The First Amendment has a quasi-sacred status in the minds of most Americans because that is the amendment that guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press. On that note, it guarantees the protected status of what I am doing right now in this blog. This tendency to imagine that the First Amendment is the product of divine inspiration in nearly the same sense if not degree as the Bible is even more prevalent in those who lean toward Libertarianism. The latter are sometimes tempted to see the U.S. Constitution, and even more so its Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments), especially the First and Second, as akin to holy writ. For some of us, the First Amendment is the more revered of the two, but not because of the liberty it upholds in the sphere of political speech, but because the first freedom it supports is not that of speech or the press, but the free exercise of religion.
What most people do not know is that we owe the freedom of religion we enjoy here in this constitutional republic in no small part to the efforts of Catholic, most especially Charles Carroll of Carrolton, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was a delegate from Maryland, which, of the thirteen original colonies, was the only nominally Catholic one – indeed, the other delegates from Maryland were all Episcopalians.
Prior to his being sent to the Continental Congress, Carroll was elected by the citizens of Annapolis and Anne Arundel County to serve in the Annapolis Convention. Also known as “The Association of Freemen of Maryland”, it was one of several comittees of correspondence that formed throughout he colonies in reaction to the British cracktown following the Boston Tea Party. Carroll, along with half a dozen other Catholics in this colonial American anticipation of the Tea Party Movement, had to overcome a great deal of prejudice because of his faith. Despite his election he was denied an official seat at the assembly because of his Catholicism. At this time Maryland was vacillating in its support of the colonial resistance, but Carroll never wavered. When, in January 11, 1776 the convention in Maryland ordered her delegates in Philadelphia ”to disavow in the most solemn manner, all design in the colonies for independence”, Carroll vigorously protested the move and continued to argue passionately in favor of open revolt. Carroll’s arguments eventually turned the tide and Maryland changed is standing order to “”to vote in declaring the United States free and independent states.” 1
In February of that year, Charles Carroll, along with his cousin John, a Catholic priest who later became the Archbishop of Baltimore, and Samuel Chase, had been chosen to attempt to secure an alliance between the colonies and Canada. Despite their lack of success, they were withdrawn in late June and Chase was immediately sent back to Philadelphia, as Maryland was about to change its position and vote in favor of independence. When July 4, 1776 rolled around, it was determined that, because of his unwavering support for American independence Charles Carroll was primarily responsible for Maryland’s change in their official position, the colony would send him, albeit late by that time, to the Continental Congress. Though it was too late for him to vote, he was just in time to become the last signer of the document declaring America independent of the British crown.
Charles Carroll knew firsthand and from bitter experience that Catholics in America would continue to be subject to official discrimination and marginalization as long as religious bigotry remained a legally accepted practice. As long as religious oaths and tests for office remained legal, barring Catholics such as him, as a general rule, from participating in the political process, this country, which Carroll loved more than it loved him, would never be free regardless of whether it achieved independence from England or not. For this reason Carroll was a great champion of religious liberty, easily the most vocal Catholic of his time to demand this basic freedom that we now take for granted.
When Carroll signed the Declaration of Independence, he saw it as a move toward general religious liberty, though admittedly he initially would only argue that such liberty should be applied to all Christians, not all members of all religions.
Charles Carroll was the most significant Catholic proponent of general toleration and religious liberty. In 1774 he defended the rights of Catholics to speak out on political matters in Maryland and protested the irrational system that made religious affiliation a civil disability. In 1776 he helped write the Maryland state constitution which provided for religious liberty, but only for Christians.
Charles Carroll also signed the Declaration of Independence, an act which he later viewed as the first step in a movement toward universal religious liberty. He told a friend in 1829 that, when he signed that document, he had in view, “not only our independence of England, but the toleration of all sects, professing the Christian Religion, and communicating to them all great rights.” 2
Charles Carroll, his other cousin Daniel Carroll (Father John’s younger brother), and another Catholic Thomas Fitzsimmons, contributed to the eventually successful effort to make the recognition of liberty of conscience the respected civil right and to codify it into the new Bill of Rights. It was an important part of their vision that religious liberty would be the very first freedom mentioned in the First Amendment, right at the beginning of the Bill of Rights. Not very long after, in 1806, another Catholic layman by the name of Francis Cooper, a Jeffersonian Republican, provided a strong early test of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom for the benefit of Catholic holders of political offices in the new republic. Elected to the state assembly in New York which required its office holders to take a constitutional oath of office which would have required him to renounce foreign allegiance “in all matters ecclesiastical as well as civil”, Cooper refused to take the oath as it would have violated his conscience by requiring him to deny his alleigance as a Catholic to the pope. As Catholic allegiance to the bishop of Rome was understood to be a spiritual rather than a political matter, Cooper’s fellow parishioners in St. Peter’s Catholic Church in New York City (the oldest Roman Catholic parish and the Mother Church of Catholic New York, one of whose parishioners was the then newly converted former Episcopalian Elizabeth Ann Seton, our first American Catholic saint) signed the petition to remove that clause from the oath on grounds that it violated the First Amendment of the new Constitution of the United States. The petition succeeded and the First Amendment passed its first significant test, again thanks to Catholics.
Recently I found myself in an email discussion with Joe Hargrave, a fellow Catholic blogger (Non Nobis, The American Catholic) who is an even stronger Traditionalist than I am, indeed very much so, and who could not refrain from spewing the most hostile derogatory adjectives about the Second Vatican Council and all it wrought in the Catholic Church. He is smarter and more informed than I, and this exchange threw me into a tail-spin, resulting in an acute crisis of faith on my part. By the grace of God I hope and believe that I am over the worst of it now, but it has prompted me to reconsider some very basic foundational belief structures I have held for as long as I can remember, both as a Catholic and an American, and I will share one of the issues with you now.
One of the major problems he had with Vatican II could be found in Dignitatis Humanae and its embrace of the “heretical” doctrines of religious liberty and liberty of conscience, ideas which he understood as infallibly and eternally condemned by Pius IX in the Syllabus of Errors attached to the encyclical Quanta Cura. That was far from the only issue raised by him that I felt an urgent need to address for myself, but he considered it his chief doctrinal objection to the validity of Vatican II as a genuine Council of the Catholic Church. As I looked into the issue further, I found that he was far from alone in this radical Traditionalist view of the Vatican II affirmation of religious liberty as being the principle sign that it was not a valid Council of the Catholic Church.
As an American Catholic, I always took the religious liberty we enjoy in this country as something to be greatly esteemed, even celebrated. I have known for decades that true religious freedom is not the rule, but the exception, in this world, and that governments often presume a prerogative to subject their citizens to coercion in matters of religious belief and practice. I also knew that the Catholic Church, in her history, has employed such measures, sometimes in very ugly ways, and not with any divine guarantees against making grave, catastrophic mistakes in this area, either (the martyrdom of Joan of Arc comes to mind). But I never suspected that this history was not due to the tendency to sin of fallen humans in the Church but rather due to faithful adherence to an eternal, unchangable teaching of the Catholic Church that the freedom of a human being to seek the truth and follow it wherever it led his or her conscience was not a true right — that it is “not liberty but license.”
It seems like common sense to me that if coercion is routinely used in matters of religion and religious conscience, because human beings have no right whatsoever, on any level, to be spared such a noxious use of force against them, it will not only be used against false religions. When the force of law is used to pressure people to conform to the official religion of the state, there is no guarantee that only non-Catholics will suffer violence against their consciences. Quite the contrary. The Devil hates the Catholic Church and will happily move Caesar to start throwing Her children to the lions again on the slightest pretext if God allows him to. If the Church did not recognize that human beings have the right to seek the truth to the best of their ability using an uncompelled faculty of reason and unforced conscience, then why should the world recognize that right for Catholics? The Church would be providing the perfect excuse for those in league with the Devil to begin watering the ground with the blood of the faithful. They could even use the same legal structures against Catholics that had been put in place by Catholic soveriegns to require non-Catholics to convert to the True Religion.
What seems like common sense to me also appealed to the common sense of Charles Carroll, who said that official intolerance in matters of religion could only produce “martyrs and hypocrites,” but certainly no true Christians. Catholics should be especially sensitive to this, even more especially here in America , a nation with an ugly history of official, government encouraged anti-Catholic bigotry. Prejudice against Catholics, is, of course, from the Devil, but it does not appear in a vacuum. It is usually inspired by the memory of past abuses on the part of Catholic authorities against non-Catholics. The Carroll family had to leave England because England was martyring Catholics, and Catholics didnot have the freedom to profess their faith and worship in public without fear of being murdered. Why was England so hard on Catholics? Just because Henry VIII wasn’t allowed to divorce and re-marry? No, that was not the source of the rage that caused the ground to run red with Catholic blood. The rage was nurtured in the memory of English royalty, which had a tendency to take it personally when popes such as Paul IV (also known as the author of the papal bull Cum Nimis Absurdum, by which he established the Roman ghettoes for Jews living in the papal states and ordered that they should wear pointed yellow hats in public and attend Catholic sermons on their sabbath) and Pius V (Regnans in Excelsis) interfered with the rule of Elizabeth I.
…so keenly alive were both Parliament and people to the memory of the Smithfield fires of the Bloody Mary and the Papal Bishops, that they sought to guard against the recurrence of such a danger, by a rigorous exclusion of all Roman clergy from the kingdom of England. The English people had not forgotten that only seventy- three years before, Pope Paul the Fourth forbade Elizabeth to ascend the throne of England until she submitted her pretensions to him, and declared England to be a fief of the Apostolic See. They still remembered that Pius the Fifth, eleven years later, issued a bull against Elizabeth when she had been eleven years England’s glorious Queen, declaring her a “pretended Queen of England,” absolving all her subjects from allegiance to her, and cursing all who adhered to her as excommunicate heretics. Only fifty years before, the ”invincible” Armada of Spain, with the blessing of the Pope, hovered around the shores of England, commissioned by the Pastor Pastorum to convert by the gentle appliances of rack and stake the heretic English to the true faith, and win them back to the loving embrace of the Holy Father. Only thirty years before, the Gunpowder Plot sought to destroy the government by blowing up King, Lords and Commons, when assembled in Parliament. These events all conspired to beget in the English nation such an intense hatred to Roman Catholicism, as dangerous to the peace and liberty of tlie realm, that Parliament, under Elizabeth and James, passed severe repressive laws against the public exercise of the Roman Catholic religion, forbade the entrance of Romish priests within the kingdom, and compelled the English Romanist to attend the public worship of the English Church, under the penalty of twenty pounds per month. Such was the state of the public mind •- of the nation, and such were the laws of England, at the time Lord Baltimore obtained his charter for the territory of Maryland from King Charles. 3
The point of the above is that religious intolerance always begets more religious intolerance. It is collossally imprudent, no matter whether it is doctinally permissible. It offends the conscience of people who love liberty, and for now I cannot help but to add that this is rightly so.
I have yet to fully examine both Dignitatis Humanae and Quanta Cura as well as the latter’s attached Syllabus of Errors, so I cannot say with the confidence that I would wish to that Mr. Hargrave and the other Traditionalists are as wrong as I strongly suspect they are. When I have read those documents more fully and consulted with others wiser than myself, I will publish a follow-up to this article here in this blog. For now I merely offer my suspicion that neither document represents infallible Church teaching
I cannot say with any authority what the Catholic Church should teach on the matter of religious tolerance, freedom of conscience, and the right of the state to use force against the latter, but I know where my heart lies. Until some solemn duty causes me, to my great grief, to abjure it, I affirm freedom. I affirm liberty. I affirm conscience and the free search of the individual for the truth without fear that such a search will lead where the state would not wish him to go. And I thank my Catholic brethren who I hope are in heaven for their instrumental role in providing legal protection for my freedom to search diligently for the truth in response to the challenge posed to me by my new friend Joe Hargrave, even if his respect for that same freedom is compromised by his interpretation of papal documents that touch on the subject. I had enough to worry about that I could eventually lose my soul. My suffering would certainly have been intolerable if I had to worry that my honest conclusions could have hastened the damnation I feared by putting me in immediate danger of death at the hands of the state for a capital crime, since that is what heresy has been for most of the history of Christendom in the West.
1 Hagerty, James. ”Charles Carroll of Carrollton.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908.17 May 2011 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03379c.htm>.
2 Lee, Francis Graham. All Imaginable Liberty: The Religious Liberty Clauses of the First Amendment. University Press of America 1995
3 Brown, Benjamin B.F., Early Religious History of Maryland: “Maryland Not A Roman Catholic Colony: Religious Toleration Not An Act of Roman Catholic Legislation” , 1876
Note: Where not specifically cited, facts are drawn liberally from the Catholic Encyclopedia and Wikipedia.
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