The British Invasion

The Spanish and French strove to make America Catholic, with varying degrees of success. Sometimes the enemies of the Faith — both fleshly and ghostly — won out; at other times, the missionaries scored victories, as with Saint Augustine, Florida, and Santa Fe, New Mexico. All things considered, America was moving in a Catholic direction. But then something disastrous happened, reversing many of the gains made by our Hispano- and Franco-American Catholic forebears. It was one of the tragic turns of history.

The English got here.

England was once called “Mary’s Dowry.” She owed her evangelization to a holy monastic troop led by Saint Augustine of Canterbury, himself sent by Saint Gregory the Great. Her evangelization was, in fact, a specifically Roman, papal project, and in her first fervor she gave us piles of saints. In the high Middle Ages, she provided Christendom with more piles of saints, along with great Catholic Universities (e.g., Oxford, Cambridge), a wonderful literature (e.g., The Canterbury Tales), and a rich culture big and broad and beautiful enough for the muses to dance freely with the angels who kept holy vigil over the Angles. But the England that arrived in America was no longer Mary’s Dowry; she was Perfida Albion (perfidious England), as Bishop Bossuet called her after lusty King Harry’s defection from the true Church.

England had no use for Catholic Spain, whose Armada would have invaded her isles in 1588, had it not been destroyed in a furious storm. Nor did she harbor a great love for her across-the-channel neighbor, Catholic France — whose inhabitants were commonly known in Angleterre as “our natural enemies.”

Illustrative of this inimical relationship would be James Moore’s 1702 and 1703 invasions of Florida, where English Protestants murdered priests and Indians alike, carrying off as many as ten to twelve thousand of the latter as slaves. (The brutal handling of the Red Man at the hands of the British would be inherited by the United States, which have committed innumerable atrocities against the natives of this land. One need not be a modern liberal to acknowledge this: the missionaries did so in their day.) The English were no less problematic for the French than they were for the Spanish. The French and Indian War (the North American theater of Europe’s Seven Years’ War) was very much a Catholic versus Protestant thing. Indeed, Anglo-America (first under the British, then under the U.S.) would gradually destroy l’Amérique française. (The history of French America is fascinating and too little known to United Statesians. Read Gary Potter’s excellent “Québec and French America: What Might Have Been” for an introduction to this study.)

Mention of the anti-Catholic wrongs of Anglo-American history is not an exercise in demonizing an entire nation. After all, we should have Catholic hearts to love the English and pray for their return to Roman unity — as the Church has officially long done. The point here is to show how our land, whose soil was once purpled with the blood of Catholic martyrs, was hijacked by the votaries of heresy. God’s providence allowed it, but that does not mean it was a good development.

Perhaps worse than the outright persecution by English Protestants was the character of Catholicism as it came to the colonies and passed into the states. I characterized it previously as “a weak, timid, all-too-impressed-with-their-fellow-countrymen-who-were-heretics type of religion.” A sample of this can be seen in the directives given by Lord Caecilius Calvert to the governor and commissioners of the Maryland colony. Calvert was the second Lord Baltimore, a Catholic, who, in 1633, warned the officials of the new colony to “be very careful to preserve unity and peace amongst all the passengers on Shipp-board, and… suffer no scandal or offense to be given to any of the Protestants, whereby any just complaint may heerafter be made by them, in Virginea or in England, and… for that end… cause all Acts of the Romane Catholique Religion to be done as privately as may be, and… instruct all Romane Catholoques to be silent upon all occasions of discourse concerning matters of Religion; and… treat the Protestants with as much mildness and favor as Justice will permit.” (James Hennesey, S.J., American Catholics, A History of the Catholic Community in the United States, p. 39; orthography as in original.)

Practicing one’s Faith “as privately as may be” and being “silent on all occasions of discourse concerning matters of Religion” is commonly known as the sin of human respect. This religiosity was not a quirk of Lord Baltimore (Calvert’s title); it put its stamp on the new venture. And for little good did the colonists hide their light under a bushel basket. Eventually, the anti-Catholic penal laws were in full force in Maryland, thanks to their more outgoing countrymen, the Calvinist Puritans, who came there from New England. Not only that, some generations later, the Calverts lost the Faith and became Episcopalian. Spiritual combats are not won by a policy of perpetual retreat. By 1790, another prominent Maryland family would give us our Republic’s first bishop, Bishop John Carroll, whom I have described elsewhere in less than flattering terms. Just over a century later, that same attenuated and timid Catholicism would develop, with an infusion of Enlightenment thinking, into the heresy of Americanism.

True, I am leaving out many details, and, also true, there were good moments in Maryland Catholicism, including evangelistic efforts directed to the Indians. But overall, the Anglo-American Catholicism that supplanted the French and Spanish cultural embodiments of the Faith was of an inferior class. It is only just to admit this. That it has woven itself into our religious and cultural fiber is something we must acknowledge in order to know ourselves and overcome our deficiencies. I say “ourselves,” even though I have not a drop of English blood in me. It matters little, for — although the immigrating Catholics of the nineteenth century did often give us something more vibrant — in inheriting a language and a national identity, we have inherited, to some degree at least, the temperament of its Catholicism.

Let us work and pray for the day when merry England and the United States will be worthy of a title like “Mary’s Dowry”!