Colonial Catholics

Papist Devilsby Robert Emmett Curran

The Catholic University of America Press. 320p $29.95

Scholars rarely have the good fortune to be able to return to their initial field of interest after a long interruption. An exception to that rule is Robert Emmett Curran, professor emeritus of history at Georgetown University, who temporarily set aside his extensive research in colonial and early Catholic history in English-speaking North America 30 years ago to write a magisterial three-volume history of Georgetown University at the request of the president of the university. His history of Georgetown drew plaudits from many quarters, including Georgetown’s best known contemporary alumnus, former President Bill Clinton. In his retirement, one of the topics to which Curran has redirected his attention is his long-standing interest in tracing the formation of the distinctive features of American Catholicism as early as the 17th century.


It is obvious that Curran is not relying upon dog-eared index cards in his file cabinet. Both his methodology and bibliography reflect the cutting-edge approach of many scholars of American religious history today, who emphasize the “Atlantic dimension” of colonial American religious history by tracing the interaction of events on both sides of the Atlantic. This trans-Atlantic connection is especially important in explaining the constantly shifting fortunes of Catholics in colonial Maryland, the heartland of English-speaking Catholicism in North America, since the legal status of Catholics in the colony was inextricably entwined with political developments in the mother country.

Curran sets the context in his initial chapter with a survey of the impact of the Protestant Reformation not only in England, but also in Ireland and Scotland. Hence he prefers to speak of British America rather than English America. A welcome and unusual addition is his extended and informative treatment of the fate of Catholics in the British islands in the Caribbean, especially Montserrat and St. Kitts. At one point there were more Catholics (many of them Irish exiles) in the British Caribbean than on the British North American mainland. These Caribbean Catholics, who had to rely on the services of what Curran calls “ad hoc island-hopping priests,” faced a more difficult struggle to preserve their faith than their co-religionists in Maryland, where a continuous supply of Jesuit (and to a lesser extent Franciscan) missionaries assured the presence of the sacramental ministry of the institutional church. Unbelievably, the English Province of the Society of Jesus had a surplus of manpower to spare for the Maryland mission in the 17th and 18th centuries, although they nearly discontinued the mission more than once.

Curran is admirably fair in his treatment of contentious issues. He notes the widely accepted opinion that the main motive that inspired the first Lord Baltimore (George Calvert) to establish the Maryland colony was financial rather than religious. However, adds Curran, “The Calverts’ concern to construct a society where Catholics could participate fully was genuine enough.” Curran is notably even-handed also in his analysis of the ongoing tensions between the Calverts and the Jesuits, which erupted within two years of the establishment of Maryland in 1634.

American Catholics are understandably proud of Maryland’s Act of Toleration in 1649, passed by a predominantly Catholic Assembly, guaranteeing religious toleration to most Christians. Curran emphasizes its radical nature in a world where separation of church and state was regarded as a contradiction in terms. Some historians have minimized the significance of the Act of Toleration by pointing out that it was a purely pragmatic maneuver on the part of a beleaguered Catholic minority, who regarded it as the sole way to preserve religious toleration for themselves. But it evolved into a sincere American Catholic commitment to the principle of religious freedom that three centuries later bore fruit in the enthusiastic support by the American hierarchy of the “Declaration on Religious Liberty” at the Second Vatican Council, a conciliar document that Msgr. John Tracy Ellis called a vindication of the only form of church-state relations that American Catholics have ever known.

Although Curran includes Pennsylvania, New York and even Acadia in his study, he concentrates on Maryland. Catholics never numbered more than 10 percent of the population, and many were poor, but there was also a Catholic elite who achieved extraordinary economic success despite the political disabilities that they suffered because of their religion. By the 1750s 10 of the 20 wealthiest men in Maryland were Catholics. Curran tells us that the Maryland Catholic gentry were able to afford dowries of as much as £300 for their daughters who wished to enter European convents, and they were able to send the majority of their sons to elite Catholic schools like St. Omer’s in France. Remarkably no fewer than 82 young Maryland Catholics studied abroad in just the 14 years between 1759 and 1773.

However, in the run up to the American Revolution, even the wealthiest American Catholics faced an uncertain future, when the combination of the Great Awakening, the French and Indian War and later the Quebec Act of 1774 triggered a revival of virulent anti-Catholic bigotry. In 1760 Charles Carroll of Annapolis, the second wealthiest man in Maryland, told his son, Charles Carroll of Carrolltown, “I leave you to judge whether Maryland be a tolerable residence for a Roman Catholic. Were I younger I would certainly quit it.” Fifteen years later his son led a successful campaign to readmit Catholics to Maryland political life. Curran credits him with being perhaps the single most influential person in persuading Maryland to support the cause of independence. He was the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence.

It would have been understandable if American Catholics had remained neutral during the War of Independence, since initially neither side wanted their support. For once, however, Catholics backed the winning side, when most of them threw their support to the patriots in the hope that they would secure for them the religious freedom that the British government had long denied them. Their hopes were not disappointed. Writing to Rome in 1783 after the end of the war, another Maryland Carroll, the Rev. John Carroll, the future archbishop of Baltimore, informed the Roman authorities that “our religious system has undergone a revolution, if possible, more extraordinary than the political one.”

Two of the major strengths of this book derive from the author’s familiarity with a wide range of meticulously documented unpublished doctoral dissertations and his ability to create a convincing synthesis of religious, political and economic history. Moreover, the combination of his extensive research and his elegant literary style has enabled him to produce the most reliable, comprehensive and readable book on the subject. It is likely to retain that distinction for many years to come.

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Paul Ferris
3 years 11 months ago
I wonder if Robert Emmett Curran noted that Jesuits in America were slave owners. I presume that was true of many Catholics in Maryland as well. Some might say that the issue of slavery is not relevant here. The American Catholic history is glorious in so many ways but to focus on the importance of freedom and the Catholic contribution to the Declaration of Independence while neglecting the fact of slavery is wrong. It was the Quakers and Congregationalists who were the first abolitionists. They were the real champions of freedom, religious and civil.
Martin Eble
3 years 9 months ago
Slavery, per se, is not immoral. There were slaves in the Roman empire who were members of classes with rights, and St. Paul advised them to obey their masters. What the Church opposes is chattel slavery, whether it is what we called "slavery" in the antebellum South or the treatment of industrial workers during the rise of the industrial age. It is treating people with human dignity that is required, while treating people as the means to an end and as mere property that is immoral no matter what it is called.


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