Pope Benedict has praised the American tradition of religious freedom and separation of church and state. But what is often forgotten is that Catholics were not originally part of this arrangement in America. I’m always amused when I hear about the Judeo-Christian heritage of America because not only were the Judeos not equal partners, neither were Catholics. What we really had for most of the early years of the colonial America was not even a Christian heritage but a protestant heritage.
Over the next two weeks I’m gong to explore the early history of Catholics and religious freedom (drawn from my new book Founding Faith), including some episodes that bely the notion that America has forever been a bastion of religious freedom.
Christopher Columbus believed that making the New World Catholic was a crucial reason for his voyage – and that God was guiding his trip. “With a hand that could be felt, the Lord opened my mind to the fact that it would be possible to sail from here to the Indies.” Though Columbus didn’t succeed in settling all of America, his success did spook England into getting serious sending their own in the 600s.
The twin goals of converting Indians and defeating Catholics provided a strong rallying cry for Virginia’ settlers. Prospects were instructed to bring “no traitors, nor Papists that depend on the Great Whore.” An Anglican promotional booklet argued that if the Spanish had so much luck pressing their corrupt religion, imagine how successful the English could be with their noble goals of saving “those wretched people.”
At that moment in history, the Catholic Church was viewed in England not as a competing form of Christianity but as a fraudulent faith. It was called “the Whore” because it had prostituted itself by selling indulgences (the promise that for a fee, the church would make sure that the soul of a loved one wouldn’t be stuck in purgatory). Protestants believed Catholics should be called “Papists,” not Christians, because they had substituted worship of the Pope for devotion of Christ. And only the “anti-Christ,” it was thought, would use the trappings of faith to so distort the message of Jesus. Not surprisingly, the Virginia government attempted to squelch Catholicism within the colony. In 1640, it prohibited Catholics from holding any public office unless they “had taken the oath of allegiance and supremacy” to the Church of England. It decreed that any “‘popish priests” who arrived in Virginia “should be deported forthwith.”
Massachusetts, of course, was settled by the Puritans, who believed that despite Henry the VIII’s split with Rome, the Church of England had retained too many vestiges of the Catholic Church. “Kneeling at the Sacrament, bowing to the Altar and to the name of Jesus, Popish holy days, Holiness of places, Organs and Cathedral Musick, The Books of Common prayer, or church Government by Bishops…They are nothing else but reliques of Popery, and remnants of Baal,” sniffed one prominent Puritan. And they Pilgrims who settled Plymouth? They were Puritans who had become “Separatists” because they believed that the Church of England was so corruptly entangled with Catholicism that nothing short of a clean break would suffice. Catholics were not allowed in the colony. (Since the Puritans tried to embody the compassion of Jesus, they did allow that any “Jesuits” who had ended up in their midst due to a shipwreck need not to be killed.)