the newly-independent nation.

His central thesis is a provocative one, as he argues that the embattled minority had to make major -- and at the time, theologically awkward -- concessions in order to be accepted as equal citizens.

“Catholics became American by declaring independence from the pope,” he writes, adding that “[s]ome Catholics rejected the two beliefs that had made Catholicism politically intolerable: that the pope’s spiritual and moral teachings can be infallible, and that he has the authority to intervene in countries’ temporal affairs. In contrast to these doctrines of papalism, reform-minded Catholics - from the founders of Maryland to the framers of the US Constitution - pledged their undivided civil allegiance to their countries.”

In time, the path which the Catholics of America charted was to have a major impact on how church-state relations were perceived within the universal Church.

To help the reader understand this evolution, Breidenbach takes us back much further -- to Stuart England from which the early Americans fled.

In a fervently anti-Catholic environment, King James I required that his subjects swear an oath that the Pope had no power to intervene in the temporal affairs of nations.

Catholics who refused to swear the oath were barred from holding influential positions, while those who agreed to swear it were excommunicated by their Church.

This created understandable dilemmas for many Catholics, including George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore, who had gained an important position in the King’s inner circle, but whose conversion to Catholicism meant he could not remain there.

To overcome these challenges, Lord Baltimore adopted two strategies which would leave a deep mark on history.

First, he sought to create an amended, compromise oath of allegiance. This oath made no reference to the Pope’s power to depose kings: a power which Baltimore and other English Catholic royalists did not recognise but which they were unwilling to renounce publicly.

Secondly, he sought to establish a new colony on the other side of the Atlantic where he and other English Catholics could find refuge.

These efforts bore fruit, and a new colony was established in the 1630s on America’s east coast: Maryland.

Not all of the first arrivals were Catholic though, and the colony’s leaders went to great lengths to appease the Protestant ruling class, to the point of refraining from practicing or discussing their faith in public.

Still, the founding of Maryland afforded these Catholics with a greater measure of liberty and helped to encourage tolerance more generally.

In 1649 -- 50 years before the UK’s Toleration Act of 1689 which Protestant historians often highlight as an example of their religion’s broad-mindedness -- the Maryland Assembly enacted a religious tolerance act, thus establishing a precedent which was soon followed in Barbados, Jamaica and Suriname.

Unfortunately, the events of 1688-1689 were to lead to a reversal in the position of Catholics throughout the Empire, including in Maryland where they were gradually disenfranchised.

Over the next century however, Catholics such as the influential Carroll family continued to struggle against bigotry and the Protestant arguments that no Catholic could be considered loyal.

Just as the first Lord Baltimore had done, many Catholic thinkers in England and in the colonies looked to previous “anti-papalist” arguments in order to justify legal changes which would allow them to once again play a full part in society without abandoning their faith.

For instance, one of England’s most influential Catholics, the Duke of Norfolk, argued in the 1760s that Catholics “universally” maintained that “the Pope’s authority is merely spiritual.”

As the author explains, this harked back to much older theories about the relationship between religion and the state from the medieval era, when Popes were often at odds with secular rulers.

Breidenbach contends that the growing acceptance of such claims helped to convince many Protestants that Catholicism was not inherently threatening.

As the American Revolution drew nearer, it is interesting to note that pro-Catholic reforms were gradually being advanced both in Westminster (where Relief Acts lowered the barriers faced by Catholics) and in the colonies (where freedom of religion and a ban on religious test acts were enshrined in the Constitution, and where a prominent Catholic -- Charles Carroll of Maryland -- signed the Declaration of Independence).

Many Catholics would fight on both sides of the war between Britain and the rebellious colonies, which was itself a sign of how much change had occurred -- had a Catholic sought to enlist in an American militia a generation earlier, they would have been required to forswear their belief in transubstantiation.

Modern readers of Breidenbach’s interesting book will likely have mixed reactions to the process which Catholics had to undergo to be afforded such basic liberties.

Certainly, the temporal power of Popes (who could divide vast swathes of the world between Catholic rulers) was problematic, and the gradual evolution of the Church to a position more aligned with that of American Catholics -- favouring religious freedom and a greater measure of church-state separation -- has been for the good of all parties. On the other hand, the rejection of Papal infallibility by some early American Catholics (including clerics) would be considered heresy if spoken today.

Curiously, the author draws relatively few lessons from his account for Catholics struggling to negotiate their position in modern-day America, or in other cultural contexts where believers are faced with difficult decisions (those living under the Chinese Communist Party’s rule, for instance, or those residing in an India governed by Hindu nationalists).

Regardless of this, Breidenbach certainly presents the reader with much to think about in this excellent book.


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