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A look at Independence Day and America’s first Catholic bishop

Posted By July 3, 2014 | 12:48 pm | Lead Story #3

By Father Paul J. Tougas
Special to The CFP

Colonial America was a very Protestant land. Catholics were a definite minority here and although there was one Catholic signer to the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Md., it was the Protestants who fanned the flames of revolution.
Preachers and their pulpits played a significant role in colonial America. There were many denominations here: Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers and, of course, Puritans and Congregationalists. They didn’t much like each other either because they differed on points of doctrine and governance. During the English Reformation King Henry VIII removed the pope and substituted himself as leader of the church. The Methodists got rid of the king but kept the bishops’ governing role. Presbyterians got rid of bishops entirely. Puritans got rid of churches and liturgy and were left with a Bible, a congregation and a meeting house, which was also the town hall.
New England was solidly Congregationalist. It was the established church.
Anglicanism (with the King as the head of the church) was the established church in six of 13 original colonies – North and South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Georgia and New York.
There were no bishops in colonial America and none were wanted (save by a few Anglican communities). The closest bishop was in Catholic Quebec and when a new Catholic bishop was announced for Quebec in 1766, the colonies quaked.
Interestingly, in 1776, when Jesuit Father John Carroll went on a congressional mission to Quebec with his cousin Charles Carroll and Benjamin Franklin to seek volunteers to fight on the Patriots’ side against Britain, he was excommunicated by the new Catholic bishop of Quebec. Bishop Jean-Olivier Briand favored the British.
Two biographies of John Carroll (one by Peter Guilday and one by Annabelle Melville) do not mention the excommunication. But Cardinal John P. Foley, in an address to the Knights of Columbus Supreme Council in Quebec in 2008, brought up the story of the excommunication of Father Carroll.
He stated that Bishop Briand had his reasons for denying the “rebels” help. Apparently the British had guaranteed the Catholics of Quebec freedom of religion and Bishop Briand did not want to lose that freedom.
Cardinal Foley stated that the censure had never been lifted.
He then requested that Cardinal Marc Ouellette of Quebec City lift the excommunication, which was done.
France had lost its Canadian holdings to British might around 1760. In the process Protestant Great Britain took possession of Catholic Canada and its Catholic population and hierarchy. In 1764 the English Parliament passed the Quebec Act which legitimized Catholicism in Quebec and also extended the Quebec Territory by two thirds so that it included the Great Lakes and much of what is now the Ohio River territory. The Quebec Act cut off the westward territories of the 13 colonies and prevented expansion of the colonies.
The Quebec Act angered the colonists very much because it was passed by the same Parliament that responded to the Boston Tea Party. Thus, a Catholic bishop in Quebec who excommunicated a colonial Catholic priest on a congressional mission to Quebec to seek recruits for the Colonial Army was a significant religious irritant.
The British Parliament’s House of Lords contained many bishops and it was Parliament that was irritating the colonists. The Protestant colonies were surrounded by Catholic Canada and Catholic Florida and the French Catholic territories of Louisiana. The colonies did not favor bishops for America. Even the Anglicans went gingerly on the subject. The first Anglican bishop was not appointed until 1784, an American-born who was consecrated in Aberdeen, Scotland.
Franklin was helpful in the beginnings of the American Catholic hierarchy. He was approached in Paris by a Vatican diplomat and asked if the new country of America would accept bishops. Franklin replied that our separation of church and state meant that he had no say, but privately he suggested Father John Carroll. The Vatican did look warmly on his suggestion. Father Carroll was eventually elected by his priests — perhaps the only elected American bishop in our history.
Pope Pius VI appointed Father Carroll as the nation’s first Catholic bishop to lead the new Diocese of Baltimore, which encompassed Catholics in all 13 original states.
When it came time for his consecration, the closest bishop to Father Carroll was in Quebec and he had already had a run-in with him. So Father Carroll went to Dorset, England and was consecrated a bishop in a private chapel there, but it was hardly a private affair. He had many contacts in England and on the continent and he used them to fund raise for his new American Church. Bishop Carroll’s consecration came in November 1789, seven months after the inauguration of George Washington in April. So America got its first president and first Catholic bishop almost at the same time.
Bishop John Carroll was very American and very much a patriot. He was well connected to the founders of this country especially Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.  Although he spent many years in Europe and England as a Jesuit priest, he was very cautious and careful that no foreign power exerted itself in the colonies or in the American Catholic Church. His acceptance of Rome and the Vatican was for its spiritual authority. The Vatican likewise was careful, too, with this new independent country and sought the best ways to proceed.
Through his letters Bishop Carroll reminded President Washington and the country that Catholic blood had been shed in the war for independence and that Catholics were an important part of the American people. Washington, for his part, was careful to be president of all Americans.
After the Revolutionary War the Anglican Church was  re-named the Protestant Episcopal Church. The states that, as colonies, had an established church quickly dis-established them. These established churches played a significant role contributing to the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment of the American Constitution which says:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion… .”
Clearly, however, the churches were very entwined with government in colonial America.