Thinking Historically About Pope Francis at Independence Hall

In a few hours, Pope Francis will be speaking about religious liberty at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. 

It is a fitting theme for a speech at the birthplace of the United States of America  This was the place, of course, where the Second Continental Congress and Constitution Convention met. (As I remind my students and others when I lead tours, it was still the Pennsylvania State House back then).  Right next door, in Congress Hall (originally the Philadelphia County Courthouse), Congress adopted the First Amendment.  As many of you know, the First Amendment states that Congress “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”

There are a lot of historical things that can be said about the Pope at Independence Hall. Here are three:

First, Charles Carroll should be remembered today.  He was the only Roman Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence.  If you want to know more about the Carroll family’s contribution to American life and American Catholicism,  I recommend Ronald Hoffman’s Princes of Ireland, Planters of Maryland: A Carroll Saga, 1500-1782.  And let’s not forget about the Catholic signers of the Constitution: Daniel Carroll and Thomas Fitzsimons.  So yes, there was a Catholic presence in the Pennsylvania State House in 1776 and 1787.

But let’s also remember, secondly, that not everyone who came to Philadelphia in 1776 and 1787 to forge a new nation had good things to say about Catholicism. Despite Carroll’s presence in the Second Continental Congress, many thought Catholicism was compatible with American republicanism.

For example, Samuel Adams, who singed the Declaration of Independence in 1776, published a series of anti-Catholic articles in the Boston Gazette in 1768 under the pseudonym “a Puritan.”  He claimed that “much more is to be dreaded from the growth of POPERY in America, than from Stamp-Acts or any other Acts destructive of men’s civil rights.”

Samuel’s cousin, John Adams, believed that Catholicism was the ultimate form of superstitious and irrational religion.  In 1774, after visiting St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Philadelphia, Adams wrote to his wife Abigail:

This Afternoons Entertainment was to me, most awfull and affecting.  The poor Wretches, fingering their Beads, chanting Latin, not a Word of which they understood, their Pater Nosters and Ave Maria’s.  Their holy Water–their Crossing themselves perpetually–their Bowing to the name of Jesus, wherever they hear it–their Bowings and Kneelings, and Genuflections before the Altar.  The Dress of the Priest was rich with Lace–his Pulpit was Velvet and Gold.  The Altar Piece was very rich–little Images and Crucifixes about Wax-Candles lighted up.  But how shall I describe the Picture of our Saviour in a Frame of Marble over the Altar at full Length upon the Cross, in the Agonies, and the Blood dripping and streaming from his Wounds…Here is every Thing which can lay hold of the Eye, Ear, and Imagination.  Every Thing which can charm and bewitch the simple and ignorant.  I wonder how Luther ever broke the spell.”  

John Adams believed that “Liberty and Popery cannot live together.”  Catholicism was a tyrannical religious system that required its followers to pay ultimate homage to the pope.  It was the antithesis of liberty.  Adams was not alone.  This was a pretty mainstream position in revolutionary America. although some founders emphasized it more than others.

Third, this should be a big day for American Catholics because, as several scholars have pointed out, most notably John McGreevy in his masterful Catholicism and American Freedom: A History, Catholics continued to be an embattled religious minority in the decades following the founding. In this sense, a speech by a Pope on religious freedom has much historical significance.  As McGreevy argues, Catholics worked hard to convince Protestant America that they could be good citizens. Francis speech today will be symbolic of how far the United States has come on matters of religious freedom (and perhaps how far we still need to go).

I will try to live tweet the speech and offer whatever historical insights I can.  Follow @johnfea1