Puritan Persecution of Catholics: Law and Religion

News: Commentary
by Alexander Slavsky  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  November 24, 2017   

Puritan hostility toward Catholics in the Colonial Era was fierce

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Despite the progress of Catholicism in the early pre-Revolution colonial period, the other side is the rapid and intense persecution of Catholics in the original colonies.

Previous Catholic historians like John Gilmary Shea and Thomas McAvoy presented a favorable view of Catholicism in the colonial period, serving as the foundation for Catholic school history textbooks, which only briefly mentioned the repression and persecutions of Catholics.

However, the "positive" stage of Catholic colonial history presents the view that universal religious freedom reigned supreme in the orginal colonies, without mentioning the deep-seated anti-Catholicism of previous decades.

Colonial America was characterized instead by a vicious and bitter anti-Catholicism - toward both clergy and lay faithful alike - effectively limiting their rights and freedoms. Various penal codes discriminated against Catholics in all but three of the 13 original colonies. Maryland prohibited Catholics from holding office, practicing certain professions like law, inheriting and purchasing land and educating their children abroad as Catholics.
Catholics were the minority in the original colonies; the Catholic population was around 25,000, less than one percent of almost 4 million people living in the colonies. Figures estimate that Catholics numbered near 16,000 in Maryland, 7,000 in Pennsylvania and 1,500 in New York.
Anti-Catholicism in the colonies though was the direct result of the anti-Catholicism prevalent in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland in the 16th and 17th centuries.
King Henry VIII's separation from the Catholic Church and subsequent founding of the Church of England resulted in much violence and bloodshed. Most Catholics, including archbishops, bishops and abbots of monasteries, accepted Henry's Oath of Supremacy, which required any person taking public or church office in England to swear allegiance to the monarch as the supreme governor of the Church of England.
However, those who opposed the oath were imprisoned, tried and killed like Sir Thomas More and John Fisher. These recusant Catholics who steadfastly adhered to the Faith of old and refused to subject themselves to the practices and beliefs of state-imposed Anglicanism were the target of scorn and hatred by the English Protestants.
This English fear of Catholics carried over to the New World. For some English Protestants, the Anglican Church still retained too many Catholic practices, rituals and beliefs. A major sweep of Puritans arrived at Plymouth Colony in 1620 and within a decade close to 20,000 men and women settled in Massachusetts and Connecticut.
Evidence of anti-Catholicism transcended the law, including public worship and formation of priests. In the first 20 years of Massachusetts Bay, the Puritan government passed an anti-priest law in May 1647, threatening death for "all and every Jesuit, seminary priest, missionary or other spiritual or ecclesiastical person made or ordained by any authority, power or jurisdiction, derived, challenged or pretended, from the Pope or See of Rome."
Owen Stanwood's book The Protestant Interest: New England after Puritanism reveals the anti-popery in early English America and how it was replaced with the "Protestant interest" after the Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689, in which Catholic King James II was overthrown in favor of Protestant monarchs William and Mary.
Early Puritan settlers were skeptical of English imperial control partly due to the Anglican Church and its retention of Catholic theology. Puritans afterwards sought alliances with Protestants whose earthly enemy was Roman Catholicism.
Most penal restrictions against Catholics in the colonies lasted until after the American Revolution. For varied reasons, the achievement of independence from England forced Protestant Americans to legally loosen penal measures against Catholics. Catholics, nevertheless, instead of maintaining a life of prayer and virtue consistent with the Faith adopted a pragmatic life in accord with the morals of Protestant America. Many stayed silent on the evils of the Protestant heresy in order to achieve social and economic prosperity.
This liberal Catholic attitude and gradual indifferentism towards the Faith lent itself toward harmful ecumenism, where the clear differences and stark contrasts between Protestantism and Catholicism were smoothed over. Instead, the emotional satisfaction of being Catholic in a predominantly Protestant country was overemphasized.
Tolerance and accommodation resulted in the democratic ideal and revolutionary idea of the separation of Church and State in the United States. American civil and religious leaders sought to eliminate the old and "medieval positions" of Catholic Europe in favor of democratic politics and conditions.
American Catholics' concession toward Protestantism and adoption of democracy prompted Pope Leo XIII to warn against Americanism in his letter, Testem benevolentiae ("Concerning New Opinions, Virtue, Nature and Grace, With Regard to Americanism") to Cdl. James Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore, January 22, 1889.
Americanism has pervaded the modern consciences of most Catholics today. In Protestant America, truth and goodness is relativized and often lessened in favor of satisfying the masses.
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