John Carroll: A Catholic bridge-builder

As the Revolutionary War drew to a close and the 13 former British colonies were being transformed into the United States, American Catholics faced an obvious, urgent challenge: to win the acceptance of their fellow Americans.

Catholics in the new country totaled only about 25,000, with the largest concentrations in Maryland and Pennsylvania. Few were rich or influential. Instead, in many places Catholics were targets of contempt, suspicion and persecution. Attitudes and practices transferred to the new world from the European religious wars of the 17th century.

The right man for the job

In such circumstances the choice of a leader for the Church in America was of crucial importance. John Carroll — first bishop, later first archbishop in the United States — was the right man in the right place at the right time for this onerous, highly sensitive job.

A member of a wealthy and respected Catholic family, with excellent contacts among America’s political and social elite, Archbishop Carroll proved notably adept at building bridges with the non-Catholic world in a career spanning more than three decades. “A gentleman of learning and abilities,” John Adams, who was to be second president of the United States, said of the young priest in 1776, the year of American independence.

Along with persuading Protestants that Catholics also had a place in America, John Carroll was to tackle the mammoth task of building the infrastructure of the Church from scratch. And in this, too, he proved remarkably successful.

He was born Jan. 8, 1735, at his parents’ plantation in southern Maryland, the fourth of seven children. His older brother, Daniel, was to be one of only five men who signed both the Articles of Confederation and the U.S. Constitution. His cousin and lifelong friend, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, was the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence and the first U.S. senator from Maryland.

Following early studies in Maryland, young Carroll and his cousin Charles were sent to French Flanders to study at the Jesuits’ College of St. Omer, an institution established to accommodate the sons of well-to-do English-speaking Catholics who had no Catholic schools in their own countries. In 1753, aged 18, he entered the nearby Jesuit novitiate in preparation for becoming a priest of the Society of Jesus. He was ordained in 1771.

In the summer of 1773, Pope Clement XIV, under pressure from several Catholic monarchs with whom the Jesuits had tangled, issued a brief suppressing the Society. Carroll was shocked but, having no other choice, accepted the papal decree. (In later life, he would display a marked preference — which he acknowledged — for ex-Jesuits like himself in filling clerical posts in his sprawling American diocese.) Returning home in 1774, he engaged in pastoral work near what is now Washington, D.C., and there established the colonies’ first Catholic parish.

A revolutionary

In 1776, the Continental Congress, now in open conflict with the mother country, dispatched a mission to Canada to try to persuade the Canadians to join the struggle against Great Britain. The members were Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Chase, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and later justice of the Supreme Court, and Charles Carroll of Carrollton. Although not formally a member of the group, Father Carroll was asked — and agreed — to accompany it. A priest’s involvement, it was reasoned, would smooth the way with French Canadians. The effort failed, but Carroll’s role strengthened his image among the movers and shakers of his day as a trustworthy and capable figure.

Pope Pius VI in 1784 appointed him ecclesiastical superior of the mission in the United States. (This was the same Pope Pius who in August 1799 was to die in France as a prisoner of the French Revolution. For his part, John Carroll, though a strong supporter of the American Revolution, was disgusted with the extremism and violence of this French version of regime change.)

Four years later, after Rome authorized the priests of the United States — then numbering little more than two dozen — to choose a bishop, the result was predictable: an overwhelming vote for Father Carroll. Pius VI approved the choice and named him first bishop in the United States on Nov. 6, 1789. His new Diocese of Baltimore encompassed the entire territory of all 13 states.

Choosing bishops

This way of choosing a bishop may seem unusual now, with selection by the pope the norm, but it was common enough in the late 18th century, when direct papal appointment of bishops was rare and local clergy commonly made the choice. Often, too, secular authorities controlled the process — a role the American government declined to play from the start.

In later years Bishop Carroll favored adopting a method like the one used in his selection as the standard for the United States, but in this he had no success. His approach to the question of choosing bishops reflected the balancing act he found necessary to play on this and all other matters — on one hand unshakable loyalty to the pope as the indispensable principle of unity in the Church; on the other the ever-present fear that too much involvement by Rome in local affairs “would draw on our religion a heavy imputation from the government under which we live.”

Similar sensitivity to the pastoral needs of the Catholic community he led can be seen in his support for a vernacular liturgy. Insistence on Latin, he remarked in 1787, may have made sense in response to “insulting and reproachful demands” for the vernacular by early Protestant reformers. But now, he said, citing the twin problems of illiteracy and a shortage of liturgical books, “to continue the practice of the Latin liturgy … must be owing either to chimerical fears of innovation or to indolence and inattention.” It was another 200 years before Carroll’s argument prevailed.

Consistent with this attitude, he desired a native-born clergy for the Church in the United States. In 1789 he founded the school that was to become Georgetown University with the aim of training “subjects capable of becoming useful members of the ministry,” and two years later brought French Sulpicians to Baltimore to establish a seminary there.

Inevitably, though, in the Carroll years the small body of priests working in the United States was largely foreign-born. Many were committed and effective, but some were eccentrics and troublemakers and a continuing thorn in their bishop’s side.

The same was true of the lay trustees who in a number of places owned the property of parishes and claimed the authority to hire and fire pastors. Archbishop Carroll dealt firmly with the situation, but trusteeism plagued his successors throughout much of the 19th century.

Growth of U.S. Church

In 1808, recognizing the growth of the Church in the United States, Pope Pius VII created four new American dioceses: Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Bardstown, Ky. Baltimore became the metropolitan archdiocese, and John Carroll was elevated to archbishop. Two years earlier, in Baltimore, he had laid the cornerstone of the first cathedral in the United States — the Cathedral of the Assumption, today a basilica — with Benjamin Henry Latrobe, architect of the U.S. Capitol in Washington as its designer. Archbishop Carroll did not live to see its completion. He died in Baltimore Dec. 3, 1815, and is buried in his cathedral’s crypt.

A quarter-century earlier, taking possession of the see, the new bishop lamented that it would no longer be enough for him to be merely “inoffensive in my conduct and regular in my manners.” Instead, he said, his job included not only caring for the faithful of his vast diocese, with “nothing in view but God and your salvation,” but also fostering “charity and forbearance” toward other churches while simultaneously avoiding the “fatal and prevailing indifference which views all religions as equally acceptable to God and salutary to men.”

He got the job done. At the time of his death, the Catholic Church in the United States was growing in numbers (close to 120,000), putting down institutional roots, and at peace with Protestant America. What neither John Carroll nor anyone else knew or could have known was that the nation then stood on the brink of a vast immigrant influx that would soon bring explosive growth, plus new tensions, to American Catholicism.

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.