In recent weeks, the topic of religious freedom has constantly been in the news.
Last Wednesday, CatholicVote reported that the Biden administration was attempting to revoke a Catholic hospital’s accreditation to serve Medicare and Medicaid patients due to the longtime presence of a sanctuary candle in the institution’s chapel. The government abandoned this quest two days later, but only following a firestorm of opposition from religious freedom groups.
May 1 marked the one-year anniversary of the leak of the Dobbs decision, an event which sparked hundreds of violent attacks by radical pro-abortion activists on Catholic churches and pro-life pregnancy resource centers and groups (many of which are Catholic-run). Despite being a self-professed Catholic, President Joe Biden has been largely silent about the attacks.
In February, a leaked memo from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) revealed that the agency was investigating “radical-traditionalist” Catholics. Later the FBI would clarify to a House subcommittee that they were also surveilling “mainline” Catholic parishes as well. After the FBI failed to respond to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, CatholicVote sued them for information about the agency’s targeting of Catholics.
From these stories, it is clear that in the 21st-century United States, the fundamental right of American Catholics to practice our faith is being threatened by various governmental institutions.
A significant and growing religious minority, Catholics currently comprise just under a fifth of the nation’s population. The 2020 census reported a total of 62 million American Catholics – more than the entire populations of California and Florida combined. In 1776, there were only reported to be around 25,000 Catholics, which was roughly half a percent of the total population.
This steady and remarkable growth of American Catholicism has only been made possible by the First Amendment’s first two clauses, which enshrine freedom of religion into the framework of the American legal system. The very existence of this right, which, as Catholics recognize, comes from God and not any man or government, is often taken for granted today. However, in the 1700s, the idea was literally revolutionary.
Even before the Constitution and Declaration of Independence were drafted, Catholics played a crucial role in making religious liberty a cornerstone of the freedoms we hold dear as Americans.
As we in 2023 fight to preserve the freedom of religion, we remember how instrumental early American Catholics were in bringing our Founding Fathers to clearly place its guarantee in the very beginning of our Bill of Rights.
Catholicism first arrived on American shores in the 16th century. In 1565, Spanish missionaries on the coast of northeastern Florida celebrated what was among the earliest confirmed Catholic Masses on American soil. The land on which the Mass took place became the still-standing city of St. Augustine, FL – the first permanent European colony in what is now the continental United States. The founding of this Catholic American settlement predated Jamestown, VA, the first permanent English colony by more than 40 years, and Plymouth, MA, by 55.
However, where British colonies – many of them founded by Puritans and other Protestant groups who were themselves seeking religious freedom – continued to spring up throughout the 17th century, Catholics were a small minority.
The lone exception was the colony of Maryland, which was founded in the year 1632 as a safe haven for mainly English and Irish Catholics escaping religious persecution.
The colony’s primary founder was George Calvert, Lord Baltimore, a former political advisor to King James I. Baltimore along with his family converted to Catholicism from Anglicanism.
Unfortunately, the elder Baltimore died a few weeks before Maryland was formerly established, leaving its operation to his two sons: Cecil, who succeeded him as Lord Baltimore, and Leonard, who became the colony’s first governor.
Contrary to popular belief, Maryland was not directly named after Blessed Virgin Mary, but instead, after then-Queen of England, Henrietta Maria. However, the French-born “Queen Mary” as she was commonly called, was fittingly a lifelong Catholic.
When Father Andrew White, an English Jesuit priest, landed on the shore of the new colony, he wrote about his desire to bring Catholicism to a place where it was practiced – by neither the native population nor the other British colonists.
On the day of the Annunciation of the Holy Virgin Mary, on the 25th of March, in the year 1634, we offered in this island, for the first time, the sacrifice of the mass: in this region of the world it had never been celebrated before.
Starting in the 1640s, there were several skirmishes between the Catholic Marylanders and Protestants neighboring Virginia, many of whom were moving into the Catholic colony’s borders. This would culminate in the year of 1650, when Puritans (the same strict Protestant sect who founded the Plymouth, MA settlement) initiated a successful hostile takeover of the Maryland government. The new Puritan leaders harshly persecuted the Catholic colonists, attacked many churches, and banned the public practice of Catholic faith – causing the Church in Maryland to temporarily go underground.
However, eight years later the Catholics returned to power. The Maryland Toleration Act, which was initially introduced under earlier Catholic rule, was signed into law again. This allowed Catholics and Protestants alike to practice their faith in relative peace, for the time being.
At the time of the American Revolution, there were approximately 15,000 Catholics living in Maryland, accounting for around 60% of the total Catholic population in the 13 colonies. However, Catholics were still only estimated to be 7.5% of Maryland’s total population of 200,000.
One of the many Catholics who moved to the Maryland Colony seeking religious liberty was a young Irish immigrant named Charles Carroll “the Settler.” However, in the late 1680s, shortly after Carroll had arrived in his new home, the Catholic government of Maryland was again overthrown by Protestants.
In front of Carroll’s eyes, the public practice of Catholicism was outlawed, like it had been decades earlier. Mass and Catholic education were again forced underground. The Carroll family reacted to this outright persecution by building a small chapel, where the remaining Catholic population of Maryland could secretly worship God.
Two of the elder Charles Carroll’s great-children would play instrumental roles in the founding of the new American nation, and in ensuring that it protected religious liberty.
One of them, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, would have the distinction of being the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence. The younger Charles Carroll, who would eventually become one of the State of Maryland’s inaugural U.S. Senators, also was the longest surviving signer of our nation’s founding document, dying at age 95 in 1832 – when Andrew Jackson was President.
Owing to his family’s story, Carroll was a longtime believer that the idea of a nation recognizing the divine right to religious freedom as a matter of law could be a reality.
In a letter to a friend, years before the American Revolution, he wrote, “I am of the opinion, were an unlimited toleration allowed and men of all sects were to converse freely with each other, their aversion from a difference of religious principles would soon wear away.”
In 1776, the same year he signed the Declaration, and 15 years before the Bill of Rights went into effect, Carroll helped write the first Maryland State Constitution which enumerated the right to free worship for all Christians, Catholic and Protestant.
Given this, it was not surprising that when war broke out, that unlike the more evenly-split Protestants, the vast majority of Catholics in the 13 colonies sided with the cause of independence, as they saw themselves to be not British but Americans. It is also worth mentioning that when the British surrendered at Yorktown in 1781, roughly 70% of the battle’s victorious soldiers were Catholic – many of them French.
Charles Carroll’s second cousin was Jesuit priest, Father John Carroll, who would in 1789 be appointed as the first Catholic bishop in the newly independent United States. He would serve as Archbishop of Baltimore until his death in 1815.
In 1784, in penning a defense of the Catholic faith when it was still only practiced by a small minority on American soil, then-Father Carroll observed that the new country was “blessed with civil and religious liberty.” The priest and future bishop stated that if the United States continued to recognize this freedom, it would prove to the world “that general and equal toleration, by giving free circulation to fair argument, is the most effectual method to bring all denominations of Christians to a unity of faith.” Caroll’s words held true after the Bill of Rights was ratified, and religious freedom was enshrined into American law seven years later.
However, the following year, Father Caroll warned that the future of religious liberty, a concept that at the time was foreign and untested in the entire world outside of the West, was uncertain. When speaking to a representative from Rome, he expressed hesitancy that the Catholic minority would be protected from persecution. As the following decades would prove, Carroll had much reason for his suspicions.
The Bill of Rights, which recognized the God-given right to the freedom of religion was finally ratified in the year 1791, almost exactly a century after the Carrolls’ great-grandfather experienced the banning of the Catholic faith in colonial Maryland.
Along with the Carroll cousins, another prominent Catholic advocate for the cause of including religious liberty in the U.S. Constitution was the Irish-born writer and publisher, Matthew Carey, a good friend and protege of Benjamin Franklin. During the early Revolution, when he was only 17, Carey wrote a popular pamphlet titled The Urgent Necessity of the Repeal of the Penal Code against Roman Catholics, bringing attention to anti-Catholicism in the English-speaking world.
Through his pamphlets and newspaper, Carey actively petitioned for strong religious freedom protections in the Constitution of his home state of Pennsylvania, as well as the federal Constitution.
The First Amendment’s Freedom of Religion is not stated in one clause but in two that go hand-in-hand with each other.
The Establishment Clause states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” while the Free Exercise Clause also adds that Congress shall also not prohibit “the free exercise thereof.”
Both of these clauses not only apply to and protect Catholics, but also directly relate to and were undoubtedly inspired by the experiences of the Maryland colonists.
The Establishment Clause explicitly prevents other religious groups from using the government to force Catholics to adopt beliefs that directly contradict Church teaching – like the Protestant governments of Maryland which sought to “establish” Puritanism and Anglicanism, respectively.
The complimentary Free Exercise Clause allows American Catholics to follow their religious beliefs without undue interference from a government entity – for example, the banning of the public Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in the Maryland colony.
In the year 1965, the Second Vatican Council issued a Declaration on Religious Liberty entitled, Dignitatis humanae, Latin for “human dignity.” In the document, the Council clearly stated that religious liberty is a fundamental human right, echoing the American Founding Fathers.
The demand is likewise made that constitutional limits should be set to the powers of government, in order that there may be no encroachment on the rightful freedom of the person and of associations. This demand for freedom in human society chiefly regards the quest for the values proper to the human spirit. It regards, in the first place, the free exercise of religion in society.
As violations of this human right continue to be at the forefront of contemporary political discourse, we American Catholics must always remember and continue the centuries-long battle for governments to recognize the freedom of religion.
It is, after all, a right that God has bestowed upon us – and no man, no matter how powerful they are or how hard they try, can take it away.