An Americanist Hero

By Swidler, Leonard | Commonweal, April 7, 1995 | Go to article overview

An Americanist Hero


Swidler, Leonard, Commonweal


Americanism is a heresy, so proclaimed by Pope Leo XIII in the 1899 papal letter Testem benevolentiae. It's an odd sort of heresy, in that no one was accused of holding he doctrines it condemned (for example, extolling natural over supernatural virtues, rejecting religious vows as incompatible with Christian liberty). Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore, to whom Testem was addressed, denied in his reply that any educated American Catholics held the views described in the letter.

Testem benvolentiae provided a sop, more symbolic than substantial, to conservative clerics in Europe and the United States who harbored dire suspicions of developments in American Catholicism, seeing in them the influence of Protestantism and/or the French Revolution. The letter's only other accomplishment was to give a bad name to a good thing. Gibbons was indeed an "Americanist," as were others: Archbishops John Ireland, John J. Keane, Martin J. Spalding; all of them accepted, advocated, and even celebrated what they saw as the distinctive virtues of the American nation: religious liberty, democracy, openness, separation of church and state.

Though these late-nineteenth-century prelates have had few followers of equal stature, they did have predecessors. The very first "Americanizer" in the U.S. hierarchy was the new country's very first bishop, John Carroll (1735-1815). Born into a founding family of Maryland, the only English colony in the New World established by Catholics and the first to establish religious liberty, Carroll was Rome's choice to become the first bishop of the new country's first diocese. He urged, however, that all the priests of the nation should have a voice in choosing their bishop. Rome acceded, and Carroll became bishop of Baltimore. Government by consensus was a prime element in his legacy to the American church; another was his unqualified devotion to religious liberty.

Between Carroll's death in 1815 and the arrival of Gibbons, Ireland, & Co., there was only one other giant church leader in America: John England (1786-1842) of Cork, Ireland. At age thirty-four, having already been a cathedral lecturer, prison and asylum chaplain, teacher of philosophy and college president, England was pastor of a parish in a town near Cork when he learned in 1820 of his appointment as bishop of Charleston, South Carolina, a vast mission diocese comprised of North and South Carolina and Georgia.

Though he was not yet an American citizen when he assumed office, England showed an immediate appreciation for the values and institutions of American democracy, and their compatibility with Catholic tradition. Soon after his arrival, he wrote a pastoral letter to the faithful of his diocese, the first such letter in the history of the American church. And that was only one of his innovations. First, a brief scan of his policies:

* Again acting without precedent, England composed a constitution for the governance of his diocese, spelling out the rights and responsibilities of all parties: laity, clergy, and bishop, and then submitted it for acceptance to every priest and all the leading laymen of the parishes for voluntary adoption.

* Less than two years after his arrival, England established the first Catholic newspaper in America, the weekly United States Catholic Miscellany - and he himself edited the paper, helped in the printing, and wrote most of the copy; writings of his collected from the paper ran it seven volumes. John Tracy Ellis wrote that the Miscellany was England's "greatest single contribution" to the American Catholic church and that "it exerted a powerful influence on American Catholic thought during the early nineteenth century."

* In 1826, a month before receiving his final citizenship papers, England became the first Catholic clergyman to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress; President John Quincy Adams and the justices of the Supreme Court were also present. …

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