In the Beginning There Was Maryland
Worshipping God According to the Dictates of Conscience
This glorification of Maryland strikes a familiar chord in Catholics who attended parochial schools before 1960. They recall how Sister began her first lesson in American history with the story of Christopher Columbus, the Italian Catholic who discovered America. Then she mentioned Spain and how that country brought the Faith to Central and South America. She also said the Spanish built Catholic missions in Florida and California long before there was a country called the United States.
Next Sister taught about France and how Catholics from that country were the first Europeans to settle in Canada. From there French explorers, usually accompanied by Jesuit or Franciscan priests, discovered the Great Lakes and the numerous rivers of the North American mid‑continent. Eventually, Sister said, French settlements stretched from Quebec on the St. Lawrence River in the north to New Orleans where the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico in the south. The French established trading posts and missions at several points in between, at such places as Detroit, Green Bay, Vincennes, and St. Louis.
Sister emphasized that Spain and France did more than bring Catholicism to the New World. In the process both countries produced some authentic Catholic heroes, for example Spain gave us Fr. Junipero Serra, a Franciscan who built a mission at San Juan Capistrano, California, in the 1730’s. France, for her part, gave us the Jesuit martyr, St. Isaac Jogues, killed by Algonquin Indians in New York during the 1640’s. Sister made it clear that the contributions of Spanish and French Catholics to the New World were important and just cause for American Catholics to be proud.
But, Sister stressed, American Catholics must remember that our real history begins in the same place and with the same people as the real history of the United States begins–in the 13 colonies established in North America by Protestant England. It is to these colonies that all Americans, whether Catholic or Protestant, should look for their roots. In short, according to Sister, American Catholic history begins in Maryland, the one British colony where Catholicism enjoyed toleration protected by law.
The founding of Maryland in 1634 is without doubt a decisive event in the history of American Catholicism. Maryland was the first place since 1558 where the mother country allowed English Catholics to practice their religion with a measure of freedom. Equally important, from its beginning Maryland exhibited a number of features that became fundamentals of the American experiment in self‑government. For instance, freemen who settled in Maryland were allowed to legislate for themselves on a democratic basis. Moreover, the colony’s charter enshrined in law some traditional English civil liberties from the Magna Carta of 1215, including the principle of “no taxation without representation.” Perhaps of greatest importance for the future American Catholic Church, Maryland explicitly allowed religious liberty, as if anticipating the First Amendment to the US Constitution.
Perhaps no idea is so ingrained in the American consciousness as the doctrine of religious liberty. The notion that all persons have an inalienable right either to worship or not worship God as each sees fit is so fundamental to American freedom that only a fool would question its validity. Catholics could seek no better evidence that Americanism and Catholicism are innately compatible than in the fact that Catholic Maryland was the first place in America to implement religious liberty. Unless, of course, religious liberty and Catholicism are incompatible. Even worse, suppose that religious liberty and Catholicism are not only incompatible; suppose that over time they are found to be mutually antagonistic.
Catholics must understand at the outset that when Maryland was founded an official policy of religious liberty was all but unknown in Christian states, Protestant as well as Catholic. The idea had never been condemned by the Catholic Church for the simple reason that such a policy had been unthinkable before the Protestant Reformation. Nevertheless, the practice of anything even remotely similar to religious liberty clearly ran counter to the Catholic tradition of a cooperative union between Church and State. The very idea is un-Catholic as indicated by the complete absence of the concept in countries that remained Catholic during the 16th century. Spain and France were two such countries and neither manifested the slightest hint of religious liberty at home or in their holdings in the New World.
No, Maryland’s religious liberty was not rooted in Catholicism, but rather in the reaction of English Catholics to the suppression of their religion in the aftermath of King Henry VIII’s break with Rome in 1534. During that time of strife the state, in the person of the crown and in the name of a new national church that called itself Anglican, persecuted citizens who refused to conform to the Anglican mode of worship. In response faithful Catholics sought refuge in some new ideas that deviated from historic and traditional Catholicism. Along with non‑conformist (i.e., non‑Anglican) Protestants, Catholics developed sympathy for the separation of Church and State, for democracy as a form of government that might weaken royal absolutism, and for the primacy of “conscience” with respect to religious belief. When the colonizers of Maryland, as Catholics, carried these tendencies to the New World they introduced an approach to the Faith that later characterized the Catholic Church in what became the United States. A brief examination of the plight of English Catholics during the century before 1634 will show how and why these new ideas took hold.
The first wave of persecution began when Parliament passed the infamous Oath of Supremacy law. Under this act, if a British subject refused to swear allegiance to Henry VIII as head of the Catholic Church in England, said subject was guilty of treason, a capital crime. During the 19 years from 1534 to 1553 some 10,000 faithful Catholics suffered martyrdom rather than follow their king and 15 of 16 Catholic bishops into apostasy. The first wave of persecution ended when Mary Tudor, the Catholic daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, became Queen. The reign of Queen Mary inaugurated a Catholic restoration that lasted five years, until 1558.
St. Thomas More is by far the best known of the early martyrs.1 He won his first renown as a man of letters in 1516 with his famous satire Utopia. More deliberately chose the title from the Greek word for “nowhere.” The work depicts an “ideal society”–the kind that never has existed and never will–on a fictional island in the Atlantic Ocean.
On More’s magical isle people are good because property is held in common and all religious beliefs are tolerated. Although Utopia is often cited as proof of More’s liberalism, his later writings and actions suggest the exact opposite.
In addition to his literary accomplishments, Thomas More was also a boon companion to Henry VIII whom he served as Lord Chancellor of the Realm. This association with the royal court led to More’s martyrdom when he refused to take the Oath of Supremacy in 1534 and Henry charged him with treason. When the king’s erstwhile friend and Chancellor continued his refusal he was sentenced to death. The saint’s last words before the executioner’s axe fell were “I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”
St. Thomas More is important in the history of American Catholicism for at least two reasons. First, later generations of Catholics in the English colonies saw his stand against the usurpations of Henry VIII as an argument for separation of Church and State, although More was for nothing of the sort. Rather, the saint reaffirmed some classical Catholic distinctions that went back at least four centuries to the days when medieval monarchs vied with popes for temporal power. According to this Catholic teaching both Church and state derive their authority from God, with the Church ascendant in the spiritual realm while the state takes precedence in the temporal. If the interests of the two conflict, then the good of souls takes priority. In such a sense the state is “subordinate” to, not separated from, the Church. As is clear from More’s writings while in prison, the saint believed the state should use its authority to help the Church in its struggle against heretics, even to the point of executing heretics for the common good.
A second reason for More’s importance for American Catholicism flows from his canonization in 1935. Shortly thereafter, More was named the patron saint of lawyers. Lawyers, of course, as a group tend to dominate politics in democratic societies. In America, since More’s canonization, many influential Catholic politicians have had a mistaken perception of their patron saint. Sometimes they saw him as a champion of separation between Church and State, which obviously he was not. Other times, because of certain utopian ideas in his works, More was seen as at least a sainted liberal if not indeed a sainted socialist.
More’s liberalism is inferred from such statements in Utopia as the following: “[I]f one religion alone be true and the others false, it will then easily show itself so, provided it is advanced with reason and restraint, as it emerges by the force of truth alone” [emphasis added]. The belief that the truth will always win in a struggle with error is central to classical Liberalism such as prevailed at the time of the American founding. Such a belief is also central to the American concepts of freedom of speech and of the press as enshrined in the US Bill of Rights.
Hence it is not surprising that liberal Catholics thought St. Thomas More affirmed their ideology. Both his martyr’s witness against Henry’s caesaro-papism and his statement that truth will always prevail against error were cited by Catholics in America who insisted that the state should neither assist the cause of religious truth nor suppress heresy. Such Catholics were dishonest because they cited More quite selectively and misleadingly as they constructed a new but false view of the proper relationship between Church and State.
The saint would have never endorsed the new view because it was patently un-Catholic. Catholic tradition holds quite sensibly that, due to the wounds of original sin, falsehoods will tend to prevail in any contest with truth. Therefore, instead of promoting freedom of religion as the American Bill of Rights does, a truly Christian state should promote what is true and suppress what is false. Indeed, the state should suppress heresy unless such action would lead to worse disorder. In the latter case toleration is acceptable, but only as a second‑best alternative. As Pope Leo XIII observed in 1888: “...to judge aright, we must acknowledge that, the more a state is driven to tolerate evil, the further is it from perfection.” Can anyone doubt that More the martyr would stand with Catholic tradition and not with the American Founding Fathers?
The brave fidelity of Thomas More and his contemporaries was a throwback to the kind of fervor associated with Roman martyrs during the early centuries of the Church. Unfortunately, such steadfastness proved short-lived. It was, of course, unnecessary during the Catholic restoration under Mary Tudor. Then came Queen Elizabeth I and her anti‑Catholic Penal Laws which made Catholic compromise and apostasy commonplace. These laws were carefully crafted to make life difficult for the Faithful, but not so difficult as to induce martyrdoms. The Protestant leaders were well aware of what the blood of martyrs could accomplish. So they set out prudently and deliberately not to execute Catholics, just hound them, harass them, tax them, and discriminate against them.
Under the strain of the Penal Laws some influential Catholic leaders developed strategic initiatives aimed at easing the lot of their co‑religionists as Englishmen. A few of the new ideas unintentionally made English Catholics susceptible to modes of thought that are neither usually nor historically part of a Catholic mindset.
Catholics found the Act of Uniformity of 1559 the most noxious of Elizabeth’s Penal Laws. The Act stipulated that all Englishmen must “conform to the Anglican mode of worship.” This mandate was disturbing because it presented problems of conscience for Catholic resisters, problems that went beyond meeting their religious obligations. Many, for example, had qualms about intentionally deceiving civil authorities by pretending externally to conform. For their part, Protestants enforced conformity in order to destroy whatever remained of the true Faith. The obvious decline in fervid Catholic resistance indicates that Protestants achieved some success. An unexpected result was that Catholics came to disdain all laws that sought either to establish or prohibit any religion. In other words, ultimately the Penal Laws planted the seed for separation of Church and State in the minds of English Catholics.
Because of a tradition of civil liberties dating back to at least 1215, most Englishmen were sensitive to the onerous weight of the Penal Laws. None however, not even Catholics, understood that the real injustice of such laws lay in their suppression of the true religion. Instead non‑Conformists of all stripes sought to abolish laws either restricting religious practices or enforcing particular creeds. Englishmen who dissented from Anglicanism began evermore to favor what came to be known as “tolerance” or “toleration,” i.e., a belief that government should recognize the rights of persons and groups to hold dissenting religious views.
The idea found a surprising champion in Fr. Robert Persons, S. J., the priest who led the first Jesuit contingent into England in 1581. Fr. Persons felt that Catholics could be tolerant of Anglican and Puritan beliefs if in exchange Protestants were tolerant of Catholicism. While a few Catholics objected to Person’s views because they understood the need for proscriptive laws favoring the true religion, a majority accepted “toleration” as sound doctrine by the end of Elizabeth’s reign.
As a corollary to the doctrine of “tolerance,” Catholics also drew distinctions regarding Church and State in such a way as virtually to separate the two. The idea of separation first gained credence when Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth in 1570, thereby releasing her Catholic subjects from their allegiance to her. The most immediate result was that English Catholics questioned the Pope’s authority to depose a temporal ruler. In the words of Monsignor Philip Hughes, a Catholic historian of the Reformation in England, the excommunication “never...made any difference to the loyalty towards Elizabeth of the generality of her Catholic subjects, priests or laymen....” Thomas Hanley, a Jesuit historian, wrote that the whole context of the Pope’s command that no one need obey Elizabeth’s mandates and laws “indicates that the reference is not to all laws but only to those which are illegitimate in that they are usurpations of spiritual authority.” In other words, excommunication did not affect the Queen’s sovereignty in temporal affairs.2
English Catholics, bereft of a native hierarchy and served mainly by a clergy that was trained abroad at Douay, developed an exaggerated sense of patriotism in response to the reactions of foreign Catholics to Protestant policies. This patriotism manifested itself in a certain reluctance to accept help from countries that were national rivals of England. At times, as in the case of Elizabeth’s excommunication, this reluctance extended to questioning Roman ecclesiastical authority. The war with “Catholic” Spain in the 1580’s brought this exaggerated patriotism to the fore. When the war culminated with the attack by the Spanish Armada in 1588, English Catholics were openly and unequivocally loyal to their queen. In this they could hardly be faulted since they correctly saw that Philip II of Spain was more interested in expanding his empire than in liberating his English co‑religionists.
Penal Laws and Acts of Supremacy were enforced by absolute monarchs who did not hesitate to execute anyone who questioned the supremacy of the royal will. It is not surprising, therefore, that victims of such laws began to see democracy as a means of alleviating their condition. Seen in this light the absolutism of the Tudors and Stuarts was but one more circumstance grating upon English instincts for personal liberties, one more reason to abolish laws regulating religious belief. The antipathy of English dissenters for rule by kings arose coincidentally with a new sympathy for “popular government” in some Catholic circles. This novel, almost democratic, concept was especially championed by Jesuits such as Persons in England and Suarez and Bellarmine on the continent.
As early as 1594 Fr. Persons condemned what he called the “Protestant notion” of divine right of kings. He spoke in response to claims by Elizabeth and her advisors that God vested all spiritual as well as temporal authority in the reigning sovereign. According to Persons God vested authority in “the people as a whole,” and not in any individual alone. Persons’ argument was of more than passing interest to advocates of absolutism at a time when Elizabeth was beyond the age of childbearing and there was no direct descendant to the Tudor throne. The idea that “the people” might have a voice in selecting a king was seen as an attack on the very idea of hereditary monarchy. Since democratism was propagated by so prominent a “Papist” as Persons, it was additional cause to suppress Catholicism.3
On the continent the major figure among Catholic democratists was another Jesuit, Robert Cardinal Bellarmine. Best known as an advisor to the popes of the Catholic counter‑reformation, Bellarmine is of great importance in the development of democratic ideas among English Catholics. During the reign of the first Stuart king, James I (1603‑1625), the Cardinal was asked twice by Pope Paul V to intervene for the faithful against the Crown. The first time was in 1605 when Bellarmine acted in a private capacity during the crisis provoked by a new Oath of Allegiance; the second time was in 1608 when Bellarmine entered into public disputation with the king regarding the origins of civil authority.
Bellarmine’s intervention in 1605 was occasioned when the ranking Catholic cleric in England advocated a quid pro quo compromise with James I. For his part, the king demanded that his Catholic subjects swear to “abhor, detest, and abjure as impious and heretical” any belief that deposed or excommunicated rulers might be forcibly deprived of the throne. There was no Catholic bishop resident in England at the time. Instead Fr. George Blackwell functioned as an archpriest, i.e., a priest authorized by Rome to exercise control over secular clergy in the absence of a bishop. In an effort to win concessions for Catholics, Fr. Blackwell took the oath demanded by the king. By so swearing, the Archpriest violated an express order by Pope Paul V. Indeed, Blackwell went so far as to claim the Pope’s command was in error and not binding because Paul V “misunderstood” the nature of the oath in question. At this point Bellarmine penned a condemnation of the Oath and of the Archpriest who took it. As a result of this episode, English Catholics became increasingly fearful of religious superiors and distrustful of ecclesiastical authority, especially if it emanated from Rome as Blackwell’s office had. Although most disagreed with Blackwell’s reasoning, they refused to side openly with Rome.
Blackwell abdicated his position as archpriest in 1608, the same year that James I and Cardinal Bellarmine conducted a public disputation on the divine right of kings. In a learned discourse the king, an avid absolutist, insisted that the highest authority in spiritual as well as temporal matters had been delegated by God to the reigning sovereign. James concluded with the bald assertion that God conferred total power on monarchs at the time of their coronation.
By way of response Bellarmine declared that spiritual authority was directed towards the welfare of the soul and is rightfully wielded only by the Church. By contrast, said the Cardinal, temporal power was concerned only with the welfare of the body and is rightfully wielded by the sovereign so long as he does not imperil the salvation of souls. Bellarmine’s main importance for American Catholics lies in his conclusion that all authority passes from God to the designated ruler by way of “the people.’’
This term “the people” had a very different meaning for the Jesuit controversialists than it does today. They saw “the people” as a united entity much like the members of a human body, whereas moderns speak of the people as a loose collection of individuals forming a body politic. With the former understanding it is much easier to appreciate the classical doctrine of the superiority of the common good vis-a-vis the private good of individuals. Assertions by Persons and Bellarmine about the “rights of the people” are important because these Jesuits were the first to bring such ideas to the attention of long‑suffering English Catholics. An even greater importance would eventually be demonstrated when English Catholics in Maryland put the idea that “sovereignty rests with the people” into practice.
Another noteworthy controversy involving Church and State occurred shortly before the founding of Maryland. Since 1558 the seminary at Douay in Belgium had trained priests to serve in an England where there was no native Catholic hierarchy. Indeed, 113 such priests were martyred on charges of treason during the reign of Elizabeth. Though the priests were English, the seminary itself was directed by authorities in Rome. The combination of royal distrust of Douay priests and Roman control of the seminary caused many English Catholics to feel that a foreign influence was jeopardizing their position as subjects of the crown. This was the context in 1628 when the Holy See named Richard Smith, former president of the College at Douay, to be bishop of the Diocese of Chalcedon.
Smith would have been the first resident Catholic bishop in England in 70 years and a sizeable number of English Catholics reacted unfavorably to the news. Henry More, future Jesuit provincial superior for England and great‑grandson of St. Thomas More, joined with 300 other faithful in signing a “Remonstrance of Grievances” against the appointment. The signers expressed fear that the appearance of a diocesan government would be misconstrued by the Crown. They added that it was a capital crime for a foreign power (the papacy) to intrude itself into England’s internal affairs, that is the naming of a Catholic bishop was a matter of concern only to Englishmen. The remonstrators concluded that the existing secular authority, Protestant though it be, handled the temporal effects of Church laws competently because it recognized the theoretical rights of the Church to ascendancy in spiritual matters.
The implication of the Remonstrance was far reaching. It meant English Catholics felt free to refuse papal authority in ecclesiastical governance if the exercise of such authority endangered their relationship with the British crown. Jesuit historian Fr. Thomas Hanley saw the ultimate importance of this development. “In the Remonstrance of Grievances,” wrote Hanley in 1984, “we see a considerable development of a tendency to limit ecclesiastical authority. It was complementary to the constant struggle to confine the scope of the state.”4
Hanley’s point is worth remembering since the Remonstrance came just six years before English Catholics established the Maryland colony and 150 years before the founding of the United States. The desire to be free of the Penal Laws and yet still be Englishmen was clear. The resultant bias against Roman authority would one day reappear amongst American Catholics who acted largely from the same kind of motives.
One of the signers of the “Remonstrance” was Sir George Calvert, who had been named the first Baron of Baltimore in 1625 when his conversion to Catholicism forced him to resign as Secretary of State to King James I. While still an Anglican, Calvert tried to establish a colony in North America based upon the principle of religious tolerance. Although the colony failed to materialize because he could not attract a sufficient number of settlers, Calvert persisted in his effort to found a haven where settlers of all religious persuasions could live together peaceably. While visiting at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1629 Calvert first saw the land across Chesapeake Bay that he thought suitable for his purpose.
When he returned to England, Calvert took the matter up directly with Charles I. The result was a royal charter devised especially for George Calvert just before his death in 1632. The document was passed on to Calvert’s son, Cecilius , who also succeeded to the title Lord Baltimore. It should also be noted that both Cecilius and his brother Leonard, the future first governor of Maryland, had followed their father into the Catholic Church.
Under the terms of the charter Lord Baltimore was named proprietor of a new colony to be named Maryland, located on the Potomac River across Chesapeake Bay from Virginia. Baltimore was authorized to wield substantial personal and quasi‑feudal authority over his colony, making him to some extent independent of both King and Parliament. The authority was hereditary and granted in “perpetuity.” The Lord Proprietor alone had the power to initiate legislation but he could be advised by a colonial assembly. Although the charter recognized that Maryland’s colonists would enjoy all the traditional civil rights of Englishmen, the religious provisions were deliberately vague. Thus there was no provision for an established church. Reference was made only to adherents of “God’s true and holy Christian religion” as being protected from discrimination. In other words, the Lord Proprietor had considerable interpretive latitude in religious matters.
Ironically, the Catholic Lord Proprietor, Baltimore, first used this latitude to discriminate against Catholics. Cecilius Calvert was a keen businessman who aimed to make money from the Maryland venture while staying comfortably at home in England. Considerably less “idealistic’’ than his father, the second Lord Baltimore did not hesitate to attract Protestants to the colony when he found that there were not enough Catholics willing to join the endeavor. Calvert moved immediately to enlist Protestants and in doing so he strove for perfectly peaceful coexistence between Catholics and Protestants. To placate the latter Calvert decided to muzzle his co-religionists. Incredible as it may seem, his decree of November 13, 1633 forbade Catholics to proselytize among the Protestants and also forbade all public manifestations of Catholic worship. This decree, issued just before 200 colonists of mixed Protestant and Catholic pedigree set sail for North America to establish a Catholic refuge among the British Protestant colonies already there, deserves to be cited at length:
His Lordship requires his said Governor and Commissioners that in their voyage to Maryland they be very careful to preserve unity and peace amongst all the passengers on [board ship], and that they suffer no scandal nor offense to be given to any of the Protestants, whereby any just complaint may hereafter be made by them in Virginia or in England, and that for that end, they cause all Acts of Roman Catholic Religion to be done as privately as may be, and that they instruct all the Roman Catholics to be silent upon all occasions of discourse concerning matters of Religion; and that the said Governor and Commissioners treat the Protestants with as much mildness and favor as Justice will permit. And this to be observed at Land as well as at Sea....His Lordship’s intentions...in this his intended plantation [are] first, the honor of God by endeavoring the conversion of the savages to Christianity.5
This blatant discrimination against the Catholic religion, which by its very nature thrives off of public display and missionary zeal, raises questions about just what sort of Catholic “haven” Maryland would be. While Protestants were treated with “mildness and favor,” a Catholic priest like Fr. Thomas Copley, S.J., had no privileges at all. In fact, this Maryland pioneer was required to live like a layman and devote much of his time to making a living. When Fr. Copley sought to improve the station of priests in the “Catholic refuge,” Lord Baltimore opposed the Jesuit. Baltimore asked Copley’s provincial in England, Henry More, to intervene and More responded by silencing Fr. Copley.6
Bad as their lot might seem today, Catholics in colonial Maryland were better off than those in the mother country, if secretive observance of the Faith without fear of arrest was definitely better than persecution under the Penal Laws. Also, as Puritans gained strength in Parliament at the expense of a lenient Charles I, anti-Catholic fanaticism threatened to gain control of the home government.
Be that as it may, questions remain about why Lord Baltimore implemented a Church‑State policy that was seemingly detrimental to an open profession of the Catholic Faith. The best guess is that he was a pragmatist heavily influenced by misguided idealization of religious tolerance. Baltimore most probably could have erected a Catholic State as per the language of the Maryland charter. But he and his Catholic settlers were concerned lest their Protestant peers stir trouble of themselves. Numerically, the Protestants held the majority, and in this light, the Calvert policies can be understood. He shared the thinking evidenced by his father’s signature on the “Remonstrance of Grievances,” as did virtually everyone in the colony. On rare occasions when Protestants pressed charges of harassment, Catholics were found guilty and punished by stiff fines.
While Lord Baltimore held religious opinions that departed from traditional Catholic thinking, his colonists in the New World refined such ideas into something even more radical. In so doing, they anticipated some of the liberal qualities that were later incorporated into the government of the United States. While the Lord Proprietor supported religious tolerance, he also was a royalist aristocrat. As such he intended to run his colony accordingly, the way the royal charter provided. Marylanders, however, had rather different ideas.
The improvements in their religious and temporal situations gave them a great attachment to their new land. Influenced by English‑Jesuit political ideas they desired self‑rule, a desire much abetted by their being thousands of miles distant from their Lord Proprietor. (Cecilius Calvert never came to Maryland, not even for a visit. ) His absence along with his Old World methods of governance complicated colonial life needlessly, a point that even Governor Leonard Calvert conceded. With the governor’s permission, and under the charter provision that it was a body designed to offer “advice and consent” to the Proprietor’s legislation, an assembly of all freemen met in 1635. Once assembled, the body lost little time demanding a greater role for itself in lawmaking. By 1638 it rejected as too aristocratic the entire body of laws proposed by Lord Baltimore. Instead the assembly enacted its own legislation which Baltimore refused to approve. The impasse was broken when Governor Calvert convinced his brother to yield to the colonists his chartered right to initiate legislation. Thereafter, the local assembly legislated autonomously for Maryland until William and Mary reasserted royal prerogatives in the 1690’s.7
The laws passed by the early Maryland Assembly included an explicit recognition of Magna Carta rights and liberties, an allowance that even unpropertied settlers could be “freemen,” and the statutes of 1639 incorporating full religious liberty. With respect to this last, there were several important aspects. First, although the royal charter and Baltimore’s proposed law both specified “Christians,” the Maryland statutes made no distinction whatsoever on the basis of religion. Traditional English liberties were instead seen as flowing directly from human nature in and of itself, thus rendering religion “irrelevant.” Secondly, the colonists rejected a Baltimore proposal to provide penalties for blasphemy and idolatry. As explained by Fr. Hanley, the Maryland Assembly “sensed the explosive nature” of penalizing such acts, perhaps because of “the colony’s pluralistic form and characteristic toleration,” or perhaps because the Maryland lawmakers recalled “the European history” of such laws. Closer to home, Hanley concluded, they saw the results of such legislation in the witch-hunts of the Massachusetts Bay Colony:
Civil magistrates became judges of an individual’s guilt of blasphemy and determined the nature of idolatry and sorcery. In the light of what they had drawn up for the ordinance, the committeemen saw that such matters were essentially spiritual, and proper judgment for the church and her ministers.8
Thus did Maryland Catholic colonists attempt to distinguish proper roles for Church and State, an issue that first became blurred with Henry VIII’s usurpation of spiritual primacy in England. In so doing they all but declared that the state is incompetent in anything touching matters spiritual. At the same time they refused to grant the true Church, the Church of their own profession, the temporal help it has a right to ask from a state supposedly established to protect the household of Faith. Without making any bold declaration to such effect, they concluded that the separation of Church and State was the political ideal because it rendered absolutist usurpations impossible. For this attitude subsequent generations of Americans, including nearly all American Catholics, lauded Marylanders as heroes of “liberty,” men well ahead of their times. It is more accurate, however, to view Marylanders as Catholics who lacked sufficient fortitude and foresight to understand that separation of Church and State must ever be incompatible with and inimical to the interests of the true Faith.
So it came to pass that a century of Protestant usurpation and repression forged certain “new,” un-Catholic ways of thinking into the English Catholic mind. When combined with Jesuit political theories, the new thinking produced several aberrations if viewed from a traditional Catholic perspective. These included a “distinction” between Church and State so rigorous as to imply their separation; an emphasis on “conscience” and “sincerity” over objective truth; democratism; and an exaggerated, self‑defensive “patriotism.” Once planted in the first English Catholic settlement of North America, these aberrations became the fodder for an American Catholic mindset which has endured for 360 years. As American history unfolded Catholics thought the ideas compatible with more secularized late 18th century revolutionary formulations. Of greatest importance, these inherently un-Catholic ideas took hold of an American Catholic Church that dared not question the culture that sprang forth from them. Instead, American Catholicism busied itself “counting the blessings of liberty” that save Catholics from penal laws, as if martyrdom was the worst thing that could happen.
In the beginning was Maryland. And Maryland was peculiar because Maryland was English Catholic. Peculiarly Catholic in fact because the anomalies of Maryland’s Catholicism became anomalies of American culture. Most important for Catholics today, Maryland’s anomalies became peculiar to the American Church and that made the American Church peculiar in the wider world of Catholicism.
Dr. Dr. Justin Walsh has an undergraduate degree in Journalism and a Master’s degree in History from Marquette University, and a doctorate in History from Indiana University. He spent 18 years as a university professor before resigning from teaching because of the deterioration of university standards in morals and academics. He taught English Composition and Grammar at the Society of Saint Pius X’s St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary, Winona, USA.
1 The information about More is drawn from Christopher Hollis, Thomas More (Milwaukee, Bruce Publishing Co., 1934).
2 Philip Hughes, The Reformation in England, Vol. III (New York: Macmillan Company, 1954), p.276; Thomas Hanley, S.J., Their Rights and Liberties (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1984), p.44.
3 For Persons’ argument against divine right monarchy, see ibid., p.39.
4 Hanley, Rights and Liberties, pp.58‑59 [emphasis added].
5 John Tracy Ellis, ed., Documents of American Catholic History, Vol. I (Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1967), pp.98‑99.
6 For Copley, see Hanley, Rights and Liberties, pp.109‑113.
7 J. Moss Ives, The Ark and the Dove (New York, Longmans, Green, and Co., 1936), see Chap. 8, “Real Religious Liberty.’’
8 Hanley, Rights and Liberties, pp.100‑101.
9 Ibid., p.106.
10 I. T. Hecker, The Church and the Age, An Exposition of the Catholic Church in View of the Needs and Aspirations of the Present Age (New York: The Catholic World Press, 1887), p.66.