Vintage engraving of Charleston, South Carolina during the 1890s (agefotostock/Alamy Stock Photo).

Amid all the heart-searching that the Catholic Church is doing in response to the ongoing scandal of sexual abuse and episcopal malfeasance, the realization that laypeople need to be engaged in structural reform is central. No group should ever police itself, and that includes the bishops. The 1983 revision of the Code of Canon Law made some progress in recognizing the rights and responsibilities of the laity, but it never got beyond allowing them a consultative role in the decision-making process. That this could change is clear, because the heartening truth about canon law is that it is subordinate to the Gospel; it must reflect and support Gospel priorities.

Take a look at the early Church in the Acts of the Apostles. One of the first things the apostles had to do was choose a successor to Judas. This was done by casting lots to decide which of the two candidates proposed should be chosen, but the “electors” were not the apostles. It was “a group of about one hundred and twenty persons” whom Peter charged with this responsibility. A little later, in chapter six of Acts, the apostles decided they needed help in administration, because they wished to devote themselves “to prayer and the ministry of the word” (not a bad call for today’s bishops, by the way). “The proposal was acceptable to the whole community,” who chose seven helpers, or deacons, and presented them to the apostles for ordination. No argument is reported about the suitability of any of the seven whom the community put forward.

We do not need to go that far back in history to see how lay leadership might be effective. If I were to tell you that I know of a bishop who believed in a substantial role for laypeople in the administration of a diocese, who called for expanded voter registration, whose diocese was in the deep South, and who stood up against a political pact between Rome and the civil government because it interfered with the rights of the local church, would you have a clue to whom I was talking about? Would it make it easier if I added that before his ordination as a bishop he was deeply involved in revolutionary republican politics? Would the giveaway be that he was a close friend of Daniel O’Connell? Extra credit to you if you have identified John England. Exactly two hundred years ago, he was appointed bishop of Charleston, South Carolina, at the age of thirty-three, after a decade or so of prominence in Irish politics, especially in his home city of Cork. And would you be surprised to discover that many of his ideas are of great potential importance to the American Catholic Church today?

As you think about John England’s pastoral skill and ecclesiological imagination, would it complicate your estimation of him to know that he is also the author of an influential defense of slavery? To put it more practically, does his defense of slavery nullify his vision of Church reform? Or even more concretely, should we be tearing down his statues? Let’s explore the light and the dark a little more intensely before we answer that question.

One of the striking things that historians like James O’Toole and Patrick Carey have pointed out is how similar in some respects the early American Church and the Church of today seem to be. For example, they had very few priests. John Carroll was elected bishop (elected, note) by his fellow priests in 1790—of whom there were all of twenty-six, though only twenty-three voted for him. And John England was appointed to a diocese that stretched not only through the whole of the state of South Carolina, but also included Georgia and North Carolina. In this ministry he was initially aided by a total of three priests. Yes, three. Not surprising, then, that he or one of the others might ride a hundred miles on horseback to visit one Catholic family. We certainly do not have that problem today, but we are moving in that direction, even if the clergy are not on horseback. Perhaps more importantly, the Catholic people in England’s time were staunchly republican. The colonies had thrown off the yoke of monarchy and now lived under a democratic constitution, one that separated church and state and encouraged Catholics to think that the rules that applied to the state could equally well apply to the Church. And with his background in Irish republican politics, Bishop England supported this way of thinking. He was deeply in love with the American political system.

You do have to wonder if England was appointed at such a young age and named to a new diocese in a country he had never visited because the Irish Church wanted to be shut of him. This seems not to be the case, though perhaps the Vatican thought that sending him into mission territory would remove a thorn in their side in British politics. In his homeland, England was well known for his outspoken advocacy of one cause or another, above all on what was called “the veto question,” where in fact he supported the Irish bishops against an agreement between the British government and the Vatican. Catholic Ireland in the early nineteenth century needed emancipation, and the government in London had offered it in exchange for the right of veto over the pope’s selection of bishops. The Vatican seemed ready to go along with this, but the leaders of the Irish Church resisted Rome. John England believed strongly in the rights of the local Church, as he did in separation of church and state, religious toleration, and freedom of conscience. On the matter of the veto question, he wrote that if the pope interfered it would be an act of “unjust aggression” to be resisted, adding: “In the present case I am led to think it evidently beyond his competency.” This sounds like reason enough to banish him to mission territory.


England’s striking contribution was to finesse the stand-off between lay trusteeism and incipient clericalism by the creation of a bicameral legislature for his diocese.

England arrived in the young republic in the waning years of an ecclesial structure that was known as “lay trusteeship.” This had grown up organically out of the dire shortage of clergy and the fact that it was the laity who built the churches and paid for their upkeep (which is, ironically enough, just as true today). Therefore, they thought, the property “belonged” to the people and was administered for them by elected lay trustees. But as the numbers of clergy began to grow it meant that in some places at least there could now be a priest in residence, and it was not long before the bishops asserted their prerogatives. The lay trustees responded often enough with the claim that they had the right to hire and fire the pastor, a claim that John Carroll had challenged as early as 1786, when he accused the people of New York of going too far in the direction of “congregationalist Presbyterianism.” If that approach became predominant, he wrote, “the unity and Catholicity of our church would be at an end.” It was not true that “the pastor is the property of the flock,” as James O’Toole reports one Philadelphian pamphleteer to have opined.

England’s striking contribution was to finesse the stand-off between lay trusteeism and incipient clericalism by the creation of a bicameral legislature for his diocese and its component states. The house of the clergy and the house of the laity were accorded distinct sets of responsibilities, with the house of the clergy debating matters of pastoral and theological import, while the house of the laity dealt with all manner of practical aspects of diocesan management. The division reflected the early Church division between the presbyterate and the diaconate, each of which had particular responsibilities, and each of which reported to and worked directly for the bishop. The notion of a deacon being responsible to a priest, even more so the idea that being a deacon was a step on the way to priestly ordination, was quite foreign to the early Church. And this must have been in the mind of John England, because each of the houses reported directly to him. These essentially constitutional structures, obviously modeled on the U.S. Congress, worked very well throughout England’s tenure as bishop. On his death in 1844 they were discontinued by his successor, and never adopted at any point by any other U.S. bishop.

How all this relates to our present ecclesial malaise is not so much in the structure of a bicameral legislature, interesting as that is, as in the logic of how responsibilities were divided between the two houses. The house of the clergy dealt with what we might call “Church matters” in the narrow sense, and the house of the laity worked on what we would probably classify as church administration, all of course under the purview of the bishop—who, in the case of John England, seemed pretty much to rubber-stamp the decisions of both houses. So if we were to indulge a thought experiment about the respective responsibilities of clergy and laity in today’s Church, where would we place the unpleasant task of overseeing the conduct of clergy relative to sexual abuse of minors? It would seem to fall squarely into the hands of the house of the laity, since no association can ever responsibly police itself.

It seems clear that handling the matter of clerical sexual abuse in today’s Church cannot be classified as a theological, doctrinal, or even pastoral problem, though it is doubtless the case that how it is handled has some pastoral implications. On the contrary, it is a matter that has legal, ethical, and administrative implications for the Church and, speaking ecclesiologically, none of these areas are the prerogative of the clergy, not even of the bishops. If we were back in the first century, the matter would be addressed by the seven deacons, while the apostles got on with their job of praying and the ministry of the Word. If we were back in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1825, the house of the laity would be the right place to address the problem. And here where we are in the twenty-first century, fifty years after Vatican II promoted a collegial relationship between clergy and laity and called on the laity to exercise their right and responsibility to speak out when matters of real scandal confronted the Church, it might just be time to resurrect the bicameral structure of diocesan administration employed by John England. It might also be appropriate to think of parish structure in the same way—he certainly did—and even to go beyond England’s imagination and suggest that the universal Church itself could benefit from an organ of the lay voice that, in matters non-doctrinal and non-theological, is not beholden to the hierarchy.


And yet...what would England have thought had he heard that two hundred years after his appointment the American landscape was being reshaped by the impassioned observation that Black lives matter? I like to think that he would have been moved by Pope Paul III’s 1537 papal bull, Sublimus Deus, arguing for the essential common humanity of all peoples, including those enslaved. But in his own day and age he spoke eloquently in favor of maintaining the institution of slavery. His words were occasioned by the claim made by John Forsyth, U.S. Secretary of State in 1839, that Pope Gregory XVI’s encyclical letter In Supremo Apostolatus argued for the abolition of slavery. Not so, proclaimed England; the pope only spoke against the slave trade, not against slavery itself.

How could a Catholic bishop support slavery? More generally, what was it about the Catholics of the colonial era and the early years of the young republic that led them to be particularly enthusiastic about a system of slavery? Maura Jane Farrelly has pointed out that the Catholics who arrived in Maryland in the mid-seventeenth century did not encounter a slave economy so much as help create one. In the same article she adds the sobering datum that while the average planter in mid-eighteenth-century Maryland owned twenty-two slaves, the average Catholic among them owned thirty-one (and some of the owners were clergy). Moreover, she points out that manumission was much slower among Catholic slave owners than the population in general. So, we are surely led to conclude that either the Catholics were more heartless than the planters in general, or that they genuinely believed that slavery was somehow acceptable in the eyes of God.

John England’s defense of slavery is composed in what must for him have been a tricky political situation, but it is nevertheless a disturbingly shoddy argument.

John England’s defense of slavery is composed in what must for him have been a tricky political situation, but it is nevertheless a disturbingly shoddy argument. He bases his claim that while the slave trade is evil, slavery itself as it then existed in the United States was morally neutral, on a dubious application of natural law. God’s law gives every person the right to self-determination, and therefore an individual can, if he or she wishes, voluntarily enter a lifelong state of servitude. Many people have done this over the years, and he believes there are many benefits to being a slave. Indeed, he adds, he knows quite a number of former slaves who regret their manumission. Of course, he does not deny that “slavery has its evils,” but it also has benefits. He buttresses his argument with quotations from the Hebrew Bible and references to Jesus not judging the existence of slavery, but the root of his position is one of law, human and divine. Admitting that “in the state of pure nature all men are equal,” he concludes that the natural law allows for one person to have “dominion” over another, “provided this dominion be obtained by a just title.” And so the Church sees slavery as not incompatible with the natural law, and if ownership has been established legally, it is lawful “not only in the sight of the human tribunal, but also in the eye of Heaven.” And yet, says England, “I am not in love with the existence of slavery” and “I would never aid in establishing it where it did not exist.” The sophistry on display here is compounded by the recognition that “though our domestic slavery must upon the whole be regarded as involuntary, still the exceptions are not so few as are imagined by strangers.”

The cloud cuckoo land in which John England was apparently living, one in which kindly plantation owners provided the benefits of security to grateful slaves, cannot possibly be the reason why this bishop or Catholics in general supported slavery. For England, it might be that he felt constrained to safeguard his Catholics from the ire of those who thought the pope was an abolitionist. Such sentiments in the Protestant population around this same time had led to the destruction of convents in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, with emotions fanned in the nativist population by popular writers like Lyman Beecher. Certainly, the newly assertive papacy stimulated anti-Catholicism, but to defend the papacy by defending slavery seems unconscionable. Unless England actually believed this.

Catholics of this era have been thought to favor slavery, or at least to say little about it, for a number of reasons. Perhaps it was because they made the admittedly correct association between abolitionists and anti-Catholic Protestants, especially those in the North. Lyman Beecher again can serve as an example, and it is notable that his principal critiques of Catholicism are of its authoritarian and intolerant European face. Indeed, he was quite clear that he had nothing against Catholics as people of faith, but that does not mean that Catholics in their turn might not label him a bigot. If the abolitionists were Protestants, which (tellingly) they were, and if the same Protestants were anti-Catholic, as many of them seem to have been (albeit for political rather than religious reasons), then Catholics were going to oppose abolitionism. There is a certain weird logic to this argument, but it is not enough, and that is why we need to turn back to the argument from natural law to get to the heart of what was going on. The kind of Catholics that John England imagined were people deeply in love with the American Constitution. They favored individual freedom, at least for white men, but that made them no better nor worse than Thomas Jefferson. But there was something else at play in the Catholic imagination: a belief in a divine ordering of the world, one controlled by a law built into the very nature of the human person. But if you were a fan of the political system and a believer in an immutable divine law, you would likely see the system to be in perfect conformity with the will of God. This is the best that can be made of England’s position.


Two hundred years on from England’s elevation, he has a couple of important lessons to offer today’s Church, and most especially today’s American episcopacy. First and most obviously, he drew up and implemented a system of shared responsibility between laity and clergy for the good governance of their polity. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked, and it might be that it could be looked at again. At least we might recognize that such a system can work, and had in it nothing contrary to Catholic teaching. The more profound lesson lies in the observation that not a single other bishop considered implementing England’s model. But here is the warning: England’s fellow bishops were building a Church. They despised the lay trusteeism that had preceded their time, and flexed their clerical muscles, confident that the growing numbers of Catholics arriving from Europe would bring with them the clerical paternalism that they had known in the home country, most especially the Irish among them. Today’s bishops, on the contrary, are presiding over a Church in crisis, leaking large numbers of soon-to-be-former Catholics for various reasons, some of them perfectly understandable. England’s fellow bishops wagered on clerical authority, and they won out for almost two centuries. It would be a fatal error for today’s bishops to make the same wager. Imagination might suggest another look at structural responsibility for laypeople.

One more lesson to learn from the example of John England is not to rely upon dubious applications of the natural law in order to cozy up to the political establishment. The natural law begins with the proclamation of the fundamental equality of all human persons, and for the most part that is where it ends. Nothing that disputes this equality can legitimately invoke the natural law. Sadly, England was guilty of bad faith. But today’s bishops also need to learn that lesson. When the natural law is used as the basis for a physicalism that has no legitimate basis, to draw conclusions that the vast majority of American Catholics either reject or ignore, bad faith may not be far away.

Paul Lakeland is emeritus professor of religious studies at Fairfield University.

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Published in the December 2020 issue: View Contents
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