Richard W. Garnett: Remembering American History about Roman Catholicism

Posted by Kendall Harmon

In April, Benedict XVI will make his first visit to the USA as pope. When he does, some will complain about clean-up costs, traffic snarls, rescheduled television shows and other inconveniences. Others will express (and the media will obsess about) their various disagreements with the pope's writings and church teaching. And many millions will be inspired, comforted and encouraged by his work, life and witness, and by the theme of his new encyclical letter, "Saved By Hope."

Today, thanks in part to Pope John Paul II's globetrotting, evangelical papacy, visits by popes to America are occasions for reflection, celebration and souvenir-selling. In our not-so-distant past, though, papal invasions loomed large in all kinds of nightmare scenarios.

It is easy to forget but, from the Puritans to the Framers and beyond, anti-"popery" was thick in the cultural air breathed by the early Americans. Our forebears were raised on hair-raising tales of Armadas and Inquisitions, Puritan heroism and Bloody Mary, Jesuit schemes and Gunpowder Plots, lecherous confessors and baby-killing nuns. As the great historian John Tracy Ellis once observed, a "universal anti-Catholic bias was brought to Jamestown in 1607 and vigilantly cultivated in all the thirteen colonies from Massachusetts to Georgia."

In the 1830s, Samuel Morse (who invented the telegraph) wrote a popular book, Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States, warning that Irish immigration to American cities was part of a papal plan of conquest.

About the same time, Lyman Beecher — a Presbyterian minister and the father of Uncle Tom's Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe — revealed, in his own A Plea for the West, that Catholic immigrants in the American West were laying the groundwork for the pope's Mississippi Valley invasion. (Some tracts identified Cincinnati as the planned site for the new Vatican.)

Read it all.

Filed under: * Christian Life / Church LifeChurch History* Culture-WatchReligion & Culture* Economics, PoliticsPolitics in General* International News & CommentaryAmerica/U.S.A.* Religion News & CommentaryOther ChurchesRoman Catholic

Posted January 28, 2008 at 11:49 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]

1. seitz wrote:

It must be remembered of course that this went both ways. It was not until relatively late that the Roman church withdrew objections to liberal democracy altogether, into the early 20th century if memory serves.

January 28, 1:50 pm | [comment link]
2. Irenaeus wrote:

Don’t miss Thomas Nast’s 1875 cartoon, “The American River Ganges,” which depicts Roman Catholic bishops as crocodiles invading America:

January 28, 2:05 pm | [comment link]
3. phil swain wrote:

I believe that Dr. Seitz has a point.  Catholic political theory supported an established Church.  Certainly we can say that after Vatican II that it is no longer the case.  It’s ironic that the country that gave us our liberal democracy still has a quasi established church.  The animosity toward the English was nothing compared to that against Catholics.  So, I don’t think Catholic political theory can account for all the animosity against Catholics, but it has a place.

Another irony of history is that it now appears that the Catholic Church is liberal democracy’s greatest advocate.  While many, if not most, of the mainline Protestant elite have adopted a Rawlsian model.

January 28, 2:56 pm | [comment link]
4. Jon wrote:

First a quick disclaimer: although I am a Protestant I have GREAT fondness for the AC and indeed RC traditions.  My closest Christian friends are very close to Rome.

That said, it’s easier to understand the intense fear Americans had of Romish intrigue and murderous plots when one realizes that there really were these things in the 1500s and early 1600s.  Fears of an assassination attempt against Queen Elizabeth increased after Pope Gregory XIII proclaimed in 1580 that it would be no sin to rid the world of such a miserable heretic; he actually gave the assasins absolution in advance.  And real RC assassins did try to kill her!  And of course there was the horrible event of the 1572 Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre—tens of thousands of Protestants murdered by RCs. 

And then remember that the US was founded largely by waves of Protestants in the 1500s and 1600s.  So they have this very terrifying but to some extent realistic memory of murderous Roman plots.  Of course, as an early Reformation type myself I have a very firm belief in the ubiquity and evenly distributed character of Original Sin—therefore we see all kinds of Protestants behaving in terrible ways too.  There is nothing wrong about Roman Catholics or good about Protestants PER SE—there is only something bad about the state of being human and good about Jesus Christ.

I mention the historic memory that many of the early Europeans brought over with them only as a way of explaining why they should have this wild anti-Roman paranoia.  It WASN’T totally irrational—it was based to some extent on real events in their extended memory.  The author of USA TODAY piece (a guy from Notre Dame) gives the impression, by way of contrast, that this was wild paranoia from the very beginning.  He can’t actually say: well, I must admit that in the 1500s and 1600s Rome really was plotting murder, so I guess its not too hard to understand why these early Americans were so freaked out.

January 28, 3:57 pm | [comment link]
5. Ed the Roman wrote:

Of course, the Tudors were actually performing murder, and early “liberal” “democracy” as seen up close and personal in Europe was regicide, spoliation, and martyrdom of clergy.  How many books have been found bound in the skin of Anglicans?  Perhaps we should give this a rest.

January 28, 4:08 pm | [comment link]
6. Dan Crawford wrote:

Perhaps we should give it a rest, Ed, but you will find enough traces of Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion on this site and StandFirm and other “protestant” sites to convince you that anti-Catholicism in all of its varied forms has a long shelf life.

January 28, 5:15 pm | [comment link]
7. francis wrote:


January 28, 5:15 pm | [comment link]
8. Chris Molter wrote:

#6 Dan,
I see plenty of ultramontanism, triumphalism, and hurling of lay anathemas on many “Catholic” blogs (and the equivalent from some Eastern Orthodox), so it’s really a problem everywhere.  Generally, though, the harsher forms of anti-(fill in the blank) seem to come from those who have no connection or experience with the “other side”.  Having come from Anglicanism to Catholicism I guess I’m pretty good at detecting it from either side of the Tiber/Thames!

January 28, 5:28 pm | [comment link]
9. libraryjim wrote:

The catholic nuns who taught me in CCD classes told me in no uncertain terms that MARYLAND was named for the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Public school teachers told me it was named either for Mary, Queen of Scots or the consort of Charles I, Henrietta Maria.

January 28, 5:53 pm | [comment link]
10. Dan Crawford wrote:

Agreed, Chris. But doesn’t it all get rather tiresome? And among Anglicans anti-Catholicism takes truly frightening forms (because of its consequences). We dress our bishops in ecclesiastical haberdashery which rivals any extravagance of the Romans, while proclaiming ad nauseam that our bishops have no authority. The Archbishop of Canterbury can’t even assert any moral authority - God forbid we should have anything remotely resembling that funny Roman guy who dresses in white. Our bishops are incapable of anything except authorizing lawsuits (then, ironically, they assume powers that even the Pope tends to shy from). Anti-sacramental Anglicans have their own brand of anti-Catholicism to fall back on - Catholics engage in “magic” while Episcopal priests appear to be the ones caught up with Wiccans and Hindus and Muslims.

The Roman Church has stood steadfast in its defense of Orthodox Christianity while the Anglican “churches” have peddled dialogues and conversations and heaven knows what else because, God forbid, any attempt at an authoritative expression or defense of the faith might look Papist.

By the way, I am an Episcopal priest who is well aware of the peculiar forms of Catholic craziness, but Anglicans do themselves no favors when they give every appearance that their objections to Catholicism stem more from knee-jerk reactions than to thoughtful reflection.

January 28, 7:40 pm | [comment link]
11. Ed the Roman wrote:

Although George Calvert adhered to Rome after his son married into a recusant family, he left the naming of Maryland up to the King (Charles I).

That pretty much makes it impossible for MQoS to have been meant.

January 28, 7:47 pm | [comment link]
12. Chris Molter wrote:

#10, absolutely.  Very tiresome.  There’s a big difference between real ecumenical dialogue, papering over our differences with simplistic platitudes, and on the other extreme, just being argumentative, triumphalistic, or bigoted.

January 28, 7:57 pm | [comment link]
13. Dale Rye wrote:

Re #12: Why does that make it impossible? Queen Mary was King Charles’ grandmother. One of the first acts of his father, James I of England and VI of Scotland, as King of England was to repudiate her condemnation and move her body from Peterborough to an honored grave in Westminster Abbey. Since both his grandmother and his wife, the former Princess Henrietta Maria of France, were Roman Catholics named after the Queen of Heaven, Mary-Land was a logical choice for several reasons.

January 28, 8:12 pm | [comment link]
14. Ed the Roman wrote:

Charles I was very Protestant.  By this time grandma was inextricably linked with Catholic ascendancy in people’s minds.

January 28, 8:26 pm | [comment link]
15. Lapinbizarre wrote:

Re Dr. Seitz’s comment, one might question whether the church that recently beatified Pius IX, author of the Syllabus of Errors, has ever withdrawn its objections to liberal democracy.  Among the “errors” condemned by Pius:

#18 - “Protestantism is nothing more than another form of the same true Christian religion, in which form it is given to please God equally as in the Catholic Church.”

# 55 - “The Church ought to be separated from the State, and the State from the Church.”

#77 -  “In the present day it is no longer expedient that the Catholic religion should be held as the only religion of the State, to the exclusion of all other forms of worship.”

The fall of the Prodi government earlier this week, following the resignation of Mastella’s Christian Democrats might be taken as tangible evidence of the RC church’s current approach to liberal democracy.

January 28, 9:49 pm | [comment link]
16. rob k wrote:

No. 14 - Politically, Charles I may have been Protestant.  But theologically and devotionally it’s my understanding that he was pretty “h8gh church”..  By “politically” I mean the relationship of the monarchy of England to the Papacy.  Thx.

January 28, 10:08 pm | [comment link]
17. Lapinbizarre wrote:

Charles considered himself both Protestant and what is broadly called “High Church” - though bear in mind that this expression should not be seen in terms of 19th century and later Ritualism & Anglo-Catholicism.  Also remember that there was a close connection between Archbishop Laud’s High Church “reforms” and Charles’s determination to impose Royal absolutism, which was neither an English nor a Scottish tradition of government (those whom attempted it often came to grief, as both Charles and Laud were to learn) on his kingdoms.

January 28, 11:13 pm | [comment link]
18. rob k wrote:

No. 17 - I think that there was more correlation between Charles’ high churchmanship and the Oxford Movement and Anglo-Catholicism than there was between his Protestantism and what we understand as both Reformation and modern-day Protestantism, ecclesiologically and theologically speaking.  That was the time of the Caroline Divines, whose ideas of the holiness of the Church as the Body of Christ and of the ideas of Real Presence and Sacrifice in the eucharist, along with a higher ritualism and ceremonialism.

January 29, 2:35 am | [comment link]
19. rob k wrote:

Sorry for my syntax in no. 18.  The last sentence was not a complete one.

January 29, 6:04 am | [comment link]
20. Jon wrote:

#10…. hey Dan.  Just so you and Chris know I am on your side in many ways, I share your gratitude to Rome for steadfastly defending creedal Christianity.  I love her for that.  I am also just fond of Roman services in general—as long as we are not talking about some RC parish that is trying to be hip and relevant with a “modern” liturgy.

I am not sure I’d identify the Protestant stream of Anglicanism with either a WEAK view of the role of bishop (we can’t do anything unless we talk to the HOD, it’s not really our job to enforce doctrine since all views are possible) or an APOSTATE view of the role of bishop (we do have very sharp views and agendas which we intend to push, but they involve attacking the faith as Luther and Aquinas and St. Francis and Pope John Paul and Cranmer understood it).  I believe Archbishop Akinola very much belongs to the Reformation stream of Anglicanism (as opposed to say the Anglo-Catholic stream) and he is decidedly neither apostate nor weak.

Interestingly, most contemporary church historians classify ECUSA in the 1970s and 80s as having shifted from “protestantism” to something they call “liberal catholicism.”  And orthodox low-church Anglicans like Paul Zahl viewed that same time as an actual ERASURE of what he calls “the protestant face of anglicanism.”  (From his book with the same title.)  Most of the people I know in TEC who are most apostate are actually really into calling themselves “sacramental”—they love to contrast this with how dreadfully un-Anglican it is to be “confessional.”

My own view is that ECUSA/TEC is neither catholic nor protestant, but is an unholy marriage of the worst caricatures of the two.  It would be just as unfair for me to define Anglo-Catholic spirituality or ecclesiology by pointing to TEC as it is to define Anglicanism’s Protestant stream in that fashion.

My own most recent personal experience is that when traditional creedal Anglicans of both sorts (very Anglo-Catholic in the Oxford Movement way, or very evangelical/protestant in the Luther/Cranmer/Ridley/39-Articles way) stand together, we can have real love and progress and fellowship in the body of our crucified and risen Lord.  And we can have genuine dialogue about important differences too, as Chris observes.  So I have great hopes of much coming from all “mere Christains” being themselves in their own distinctive traditions, and great doubts about these unholy attempts at syncretism.  I can testify to the first.  Two of the most important people right now in my own spiritual life are a Franciscan and a Benedictine!  And the best way they tell me I can help them is by being the “early Luther” Anglican I am.

January 29, 12:25 pm | [comment link]
21. Ed the Roman wrote:

Lapinbizarre, the error 18 is merely the RC Church saying, “no, we’ve got it right”, which while you disagree, is not the kind of thing to make a huge fuss about.  It would be like standing up in a London music hall in 1947 saying, “now wait a minute, Britannia does NOT rule the waves!”  Whether or not it’s true, it’s what we’re expected to say.

The latter two were addressed to states in which the establishment was older than the states themselves, properly, in order to resist vehement and violent anti-clerical reformers.

Massachusetts had an established church until 1833.

Charles, in my view, gets a bit of a bum rap. Yes, he dissolved Parliament and inaugurated Personal Rule; but that didn’t mean he made up his own criminal statutes and did anything he liked.  It meant he made due with the taxes already in place, and was able to avoid the foreign adventures that Parliament would have pressed on him, i.e., going to war on the Continent to bolster Protestant states and weaken Catholic ones.  Side by side with Cromwell, which of the two was the one who beat the British people with scorpions?

January 29, 12:40 pm | [comment link]
22. Ed the Roman wrote:

My last should have read properly speaking, I don’t mean to give the imopression that I am wholly on board with establishment.  At all.

January 29, 12:42 pm | [comment link]
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