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John F. O. Fernandez: Enlightened Lay Catholic Reformer, 1815–1820

  • Patrick W. Carey


The American republican form of government and the effects of the Enlightenment upon the European Catholic church provided fertile ground for theological reflection and ecclesiastical adaptation in early nineteenth-century American Catholicism. A number of immigrant Catholic laymen were influenced by their previous European Catholic experiences and by the American enthusiasm for republicanism to reform their understanding of the laity's role in the American Catholic church and to adapt ecclesiastical structures to American political institutions. In light of these experiences, some of these laymen began to reflect upon the Christian Scriptures and tradition, and to formulate a democratic conception of the layman's role within the church.



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1 By the effects of the Enlightenment, I am referring to episcopalism, Febronianism, Josephinism, anti-Jesuit fever, and various other forms of nationalism and ecclesiastical localism (e.g., the veto controversies in Ireland and England) that many educated Catholic laity experienced during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Europe. In the United States, a number of immigrant Catholic laymen drew upon these experiences in their attempts to adapt the European church to American circumstances.

2 Background on Fernandez can be found in a letter of Grigsby, Hugh Blair to DrTunstall, Robert B., 4 05, 1876, in the Norfolk Public Library, Norfolk, Virginia, and in “João Francisco de Oliveira,” Grande Enciclopédia Portuguesa e Brasileira, XIX:374–75. I would like to thank Dr. Fernando Segovia of Marquette University's Theology Department for translating the article on Fernandez.

3 On the trustee controversies in general, see Treacy, G. C., “The Evils of Trusteeism,” Historical Records and Studies, 8(1915), 136–56; Guilday, Peter, “Trusteeism,”ibid., 9 (1928), 14–73; McNamara, Robert F., “Trusteeism in the Atlantic States, 1785–1863,” Catholic Historical Review, 30 (07 1944), 135–54; Stritch, Alfred G., “Trusteeism in the Old Northwest, 1800–1850,”ibid., 155–64; Carey, Patrick, “The Laity's Understanding of the Trustee System, 1785–1855,”ibid., 64 (July 1978), 357–76. For Fernandez's involvement in the controversies in Norfolk, see Guilday, Peter, The Catholic Church in Virginia (1815–1822), Series 8, United States Catholic Historical Society Monograph (New York, 1924).

4 (Norfolk, 1816). Letter in the Archives of the Archdiocese of Baltimore (hereafter, AAB), Neale Papers 12U8. Fernandez's contemporaries in the American episcopacy and some historians of American Catholicism considered him a rebellious, anticlerical layman. Ambrose Maréchal, archbishop of Baltimore (1817–1828), asserted that the “impious Doctor Oliver [sic] Fernandez” was “destitute of all religion” and blamed him and “two Irish drunkards” as the source of all the trustee troubles in Norfolk. See “Archbishop Maréchal's Report to Propaganda, October 16, 1818,” in Documents of American Catholic History, ed. John Tracy Ellis (Milwaukee, 1962), p. 215. Cf. also Maréchal, 's Pastoral Letter to the Roman Catholics of Norfolk (28 09 1819), p. 64. John England, bishop of Charleston, South Carolina (1820–1842), also saw Fernandez as the “principal fomenter of the mischief” in Norfolk and accused him of trying to make “a republican Catholic Church” in the United States. See United States Catholic Miscellany, 10 07 1822. The historian of Norfolk trusteeism, Guilday, Peter, The Life and Times of John England, 2 vols. (New York, 1927), 1:273, called Fernandez, “a rabid anti-French but thoroughly Gallican layman.”McAvoy, Thomas, A History of the Catholic Church in the United States (Notre Dame, Indiana, 1969), p. 95, characterized Fernandez's Letter as “the most theoretical assertion of the rights of the laymen over the clergy that appeared during the trustee controversy.”

5 Reynolds, Ignatius A., ed., The Works of The Right Reverend John England, 5 vols. Baltimore, 1849), 4:288.

6 “Diurnal of the Right Reverend John England, First Bishop of Charleston, South Carolina, 1820–1823,” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society, 6 (18941895), 37; cf. also pp. 39, 46, 49, 55, 217.

7 Ibid., p. 198.

8 Pastoral of the American Hierarchy in 1833, Guilday, Peter, ed., The National Pastorals of the American Hierarchy (1792–1919) (Washington, D.C., 1923), p. 73.

9 Ibid., p. 73.

10 Letter of Moran, Jasper to Archbishop John Carroll, 24 02 1815, in AAB, Car roll Papers.

11 Norfolk Trustees' Letter to Neale, Archbishop Leonard, 4 04 1816, in AAB, Neale Papers, Case 12–F1.

12 On the opposition, see my “Two Episcopal Views of Lay-Clerical Conflicts: 1785–1860,” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society, 87 (0312 1976), 8598. Many historians have interpreted trusteeism as a moral, social, legal, and disciplinary problem, not a theological one. See, e.g., McAvoy, , History, p. 75; and Guilday, , England, 1:164282. From the lay trustees' perspective, however, it was, among other things, a theological problem. It was in particular a clash of opposing views of the laity's role in the church. Some laymen believed that their own understanding of the laity's role in the church represented the early Christian's perception. See, for example, Moran, Jasper, A Vindicatory Address; or an Appeal to the Calm Feelings and Unbiased Judgments of the Roman Catholics of Norfolk, Portsmouth and Their Vicinity (23 02 1817), p. 53, in AAB.

13 Letter Fernandez, J. to Messrs, , Donaghey, and Moran, , 31 05 1817, in AAB, Maréchal Papers; see also Guilday, , Virginia, pp. 5556.

16 Sebastião José de Carvalho e Mello, Marquis de Pombãl, was from 1750 to 1777 minister of foreign affairs in Portugal. Under his administration, Portugal was influenced by the Enlightenment, Jansenism, and the Regalist ideas then current in Europe. The Portuguese church, thus, became subject to political control and laymen like Pombãl in itiated both political and ecclesiastical reforms. From 1757 to 1759, for example, Pombãl campaigned against the Jesuits in Portugal. On 17 June 1760, he broke off relations with Rome and eventually won Rome's approval in 1773 for the suppression of the Jesuits. Such activities induced Edgar Prestage to refer to the Portuguese ecclesiastical system in the late eighteenth century as a “sort of disguised Anglicanism.” See “Pombãl,” Catholic Encyclopedia, 12:225.

17 Fernandez, , Letter, p. 30, n. 30: “Si propter Ecclesiam Petrus, a Petra dictus est; et Ecclesia non sit nisi UNIO FIDELIUM: recte propter unionem fidelium; et ob tollendum Schisma, praesidentia est. Quare UNITAS FIDELIUM, est illa, ad cuius Servitium et observantiam PRAESIDENTIA EST Super Singulos. Hinc UNITAS FIDELIUM, Quam nos ECCLESIAM dicimus … EST SUPRA SUUM MINISTRUM AC SINGULAREM PRAESIDEM” (Cardinal Cusanus, lib. II, De Concordantia Catholica, cap. 34, p. 772).

18 For Fernandez, the role of the clergy was one primarily of spiritual service, not of command. Even the pope, according to St. Bernard, had received “nothing but SPIRITUAL SOLICITUDE over the Churches.” See Fernandez, , Letter, p. 30, n. 29: “Quid tibi dimisit Petrus Apostulus. Non tibi ille dare, quod non habuit, potuit; quod habuit, hoc dedit solicitudinem super ecclesias” (St. Bernard, , ad Eugenium Papam, lib. 2, de consideratione, cap. 6, no. 10).

19 Fernandez, , Letter, p. 5, n. 3: “quia non minus terreno Principi in his, quae adjura pertinent Imperii; quam Spirituali, in his quae ad Deum Spectant, DEBETUR OBEDIENTIA: Vult enim Deus, hominem homini subesse duplici ratione, carnali domino, quia Care est; et Spirituali, quia Spiritus est. Igitur omnes inobedientes Romano Imperatori, ed ejurdem [sic] imperio, quio ejus Jura usurpant, in Statu damnationis existunt” (Joan. Gerson, , De modo Reformandi Ecclesiam in Concilio Universali, cap. 5). Fernandez attributed the De modo Reformandi to Gerson, but it does not appear in his collected works. See, Glorieux, P., ed., Jean Gerson, Oeuvres completes, 7 vols. (Paris, 1960–1966).

20 Fernandez and the Norfolk Trustees to Maréchal, 14 June 1819, in AAB, Maréchal Papers. Fernandez refers to Cyprian's Lib. 1, Ep. 4 and Lib. 2, Ep. 2. What edition of Cyprian's letters Fernandez is using is not clear. According to von Hartel, William, ed., Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum (Vienna, 1871), vol. 3, part 3, p. 76, some sixteenth-century collections of Cyprian's letters indicate that Lib. 1, Ep. 4 and Lib. 2, Ep. 2 may refer to what von Hartel and other critical scholars designate as Letter 67 and libellum ad Donalum. These may indeed be the letters Fernandez is citing in support of his argument. Letter 67, at least, substantiates Fernandez's argumentation. The letter is a response of a Carthaginian Council (c. 254), under Cyprian's leadership, to Christians in Spain who had appealed to the Carthaginians for a decision regarding their lapsed bishops Basilides and Martial. The Council of Carthage approved the newly consecrated bishops Felix and Sabinas who had replaced the lapsed bishops; the council indicated that neither of the lapsed bishops had any right to their former offices because they had denied the faith. Fernandez may be referring to the following pertinent passages in the letter: “… a people who obey the precepts of the Lord and fear God ought to separate themselves from a sinful leader and should not take part in the sacrifices of a sacriligious bishop, especially since they themselves have the power either of electing worthy bishops or of refusing the unworthy…. The Lord orders the bishop to be appointed before the whole synagogue, that is, He instructs and shows that priestly ordinations ought not to be performed except with the knowledge of the people present that, in the presence of the people, either the crimes of the evildoers may be revealed or the merits of the good may be proclaimed and that the ordination which has been examined by the suffrage and judgment of all may be just and lawful.” See, Saint Cyprian Letters (1–81), trans, by Donna, Sister Rose Bernard, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, D.C., 1964), 51:234.

21 Fernandez, to Maréchal, , 14 06 1819. Cone. Garth.; 4th canon 1. Fernandez's citation is uncertain, but he may be referring to the so-called Fourth Carthaganian Council held about 436, according to Munier, C., ed., Concilia Africae. A. 345–A. 525, Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, 259 (Turnholti: Typographi Brepols Editores Pontifici, 1974), 342–44. The pertinent reference in canon 1 follows: “Cum in his omnibus examinatus inventus fuerit plene instructus, tune consensu clericorum et laicorum ex conventu totius provinciae episcoporum maximeque metropolitani vel auctoritate vel praesentia ordinetam episcopus, suscepto in nomine Christi episcopatu, non suae dilectioni nee suis moribus sed his Patrum definitionibus adquiescens.”

22 Fernandez, to Maréchal, , 14 06 1819. Pope Pius VII's letter is printed in the Dublin Evening Post, 7 07 1818.

23 Fernandez, , Letter, p. 11, n. 6, quoting Mosheim, J., Ecclse hist., ed. Charleston, 2:109, 110, 187, 189; and Febronius, J., De Statu Ecclesiae, cap. 4, 2, and De Conduis generalibus, 1:372–74.

24 Opposition to Fernandez's views came primarily from Ambrose Maréchal, archbishop of Baltimore. Maréchal charged that Fernandez used “heterodox writers, whom he represents to his illiterate readers as Catholic authors.” Maréchal discredited Fernandez's historical and theological sources by calling Justinus Febronius (i.e., von Hontheim, John Nicholas, 17011790, suffragan bishop of Trier) “a turbulent German prelate, solemnly condemned by Pius VI”; Pierre Francois le Courayer(1681–1776) “an apostate monk”; Sarpi, Fra Paola (1552–1623) “a Venetian friar, who under the habit of a Religious concealed the principles of Calvin”; and von Mosheim, Johann Lorenz (16941755) “a Lutheran historian.” See Maréchal, , Pastoral Letter, p. 64. Maréchal disagreed with Fernandez's view of the laity. According to Maréchal, the laity were primarily passive recipients of clerical services (ibid., p. 31). The laity's historical participation in the elections of the clergy was primarily a privilege or a condescension granted to them by the “church”; it was not a right, as Fernandez maintained (ibid., pp. 39–40). Maréchal saw any lay control over the clergy as a usurpation and “perpetual sources of abuse and dissentions [sic]” in the church (ibid., p. 41). He could not consider elections of the clergy advantageous for his own day. “If the church thought it necessary, on account of the perpetual confusion and scandals which took place at these elections, to withdraw the privilege which she granted to the Faithful: can we imagine that the exercise of it would not now be attended with the same bad consequences” (ibid., p. 62). The Norfolk demands for elections of the clergy reminded him of the French Revolution and the “destruction of the Religion of Jesus Christ” (ibid., p. 43, n.).

25 Fernandez, , Letter, p. 15, n. 11.

26 Ibid., p. 10.

27 Ibid., pp. 12, 37.

28 Ibid., p. 12.

29 Ibid., p. 12, n. 9, quoting Sarpi, Paola's Hist, du concil de trente, trans. P. F. Le Courayer, 1:59.

30 Ibid., p. 13.

31 Ibid., p. 37.

32 Ibid., p. 39, quoting Febronius, J., De recuperatione remissi liberatatis, 1: cap. ix. 6.

33 Maréchal, , Pastoral Letter, p. 74, consistently objected to Fernandez's claim that the laity had a natural right to elect the clergy. Even princes did not claim a natural right; even they believed that election was a privilege granted by the church.

34 Fernandez, , Letter, p. 10, n. 5. Fernandez's argument here is simply one of accommodation. He believed that the Catholic church had always tried to adapt itself to the historical and political circumstances of the people it served. He tried to adapt the practices of the European state church to the political realities of the free people of the American Republic believing that: “The Religious tenets of a People, will always savour of THEIR POLITICAL PRINCIPLES: And to them, they will ever be, more or less accommodated” (ibid., p. 16, n. 11, quoting the Duke of Sussex's 21 April 1812 speech on the Catholic Question in the House of Lords).

35 Fernandez, , Letter, pp. 1920. See also Letter of Leonard Neale to James Lucas, 6 March 1816, in AAB, Neale Papers, where Neale objected to Fernandez's view of the trustees saying: “for they [trustees] are not patrons of the Church according to the language of the Council of Trent, who alone have a right of choosing a pastor. In the diocese of Baltimore none but the Archbishop can place and remove a priest; and that he can do at will … revocable at will.”

36 Fernandez, , Letter, p. 22.

37 Ibid., p. 15, n. 11. The last phrase was a reference to Archbishop Neale's objection that the lay trustees had usurped the position of the head of the church, when in reality they were the tail. See Neale, to Lucas, James, 5 07 1816, in AAB, Neale Papers.

38 Fernandez, , Letter, p. 23.

39 Ibid., p. 27, n. 22.

40 Moran, J. to Carroll, J., 24 02 1815.

41 Fernandez, , Letter, p. 41.

42 Ibid., p. 36, n. 39: “Praelato quidem obidiendum [sic] est; [sic] non tamen in omnibus quae [ipse] suggerit; SED IN HIS TANTUM QUAE DEUS PRAECIPIT. Nam, si [quid] contra CONSTITUTIONEM DEI, VEL PATRUM, praelati praecipiunt, Statim authoritatem praecipiendi amittunt; et in ilia re nulletanus [est] eis obediendum, exemplo videlicet Apostolorum…. OPORTET MAGIS OBEDIRE DEO QUAM HOMINIBUS (Act V:29).” Fernandez is quoting Godfrey (1070–1132), abbot of Holy Trinity Monastery in Vendôme, lib. 3. epist. XXVII.

43 Fernandez, , Letter, p. 4, n. 1: “Regibus et Principibus saeculy [sic]; Pontificibus et Praelatis Ecclesiae, timorem, honorem, reverentiam deberi Scio: Sed Majorera Ventati.” Justin. Febron., De Statu Ecclsiae [sic], cap. ix.

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