Conciliarism and the American Founding
Abstract

Conventional understandings of Catholicism, especially the claim that the pope held temporal power over all civil rulers, presented a signal challenge to early American Catholics’ civil and religious liberty. Yet reform-minded Catholics in the North Atlantic world asserted their independence from the temporal powers of external authorities, including the pope. Catholics who participated in the American founding, such as Charles Carroll of Carrollton and John Carroll, drew from an intellectual tradition of conciliarism that was rooted in Catholic thought yet compatible with republicanism. The Carrolls’ public support of the nation’s foundational documents and their development of the American Catholic Church presented to the broader political and religious public a Catholic tradition that advocated not only a republican view of temporal independence but also a juridical, nonhierarchical understanding of church and state. Catholics of this sort were not a foil to American religious and political arrangements; instead, they fit their beliefs within the ideologies of the American founding and thereby answered Protestant charges that Catholics should be legally penalized. These conclusions offer compelling reasons to include the conciliarist tradition within the “multiple traditions approach” of American founding historiography.