Changing Views

Edwin C. Cook July/August 2009

During his visit to America in April 2008, Pope Benedict XVI esteemed the model of American church-state relations as a potential schema to follow in Europe.1 He noted that by disallowing state control over religion, religious groups have greater liberty to achieve their spiritual missions. Interestingly, the same train of thought regarding an American model of church-state relations entered discussions about the purpose of Benedict’s September 2008 visit to France. Some commentators claimed that it might become one of the most notable visits of his pontificate. Benedict XVI’s concern for France is its overtly secular stance in society, usually termed laïcité.2 He proposed an alternate form of church-state relations patterned after the American model of separationism, and France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is open to discussing the possibilities with him.3 Perhaps the most startling aspect of these recent events, at least for church historians, is Pope Benedict XVI’s recommendation given the historic condemnations by the Vatican of American concepts of church and state relations.

Historically, the Roman Catholic Church has maintained that it is the obligation of the state to support the church in fulfilling its mission. As the church claims its mission is superior in nature to that of the state because of the spiritual objectives involved, so it also claims superior authority over the state in the temporal sphere. Prior to the Protestant Reformation the church achieved her aims much more easily because of the existing political structure of empires, such as the Holy Roman Empire, or dynasties, such as the Carolingian Dynasty—in each case, resulting in the concept of church-state union referred to as the Corpus Cristianum (Christian Commonwealth). Subsequent to the Reformation, the nascent existence of nation states, each with its singularity of purpose, posed more formidable challenges to achieving church-state union with the church as the dominant player. Lacking a cohesive body politic over which to exercise its authority, the church adapted its strategies to each nation state, courting favor with each in a variety of ways. Those that had a dominant Catholic populace, such as Spain, became known as “confessional states”; in the case of France, which eventually adopted the concept of laïcité, the church regarded it as an “estranged daughter”; and America, where Protestants were the dominant majority and which championed separation of church and state at its founding, was considered with perplexity and no small degree of consternation.

Since the beginnings of Roman Catholicism in America, the enduring issue of how to harmonize Roman Catholic principles with American ideals has resulted in much debate, lengthy discourse, and even division among hierarchical leaders that reached a tense climax in 1900.4 The term typically given to this development is Americanism, and includes such principles as “religious liberty, separation of church and state, cooperation with other religious bodies, and greater lay initiative,”5 not to mention concepts of governance found within modern democracy.6 Emphasizing the enduring nature of this dilemma, Dennis P. McCann comments: “No doubt, the American church will continue to struggle with this principle for as long as it faithfully lives its Catholic identity.”7

John Carroll, the first archbishop in the Untied States Even though no Roman Catholic hierarchical structure existed during the Colonial Era of American history, some of the underlying issues that later developed into the Americanism dilemma were already present. As early as 1626 Pope Urban VIII’s nuncio was shocked that “under the same roof in [Sir George Calvert’s settlement at Ferryland on Newfoundland’s Avalon peninsula] , . . . Mass was had according to the Catholic rite, while in another the heretics [Protestants] carried out their own.”8 Calvert’s other entrepreneurial enterprise in Maryland allowed Roman Catholics to coexist with Protestant groups, but only in the context of “broad religious toleration for all.”9 In fact, all other Catholic settlements, such as those in “New Albion, in Virginia’s northern neck, and in Dongan’s New York,”10 recognized the crucial need for religious toleration if they were to survive in a potentially hostile environment. Such concessions of toleration to Protestants, born of expediency because of Catholicism’s minority status, rather than upon principle, largely ignored ideas of religious liberty based on Enlightenment ideals.

Religious toleration is distinguished from religious liberty, the former being a concession of the state whereas the latter is an inalienable right.

Such a difference demands the following distinction to be made: religious toleration is distinguished from religious liberty, the former being a concession of the state whereas the latter is an inalienable right. As George La Piana states, religious tolerance “is by definition connected with something which is evil and undesirable. We tolerate things of which we do not approve because we cannot avoid them without incurring a greater evil. Hence, Catholic theology admits that the practice of religious tolerance may at times be permitted by the moral law which allows the choice of a lesser evil.”11 He further defines freedom of conscience as “the right of every person to choose one’s own religion according to the light of reason and the emotions of the heart,” and freedom of religion as meaning “all religions have an equal right to exist and to be respected and protected by the laws of the state.”12

Catholic Liberalism and Enlightenment Thought

In spite of such philosophical differences regarding religious tolerance and religious freedom, some European Catholic thinkers sought to bridge the growing gap between Catholicism and intellectual forces of the Enlightenment. Among them were: in Italy, Ludovico Muratori (1672-1750), Giovanni Lami (1697-1770), and Giovanni Bottari (1689-1775); in Germany, Eusebius Amort (1692-1775); and in France, Jean-Baptiste Demangeot (1742-1830).13

They “combined the philosophical thought of Descartes, Newton, and Locke, with a Gallican conciliar ecclesiology.”14 With the Enlightenment view of man and his individual rights, they redefined traditional concepts of church and state relations. Enlightenment views of society included political, intellectual, and religious pluralism. Emphasis on the individual allowed support for each area: politically, for the individual who entered into society by contract with others; intellectually, for the person who rejected tradition and applied individual, critical reason to inherited positions; and religiously, for the multitude of religious groups making up society.15

The two major obstacles they faced were how to maintain political rights of religious pluralism without appearing to condone indifferentism (that all religious groups are valid means of salvation)16 and the opportune political structure to implement these ideas. The solution they proposed for the first was separation of church and state. Under this schema the political rights granted by the state to all groups were merely civil parlance for the peaceful working of society. Since the church was separate from the state, each religious group was free to maintain the certainty of its convictions and to administer discipline as it saw fit to its members—without the corresponding loss of civil privileges, which, of course, was contrary to what was practiced under the traditional form of church-state union in Europe.

Regarding the second problem, Catholic Enlightenment thinkers were prevented from practical application of these principles because of the political structures prevalent in the European societies in which they lived. Thus, experimentation with a working model of church-state separationism awaited the development of American republican ideals of political governance, birthed through the American Revolution.

John Carroll, the first archbishop in the United States

John Carroll’s Views of Church-State Separation The Catholic Enlightenment thinkers who were most influential upon John Carroll were Arthur O’Leary (1729-1802), Joseph Berington (1743-1827), and John Fletcher (1766-1845),17 all of whom were from Britain. Because of their influence, John Carroll, first appointed as superior of the Catholic mission in 1784,18 and later elected as bishop of Baltimore in 1789,19 “thought that the American principle of religious liberty was such a significant step forward, that England could do well to imitate it.”20

In the American context, Carroll faced variegated and complex issues related to religious liberty and internal church governance. Officially, clergy appointments were made through the Vatican. However, from the time of Catholic Colonial establishments until the time Carroll was elected as bishop of Baltimore in 1789, there was great dearth of formal organizational structure to American Catholicism.21 Without an abundance of priests, and especially lacking organized parishes, the spirit of independence infused the mentality of American Catholics. Additionally, the prevailing sentiment just prior to and following the American Revolutionary War was one of suspicion toward foreign authority, whether civil or ecclesiastical.22 To compound matters even more, American Catholics were comprised of immigrants predominantly from Ireland and Germany who did not want French clergy of Vatican appointment.23 For Carroll, the simplest solution was the appointment of clergy through local (American) election, an ideal he and his fellow clergy envisioned.24

Carroll’s pro-Americanist stance was greatly challenged in 1808, when the Vatican appointed “four suffragans to the new dioceses of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Bardstown, Kentucky,” who were foreign-born and -trained.25 By 1815, the time of Carroll’s death, Americanism was still a vital element among American-born Catholic clergy, in spite of nascent tensions with the Vatican.26 In fact, James Hennesey, speaking of the development of Catholicism in America, referred to it as “the strongest nineteenth-century conciliar tradition in the Western Church.”27

Factors weighing in favorably for the support of American church-state separation and religious liberty, at least in the mind of John Carroll, were the legal protections afforded to Catholics, along with all other religious groups, through the First Amendment.28 Additionally, the concept of church-state separation was distinctly different from that in Europe, where Catholicism faced anti-clerical republicanism bent on restricting its influence.29 Carroll also believed that adoption of such principles would allow for growth of Catholicism.

However, as much as Carroll lauded the concept of religious liberty, it was not of the type envisioned by Madison and Jefferson. Rather, a more specific analysis of Catholic concepts of church-state relations in America places them between the religious freedom guarantees of Virginia after 1790 and the religious toleration of Massachusetts.30 Joseph Agonito, in his Ph.D. dissertation, comments: “Separation of church and state did not imply for Carroll, as it did for Madison and Jefferson, a secular (or neutral) state, unconcerned and unconnected with religion. Carroll could no more accept this idea of the state than the majority of his fellow-Catholics, or, for that matter, Rome itself. By separation, he meant that the state should not establish or favor one particular church over others; he did not oppose the idea that the state should encourage and promote religion—even a particular religion (e.g., Christianity).”31

Such a view was consistently practiced by Carroll when he gave as his rationale for supporting the Revolution the opportunity to gain “the toleration of all sects, professing the Christian religion.” Agonito comments on the use of the term “Christian” instead of “Protestant” as Carroll’s desire to make allowance for Catholics, but to “exclude those not of this faith” (i.e., non-Christians).32

This interpretation seems accurate because records indicate that Carroll aided in drafting The Declaration of Rights for the state of Maryland in 1776, which “specifically excluded non-Christians from office-holding”.33 At no time during the debates for ratifying this declaration did Carroll speak against it. Later, in 1785, Carroll indicated his reluctance for “the state to encourage, even indirectly, non-Christian religions” when Maryland proposed a bill for the religious assessment of all Christian groups, but that made exceptions for those who were Jewish, Muslim, or a non-believer in the Christian religion. Carroll bracketed this section in his copy and wrote underneath it: “A bill for the encouragement of infidelity, Judaism, and Mahometism.”34

Thus, from the historical record, it seems accurate to state that Carroll adopted a view of church-state relations that would allow government support of Christianity and that would tolerate, for the sake of civil peace, other religious groups, although even the latter position should not be encouraged if it could possibly be avoided. For Carroll, the church in a Protestant country such as America should adopt this modified concept of church-state relations in order to coexist in a plurality of religious groups. For this reason, among others already mentioned, he advocated Americanist ideals.

Even after Carroll’s demise in 1815, the ideas of church-state separation continued to abound in Europe among liberal Catholic thinkers. Such individuals as Abbé Henri Grégoiré (1750-1831) argued for “a free church in a free state”; Count Charles de Montalembert (1810-1870) and his friend Abbé Felicité Robert de Lamennais (1782-1854) urged this idea in the early 1830s as well.35 Not only did this fuel the flames of church-state separation in American Catholicism, but it also raised the ire of the Vatican. Pope Gregory XVI (as pope 1831-1846) rejected this teaching as heretical in his encyclical Mirari vos (1832), in which he denounced liberty of conscience as sheer madness, termed freedom of the press as execrable and detestable, and disapproved of the separation of church and state, declaring that princes hold their temporal government primarily for the defense of the church.36

The Americanist Controversy
Concurrently, distinct changes were underway in America. As if to reinforce Pope Gregory’s objections, large waves of Catholic immigrants who brought their Old World concepts of church governance contributed to establishing this mentality among American Catholicism.37 Such sentiments strengthened the position of American Catholic leaders who desired to follow more traditional concepts of church-state relations, resulting in growing animosity and division with other Catholic leaders favoring Americanist ideals.

Attrition rates among Catholic membership also hammered deeper the wedge between Catholic leaders. Although the American Catholic population grew from approximately 318,000 in 1830 to 3,103,000 in 1860,38 some American Catholic clergy were concerned with attrition rates, calculating that an estimated 3.75 million Catholics had left the fold between 1786 and 1836.39 In spite of such unprecedented growth in previous decades, Peter Paul Cahensly, an immigrant who founded Saint Raphael’s Society for German immigrants seeking aid in America, issued a memorial in 1891 to Pope Leo XIII claiming that millions of Catholics were leaving the church.40 His memorial called attention to the division among conservative Catholic leaders and those who maintained sentiments of Americanism, such as archbishops Patrick Feehan, William Gross, Peter Kenrick, James Cardinal Gibbons, and John Ireland.41

The most outspoken pro-Americanist archbishop, John Ireland, of St. Paul, Minnesota, sought ways to defend Americanism against its detractors. He pointed out that two of its core principles, religious liberty and the separation of church and state, had allowed the Catholic faith to flourish so rapidly since its inception there.42 Ireland was such a visionary that he predicted that the civil and religious conditions prevailing in America would soon become those established in the whole world.43 For this reason, he argued, in order for the church to fulfill its mission to the world, it was imperative for American Catholics to demonstrate the compatibility of Catholic principles with concepts of democracy, religious liberty, and separation of church and state.44

Such enthusiastic endorsement for American ideals by leaders of the American Catholic hierarchy caused concern at the Vatican. Given that America was predominantly a Protestant nation from its beginnings and that the Enlightenment so heavily influenced its political moorings during the Founding Era,45 Pope Leo XIII issued Longinqua Oceani in 1895, in which he praised the growth of the church, but “warned against idealizing the American separation of church and state.”46 In particular, he admonished American Catholic leaders not to espouse American concepts of religious liberty and church-state separation as ideals to be followed for the church in other parts of the world.47 In 1899 he followed this encyclical with a second one, Testem benevolentiae, in which he condemned Americanist ideals, especially pointing out grave concerns with Enlightenment influence and a certain type of liberty wholly free from external guidance of the church.48 Such blatant counsel stifled further consideration of Americanism so extensively that it was not until nearly 60 years later that the church would re-evaluate its concept of religious liberty at Vatican II.49


The Americanist controversy included many factors related to American social, political, and religious concepts. For Roman Catholics living in America, whether laity or clergy, the dilemma they faced was how to reconcile Catholic principles with the ideals of their country. Consistently, the hierarchical leadership of the church in Europe believed that such a feat was impossible. Through various encyclicals, some of which have been referred to herein, various popes made official pronouncements against what they perceived as dangers to the church.

Some Roman Catholic leaders in America, however, felt otherwise. They conceived of compatibility between the principles of their faith and American ideals. They were influenced by Roman Catholic intellectuals in Europe and Britain who attempted to reconcile Enlightenment thought with Catholicism but lacked the practical means to test their conclusions. Through their writings they influenced Catholic leaders in America such as John Carroll, Orestes Brown, and John Ireland. Additionally, the American church, not being limited by an already established state structure, offered an opportunity to experiment with Catholicism under the new Constitution, in which the principles of religious liberty and church-state separation were enacted through the First Amendment.

Upon close examination of John Carroll’s views of religious liberty, it becomes evident that while he was much more advanced than many of his European contemporaries, his views still do not resonate fully with the concepts of religious liberty and church-state separation advanced by Founders such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. Additionally, while it is certainly true that Carroll’s views reflect adaptation of the traditional Catholic understanding of church-state relations to fit an American context, it must be emphasized that his views speak on behalf of American Roman Catholicism. The Vatican maintained a consistent course throughout the Americanist controversy as evidenced by various encyclicals cited herein, at least through the beginning of the twentieth century (1900). In light of Pope Benedict XVI’s recent recommendations of the current American church-state model for Europe, and given Rome’s boast that she never changes, one is left to ponder whether Rome’s official position on the Americanist “heresy” has changed, or whether American concepts of church-state relations have undergone a gradual transformation since Pope Leo XIII issued Testem benevolentiae to reflect a position more in harmony with Rome’s traditional stance?

Edwin C. Cook is currently studying for a doctorate in church-state relations at Baylor University, Texas.

  1. Douglas W. Kmiec, “Why the Holy Father Likes America,” retrieved on Apr. 13, 2008, from
  2. Peter Mayer, “PREVIEW: Pope Benedict to Visit France, the Church’s Wayward Daughter,” retrieved on Sept. 11, 2008 from
  3. Austen Ivereigh, “Not Just Another Papal Visit to France,” retrieved on Sept. 9, 2008, from
  4. Debra Campbell, “Catholicism From Independence to World War I,” in Charles H. Lippy and Peter W. Williams, eds., Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience: Studies of Traditions and Movements (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1988), vol. I, p. 370.
  5. Neil T. Storch, “John Ireland’s Americanism After 1899: The Argument From History,” Church History 51, No. 4 (December 1982): 444.
  6. Graham Maddox, Religion and the Rise of Democracy (New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 199.
  7. Dennis P. McCann, New Experiment in Democracy: The Challenge for American Catholicism (Kansas City, Mo.: Sheed and Ward, 1987), p. 33; David O’Brien also remarks: “Americanism, in short, now appears as one episode in a long series of controversies surrounding the Church’s role in the modern world” (David O’Brien, “Americanism,” in Michael Glazier and Thomas J. Shelley, eds., The Encyclopedia of American Catholic History [Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press, 1997], p. 99).
  8. James Hennesey, “Catholicism in the English Colonies,” in Lippy and Williams, p. 346; James M. O’Neill, Catholicism and American Freedom (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1952), pp. 8, 9.
  9. Hennesey, p. 345; O’Neill, pp. 9, 10.
  10. Hennesey , p. 354.
  11. George La Piana and John Swomley, Catholic Power vs. American Freedom, Herbert F. Vetter, ed. (New York: Prometheus Books, 2002), p. 45.
  12. Ibid., pp. 44, 45.
  13. Joseph P. Chinnici, “American Catholics and Religious Pluralism, 1775-1820,” in Timothy Walch, ed., Early American Catholicism, 1634-1820 (New York: Garland Publishing, 1988), p. 277.
  14. Ibid., p. 277.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid., p. 279.
  17. Ibid., pp. 277, 280, 281.
  18. Debra Campbell relates how the Jesuits of Pennsylvania and Maryland unanimously agreed in October 1784 that the appointment of an American bishop was still untimely and could threaten the safety of Catholics in general and Jesuit property in particular (“Catholicism From Independence to World War I,” in Lippy and Williams, p. 358; O’Neill, p. 11.
  19. Hennesey, p. 354; O’Neill, p. 11.
  20. Joseph Agonito, The Building of an American Catholic Church: The Episcopacy of John Carroll (New York: Garland Publishing, 1988), p. 209; O’Neill notes as well Carroll’s patriotic fervor (p.11).
  21. Hennesey, p. 354.
  22. Agonito, pp. 218, 220.
  23. Campbell., p.359.
  24. Ibid., p. 358.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid., p. 357.
  27. Bernard Cooke, ed., The Papacy and the Church in the United States (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), p. 37. Conciliarism in the Roman Catholic Church dates to the fourteenth century and is characterized by restraints imposed upon the pope by means of councils consisting of hierarchical leaders, such as bishops, theologians, etc.; cf. “The Republican Church,” in which chapter Dale B. Light details how St. Mary’s church proposed to create a Catholic church of equal status to the national churches of Europe, but organized on a liberal, constitutional basis (Dale B. Light, Rome and the New Republic: Conflict and Community in Philadelphia Catholicism Between the Revolution and the Civil War [Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1996], pp.127-131).
  28. Campbell, p. 357.
  29. McCann, p. 25.
  30. Agonito, p. 244.
  31. Ibid., pp. 248, 249.
  32. Ibid., p. 260.
  33. Ibid., p. 260.
  34. Ibid., pp. 262, 263.
  35. Leonard Swidler, Toward a Catholic Constitution (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1996), p. 58.
  36. Ibid., pp. 58, 59.
  37. David O’Brien states: “In the United States, the continuing arrival of millions of Catholic immigrants limited the appeal of an Americanizing strategy based on affirmation of American ideals and institutions” (O’Brien, p. 99).
  38. Campbell, p. 361.
  39. Ibid., p. 364.
  40. Campbell., p. 370; Storch, p. 438.
  41. Campbell, p. 370; cf. Gerald P. Fogarty, The Vatican and the American Hierarchy From 1870-1965 (Stuttgart: Anton Hiersemann, 1982), pp. 27-64.
  42. Storch, p. 436.
  43. Ibid., p. 440.
  44. Storch, p. 440; Swidler, p. 59; cf. Peter Hertel, “International Christian Democracy (Opus Dei),” in Gregory Baum and John Coleman, eds., The Church and Christian Democracy (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1987), pp. 95-105.
  45. Maddox, p. 197.
  46. Campbell, p. 371; for a highly detailed account containing copies of letters and correspondence among participants, see Thomas T. McAvoy, The Americanist Heresy in Roman Catholicism, 1895-1900 (Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1963), pp. 217-258.
  47. O’Brien, p. 98.
  48. Storch, pp. 435-436; Pope Leo XIII, Testem benevolentiae, in Glazier and Shelley, p. 101; Campbell, 
  49. O’Brien., p. 98.

Article Author: Edwin C. Cook

Edwin Cook has a doctorate in church-state studies from Baylor University, Waco, Texas. He writes from Waco.