Nothing New Under the Sun: Lessons from Colonial Catholics

Imagine living in an America where there were almost no Catholic churches open to the public. 

Imagine an America where the act of attending Mass could be considered a crime. 

Imagine an America where the Catholic Church was openly mocked and denounced, where the loyalty of Catholics to their country was questioned, and where the Church’s centuries-old teachings were denounced as hateful and blasphemous.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

Oh, you say you can imagine such an America?

You say you were just living in it as of 2020and perhaps even more recently than that?

Well, your colonial Catholic forebears could certainly have sympathized. Believe it or not, they had it even rougher than you. 

All the indignities suffered by the faithful during the COVID-19 pandemic were part of the daily life of colonial Catholics. They knew firsthand about government overreach into their spiritual lives, and they didn’t just suffer through it over a year or two.

No churches open? During the colonial era, the only place in the entire British Empire where you could attend a Catholic Mass was in Philadelphiaat Old St. Joseph’s Church and Old St. Mary’s. (And the former church had to have its entrance disguised to avoid the unwelcome attention of vandals and government officials.)

Attending Mass a crime? Catholic colonists in Maryland and Philadelphia could at least point to charters that guaranteed them some measure of religious libertyeven if that liberty was often more theoretical than practical. Catholics in other colonies weren’t so lucky. They had to be served by circuit-riding priests who took their lives into their own hands to keep the Faith alive. In New York, for example, the two-strikes-and-you’re-out law called for a Catholic priest to be expelled the first time he was discovered. The second time, he was to be executed.

The Church mocked and denounced? A regular public occurrence throughout the Northeast each November 5 was a ritual known as “Pope’s Night.” It sounds like a fun Catholic evening. In fact, it was the opposite. The event was imported from England and held to mark the anniversary of the “Gunpowder Plot,” when Guy Fawkes and other Catholic conspirators were charged with trying to blow up Parliament. Pope’s Nights involved public drunkenness, burning the pontiff in effigy, and as much public anti-Catholicism as any papist foe could have wished.

In addition to all this, colonial Catholics had to suffer through a litany of other indignities, imposed to remind them of their status as second-class citizens. They couldn’t vote, nor hold public officeunless, perhaps, they were willing to take a loyalty oath that denied the reality of transubstantiation. They had to pay exorbitant additional taxes, such as the hundred-pound fee that Maryland parents had to fork over for the privilege of sending their children overseas to receive the Catholic education they couldn’t get at home. (A privilege, by the way, that included sending boys as young as 10 and 11 on an incredibly dangerous sea voyage from which they might never return, and which, at best, would separate them from their families for years.)

Even if you had moneyeven if you had as much money as Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the Maryland-born Founding Father who was one of the richest men in the coloniesif you were a Catholic, you were at best a nonentity, and at worst, a person of suspect allegiances. You might, after all, have been one of the members of the pope’s secret army, whom no less than Alexander Hamilton warned was waiting to overrun the colonies, like zombie hordes controlled by Rome. (If this warning, coming as it did from an immigrant, seems a trifle rich, that’s because it certainly was.)

So yes, colonial Catholics could certainly understand the hardships we’ve faced over the past 18 months.

What they might not understand, however, are the attitudes these hardships have engendered.

How often have you heard it said by Catholics, over the past year-and-a-half, that America’s failure to live up to its founding ideals can only be addressed by ignoring the Catechism of the Church? How often have you heard Catholics saysometimes from the opposite side of the political spectrumthat America might no longer be worth fighting for? How many times have you read someone insisting that the only possible response to the issues within the Catholic Church is to leave and start over somewhere else? 

Despite all the sacrifice and suffering colonial Catholics were called to undergomost of it at the hands of their fellow colonistson the eve of revolution, they did something that might seem unfathomable to us today. 

They supported the fight for independence anyway.

They didn’t do it with a list of demands. They exacted no concessions before they became patriots. They had no guarantee that things would improve in the America they were fighting to liberate.

And yet, things did get better. That little mustard seed of a faith communityno more than 30,000 colonial Catholics, less than 2 percent of the population at the timelargely united behind a cause they could certainly have been forgiven for spurning. 

Not only did they join this cause, they led it. Catholics were at the forefront of every aspect of the American Revolution: militarily, economically, intellectually, and, of course, spiritually. The fight for liberty could never have been won without Catholicsincluding the vital contributions of Catholic nations such as France and Spain.

And over the next century, Catholicism would blossom into the largest faith in the new United States.

Can we really look at the example of our courageous Catholic ancestors and complain that our mantle is too burdensome, that our yoke is too heavy, that our suffering is unjust? 

What if things get worse? What if, someday in the not-too-distant future, we’re confronted with further government interference into our beliefs? A look at pending legislation in Congress should certainly have us ready for that possibility. Do we give up then? Or do we learn from the way our colonial ancestors preserved what was truly important?

The stories of the Catholics that helped win American independence should make us proud; for too long have Catholics been told that their contributions to liberty were negligible. But these stories should also make us want to face the challenges of our own timemany of them eerily similar to those of yesteryearwith the same belief in the founding ideals, the same resolve to uphold them, and the same faith.

Because after all, it is the same Faith. The Faith of our Catholic forefathers played a critical role in the founding of our nation. Our own commitment to that Faithand our refusal to abandon it to the woke, the worn-down, and the temptation to further divide and be conqueredis what is required to maintain it.

[Image: Charles Carroll (Courtesy of Howard County Historical Society)]


tagged as: Catholic Living

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...