The complicated story of Catholicism, religious tolerance, and early America

Michael D. Breidenbach’s Our Dear-Bought Liberty: Catholics and Religious Toleration in Early America provides a welcome, if chastening, case for the compatibility of Catholicism and the American republic. But does anyone wish to hear such a case today?

(Image: Peter Lewis/

For the Catholic Church, America has never been just a nation or a state. It constitutes rather a political and theological problem. That is as much the case now as it has ever been. The American bishops meet to consider the Eucharist in the context of a Catholic President who publicly dissents from a central principle of the Church’s moral teaching. A charismatic priest with a penchant for guile and an indifferent laity alike gloss over still other teachings, all the while massaging doctrine until it rests comfortably within the materialistic “expressive individualism” that has become the new American creed. Meanwhile, a small but increasing number of younger Catholics look upon the liberal project of the American republic with dismay and dream of a new order that recovers the genius of Christendom. They invoke the language of Integralism and instinctively look beyond the supposedly “neutral” public sphere of liberal democracy.

In such a moment, Michael D. Breidenbach has published Our Dear-Bought Liberty, an informative and complicated history about the role of Catholics in the founding of the United States that is bound to strike many readers as, at best, untimely. Just over a decade ago, when Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak, and George Weigel were all three still campaigning, in the pages of First Things and beyond, for a modern regime in which liberal democracy found ballast in a pluralistic but religious public square, Breidenbach’s history of the Calvert and Carroll families would have made a welcome, if chastening, case for the compatibility of Catholicism and the American republic.

But does anyone wish to hear such a case today?

Much of the American Church has already so cloistered its religious beliefs in a shabby room off the back of the house of their lives that revisiting the question of Catholicism in America may seem an irrelevancy. If the Church has not yet come to accept one secular notion or another, then theologian Massimo Faggioli is there to say that it will do so soon enough according to the trademarked spirit of Vatican II. Meanwhile, those who look with discontent on what has resulted from the Church’s attempt to be informed by modern culture rather than to reform that culture, will greet with a raised eyebrow the news that Catholics played a role in the founding of the American republic, and specifically in its principle of religious freedom. In doing so, as it happens, they will have much of the Church’s orthodox tradition on their side.

Let us set aside for the moment how Breidenbach’s book might be received and consider what it actually says. Many American Catholics have thought of their place in national history the way the convert Orestes Brownson once did. The United States were founded on natural law principles, more those derived from John Locke than Thomas Aquinas, but, nonetheless, on such modest foundations something genuinely just could be constructed. Our Protestant founding fathers “built wiser than they knew,” wrote Brownson, and that judgment has been echoed by many since, including the late Russell Kirk and Peter Augustine Lawler.

Such a “crypto-Catholic” story of the founding presumes that the natural law principles inscribed in our Constitution require only completion, a fleshing-out, with the richer thought of Aquinas and Catholic social teaching, in order for America to fulfill its promise as a wholly just, not to say properly Catholic, political order. Catholic immigrants to the United States have the cultural and doctrinal resources to enrich and give direction to the American project so as to bring about the realization of that promise. The most celebrated advocate of this vision is of course John Courtney Murray, who advised John F. Kennedy during his presidential campaign and played a significant role in the crafting of Vatican II’s declaration on religious liberty, Dignitatis Humane (1965).

Not so, says Breidenbach. Catholics were already present in America. Catholics contributed to the founding. And Catholics’ experience of religious persecution in England, Ireland, and colonial America specifically motivated them to prefer the civil liberties of the new country to the prospect of an integral, Catholic regime, such as might be found in France. Catholics at the founding knew what they were building and they knew it risked being judged heresy in the eyes of the Church. They built it anyway.

Breidenbach’s story begins long before the founding and marks no very auspicious commencement. King James I having found that his favored subject, George Calvert, was a Catholic and could not swear the required oath of allegiance without risking excommunication from the Church, allowed him a generous retreat. James granted Calvert a charter to found the colony of Maryland. It would be one of the few American colonies to welcome Catholics within its borders.

George Calvert and, later, his son Cecil, spent much of their lives preoccupied by three interrelated problems, all of which concerned making a go of their upstart colony. First, when Pope Pius V, in 1570, released English Catholics of their duties of obedience to the Protestant Elizabeth I, he rendered those same Catholics a permanent political problem: imperium in imperio, a state within a state. Catholic subjects could no longer be trusted to obey their Queen rather than the “foreign prince” who was the Pope. The Calverts endured the mild disabilities placed on Catholic nobility in England that came in consequence of their questioned loyalty and sought to find a way of life within it. Making Maryland a profitable holding was the rough-and-ready solution. But, second, they founded Maryland as a colony open to English Catholics and Protestants alike and sought to forge a colonial regime that was religiously “tolerant.” As Breidenbach makes clear, this entailed not robustly defended religious freedom but simply the forbidding of any act that might stir up religious strife. Far from favoring Catholics, the Calverts strove to avoid even the appearance of doing so; it was easier just to ban all obvious sectarian expressions outright. The Calverts did want to encourage Catholic immigration to their colony, however, and so their third problem was to craft an oath of allegiance that would demonstrate Catholic fidelity to the English throne while also not placing a burden upon the consciences of those Catholics who professed it. Taking the oath was de jure required for immigration to the colonies. Crafting an acceptable oath proved an impossible task. No formulation of the oath that the English state would accept met with the approval of the Papacy. It ceased to be a problem the way such things usually do: sloppy management.

For the Calverts, these problems seem to have been exclusively practical. They never visited their Maryland holdings. Their life was in England; their claim to distinction was all that lay abroad. Finding a workable arrangement was chiefly a matter of making the colony a successful enterprise, one that would sustain the family fortunes. In Maryland itself, the Protestant population clearly resented the Catholics among them. With the coming of the English Civil War and the execution of King Charles I, that population quickly moved against its Catholic lord and fellow subjects. Maryland as a Catholic colony, or at least a colony that welcomed Catholics, had existed more on the paper of Calvert’s charter than in the place itself and was soon gone.

To that place, however, came the Carroll family. Irish Catholics all too familiar with the anti-Catholic penal laws, the Carrolls soon established themselves as one of the great families of colonial America, with land and slave holdings to match. The older Carrolls found themselves in a difficult situation: wealthy and established they nonetheless suffered under Maryland’s own emergent penal laws against Catholics. The most famous scions of the Carroll family were Charles, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, and John, who would later become the first bishop in the United States.

Educated at elite Catholic institutions on the Continent, both younger Carrolls could have been indoctrinated to become true advocates of a Catholic imperium in imperio, just as had the English Jesuits of a century earlier. To the contrary, the Carrolls seem to have possessed an instinctive preference for the civil liberties of English society (penalties notwithstanding) over the political absolutism and religious freedom they might have enjoyed as Catholics under the French monarchy. The Calverts and the Carrolls alike saw no conflict between their religion and their political loyalties, despite the fact that both the Church and State that claimed them did.

How could this be? Breidenbach’s answer will be, for many, a deflating one. They all subscribed to a counciliar or antipapal theory of Church authority. They denied the Pope has any temporal power, direct or indirect, regardless of what the Popes themselves may say. They eliminated the problem of Church and State simply by denying there ever had been one.

For nearly two centuries, English Catholics placed their hopes for liberation in the prospect of a Catholic monarch. This hope only increased, after the Glorious Revolution in 1688 and the rise of the Jacobite cause. As Breidenbach writes, as the restoration of the Stuarts to the throne faded, many Catholics in England and American came to prefer the new civil order Protestant England was bringing into being. At the time of the American Revolution, Charles worked to convince his countrymen of Catholic loyalty to the new nation. At the time of the founding, he was among the strongest of advocates of the freedom of religion to be secured by the First Amendment. Catholics forgot the Stuart cause and became Whigs—John and Charles Carroll foremost among them.

In the decades after the Revolution, the Reverend John Carroll worked to secure the liberty of the Catholic Church in America on antipapal lines. He countered what he considered foreign interference from the Papacy and with just enough success to convince the Church to allow the first American bishop to be an elected one. This was a reluctant concession by Rome and the Pope would, in keeping with tradition, directly appoint all future bishops.

The Carrolls represent, therefore, Catholics who had suffered some disabilities under Protestant English rule, but who came to cherish its enlightened civil liberties. No doubt their social position exempted them from penalties endured by their poorer brethren; English civil liberties also helped them acquire a great number of slaves. Beneficiaries of such a situation, they represent also Catholics who readily embraced a Catholic theory of the papacy that would remove all obstacles to Catholics being accepted as British subjects or American citizens.

The difficulty with the Carrolls’ antipapal theory was, of course, that it was time and again rejected by the Church’s own authority: rejected in the age of Calvert and again in the age of the Carrolls. In the nineteenth century, as the Church gradually lost its territory and temporal powers, it condemned at every opportunity the counciliarism of the Carrolls and affirmed the primacy of the Pope: in Mirari Vos (1832), in in Supremo apostolatus (1839), in Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors (1864), at Vatican I (1870), and in Immortale dei (1885). However much the Carrolls were interested in the Church reconciling itself to “Whiggery” (to speak a little loosely), the Church was not interested in being reconciled.

In this sense, the story of the Carrols of Maryland is one of misadventure. The Calverts and Carrolls alike argued that Catholics could be good subjects or citizens, not by showing Catholic teaching was compatible with the monarchical or Constitutional orders, but by denying an increasingly prominent component of Catholic teaching: the authority of the Pope. Their chief concern was to eliminate Protestant worries over imperium in imperio by contending that the Pope had no temporal authority. Catholics did not constitute a state within a state.

One might expect that Breidenbach’s story will tread a path straight from the Carrolls to Dignitatis humanae, a tale of the Church’s gradual recognition that the authority of conscience and human duties to God intrinsically entail the right of religious liberty. But the truth is a bit more tangled. Breidenbach shows us, rather, that Protestant concerns about Papal power—which lasted up to and beyond John F. Kennedy’s meeting with the preachers of Dallas—were no mere superstition. They were rooted in the Church’s own self-understanding. It shows us also that many Catholics in England and America, responsive to their compromised social position, were more concerned with denying the doctrinal basis of just that papal authority than with what Dignitatis humanae defines as the “right to religious freedom.” Even in the former Jesuit and first bishop, John Carroll, it is hard to avoid the impression that his primary concern was to explain away difficulties rather than to assert a noble truth.

The Carrolls did not play an early role in guiding the Catholic Church’s discernments regarding religious liberty. The Church countered them at every opportunity. Rather, as Breidenbach shows, it is the role they played in formulating the Constitution’s understanding of religious liberty that gives them great claim on our attention. They may have been poor interpreters of Church’s meaning but they were authors of the Constitution’s meaning.

The establishment clause, Breidenbach shows us, entailed the new country’s Congress declaring it has no right to interfere in the spiritual affairs of the Catholic or any other church: a remarkable instance of a state willingly setting limits on its own authority. Rejecting the past legacy of penal laws, the Constitution rejected any religious test for office holders. And yet, since all office holders must take an oath to defend the Constitution, and it was reasonably assumed only a theist could swear an oath before God, the new Constitutional order retained a thin but definite religious foundation. Further, the establishment clause was narrow in scope. It was intended merely to forbid the United States’ from establishing a national church; it did not forbid this to the individual states. Far from a “wall of separation” of church and state, the establishment clause permitted the Congress to support the Church in its various evangelical works so long as those works also served a “secular” purpose. The promotion of religion was conducive to the general welfare.

The Carrolls will not cut an attractive figure for those Catholics who believe the American liberal order has failed and brought about a decadent society and a state increasingly hostile to the sacred. They were compromisers in their time as many liberal Catholics are in ours, rationalizing away by means of an “alternative magisterium” whatever Church teaching signs a contradiction to the spirit of the hour. But their pivotal role in the founding of our country should also trouble advocates of the First Amendment as any basis for a hard separatism of the sacred and the secular. It served rather to guarantee the freedom of churches to operate independently of the state, but also to collaborate with the state in the service of the common good. They rejected church establishments, but inscribed at the heart of the Constitutional order a civil religion. However unfashionable the position of Neuhaus, Novak, and Weigel may now be, their defense of an American Constitutional order fostered by religious devotion and leavened by religious practices is very close indeed to what Charles Carroll, the Catholic founding father, envisioned as a distinctively good civil order. If it once fell far short of what the Church itself demanded, it seems at the very least an improvement upon our present circumstances.

I was first drawn to Breidenbach’s study by my own inquiries into America’s Catholic foundations. I had gone in search not of the political but the spiritual sources of American life. In the painful conversion of the Spanish conquest of the Americas from a mere search for gold to a reckoning with the humanity of the Indians and a call to fraternity in Christ; and in the French Jesuit’s trusting in the hand of grace and the love of the Immaculate Conception, as they came to greet the Indians in the wilderness, I discovered founding chapters of the American continent that must be held in view along with the first Puritan settlements of New England. In Elizabeth Seton’s conversion to the Church, I discovered even the transformation of the Puritan ethic into a new chapter of charity on our Continent. I learned, that is, that by looking beyond the familiar paths of American history, one could discover it had not only its incidental Catholic aspects but indeed its Catholic sources.

Breidenbach extends the scope of such discoveries and in an impressive manner. He shows us that Charles Carroll was not just a fortuitous Catholic inscribed on the Declaration of Independence; he was not just a historical curiosity. Carroll rather was a formative figure in the first chapter of a new nation. He did not give the United States an implicitly Catholic foundation, as Brownson might have wished, but his Catholicism did inform the new Constitutional order and in decisive ways. It provides the proper context for interpreting the major questions of religious liberty in our regime.

If there is any hope for an American future still rooted in the Constitution it will have to be one that reckons with the legacy of trimming compromise and modest liberty that Carroll helped bring about. All American Catholics would do well to lose a little sleep meditating on his life and legacy.

Our Dear-Bought Liberty: Catholics and Religious Toleration in Early America
By Michael D. Breidenbach
Harvard University Press, 2021
Hardcover, 368 pages

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About James Matthew Wilson 25 Articles
James Matthew Wilson is the Cullen Foundation Chair in English Literature and Founding Director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Saint Thomas, Houston. His most recent book is I Believe in One God: Praying the Nicene Creed (Catholic Truth Society, 2022).


  1. Particularly in the Pope Francis Era, I think the Calverts and the Carrolls should move us to reconsider the very premise that the voice of the papacy is, *necessarily*, the voice of the Church (and therefore of God). The papacy is wrong about things today, and it was wrong about things centuries ago — especially in its pretensions to absolute obedience even when it is, by the Church’s own dogmatically defined criteria, not teaching with a guarantee of infallibility.

      • The pope only exercises a definitive “binding” when he defines dogma. Apart from those circumstances, he’s a fallible man capable of all the same stupidities and blunders as any other. As Catholic Christians, we are not papists; our ultimately loyalty is to God and His word, not God’s vicar.

  2. Based on the reviewer’s presentation, I do not see how the Calverts and Carrolls qualify as advocates of full blown conciliarism of the fifteenth century variety. To deny that the papacy should have any meaningful direct political authority is not concilarism: it is a part of that theory but only a part. Did these families deny the pope’s teaching authority on matters of faith and morals? Dante opposed papal temporal power. Lots of Catholics did from the thirteenth century onward.

  3. There is no such thing as religious freedom. Protestants are correct in their fears, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As long as they don’t spread their heresy, they shouldn’t and can’t be punished.

    On the other hand, it is difficult to see how allowing Protestants or other non-Catholic to “worship” (i.e. false worship) doesn’t help them promote their false worship.

  4. In 1965 was issued the first-ever document in the history of the Roman Catholic Church that asserted that believers in other religions (Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Church of Scientology, Church of Satan, etc.) have a God-given liberty right to worship and believe as they please, to freely pass their religion down to their children, and to propagate their religion in society.

    The document, named “Dignitatis Humanae,” had been approved by the Second Vatican Council on October 25, 1965, and was signed and promulgated by Pope Paul VI on December 7, 1965.

    Prior to this document, the Church consistently taught that religious liberty was only a right of Catholics, because only they had the true religion. The Church held that Catholic governments could, at times, exercise various degrees of tolerance toward other religions, but that, strictly speaking, these other religions had no religious liberty rights, per the Catholic principle that “Error has no rights.”

    About a million books and articles have been written on the issue as to whether the document “Dignitatis Humanae” is compatible with the consistent history of Catholic Doctrine that preceded the Second Vatican Council, or whether it represents a “break” (of some sort) with traditional Catholic doctrine.

    Regardless of where one stands on that issue, it seems that remembering this history and this dispute is critical to any discussion of religious liberty.

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