Monday, July 03, 2017

Ben Franklin Nominates a Bishop ~ Catholicism and the Early American Republic

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Most people know that the American Republic inherited from its mother country, Great Britain, an antipathy toward Catholicism. However, given that Catholic France had played such a vital role in assisting the American colonies to win their independence, it is perhaps not surprising that the years immediately following the American victory witnessed a softening of the traditional American aversion to "Popery".

During his long stay in France while acting as ambassador during the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin seems to have become adept at moving in Catholic circles. Though a very public Freemason, an occasional abuser of "Popish" customs in his public writings, and an all-around worldly and sometimes vulgar fellow, Franklin seems to have mellowed later in life with regard to Catholicism and Christian morality. His embassy to Quebec in 1776 is sometimes cited as the genesis of this sentiment. While on this failed expedition, his health deteriorated and he was forced to return home in the company of one Rev. John Carroll.  No doubt, Dr. Franklin at least acquired an affection for Father Carroll at that time, if not for his religious beliefs.

Later, while nearing the end of his time in France after the successful conclusion of the Treaty of Paris, Franklin played a role in having his friend, Father John Carroll, named as the first Catholic bishop in formerly British America. Following is an interesting entry from Franklin's journal, detailing a conversation Franklin had with the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Giuseppe Doria Pamphili, on the subject. Of particular note is Franklin's confusion with regard to how bishops are made and to whom they are beholden in terms of authority:
July 1st [1784].—The Pope’s Nuncio called, and acquainted me that the Pope had, on my recommendation, appointed Mr. John Carroll superior of the Catholic clergy in America, with many of the powers of a bishop; and that probably he would be made a bishop in partibus before the end of the year. He asked me which would be more convenient for him, to come to France, or go to St. Domingo, for ordination by another bishop, which was necessary. I mentioned Quebec as more convenient than either. He asked whether, as that was an English province, our government might not take offence at his going thither? I thought not, unless the ordination by that bishop should give him some authority over our bishop. He said, not in the least; that when our bishop was once ordained, he would be independent of the others, and even of the Pope; which I did not clearly understand. He said the Congregation de Propagandâ Fide had agreed to receive, and maintain and instruct, two young Americans in the languages and sciences at Rome (he had formerly told me that more would be educated gratis in France). He added they had written from America that there are twenty priests, but that they are not sufficient, as the new settlements near the Mississippi have need of some. 
Abp. Giuseppe Doria Pamphili
The Nuncio said we should find that the Catholics were not so intolerant as they had been represented; that the Inquisition in Rome had not now so much power as that in Spain; and that in Spain it was used chiefly as a prison of state. That the Congregation would have undertaken the education of more American youths, and may hereafter, but that at present they are overburdened, having some from all parts of the world. He spoke lightly of their New Bostonian convert Thayer’s conversion; that he had advised him not to go to America, but settle in France. That he wanted to go to convert his countrymen; but he knew nothing yet of his new religion himself, etc. [Source: The Works of Benjamin Franklin, Volume X]
It's worth noting that the "Thayer" mentioned above is John Thayer, a Congregationalist minister from Boston who converted to the Catholic faith in 1783 and was later ordained a priest. The Catholic Encyclopedia entry for Thayer mentions that he had attempted to dispute certain miracles which were wrought via the intercession of Blessed (later Saint) Benedict Joseph Labre and was later converted as a result. The full story may be found in his book, An Account of the Conversion of the Reverend John Thayer, formerly a Protestant minister of Boston.

It seems that Franklin's toleration of things Catholic survived the end of his tenure in France. On April 17, 1787, a date exactly three years before his death, Franklin wrote to two Catholic priests, the Abbés Chalut and Arnaud whom he had befriended while in Paris. From this short letter, we see Franklin echoing a common theme of that time that would have rung true with his correspondents as well--namely, that freedom can not exist without virtue:
Dear Friends,
Your reflections on our situation compared with that of many nations of Europe, are very sensible and just. Let me add, that only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.
Our public affairs go on as well as can reasonably be expected after so great an overturning. We have had some disorders in different parts of the country, but we arrange them as they arise, and are daily mending and improving; so that I have no doubt but all will come right in time.
Yours, B Franklin
(Source: The Works of Benjamin Franklin, Volume 10) 

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