Here’s a little Independence Day quiz for 4th of July readers of The Catholic Gene. Try your hand (without reading the answer below) at guessing the century and location where this statute was the law of the land:

…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…shall be deemed and accounted an incendiary and disturber of the publick peace and safety, and an enemy to the true Christian religion, and shall be ajudged to suffer perpetual imprisonment, and if any person, being so sentenced and actually imprisoned, shall break prison and make his escape, and be afterwards re-taken, he shall be punished with death.

The words above, believe it or not, are from a 1647 statute governing a portion of our fair land (the future United States of America) and can be found in The Book of the General Lauues and Libertys concerning the Inhabitants of Massachusetts (1648).

Other similar laws were enacted throughout the colonies.  However, according to American Catholics: A History of the Roman Catholic Community in the United States by John Hennesey, S.J., such a small number of Catholics actually set foot in Massachusetts and other colonies hostile to the faith during this period, that very few met with this type of punishment (though Quakers often did). These types of laws, however, writes Hennesey, ensured that “Catholic settlement was effectively prevented and foundations laid for the anti-Catholicism which observers have noted as endemic to the American scene”.

“The Founding of the Colony of Maryland” by Tompkins Harrison Matteson, painted in 1853 (Maryland State Art Collection)

A relatively small number of Catholics did successfully settle in what would later become the eastern United States, most notably in Maryland, which was established by the efforts of the Catholic Calvert family (by the 1st and 2nd Lords Baltimore) under King Charles I in 1633. Among instructions to the colonists (of which Protestants were the majority), the governor and commissioners were required to:

…cause all Acts of Romane Catholoques 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.*

Religious liberty has come a long way in the United States of America. Though established and governed by Catholics initially, Maryland’s history, like that of the rest of what would become the United States of America, would be fraught with growing pains regarding the establishment of religious freedom. By 1708, there were 3,000 Catholics in Maryland – a small one-tenth of the population – and they had seen major setbacks. Anglicanism had been established in the colony in 1702, requiring taxes and compulsory attendance, while Catholics could not vote or hold public office. Ten years later their right to worship privately was reinstated, but it would be a long road to religious liberty for the Catholics of Maryland and the American colonies.

The flags of the United States and the Vatican flying side by side

Maryland, however, had planted a seed for the future. In the words of Robert Baird, a 19th-century historian who was often critical of the Catholic Church:

Think what we may of their creed, and very different as was this policy from what Romanism elsewhere might have led us to expect, we can not refuse to Lord Baltimore’s colony the praise of having established the first government in modern times in which entire toleration was granted to all denominations of Christians.

As we Americans (many of us American Catholics) celebrate the independence of our country, we have a lot to be thankful for. A look back at the history of our nation cannot help but give us a better appreciation for the freedoms that we may take for granted each year as we put out our American flags and deck out our homes in red, white and blue for the 4th of July.

*Documents of American History, Henry Steele Commager and Milton Cantor, eds. 10th edition, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1988.