June 29, 2012


Catholics must protect their rights

As we prepare to celebrate Independence Day next Wednesday, we are doing so in the middle of the “Fortnight for Freedom” proclaimed by the American bishops to call attention to the threats to religious freedom. Perhaps we could profit by considering the status of the Catholic Church when our country’s independence was proclaimed in 1776.

At that time, Catholics comprised less than 1 percent of the population. In most of the colonies, they could not vote or hold public office.

Among anti-Catholic demonstrations were annual “Guy Fawkes Days,” also known as “Pope Days,” when the pope was burned in effigy.

Guy Fawkes was among Catholic fanatics who, in 1605, tried to blow up the British Parliament when King James I was there. He was discovered and executed. These demonstrations continued until Gen. George Washington forbade them during the Revolutionary War.

There were, though, farsighted Catholics who became great American patriots, especially members of the Carroll family.

Charles Carroll of Carrollton signed the Declaration of Independence, the only signer to add his hometown. He was the wealthiest man in the colonies at the time. Later, he had a distinguished career and, at age 95, was the last of the signers to die.

His cousin, Father John Carroll, was a good friend of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. In 1776, he and Charles Carroll accompanied Franklin and Samuel Chase on a mission to Canada to try to get that country’s support during the war.

Father Carroll later became the first U.S. bishop and archbishop. His older brother, Daniel, was a member of the Constitutional Congress from 1780 to 1784, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1789, and was one of the signers of the U.S. Constitution.

Later, he helped lay out the site of the capital in Washington, donating a quarter of the land for the capital.

Catholics who contributed importantly to the Revolutionary War include the Marquis de Lafayette from France, Thaddeus Kosciusko, Baron von Steuben, John Paul Jones—the father of the American Navy—and, here in Indiana, Father Peter Gibault.

When he was inaugurated as president, Washington wrote to Bishop Carroll, acknowledging the role that Catholics played in the fight for independence.

“I presume that your fellow citizens will not forget the patriotic part which you took in the accomplishment of their Revolution, and the establishment of your Government: or the important assistance which they received from a nation in which the Roman Catholic Faith is professed [a reference to the help received from France],” he wrote.

Washington’s secretary and aide-de-camp was a Catholic as was his muster master-general. A portrait of the Blessed Virgin held a prominent place in the most public room of his home in Mount Vernon.

The Catholic Church benefited greatly from the religious freedom guaranteed by the first part of the First Amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

There have been times, though, when groups tried to take that right away.

One of the worst times was in 1844 with the rise of the Native American political party—the “Nativists”—also known as the “Know Nothings” because leaders professed to know nothing about their activities. It was bitterly anti-Catholic because Catholics had immigrated to America from Italy, Germany, Ireland and other Catholic countries.

In Philadelphia that year, two churches and rectories and two convents were burned, 40 people were killed and more than 60 were seriously injured.

They tried the same thing in New York, but there Archbishop John Hughes had 2,000 armed members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians waiting for them. The Nativists dispersed.

In the 1920s, it was here in Indiana, with the Ku Klux Klan, which controlled the Republican Party, the governor and the legislature. Catholics were persecuted, but also stood up for their rights.

Today, the religious rights of Catholics are being threatened by certain mandates from the federal government. Once again, Catholics are being urged to assert their rights.

The Church has grown from less than 1 percent of the population in 1776 to more than a quarter of the population today, but Catholics still must protect their right to practice their religion freely.

—John F. Fink

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