Just Good Company
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As men and women in the U.S. Church become more intent on finding way to make themselves more accountable to one another, we are pleased to find we have historical models to help us imagine a future Church. Thanks to Professor Leonard Swidler, a member of the theological faculty at Temple University for the past 38 years, we are proud to pass on the story of an American bishop —  John England, maybe the best bishop in U.S. history. England wouldn't think of doing anything in his sprawling diocese of Charleston, South Carolina, without consulting his constituency, that is, the people he served. These people are sometimes called "the laity" —  but only by those in the Church who think of non-priests as second-class citizens.

Desperately Needed: Catholic “Americanist” Heroes
The Model of Bishop John England of Charleston

Leonard Swidler

Americanism is a heresy. Thus wrote Pope Leo XIII at the end of the nineteenth century. However, all those leading American churchmen who were, and still are, known as the leading Americanizers in the Catholic Church of that time said that they did not know of anyone who espoused the heresy of Americanism, as described by the Pope. Technically that was doubtless true, for the Pope described the heresy in such extreme terms that no balanced person would have held such views. Nevertheless, the Americanists, the (arch)bishops Gibbons, Ireland, Keane, and Spalding, and others, did vigorously advocate, indeed, celebrate, what they saw as the great virtues enfleshed in the new American nation: religious liberty, democracy, openness, separation of Church and State.

The great Americanists of the end of the nineteenth century, however, were by no means the first Americanists in the Catholic Church. Already at the beginning of the new country there stood the initial Americanist, the first American bishop, John Carroll. John Carroll was born into a founding family of Maryland, the only English colony in the New World established by Catholics, and the first to declare and practice religious liberty. He became a Jesuit, was trained and taught for many years in Europe, until 1773, when the Jesuits were suppressed, and then returned home to America.

There he not only continued his priestly work, but also took an active part in the American Revolution (as an emissary along with Benjamin Franklin on a diplomatic mission to Catholic Canada in 1776) — much as did his cousin Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. The Carrolls, including John, were very much at home in America, and the latter set the new church on a course that paralleled and supported what he saw as the virtues of the new nation: religious liberty, democracy, optimism.

When Rome wanted to make him the first American bishop, he insisted that all the priests of the nation elect their bishop. Rome acceded, and John Carroll was in fact elected by them. Rome also subsequently granted his wish that his two coadjutor bishops also be elected by all the priests of America. Unfortunately, that is where that happy practice — which was reflective of the ancient tradition of the Church and to some extent was still practiced then in certain European countries — was ended as far as America was concerned. Carroll had assumed it would of course continue, and made preparations accordingly — but it was blocked by Rome. Still, there the fact stands at the beginning of American history: the election of the bishop by and from among his future constituency.

When after several years the American Church was divided into several dioceses, Carroll was made the Archbishop of Baltimore in 1810. Already in 1791 he had summoned a national synod, and later as archbishop he laid plans for a national council in 1812. However, these plans were blocked by the War of 1812, shortly after which he died. It was clear, however, that his legacy included as a top priority governance by consensus, as befitted both the new American democracy and the ancient Church tradition. He wanted American Catholics to make their own decisions as much as possible. Already in 1785 he wrote:

We desire...that whatever can with safety to religion be granted, shall be conceded to American Catholics in ecclesiastical affairs. In this way, we hope that distrust of Protestants, now full of suspicion, will be diminished and that our affairs can be solidly established.

America was most fortunate in having at its very beginning a giant of a leader who was fully committed to both the Catholic Church and the American nation, with its principles of democracy, religious liberty, and separation of Church and State. Perhaps it would have been expecting too much to have looked for many more bishops of his stature among his successors — though one wonders whether their election rather than appointment might not in fact have much better fulfilled that expectation. In any case, there was only one other giant church leader in America following upon Carroll’s demise in 1815 until the latter part of the nineteenth century when the subsequently “condemned” Americanists arrived on the scene. That giant was John England of Cork, Ireland, who, in 1820, was named by Rome Bishop of Charleston, South Carolina.

John England was called by his first biographer “Apostle of Democracy.” England was indeed a fervent admirer of democracy, but more importantly, he was also a committed and skilled practitioner of democracy in all aspects of his life, and especially as bishop. In the matter of the selection of bishops he followed in the footsteps of his great predecessor, John Carroll, in his dissatisfaction with the cabalistic appointment of American bishops by Rome. He was so frustrated in the matter that at the point when both the important sees of Boston and New York were vacant and all sorts of power brokering was in process he took the extraordinary step of placing a notice in his weekly diocesan newspaper:

To the Roman Catholic Clergy and Laity of the United States

The Sees of Boston and New York are now vacant, or if Prelates have been appointed for them, I am not aware of who they are. They will both be filled before I shall probably address you upon the necessity of having some permanent and known mode of having our Sees filled, not by faction, intrigue or accident — but in a manner more likely to be useful and satisfactory than that which is now in operation. [His plea is equally pertinent and unfulfilled today!]

England took extraordinary steps in making his diocese a model of American, and Catholic, democracy, but to appreciate them fully they must be seen against the background of the chaos and near-schism that he walked into in the Charleston of 1820. American Catholic Church history is marred in the beginning much more by the specter than the reality of “Trusteeism” (which ever since has been used by bishops as a club to keep laity in submission). The laws of the new nation required that church property be placed in the possession of a lay corporation. In the early American Catholic churches this corporation was known as the Trustees, and it operated much as was already the case in French Canada at that time. For the great majority of cases this system worked very well. However, in a small minority of cases, partly because of a few manipulative, malcontent Irish priests and partly because of some poor administrative tactics by several of the bishops, cases of serious open conflict between the bishop and the Trustees of certain churches developedin one case a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln defended the Trustees. Because of their notoriety these few cases attained more importance than they intrinsically merited, and the fumbling of the bishops only tended to exacerbate the problems.

Charleston of 1820 was the scene of one of the longest, bitterest of these Trustee conflicts. One might have expected that this situation would have forced a vigorous young bishop from outside of America to make authoritarian kinds of moves. Nothing, however, could have been farther from the truth with Bishop England. His initial, and subsequent, actions were the very epitome of toleration, democracy and voluntarism.

THE CONSTITUTION

To begin with, he wrote a Constitution by which his vast mission diocese (comprised of the states of North and South Carolina and Georgia with perhaps only 1000 Catholics) was to be governeda most extraordinary procedure, to say the least, especially in the time of the flood-tide of reaction after the ebbing of the French Revolution and the defeat of Napoleon. He wrote that he had carefully studied the American Constitution, as well as other writings on the subject, and the laws and tradition of the Catholic Church, and was persuaded that his Constitution was in the best spirit of both Americanism and Catholicism. Just two years after he arrived in America he wrote to Cardinal Fontana in Rome when sending him a copy of his Constitution:

Having paid great attention to the state of several Churches in America, and studied as deeply as I could the character of the government and the people, and the circumstances of my own flock, as well as the Canons and usages of the Roman Catholic Church, and having advised with religious men an Clergymen, and lawyers, I this day...published the Constitution by which the Roman Catholic Church under my charge is to be regulated, and I trust with the blessing of Heaven much disputation and Infidelity restrained. It was subscribed by the Clergy and by many well-disposed Laymen.

Only a few weeks after his arrival in Charleston and a strenuous pastoral journey through much of his mammoth diocese (twice the size of Ireland), he wrote in his first Pastoral Letter: “And we ourselves have for a long time admired the excellence of your [American] Constitution.” Three years later, in 1824, writing to Rome, he stressed the importance of written laws in America and hence their importance for the healthy governance of American Catholicism:

But the people desire to have the Constitution printed, so that they may have a standard by which they may be guided. I have learned by experience that the genius of this nation is to have written laws at hand, and to direct all their affairs according to them. If this be done, they are easily governed. If this be refused, a long and irremediable contention will ensue. By fixed laws and by reason much can be obtained, but they cannot be compelled to submit to authority which is not made manifest by law.

(It should be remembered that this published Constitutionin the English vernacularpreceded by almost a hundred years the first publishing of a Code of Canon Law, 1917still in Latin.)

The Constitution laid out the rights and responsibilities of the several parties involved in the diocese: the laity, the clergy, the bishop. Moreover, the Constitution was not simply unilaterally declared in force by England. Rather, it was submitted for acceptance to every priest and all the leading laymen of the parishes for voluntary adoption; each new congregation, as it was formed, adopted it voluntarily. In fact, St. Mary’s church, the oldest church in the diocese and the one that had previously been involved in the bitter Trustee dispute with Archbishop Marechal of Baltimore, did not accept the Constitution until 1829, at which time their representatives at the annual Convention were warmly received. Until then, England was careful to let them make up their own minds. Furthermore, the Constitution itself included a procedure for emendation.

Though, with the single exception of St. Mary’s, England’s Constitution quickly gained warm acceptance by his laity and clergy, it met with a very cold response by the other American bishops. At the First Provincial Council of Baltimore, in 1829, which all the American bishops attended, it was rejected as unacceptable in the other dioceses, stating merely that, “by this decree we do not desire to interfere with the method which the Bishop of Charleston now follows in his diocese.” Indeed, England’s Constitution stood in the way of his being recommended for the much more populous and important sees of Boston or New York. Bishop Kenrick of Philadelphia magnanimously wrote to Cardinal Cullen in Rome, in 1834, after the Second Provincial Council of Baltimore, that England was,

Perfectly disgusted at the treatment he received at the last Council.... Besides, Charleston diocese is not a fit theatre for a man of his splendid talents... and I would at any moment resign my mitre to make place for him. This I authorize you to communicate to the Sacred Congress.... I had proposed him for the administration of New York which most sadly needs an efficient Prelate, and in consequence of the entire unwillingness of Bp. Dubois I had offered my place in case I should be forced to put on the thorny crown of that diocese. The Archbishop had signified assent, provided the Constitution would be left behind; but now that hope vanishes.

Somewhat earlier England and his Constitution had suffered the venom of the poison pen of Kenrick’s predecessor, Bishop Conwell of Philadelphia, who, Father Andrew Greeley in his brilliant book The Catholic Experience (1967) says was,

In the process of making a complete fool of himself...nevertheless had time to warn the Holy See that “if this constitution or democratic method of ruling the Church be approved by the Holy See, it might become necessary to extend it to all the dioceses here; it would mean the quick collapse of the American Church.”

Greeley added:

It never occurred to Conwell that such a democratic method might have saved his diocese from utter chaos. Later he wrote to Rome warning them once again that England was violating the most sacred of ecclesiastical traditions and was threatening the American Church with ruin.

England was convinced that despite the Trustees’ difficulties, it was far better that the Church and its clergy depend primarily on the Catholic people at large rather than the governmentas it still is in many European countries. According to his Constitution each congregation elected representatives who were to constitute a Vestry. Then, also despite the Trustee controversies, the Constitution provided that, “The churches, cemeteries, lands, houses, funds, or other property belonging to any particular district [here meaning parish], shall be made the property of the Vestry of that district, in trust for the same.” All money belonging to the congregation could be “expended only by authority of an act of the Vestry of that district.” At the same time the approval of the bishop was also required for the sale of any property. Thus, the key notions of the American constitution of “election of representatives,” “separation of powers,” and “checks and balances” were here incorporated into England’s Constitution. In addition, the salary of the parish priest was also to be raised by the Vestry, but kept separate from the general funds so that no improper pressure could be levied on the pastor. The wisdom and practicality of this structure was demonstrated by the fact that it operated flawlessly for the twenty years of England’s episcopacy.

ANNUAL CONVENTION

A second critical element of the Constitution was the pro- vision for annual diocesan Conventions for all the clergy, and a proportional representation of the laity from each congregation elected by all the people. The Convention possessed certain decision-making powers parallel to those of each Vestry, such as control of the General Diocesan Fund (used for the seminary, schools, hospitals all of which England started widows and orphans and similar concerns). The bishop was required to make a full report on the expending of all funds to the Convention; England in fact did an exemplary job of this at every Convention. In addition, he took the opportunity to present an overview of the Church in all America as well as in his diocese at each Convention. Consequently his 26 Convention Addresses give a history of the Catholic Church in America for those years. Most importantly, it was through the Convention that the scattered Catholic churches began to grow together with a sense of unity and belonging to a larger church, a “catholic” Church, which was their Church where they had both rights and responsibilities.

 In the beginning years of his episcopate the Convention was legally incorporated in each of the three states and met accordingly. It was only in 1839 that the mission diocese had developed sufficiently to legally incorporate the Convention for all three states together so that there could be a single annual diocesan-wide Convention (26 state Conventions were held between 1823 and 1839). The first General Convention of the diocese lasted for 7 days, with 16 priests and 30 laymen present as delegates; in 1840 there were almost double that number. The third Convention was scheduled for late in 1841, but was delayed because of England’s extended mission in Europe. Then, early in 1842, he died, and with him his Convention, Constitution, and mostly everything else, it seemed, that made him great, for the small leaders who came after him could not match the stride of his footsteps.

AMERICAN COUNCILS

Dialogue and democracy on the national level were also major concerns of England from the very beginning of his time in America. Although Archbishop Carroll had scheduled a first national Provincial Council of all the American bishops already in 1812, he was, as noted above, prevented from carrying that plan out first by war and then death. His second successor Marechal (Carroll's first successor, Ambrose Neale, outlived him only a little over a year), a French prelate, who perhaps somewhat understandably was not enthusiastic about procedures which smacked of “democracy,” did not see fit to call a Provincial Council. England wrote him often, urging the many good reasons for an immediate convocation of the Councilincluding the requirement by the Council of Trent that they be held every three yearsbut on the back of each of these letters of England’s that are in the Baltimore archives there is the single word written in Marechal’s hand: “Negative.”

Hence, it was only after Marechal’s demise that England was able to persuade his successor, Whitfield, to call the first American Provincial Council in 1829. It is clear from records that England dominated this Council, and all rest during his lifetime (four altogether). He was asked to write all the Pastoral Letters (five) coming out of each of the Councils, which he did with his customary talent.

For example, concerning the first Pastoral Letter, which was on the clergy (a second one was on the laity) the premier American Catholic Church historian of the early twentieth century Peter Guilday wrote in 1923: “The Pastoral stands today, as it did then, as one of the clearest mirrors of priestly zeal and devotion in the English language.” Difficult though these Provincial Councils often were, they nevertheless did resolve many pressing problems of a growing American Church, whose population and geographical expanse was exploding, in effective collegial fashion, operating in a land that insisted on religious liberty, democracy and separation of Church and Stateall Catholic neuralgic issues during the time of Popes Gregory XVI (1831-1846) and Pius XI (1846-1878). Moreover, the work of these Councils, of which Bishop England has been called the “Father,” had wide influence in world Catholicism. Theodore Maynard, in The Story of American Catholicism , says these Councils, “through their inclusion in the collection published at Maria Laach [1875], have had a remarkable influence on conciliar legislation and Catholic life throughout the world.” Just eight years after the death of England, Bishop Kenrick of Philadelphia wrote: “The Church in this country owes to Bishop England the celebration of the Provincial Councils, which have given form and consistency to the hierarchy and order to her internal economy.” 

It was precisely England’s strengths, however, that were his undoing with his fellow bishops. He could not get Archbishop Whitfield to call the second Council, but was able nevertheless to persuade Rome to insist on it to Whitfield which fact doubtless galled the latter. After the Second Provincial Council, in 1834, Kenrick wrote to Cardinal Cullen:

Little was done in consequence of the suspicion with which every measure emanating from Bishop England was viewed. The prelates for the most part second the archbishop who felt mortified that he had been obliged by the influence of Bishop England to call the council .... The talents, learning, fame, eloquence of Bishop England rendered him not an object of envy for I believe the good prelates superior to this narrow passion but fear for they dreaded lest his active mind and liberal views might lead them into the adoption of measures which might weaken their authority and disturb the repose of the Church. To me they appeared to fear where there was no cause for fear. Their votes could always outweigh his arguments. Had they manifested a respect for his judgment, a disposition to hear his reasons, and to adopt his suggestions if found correct, had there been more personal courtesy, fraternal charity...the results of the council would have been more consolatory. We would have not seen....a young man having no experience of the ministry save that which he would have had within the college walls [Eccleston] raised to the office of coadjutor to the archbishop....

Greeley commented that the bishops led by Archbishop Whitfield “were more eager to block John England than they were to govern the American Church, so eager in fact that they selected a thirty-one-year-old coadjutor for Whitfield, to lessen so far as they could the possibility that Rome might be remotely tempted to make England the Archbishop of Baltimore.” What a different course American Catholic history might have taken had England had the personal ambition to circumvent the cabal to make the disastrously incompetent Eccleston the archbishop and had eventually ended there himself. Unfortunately for the Catholic Church he did not; he promptly rose at the Council and approved the nomination of Eccleston as coadjutor of Whitfield at Baltimore.

OPENNESS AND DIALOGUE

We have seen something of England's commitment to openness and dialogue in the very act of setting up a Constitution which included real shared responsibility, the requirement that the bishop report on all financial transactions to the priests and laity, and the holding of annual Conventions, at which England gave thorough reports on the past actions and present status of the Church in nation and diocese; we have seen something of how he worked prodigiously to have regular and open discussion of all matters with his fellow bishops in frequent Provincial Councils.

To these systemic actions of openness and dialogue should be added his establishment of the first Catholic newspaper in America less that two years after his arrival (his younger sister Joanna took on the immense task of editing the weekly United States Catholic Miscellany until her untimely death in 1827). Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, the Nestor of living Catholic Church historians, wrote that the Miscellany was England’s “greatest single contribution” to the American Catholic Church and that “it exerted a powerful influence on American Catholic thought during the early nineteenth century.” One wonders why American Catholicism had to wait several decades for an outsider sent to a largely non-Catholic mission area to receive its first newspaperespecially with the recent vital role the press and pamphlets played in the American Revolution. In any case, Ellis reported that England’s courageous move emboldened other Catholics to take advantage of “the opportunities offered by the press...during the next two decades Catholic newspapers were established in the country at the rate of about one a year” (thirteen Catholic periodicals were founded in America between 1825 and 1842, the year England died).

In addition, England constantly poured forth a stream of published lectures, pastoral letters, pamphlets, exchanges of public letters in newspapers. In March 1921, a scant three months after his arrival he wrote and published an extensive catechism (71 pages in booklet form) for his peoplemany places were without priests where the laity were appointed to lead Sunday prayers and give instructions. In July of the same year he wrote that he just finished writing an English Missal; it was published in 1822, the first in the U.S. This Missal, however, was much more than just a felicitous translation of the Latin text into English; it also included a 120-page history and explanation of the Mass ritualat precisely the same time a similar kind of work on the Mass in the vernacular (this time, German) by the Tübingen theologian, Johann Baptist Hirscher, was condemned and indexed by Rome. (It was only in 1897 that Pope Leo XIII lifted the official prohibition of vernacular translations of the Missal.) 

That difference of fate was accentuated by the fact that England’s Missal along with an equally lengthy explanation of the Vatican Holy Week ceremonies, written by England in Rome at the request of the Vatican, were jointly published in English in a single volume of 310 pages in Rome in 1833 and then translated into French and Italian and published in all three languages at the Pope's expense Pope Gregory XVI, known for his devastating attack on religious liberty, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, in his 1832 Mirari vos (more on this below). All during his time of massive writing activity and administrative responsibilities, England also exhibited openness by constantly accepting invitations to explain his views in discussions, talks and lectures. He recorded in his diary between January 1, 1821 and December 5, 1823, 207 public discourses of one kind or anotherall besides his regular preaching in Catholic churches normally three times on Sunday when home, but often every day when on a journey.

DELIBERATION AND DISSENT

In many ways England made it abundantly clear that American Catholics felt and he obviously agreed with them that they ought to be consulted in all-important matters, including church matters. He wrote to Rome that, “The American people are a law-abiding people, and the laws are respected so long as the voice of the people is heard in their making.” He reported elsewhere that the American Catholic “will never be reconciled to the practice of the bishop, and oftentimes of the priest alone, giving orders without assigning reasons for the same.” He told his 1827 Convention that he was searching for and training clergy who were “attached to our republican institutions.”  

England recognized that there could still be disagreements with church authorities and spoke of “dissent” in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Forsythe in 1841 wherein he wrote that if the American bishops had found in a papal Apostolic Letter “anything contrary to their judgment, respecting faith or morals, it would have been their duty to have respectfully sent their statement of such differences to the Holy See, together with their reasons for such dissent.” He even went so far, when addressing a joint session of the U.S. President (John Quincy Adams), Supreme Court, Senate and House of Representatives in 1826, as to say:

A political difficulty has been sometimes raised here. If this infallible tribunal which you [Catholics] profess yourselves bound to obey should command you to overturn our government, and to tell you that it is the will of God to have it modeled anew, will you be bound to obey it? And how then can we consider those men to be good citizens, who profess to owe obedience to a foreign authority, to an authority not recognized in our constitution, to an authority which has excommunicated and deposed sovereigns, and which has absolved subjects and citizens from their bond of allegiance?

Our answer to this extremely simple and very plain; it is that we would not be bound to obey it, that we recognize no such authority. I would not allow to the Pope, or to any bishop of our church, outside this Union, the smallest interference with the humblest vote at our most insignificant balloting box. He has no rights to such interference.

Strong words in such a public forum in a period when reaction, not liberty, was in vogue with the papacy, as, e.g., when Catholic Polish freedom-fighters were condemned and handed over to the tender mercies of the Orthodox Czar by the Pope (1830), and again the Catholic Hungarians in 1848.

INFALLIBILITY

Papal infallibility was not declared a dogma until 1870 (though it had long since been condemned by Pope John XXII at the end of the 13th century). But it was a major question in the battle for Catholic civil rights in Ireland and England (which did not come until 1829) and resulted in an oath of allegiance to the King of England in 1821 approved by all the bishops of Ireland (a similar one had already been accepted in England by the Catholic Vicars Apostolic) which denied that papal infallibility was a Catholic dogma: “I also declare that it is not an article of the Roman Catholic Faith, and I am not thereby required to believe that the Pope is infallible.”

England was obviously of the same mind as his fellow Irish bishops, for in a series of letters written in 1824-5 to the Rev. William Hawley, Protestant Chaplain to the United States Senate (and published in 1825 in the Miscellany and as a separate pamphlet) he explained that “Catholics do not hold as one of their doctrines, that the Pope is infallible.” A year later in his address before the U.S. Congress he restated: “We do not profess to believe our Pope infallible.” England did, however, write of the infallibility of the Church as a whole and the entire body of bishops together.

For many Catholics today even this might still seem too mechanistic, too much of a kind of a deus ex machina theology based on an “it is seemly, therefore it is,” decit, ergo fecit principle. However, in trying to make sense out of the notion of infallibility in the Church, England used an analogy in his “Letter on Infallibility” which probably still would make sense to many Catholics, and non-Catholics. He compared the U.S. Supreme Court and infallibility and argued that the decisions of the former are treated as if they were infallible, that is, they demanded acceptance: “Society cannot make it infallible; but it can have it treated as if it were an infallible tribunal.... the good of Society requires that it must be treated as if infallible. Indeed...in practice, it is made so.” 

England suggested that infallibility in the Church is like that. Now decisions of the Supreme Court can later be reversed, but they are always done with a great show of precedent, stress on continuity_ but influenced by new evidence and new circumstances. Is this, however, not how the solemn condemnations of religious liberty and freedom of conscience by Popes Gregory XVI referred to as deliramentum — and Pius IX (and if they were not pronounced ex cathedra it is difficult to imagine what papal statements would be so considered) were reversed by Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Libertynaturally with respectful, reasoned, but continued, and ultimately vindicated, dissent?

 CHURCH-STATE RELATIONS

The motto on the top of every issue of England’s United States Catholic Miscellany tells the entire story: “Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, part of the so-called “Bill of Rights.” England wrote the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in Lyons, France that he did not know “any system more favorable to the security of religious rights...than that of American law.” England strongly and frequently approved and advocated the separation of Church and State, and did so with particular vigor and greatness of vision in his 1826 two-hour oration before the U.S. Congress; (already within a year of his arrival in Charleston he was invited to preach in the South Carolina House of Representatives, as he was frequently for the rest of his life). Read today, his words are still moving and hence merit some slightly extensive citation here:

You must, from the view which I have taken, see the plain distinction between spiritual authority and a right to interfere in the regulations of human government or civil concerns. You have in your constitution wisely kept them distinct and separate. It will be wisdom, and prudence, and safety to continue that separation.... You have no power to interfere with my religious rights; the tribunal of the church has no power to interfere with my civil rights.... We do not believe that God gave to the church any power to interfere with our civil rights.... Any idea of the Roman Catholics of these republics being in any way under the influence of any foreign ecclesiastical power, or indeed of any church authority in the exercise of their civil rights is a serious mistake. There is no class of our fellow-citizens more free to think and to act for themselves on the subject of our rights than we are; and I believe there is not any portion of the American family more jealous of foreign influence or more ready to resist it.... We know of no tribunal in our church which can interfere in our proceedings as citizens....

What was the religion of William Tell? He was a Roman Catholic.... What is the religion of the venerable Charles Carroll of Carrollton? Men who make these assertions cannot have read our Declaration of Independence. What was the religion of the good, the estimable, the beloved Dr. Carroll, our first Archbishop of Baltimore, the founder of our hierarchy, the friend of Washington, the associate of Franklin? Have these men been degraded in our church because they aided in your struggle for the assertion of your rights, for the establishment of our glorious and our happy republics? No, they are the jewels which we prize, the ornaments of our church, the patriots of our country. They and others, whom we count as our members, and esteem for their virtues, have been the intimate and faithful associates of many of our best patriots.

Later, in reporting to Rome on his Vatican mission to Haiti (which had confiscated Church property and proscribed Church activity), England repeated his advocacy of the separation of Church and State, arguing that he believed “the Church to be comparatively free when those means [of support] are derived immediately from the people,” and that he would “prefer infinitely more, Church liberty and poverty to the subjugation accompanied by the most splendid endowments.”

England also played a key role in the further spelling out of the concrete meaning of the separation of Church and State in an incident in 1828 when President John Quincy Adams let himself be led into an unwarranted interference in U.S. Catholic-Vatican relations. England’s protests involved two famous Secretaries of State, Henry Clay and Martin Van Buren (who later became President), two Presidents, Adams and Andrew Jackson, and the Attorney General of Maryland, Edwin Taney, who later became Chief Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court for twenty-eight years (and the first Catholic on that august body). Peter Clark in his excellent book, A Free Church in a Free Society (1982), wrote of this matter:

To claim that England alone was responsible for this developed understanding of the religious clause of the first amendment perhaps cannot be said. But it can be said that it was he who articulated it; it was his initiative that brought a future Chief Justice to articulate a similar position; and that he published a record of this significant incident for all to see and examine. [England obtained the pertinent documents from President Jackson and published them in the Miscellany.]

There is a specially ironic dimension to this story. One of the documents President Jackson ordered released to England was a July 20, 1829 letter of his Secretary of State Van Buren to the U.S. Consul at Rome, directing him to congratulate the new Holy Father, Pius VIII, and then:

You will take care likewise, to assure His Holiness that all Roman Catholic citizens stand upon the same elevated ground which citizens of all other religious denominations occupy, in regard to the rights of conscience, that of perfect liberty, contradistinguished from toleration; that they enjoy an entire exemption from coercion in every possible shape, upon the score of religious faith; and that they are free, in common with their fellow citizens of all other sects, to adhere to, or adopt the creeds, and practice the worship best adapted to their reason or prejudices; and that there exists a perfect unity of faith in the United States.... as to the wisdom of that cardinal feature of all our constitutions and frames of government, both those of the United States and the separate states of the Union, by which this inestimable rights is formally recognized.

The U. S. Consul in Rome was Felix Cicognaniif not a relative at least the namesake of the Apostolic Delegate to the U.S., Cardinal Amleto Cicognani, during the 1950s when the American Jesuit John Courtney Murray was silenced by Rome for advocating the same separation of Church and State (Murray of course was later vindicated during Vatican II and came to be the chief architect of its “Declaration on Religious Liberty”).

RELATIONS WITH NON-CATHOLICS

One of England’s glories, which put him a century and a half ahead of most other Catholic bishops of the world was his ecumenism. England spoke often of “our separated brethren,” also anticipating Vatican II. He insisted that the Catholic Church of course had no right to force people to accept its teaching and that no one other than God could judge the blame or lack thereof of anyone for not accepting it. He clearly had vast numbers of friends among Protestantsit must be remembered that 99% of the population of his diocese was Protestant. Of the 207 public discourses he delivered between 1821 and 1823, most took place in Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist and Episcopal churches and houses. He spoke often of how he had often been “humbled and abashed at the kindness with which I have been treated...by our separated brethren.”

England frequently reported that Protestants offered the use of their churches — which he gratefully accepted — and even contributed funds for his churches and other projects — that is the ultimate test of ecumenical good will!  England reciprocated by doing all he could to make Catholic churches and ceremonies as open and hospitable, and understandable as possible; recorded examples of this abound. Two diocesan-wide societies he founded were deliberately opened to non-Catholics — a book society and a workingman’s mutual benefit society: “to secure the health of the industrious and well conducted workingmen and...to afford them an opportunity of complying with their duty in whatever religion they profess.” He once called in a Protestant minister to visit a dying member of his own congregation who wanted one; news of this brought him fame among many Protestants, and blame among some Catholics. The same was true of his having his seminary students go into mourning at the death of the Episcopal Bishop Bowen of South Carolina.

RELATIONS WITH ROME

Two points about England’s understanding of his relationship with Rome can be made briefly. One, at the very beginning of his Constitution England wrote that he sees the bishop “not as the deputy to the Pope, but as a successor to the Apostles.” Two, without using the term, England operated by the principle of subsidiarity; thus, when he sent Rome his Constitution, he told his Convention:

I could not look for its approbation, because the power of making the regulations which it enacts, resides within each diocese for itself, subject only to the examination of the Apostolic See, to prevent their containing anything incompatible with our holy faith... and to prevent anything which might be incompatible with that general discipline which is the fundamental ecclesiastical law of the entire Catholic world.

In general it must be said that England had very good relations with Rome. This is especially astonishing for the pontificate of Pope Gregory XVI (1831-46) since England was notoriously in favor of religious liberty, separation of Church and State, freedom of speech, press, etc., all of which were damned by the Pope in Mirari vos . It was that papal document that in effect drove Lamennais from the Church because of his advocacy of separation of Church and State and the other freedoms listed in the French and U.S. bills of rights; it was the same pope that attempted to smash the liberal reformers, the “Aufklärung Catholics,” of southwestern Germany (Tübingen, Freiburg, Konstanz, particularly under the leadership of Rev. Ignaz von Wessenberg) — but not a breath of criticism of England, who not only favored, and practiced, that horror, democracy, in the civil sphere, but in the Church as well! 

In fact, in 1836 and following, Pope Gregory XVI sent him on a delicate diplomatic mission to Haiti, supported his promotion of a mission to Liberia, and published his books on the vernacular Missal at his own expense, as mentioned above. Somehow England must have charmed Gregory XVI while he was still Cardinal Cappellari, Prefect of the Congregatio Propaganda Fide (he did in fact charm many people with his innocent openness, wit and articulateness — as indicated by the laudatory letter Cappellari sent England in 1830, just five months before he was made pope:

Your letter gave me the greatest pleasure; for it contains a very clear proof of the remarkable care which your Lordship is giving to the religious problems of your diocese.... I desire eagerly to confess to your Lordship that the Sacred Congregation has a high opinion of your intelligence, your piety, your learning and your other admirable qualities.

The French Lamennais and the German von Wessenberg did not have such good fortune.

RELATIONS WITH FELLOW BISHOPS

If England’s relations with his own diocese, public officials, Protestants, Rome — with practically everyone — were surprisingly good, his relations with his fellow American bishops were surprisingly bad. We have already seen somewhat how badly he fared at their hands in the Provincial Councils. Everything he did — Constitution, Convention, Councils, Miscellany, hobnobbing with Protestants — was overtly or covertly, or both, roundly and bitterly criticized by most of his fellow bishops. Greeley’s evaluation of why he suffered this egregious failure is probably on the mark:

For all the great charm which made him so popular with non-Catholics [and one can add, Pope Gregory XVI], he was quite incapable of adopting the discretion that would be required to win the cooperation of his stodgy and fussy colleagues in the national hierarchy. England never understood them and they never understood him. He was too much for them and they were too small for him....

For John England committed the unpardonable crime — he was right. Almost every time he opened his mouth about the United States and the American Church he spoke truth, and such accuracy was intolerable in a man who had barely arrived on the shores of the new republic.

For example, the younger bishop of New York, John Hughes, was the very antithesis of England: England saw American society as open and friendly, Hughes as closed and hostile; England thought the Catholic Church would grow quickly within American culture, Hughes saw the culture as dangerous for the Church — and for Catholicism in the U.S. Hughes’s subsequent great influence was a major disaster.

CONCLUSION

If all of England’s immediate work seemed to die with him, his memory and inspiration continues to live. His greatest biographer, Peter Guilday, wrote of him:

He was an American with all the mystical love for America which is visible in leaders in the earlier days of this nation's history. It is on account of his untrammeled Americanism, on account of his thorough grasp of American idealism, and above all because of the unique place he made for himself in American history by interpreting justly and accurately to his own epoch the harmony between Catholic principles and the constitutional bases of the American government... [that England will be valued].

Greeley remarked that “American Catholicism had a splendid opportunity in John England and missed its chance. The opportunity would not return again for almost a half century.” That opportunity — the third one in a century — was that of the “condemned” Americanists. From the vantage point of post-Vatican II Catholicism it is clear that the Americanism of Carroll, Gibbons, Ireland, Keane, Spalding — and above all, of Bishop John England — was not heresy, but heroism . We need new Americanist heroes today.

SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY

The majority, though by no means all, of Bishop England's writings are published in:

The Works of the Right Reverend John England , ed. by Sebastian Messmer (Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark, Company, 1908), 7 volumes

The most helpful works on England include:

Peter L. Guilday, The Life and Times of John England, 1786-1842 (New York: The American Press, 1927).

Peter Clarke, A Free Church in a Free Society (Greenwood, S. C.: The Attic Press, 1982).

An excellent popular introduction can be found in:

Andrew M. Greeley, The Catholic Experience (New York: Doubleday, 1967).


Leonard Swidler has an STL in Catholic Theology, University of Tübingen and a Ph.D. in history and philosophy, University of Wisconsin.  Professor of Catholic Thought and Interreligious Dialogue at Temple University since 1966, he is author or editor of over 60 books & 175 articles, Co-founder (1964) and Editor of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies. His books include: Dialogue for Reunion (1962), The Ecumenical Vanguard (1965), Jewish-Christian Dialogues (1966), Buddhism Made Plain (co-author, 1984), Toward a Universal Theology of Religion (1987), A Jewish-Christian Dialogue on Jesus and Paul (1990), After the Absolute: The Dialogical Future of Religious Reflection (1990), A Bridge to Buddhist-Christian Dialogue (1991) and Muslims In Dialogue. The Evolution of a Dialogue (1992), Theoria - Praxis: How Jews, Christians, Muslims & Others Can Together Move from Theory to Practice (1998), For All Life. Toward a Universal Declaration of a Global Ethic: An Interreligious Dialogue (1999), The Study of Religion in an Age of Global Dialogue (2000)