Bishop John England and the Possibilities of Catholic Republicanism

By Kearns, Daniel F. | South Carolina Historical Magazine, January 2001 | Go to article overview

Bishop John England and the Possibilities of Catholic Republicanism


Kearns, Daniel F., South Carolina Historical Magazine


IN THE MID-1830S TELEGRAPH INVENTOR AND ANTI-CATHOLIC writer Samuel Morse accused Catholicism of being anti-republican, and challenged American Catholics to issue "a disclaimer of anti-republican principles, of principles in direct and dangerous opposition to those of this government, with which the Papal system is directly and distinctly charged...."1 One Catholic intellectual in particular, John England, the first bishop of Charleston, took up Morse's challenge and came to epitomize the possibilities of "Catholic Republicanism." Recently labeled a "Catholic spokesman and Southern intellectual," the classical republican content of his thought needs to be further explored.2 To do so serves three important purposes: it extends historical understanding of a republican paradigm that has been too narrowly interpreted; it serves as an example of how republican ideas extended well into the nineteenth century; and it presents an unusual example of how a Catholic intellectual could interact with an American culture that, until the antebellum years, had almost exclusive roots in Protestantism.3

During the past thirty years, one of the most important insights of historical research is the notion that Americans once subscribed to a set of political and social values that time has slowly obscured. Historians have demonstrated that eighteenth and nineteenth-century republican thought was different in many respects from the political views of the late twentieth century. Classical republicanism did not stress the liberal values of individualism or democratic majorities; instead, republican language always focused on conspiratorial efforts by hidden "power" to subvert liberty. Liberty itself was not defined as the existence of rights, but rather as the responsibility to preserve virtue by serving the republic unselfishly. Republicanism stood as a bulwark of communitarian belief in contrast to individualism.

John England (1786-1842) stood as an important figure in his time. As a recent article on Bishop England comments, "during the two decades he served as bishop of Charleston, England became a national figure, the most visible and articulate Catholic clergyman of his day. "4 And he was especially famous among his contemporaries for giving, in 1826, the first address to the United States Congress by a member of the Catholic hierarchy. Strangely, though, historiographical interest in Bishop England has been sporadic. Such neglect of an important antebellum cultural figure might come from the fact that the earliest historiographical analysis of him came from Catholic thinkers who wished to challenge his unique synthesis of Catholicism and classical republicanism.

Several years after his death, an anonymous author (possibly Bishop Francis Kenrick) wrote in Brownson's Quarterly Review: "We know of no work in which the authority of the Church, as a tribunal of doctrine, is treated with greater clearness of diction and power of reasoning, as well as variety of method."5 But, more importantly, in that same article there was also the beginning of a (Catholic) historiographical trend that is threatened by the lack of fervor for the papacy in Bishop England: "We must, however, take leave to express our regret that, whilst scrupulously tenacious of the defined doctrines, the illustrious prelate, in the early part of his career, was tinged with those theological opinions which pass under the name of Gallican."6

Perhaps then because the later nineteenth-century was the time of the First Vatican Council and the doctrine of papal infallibility, John England's memory faded. It was not until the twentieth century that interest revived. The first major work to study Bishop England was from the founding figure of professional American Catholic history, Peter Guilday with his The Life and Times of John England. Guilday saw clearly the essential genius of England and "his untrammeled Americanism [and] his thorough grasp of American idealism. …

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