Even though the Bill of Rights was in place, Catholics in the United States encountered prejudice on many levels.

Our Catholic Roots 1492—1865

12. Instructing the Ignorant: 1820-1829
The United States Constitution and its Bill of Rights had been ratified by the states and become the "law of the land" thirty years before Bishop John England arrived in America. These documents guaranteed that the federal government would never favor one religion over another, and would never deprive citizens of the right to practice the religion of their choice. But these documents did not, and could not, rid Protestant Americans of their centuries-old prejudice against Catholics.


People who are not Catholic often ask questions about sacramentals. Crucifixes, statues, and paintings in churches and homes help Catholics in their worship, just as rosary beads, religious medals, holy water, and candles often accompany private devotions.

Prejudice Against Catholics
Anti-Catholic prejudice in America arose from two basic beliefs, neither of them based on fact:

1. Catholics were accused of being superstitious, and of practicing magic. This false but widespread accusation arose from a misunderstanding of Catholic sacraments, especially Reconciliation and Eucharist, and of sacramentals such as holy water and rosaries.

2. The Catholic religion was charged with being against freedom and democracy. This mistaken charge resulted from a failure to understand the nature and limits of the teaching authority of the church.

Bishop Carroll had been the first to try to break the patterns of prejudice that shut out his people from full participation in the nation's life. In an attempt to underscore the true patriotism of Catholics, he had written a prayer for the nation and its leaders. This prayer continued to be read at the end of every Mass in the country for many decades after his death. Often, he had defended the patriotism of his Catholic people by speaking out in public, and by debating their detractors through pamphlets and letters to newspapers.

In choosing to speak out, Carroll had had several very important advantages: he was native-born, and an Anglo-American, and he happened to be a member of one of the nation's most prominent families. The same could not be said of his successors, especially the French bishops and archbishops who were in charge of most of the American dioceses until the 1850s. Try as they might, they never felt fully at home in the American culture. Thus they lacked some of the tools necessary to lead their people into the American mainstream. John England, of course, was the exception. He entered fully into American public life where Carroll had left off.



Bishop England's Reply
Even as he was resolving Charleston's trustee problems, Bishop England was focusing his attentions on two much larger issues involving all American Catholics. Ignorance lay at the core of each:

1. Catholic ignorance
Most American Catholics in Charleston and in other dioceses were immigrants, and more were arriving every day. The great majority of these Catholic immigrants came from poorer and less educated backgrounds in Europe. They brought with them a simple faith, but very little' religious knowledge. In fact, most of them had never even read a bible, much less owned one.

Armed with so little religious information, and learning to live in a "foreign" land, these Catholic immigrants were wide open to the challenges and ridicule of a hostile Protestant majority. They desperately needed to learn more about their faith, and to understand its compatibility with American democracy. In addition, they needed to develop a pride in their Catholic tradition, a pride that could only come with knowledge. Otherwise, Bishop England recognized, surviving and winning acceptance into the mainstream of American life would probably involve, for most, a quiet wandering away from the church of their birth.

2. Protestant ignorance
Almost all American Protestants disliked Catholics, and some even feared them as well. In the 1820s, some states still had laws that discriminated against Catholics or that established Protestantism as the official religion of the state. This habit of prejudice and discrimination was three centuries old, and would not die easily. It was based upon a disgust arising from what Protestants thought Catholics believed and did. It also reflected a Protestant fear that Catholics would try to impose their "papist" ways upon everyone else.

In reality, American Protestants, like their Catholic neighbors, were the prisoners of their own ignorance. They needed to know what these Catholics and their church were really about. As Bishop England recognized so clearly, such knowledge could free Protestants from the fears that had so long diverted their energies into pointless attacks on imagined enemies. England saw, too, that such knowledge could open to Protestants the church's rich spiritual resources.

Thus, as Bishop England saw things, both American Catholics and American Protestants had a lot to learn about the church. So he set about teaching them.


Catholic Books and Newspapers
In a culture that lacked electronic media, the printed word represented the fastest and most effective means of communicating with large numbers of people. So, in quick succession, England launched three important publishing projects.

The catechism
First came a catechism, a seventy-page booklet written and published by England in 1821. Using plain language and a question-and-answer format, he covered the whole range of church teaching: God, church, sacraments, commandments, prayer, and even the issue of religious freedom. In this little textbook, England included basic prayers, such as the Our Father, Hail Mary, Apostles' Creed, and Grace before Meals.

The catechism was a simple and efficient tool for instructing the large numbers of both adults and children who knew little about the church. It provided clear-cut, understandable answers to the questions they felt. It was especially helpful in a country where priests were few, and where so many people were dependent upon what they could read on their own.

The missal
The most regular opportunity for teaching the faith came on Sundays, when Catholics gathered for Mass. However, two factors limited the effective use of this opportunity. The Mass was celebrated in Latin, with the priest's back to the people, and the sermon was often delivered in a heavy accent that few could understand. Thus, Bishop England's second major publishing project was an English missal, or mass book. This book explained the various ceremonies of the church and included a complete English translation of every Sunday Mass.

With this aid, a Catholic could understand and get some benefit from the prayers and scriptural readings being said in Latin by the priest. This missal was especially helpful to the many Catholics who were tired of being ridiculed by Protestants for participating in ceremonies they didn't understand. Thanks to Bishop England's initiative, the practice of using an English missal at Mass became standard throughout the United States. This practice continued until the 1960s, when Vatican Council II allowed the celebration of the liturgy in the language used by the people in any place.




The Catholic newspaper
The third and most ambitious of Bishop England's publishing ventures was launched in 1822. Drawing upon his earlier experience on the staff of an Irish newspaper, England founded the United States Catholic Miscellany, a weekly Catholic newspaper. This was the first such newspaper in the country. England was a born journalist, and, with the help of his sister Johanna, who served as editor, England put together a lively and informative issue every week. Always he had two audiences for this paper in mind:

1. His own community of Catholics
For them he hoped to provide a deeper understanding of their Catholic faith so that they could live it better. He also aimed to provide reliable information about religiously related events, both present and past, so that Catholic readers could work and live more confidently in a society that was still hostile to them.

2. The community of non-Catholic Americans
For them his immediate goal was to reduce the destructive force of anti-Catholicism by showing that it was based on false information. As England put it, he hoped:

. . . that many sensible people will be astonished at finding they have imputed to Catholics doctrines which the Catholic Church has formally condemned, and (that they) have imagined they were contradicting Catholics, when they held Catholic doctrine themselves.

Of course, his longer-range goal for non-Catholics was conversion to Catholicism.

Though published in Charleston, the Miscellany soon captured a national audience. This alarmed some of the other bishops, who had good reason to fear England's advanced ideas and troublesome habit of telling the whole truth. They did not want to stir up the lay people of their own dioceses.

The bishops' anxiety was especially acute after England resolved the trustee problems of his own diocese and the Miscellany began reporting in detail upon the unresolved controversies elsewhere. Bishop England squarely raised the obvious question: why could not these disputes be brought to an intelligent close as they had been in Charleston? That was not the kind of question England's fellow bishops wanted their people to hear. But they could do little about it except complain, and later block England's nomination as the next Archbishop of Baltimore, though he was by far the most qualified candidate.

Despite England's unpopularity with his fellow bishops, many of them agreed with him that Catholic newspapers were essential for the work of the American church. Catholic newspapers, following the model of the Miscellany, were seen as the best way to present all major issues of the day—not just trusteeism. So, within ten years of the founding of the Miscellany, Catholic papers were being published all over the country—defending, challenging, warning, informing, and establishing a sense of identity among Catholics.

Like the rest of these papers, the Miscellany experienced continuous financial problems, because it was difficult to sell subscriptions to a predominantly lower-class population with little money. However, it survived until December 1861, when a disastrous Charleston fire destroyed its offices, along with the cathedral and the bishop's house.


Bishop John England,
in his later years

Powerful Preacher
He was a master of the written word. But Bishop England was at his best in person. He loved to talk, and people loved to listen to him, even though his typical sermon might run at least two hours! Ordinarily, he preached three times every Sunday in his own cathedral. In addition, during his first three years as bishop, he gave 207 major speeches around his diocese—in Protestant churches, in courthouses, and in public places of all sorts.

The times he spoke in less formal settings were beyond numbering. Once, for example, he met a group of men on their way to market with wagonloads of cotton. Their leader greeted him as "Mr. Bishop," and asked if he wouldn't preach a sermon because they had heard that he was "the most all-fired powerful preacher in the country." England agreed, mounted a tree stump, and spoke to them at length about their relations to God and their neighbors. At the end of his talk, the leader of the men thanked him for his kindness and led the group in three cheers for "Mr. Bishop."

Bishop England's obvious intelligence, sincere faith, high energy, and youthful good looks were powerful assets. Yet none of them could account for his popularity as a preacher. The real key to his appeal to listeners of every background and class was his ability to talk to them about God and religion in familiar terms. He could draw upon their common experience as human beings and as Americans. He never ignored or ridiculed his listeners' most treasured ideas, values, and experiences. Rather, he took these as his starting point, and respectfully led his listeners to deeper and fuller understandings of the truth.

Bishop England never compromised his beliefs. But he respected and cared so much for his listeners that he made a special effort to translate his Catholic faith into terms they could understand. And people in large numbers, and of all stages in life, did understand and welcome what he had to say. Thus he should not have been surprised when he found himself invited to speak before the United States Congress on January 8, 1826, one month before he would receive the final papers making him a United States citizen.


In 1826 John Quincy Adams was in his second year as president. But England still remembered a moment five years earlier when Adams, then Secretary of State, had delivered an outrageous Fourth of July address attacking the Catholic Church as an enemy of democracy. England was, therefore, delighted at the prospect of confronting that kind of falsehood on the president's own doorstep. He gladly accepted the invitation to be the first priest ever to address Congress.

It was a Sunday afternoon, and the speech was scheduled for presentation in the House of Representatives, which was larger than the Senate. Long before the appointed hour, the chamber was jammed, and even President Adams had to scurry for a seat. With some difficulty, Bishop England pressed forward through the crowd, and at last climbed to the speaker's platform. Then, in a calm, clear voice, and without a note in his hand, he addressed himself to the most powerful men in the land.

Gracious as always, England began by marveling at the kindness with which he, a Catholic and a foreigner, had been welcomed by non-Catholic Americans from his first moment in the country. This welcome seemed to him quite remarkable in view of all the evil things that Protestants had been taught about Catholics, and especially about bishops! Surely such hospitality to suspicious strangers was evidence of an unusual goodness in the hearts of average Americans. What a shame, said England, that they were trapped in falsehoods and half-truths passed on blindly from generation to generation. But it was not their fault. Indeed, he said, "If the Roman Catholic Church were, in her doctrines and her practices, what they have been taught she is, I would not be a Roman Catholic!" England was confident that he could show them the way out of the trap their ignorance had created.

The key issue was "Rome"; namely, the authority of the pope. England addressed the issue eloquently by posing the question that Catholics had been asked over and over: If this infallible pope, whom you believe yourselves bound to obey, should command you to overturn our government and to arrange it according to a different model, would you be bound to obey him?

Our answer, replied England, is extremely simple and very plain; it is that we would not be bound to obey. . . 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 right to such interference . . . (because there is) a plain distinction between spiritual authority and a right to interfere in the regulations of government . . .

Then he turned the tables. Suppose the Congress should tomorrow attempt to restrict by law his right to free exercise of his religion? I would not obey it, because it would be no law; for you have no such power in such a case . . . You (the Congress) have no power to interfere with my religious rights; the tribunal of the church has no power to interfere with my civil rights.

Finally, he addressed the historical fact of religious persecution. This is an abuse usually laid at Catholics' doorsteps with the emotion-laden word "inquisition," but it is also a reality for which Protestants shared equal responsibility. I know of no power given by God to any man, or to any body of men, to inflict any penalty of a temporal description upon their fellow-men for mere religious error . . . God commissioned the church to teach his doctrine, but he did not commission her to persecute those who would not receive it.


In coming to his conclusion, England gently probed for common ground, suggesting that no group was free of the sin of persecution. Religious persecution, he declared, is no doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church; I do not know that it is the doctrine of any church calling itself Christian; but, unfortunately, I know it has been practiced by some Roman Catholics, and it has been practiced in every church which accused her of having had recourse thereto. I would then say it was taught by no church; it has been practiced by all.

In suggesting that no group, Protestant or Catholic, was entirely free of sin in this regard, England was attempting to help both groups move beyond that relationship of mutual accusation which had been so destructive to both for so long. He asked his national audience to stop dwelling always upon the past and its conflicts. The time had come, he argued, for Americans of all faiths to look forward to the fulfillment of the common ideals of equality and freedom for all.

By England's own account of the day, his audience gave him intense attention, and every face seemed to say "go on." But I thought two hours enough for them and for me,—I made the sign of the cross, and . . . came down from my seat to recognize the President of the United States and converse a little with him.

Bishop England's Sunday afternoon speech before Congress did not transform the nation's religious climate all by itself. Later events would make that clear. However, England's speech was a kind of signpost, pointing to the road that Americans of all faiths would have to follow if they were to be true to their own faiths and to the highest ideals of their new nation. Bishop England certainly did not complete this process of transformation and change, but he gave it a mighty shove in the right direction.


missal: a book containing the prayers and responses for celebrating the Mass

mainstream: the main attitudes and values of a society or other group with whom one identifies.

patriotism: love of and devotion to one's country

Questions for Reflection

What were the two main aspects of anti-Catholic prejudice in the 1800s?

What distinction did Bishop England use to help define his obligations of obedience to both church and state? Explain the limits he placed on each obligation.

Do Catholics do a good job of explaining their religion to non-Catholics? In what ways to different church groups try to communicate with each other? Is it successful?

In the mid-1820s there was much prejudice against Catholics in the United States. What kind of prejudice do Catholics experience today?


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William H. Sadlier, Inc.
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