This (for me) rainy Fourth of July weekend, I started reflecting about American Catholicism at the birth of the New Republic.
John Carroll, born in Upper Marlboro, Maryland in 1735, was our first American Roman Catholic bishop, serving as the ordinary of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. He was elected by his fellow priests. He was also the founder of Georgetown University, the oldest Catholic university in the United States.
John was genuinely Catholic and authentically American in the true spirit of the Declaration of Independence, which his cousin Charles Carroll signed. (The only Catholic to sign the Declaration.) John – American, Catholic, and a bishop – has long been a symbol of what it truly means to be an American Catholic in every good sense of the word.
He understood and appreciated the separation of church and state.
He was keenly alert to shared decision-making; and he had the courage to act on behalf of Catholics in America without first begging for approval from the Vatican.
John Carroll had respect for the Vatican but strongly felt the Vatican should acknowledge and respect the church in America as well and not meddle in American church affairs. In 1783 when he learned that the Vatican, independent of the American clergy, was in the process of appointing a superior for the American church he was angry. “This you may be assured,” he wrote to his friend Charles Plowden in England, “no authority derived from the Propaganda will ever be admitted here; that the Catholic clergy and laity here know that the only connection they ought to have with Rome is to acknowledge the pope as the spiritual head of the church; that no congregations existing in his (i.e. the pope’s) states shall be allowed to exercise any share of his spiritual authority here.”
Carroll was selected Bishop of Baltimore by the clergy of the new nation in April 1789 by a vote of 24 out of 26 and on November 6, 1789 Pope Pius VI in Rome approved the election, naming Carroll the first Roman Catholic bishop in the newly independent United States.
Bishop Carroll took the lead in restoring the Society of Jesus in Maryland in 1805, without informing Rome, by working through Russian Jesuits, who had been protected from suppression by Catherine the Great.
He insisted that the readings of the liturgy be read in the vernacular, and was a strong advocate of “The Carey Bible,” an edition of the English-language Douay-Rheims translation.
He promoted the use of vernacular languages in the liturgy, two hundred years before Vatican II. In some areas of the New Republic, for a while, priests began their own impromptu English-language liturgies. “Can there be anything more preposterous than an unknown tongue,” Carroll wrote, and went on “to continue the practice of the Latin liturgy in the present state of things must be owing either to chimerical fears of innovation or to indolence and inattention in the first pastors of the national churches in not joining to solicit or indeed ordain this necessary alteration.” Now that is chutzpah!
In later years, Archbishop Carroll, under pressure from the Vatican, under pressure from a growing number of pro-Vatican foreign priests, and personally alarmed by the chaotic aftermath of the French Revolution, became a more conservative old man.
Carroll’s shift to neo-conservatism, perhaps, is a warning for us in the contemporary church. Some hierarchical old men can regress, and then they need a strong push and a courageously critical word from younger-minded people, like the young dynamic John Carroll.
As the Scriptures remind us: old people dream their dreams but young people see visions.
I would like to see a lot more vision in our contemporary church.