Religion News Service: In-depth. Impartial. Engaged.

Blogs » Mark Silk - Spiritual Politics

Spiritual Politics has moved: Click here to read the latest posts

Lori in Carroll’s seat


With his promotion from Bridgeport to Baltimore, William ("Deli Bill") Lori ascends to the aboriginal episcopal see in the U.S., the chair first occupied by John Carroll, a member of Maryland's founding Catholic family and the man who effectively established the Catholic Church in the country. According to the profile by RNS' David Gibson, Lori is an avid reader of history, so he can be expected to be boning up on his Carroll, and so should we--given that the new archbishop, as head of the USCCB's ad hoc committee on religious liberty, is currently playing a more prominent role than any Roman hierarch on the national scene other than Cardinal T. Dolan, the USCCB's boss of bosses.

For the latest take on Carroll's approach to Catholicism in America, I'd suggest "John Carroll and the Origins of an American Catholic Church, 1783–1815" by Arizona State history professor Catherine O'Donnell, which appeared in the William and Mary Quarterly last year (available on JStor if you have access). Trained and living as a Jesuit in Europe for 25 years, Carroll returned to America in 1773 after Pope Clement XIV suppressed the order. In 1788, Rome gave permission for the American clergy to elect a bishop, and Carroll was elected  the following year. As O'Donnell sees it, he simultaneously contrived to hold at a bay the Vatican, which he didn't trust; establish control over his far-flung and independent-minded clergy; and make a place for his church in a country that had placed all religions on an equal footing but where anti-Catholic prejudice remained substantial.

O'Donnell portrays Carroll in terms that contemporary Catholic conservatives like Lori could well applaud (but for the resistance to Rome). According to her, Carroll saw his church making common cause with the Protestant churches on the civil front, even as it safeguarded its own theological distinctives. And when it came to the state, he played it both ways, having his religious liberty cake and eating it too:

Throughout his bishopric Carroll celebrated America’s separation of political and religious authority but yoked Christianity and the nation in conceptual and practical ways. Carroll presciently envisioned a Christianity with an amphibious quality, living in private and public realms. That dual nature would allow it to reject or court state involvement as seemed strategically desirable. Like marriage and economic pursuits, which were cast as private activities but nurtured by law and public policy, Christianity was to be defended from state intrusion even as it relied on state protection and support. Religiosity was to be promoted as a pillar of the polity even as its usefulness was a function of distance from it. Carroll relied on the American government to defend his American Catholic Church from the Holy See, even arguing that “the Constitution” under which “our Religion has acquired equal rights & privileges with that of other Christians” required Rome to help create an American see. He sought not to dismantle governmental support for Christianity but to ensure Catholicism received it.

As religious liberty capo, Lori is currently in the state involvement rejection mode. As he told Gibson, "Once you have preached the principle that a government can define a church and tell a church what to do, well, it could tell us about contraception today, it could tell us about abortion tomorrow, and physician-assisted suicide the day after that. It is the principle of the thing." But of course, as Carroll recognized, the U.S. Constitution made its break with European ways of doing business by specifying the rights and privileges of religious institutions its own way--in Lori's terms: by defining a church.

Topics: Faith, Clergy & Congregations
Tags: lori

Sign In

Forgot Password?

You also can sign in with Facebook or Twitter if you've connected your account to them.

Sign In Using Facebook

Sign In Using Twitter