Catholics in Post-Revolution America

Catholic people played a small, insignificant role in the American Revolution, mostly because they were a minority population. Only 1% of the 2 million British colonists were Catholic at the time of the Revolution. The French and Spanish still had Catholic populations in the Americas, so discrimination was still present during this period for Catholic people in the newly formed Republic. Several prominent founders attempted to discriminate against Catholics when the new nation was forming. Most notably, John Jay tried to deny American citizenship to Catholics. Because Catholics in the new Republic made up such a small part of the population, many patriots, soldiers, and common people had never interacted with a Catholic person. Wartime Philadelphia offered many founders and soldiers their first contact with Catholics.

In post-Revolution America, Catholics had to establish a new identity. Because of the perceived clash between the democratic ideals of American society and the hierarchical structure of Catholicism, Catholics had a hard time proving that they could be both American and Catholic. John Carroll, a leader in the early American church, was named Superior of the Mission in the 13 United States of North America in 1784. He and other church leaders wrestled with how to connect to other Americans and work with the Vatican to develop a new identity for American Catholics.

The early American Catholic Church was particularly dependent on its connection to Europe for holy oils and priests sent by the Roman congregation. Priests were in short supply in America, which helped to shape a unique American Catholic identity. Being Catholic in early America required a truly personal commitment to the faith. Priests were itinerant, moving from one place to another very often, because one priest was responsible for giving mass in many different towns. In some cases, priests would only come to town every few months. Once a priest left town, the community had to work together to worship and counteract ‘evil’ influences. Catholic people were required to self-regulate, meaning their spirituality was personal and internal. Because of the priest shortage, a print culture emerged for Catholic people to purchase church handbooks, prayer books, and children’s catechisms to learn the Catholic faith on their own.

Overall, the institutional presence of the Catholic Church in early American Catholic people’s lives was almost non-existent; however, American Catholics still practiced their faith independently.