U.S. Catholics and religious liberty: The origins

Several months ago, I came across a two-volume history of the Church in the United States I’d never read before: Theodore Maynard’s “The Story of American Catholicism,” first published in 1941. Maynard was not a professional historian and his telling of the American Catholic story has a bit more of the apologetic edginess of early-20th century Catholicism than a 21st-century audience might find congenial. Yet Dr. Maynard manifestly did his homework in the pioneering tomes of such giants of U.S. Catholic history as John Gilmary Shea and Peter Guilday; his judgments are usually judicious, even if his ecumenical sensibility is not overly developed; and every once in a while he comes up with an insight that is truly refreshing—and very neatly put.

Take, for example, the following passage—a bit baroque rhetorically, but nonetheless worth pondering:

“…[It] is very curious that men who admit no dogmatic bias in their own lives or their concept of the universe should so often retain a sentimental attachment to the legend that, because certain dissenting Protestant groups sought, among other things, their own liberty of conscience, they were the architects of American religious liberty. There is no special need to complain that, when in a position to enforce their will, they refused liberty to those with whom they happened to disagree—and particularly to Catholics. … Instead, it may be gratefully acknowledged that their stern adhesion to their personal convictions contributed in the end greatly to bring about an extension of religious liberty to all. … [Yet] such Catholic groups as came to the American colonies never thought of religious liberty as something that should be exclusively enjoyed by themselves. In this respect, the Catholic settlers of Maryland were Americans from the beginning, whereas the Puritans became Americans only by slow degrees.”

As Theodore Maynard readily admits, the legal construction of American religious freedom during the Founding was the work of many hands, most of which were Protestant and Deist hands. Yet it is also true that, from 1634 and the beginning of the proprietary colony of Maryland, Catholics were committed to a broad notion of religious freedom: a true “first liberty,” not just “liberty for us.” That was, of course, a matter of both conviction and pragmatic necessity, given the Catholics’ small numbers. But the convictions should not be forgotten. Because of their own theological tradition, Maryland Catholics (and their brethren in Pennsylvania) could have embraced something resembling the First Amendment in the days when New England Puritans were teaching their children to sing, “Abhor that arrant Whore of Rome/and all her blasphemies/And drink not of her cursed cup/Obey not her decrees.”

As the Catholic Church in the United States begins a Fortnight for Freedom to strengthen Catholics’ resolve to defend religious freedom for all, it’s good to remember that, from the Founding, the Catholic embrace of the First Amendment’s guarantee of the “free exercise of religion” has been unhesitating—and it has been principled. Maynard again, in High Baroque form:

“… [The] Church … has always maintained that, whatever may be the accidental inequality of gift and station between man and man, they are all essentially equal in the sight of God. It is only upon such a doctrine that democracy can repose. It is only democratic institutions that put that doctrine into visible practice. For despite the Declaration of Independence, with its’ ‘self-evident’ truth that all men are created equal, the thing is not self-evident at all. On the contrary, it seems to be at variance with self-evident facts. It is really a mystical dogma, and the one institution we can be perfectly certain will never renounce that dogma is the Catholic Church.”

But perhaps “mystic” is not-quite-right. There is a chain of ideas here, and it can be traced. From Thomas Aquinas to Robert Bellarmine to the Anglican divine Richard Hooker; then from Hooker to John Locke to Thomas Jefferson: that’s one plausible intellectual roadmap to the Declaration and the First Amendment. The American Thomas, Jefferson, owed the Scholastic Thomas, Aquinas, more than the Sage of Monticello likely ever knew.

COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.