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John Carroll and the Appeal to Evidence: A Pragmatic Defense of Principle

  • Joseph M. McShane (a1)


Throughout his career John Carroll supported the American religious settlement with surprising and consistent enthusiasm. Indeed, his enthusiasm for the religious liberty of the new republic seemed to be boundless. Thus he never tired of celebrating and advertising its benefits. He assured American Catholics that it was “a signal instance of [God's] mercy” and a product of the active intervention of Divine Providence and the Holy Spirit, who have “tutored the minds of men” in such a way that Catholics could now freely worship God according to the “dictates of conscience.” Flushed with pride, he even predicted that if America were wise enough to abide by the terms of this providential arrangement, the nation would become a beacon to the world, proving that “general and equal toleration…is the most effectual method to bring all denominations of Christians to an unity of faith.” Finally, confident that the extraordinary freedom accorded American Catholics would make the American church “the most flourishing portion of the church,” he urged European states and churches to follow America's inspired lead.



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1. Carroll carefully distinguished between pluralism and religious toleration. In fact, he saw in pluralism a dangerous inference of indifferentism. Thus in a letter to Archbishop John Troy of Dublin he spoke of a difference between “theological or religious intolerance which is essential to true religion, and civil intolerance.” He condemned the latter but supported the former. Indeed, in writing to Cardinal Gerdil of Propaganda he noted that a tendency to confuse the two required that American pastors be especially solicitous in guiding their people. Carroll, John to Troy, John, 12 07 1794, in Hanley, Thomas O'Brien S.J., ed., The John Carroll Papers, 3 vols. (Notre Dame, 1976), 2:121 (hereafter cited as JCP); and Carroll, to Gerdil, Hyacinth, 12 1795, JCP, 2:160.

2. Carroll, , “Sermon on Gratitude,” JCP, 1:159.

3. Carroll, , “An Address to the Roman Catholics of the United States of America by a Catholic Clergyman,” JCP, 1:140.

4. Carroll, to Antonelli, Leonardo, 27 02 1785, JCP, 1:171; see Carroll, to Plowden, Charles, 28 02 1779, JCP, 1:153; and “An Address From the Roman Catholics of America to George Washington, Esq., President of the United States,” JCP, 1:410. Carroll especially pointed out in each of these passages that the “Mother Country” could benefit from following America's example.

5. Carroll, to Fenno, John, 10 06 1789, JCP, 1:368.

6. See the discussion of the Scottish Common Sense philosophers and their impact on Jefferson, in Wills, Gary, Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence (New York, 1978), pp. 181192, for an understanding of the use of evidence in the political writings of the Founders. Madison was exposed to the same thinkers while a student at Princeton. Taking his cue from John Dickinson's statement that “Experience must be our guide. Reason may mislead us” (cited in Albanese, Catherine L., Sons of the Fathers: The Civil Religion of the American Revolution [Philadelphia, 1976], p. 203), Madison was careful to buttress all his arguments with references to the incontrovertible evidence of experience. See “Federalist Paper 20” in Wright, Benjamin Fletcher, ed., The Federalist Papers (Cambridge, Mass., 1961), esp. p. 185. For further discussion, see also Miller, William Lee, The First Liberty: Religion and the American Republic (New York, 1986). Carroll's methods mirror those of the Founders almost exactly.

7. A nation which minimized restraint and maximized freedom needed auxiliary agencies to teach its citizens habits of virtue. Therefore, all but the most radical Deists believed that the churches should flourish so that they could teach morality and the necessity of voluntary obedience to authority. This expectation leads William Miller to quip that our “forebears thought of religion as a kind of public utility”; First Liberty, p. 28. Carroll concurred: “Government must see the importance, and even the necessity of religious restraint in the minds of men, and that everything which will operate against … anarchy … deserves support and encouragement”; Carroll, to Troy, John, 12 07 1794, JCP, 2:120.

8. See Carroll to Fenno, 1:368, on the need to argue from experience, reason, and history.

9. See Chinnici, Joseph P., “American Catholics and Religious Pluralism, 1775–1820,” The Journal of Ecumenical Studies 16 (1977): 727746; and Dolan, Jay P., The American Catholic Experience: A History From Colonial Times to the Present (Garden City, N.Y., 1985), pp. 304305.

10. The depth of his commitment to religious liberty may be seen in his correspondence with Joseph Berington. In his letters to Berington he praised Berington's writings on the subject of toleration. See, for instance, Carroll, to Berington, Joseph, 10 07 1784, JCP, 1:147149.

11. Carroll, to Plowden, Robert, 7 07 1797, JCP, 2:219;Carroll, , “An Address to Roman Catholics,” 1:92.

12. JCP, 1:92.

13. Carroll, to Plowden, Charles, 25 06–24 07 1815, JCP, 3:340.

14. Carroll, , Anonymous, JCP, 1:46.

15. Carroll to Berington, 1:148.

16. See, for instance, Carroll, , “Response to Patrick Smyth,” JCP, 1:337346; and Carroll, to Plowden, Charles, 27 02 1785, JCP, 1:168.

17. Carroll, to Troy, John, 25 05 1796, JCP, 2:180181.

18. The Founders also appealed to history to support the adoption of pluralism. Unlike Carroll, however, they made reference to successful European experiments in toleration. Their favorite example was Holland, although they were quick to note that it was not as daring as the American experiment.

19. Carroll, , “An Address to Roman Catholics,” 1:140.

20. Carroll to Berington, 1:148; Carroll, , “An Address to Roman Catholics,” 1:140.

21. Carroll, , “Sermon on Gratitude,” 1:159;Carroll, to Hock, John, 15 09 1785, JCP, 1:329.

22. Carroll, , “Commemoration of American Independence,” JCP, 3:460.

23. Carroll, to Plowden, Charles, 2 09 1790, JCP, 1:453.

24. Carroll, , “An Address to the Roman Catholics,” 1:140.

25. Carroll, to a Lawyer, Pennsylvania, 24 08 1798, JCP, 2:245.

26. “The First Amendment was therefore conceived to be an experiment in the political realm, an effort to strengthen the new nation by excluding from government concern all religious differences … it was by no means certain that the experiment would be successful, that is to say, that it would necessarily be conducive to public peace and order”; Mooney, Christopher, Public Virtue: Law and the Social Character of Religion (Notre Dame, 1986), p. 24.

27. Carroll to Antonelli, 1:170–171.

28. Carroll, to Doria-Pamphili, Guiseppe, 26 11 1784, JCP, 1:152.

29. Carroll to Antonelli, 1:170–171.

30. Carroll, to Berington, Joseph, 29 09 1786, JCP, 1:217.

31. See Carroll, , “Sermon on Day of Public Prayer,” JCP, 3:101104, for an indication of the extent to which Carroll shared the Founders' views on the social necessity and utility of religion.

32. Carroll, to Borromeo, Vitaliano, 10 11 1783, JCP, 1:81.

33. Carroll to Doria-Pamphili, 1:153. Although he frequently couched his arguments for Roman noninterference in American affairs in pragmatic terms, it must be noted that Carroll was personally convinced that Christ had given the papacy only spiritual powers. Hence, he believed that all national churches owed Rome only spiritual allegiance. Matters of local governance were to be handled by the local churches.

34. Carroll, , “Sermon on Gratitude,” 1:159.

35. Carroll, to Plowden, Charles, 24 02 1790, JCP, 1:432; emphasis mine.

36. Carroll, to the Editors of the Columbian, 1 09 1787, JCP, 1:259. Locating the source of the problem in Europe was an especially shrewd tactic, and one sure to rally support among citizens who were proud of the fact—and determined to prove—that they were decidedly un-European.

37. Carroll, to Carey, Matthew, 30 01 1789, JCP, 1:348349.

38. Carroll, , “The Establishment of the Catholic Religion in the United States,” JCP, 1:407.

39. Carroll, , “An Address From the Roman Catholics of America,” 1:410.

40. Carroll, to the Editors of the Columbian, 1:259260.

41. Carroll to Carey, 1:348–349.

42. Indeed, he said that he was reluctant to enter the fray for fear of disturbing the harmony which existed among Christians. Carroll, , “An Address to the Roman Catholics,” 1:140.

43. Carroll to Fenno, 1:368.

44. Ibid., 1:365–368.

45. Ibid., 1:368.

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Church History
  • ISSN: 0009-6407
  • EISSN: 1755-2613
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