My friend Michael Breidenbach, a professor of history at Ave Maria University, had a great article about a year back in the William and Mary Quarterly called “Conciliarism and the American Founding.” The very learned article covers the early, complicated reception of Catholicism in America with special focus on the Carrolls, prominent leaders of American Catholicism around the time of the Founding. Setting the stage, Breidenbach writes, “What made Catholicism so odious to early American Protestants . . . was the pope’s claim (and Catholics’ apparent acceptance of it) that he held temporal power over all civil rulers, including the right to depose a secular authority” (468). Such an idea, and related Catholic beliefs, were seen as contrary to American republicanism and therefore led some Protestants to see Catholics as unfit for full membership in a republic. The solution for American Catholicism lay in the distinction between two schools of Catholic thought on papal authority: papalism and conciliarism. According to Breidenbach, “papalists maintained that the pope’s universal declarations on faith and morals were infallible, with or without the assent of the Catholic Church’s general councils” and “that the pope held ‘indirect’ temporal power over the state’s rulers” (471). Conciliarists, by contrast, rejected these views, denying “that the pope was infallible by himself on matters of faith and morals and that he had any power in the temporal affairs of nations” (472). The problem for good republicans, therefore, would not be with Catholics in general but only with papalists in particular. Fortunately, American Catholics, including the leading Carrolls, were conciliarists. Thus, it was important for Catholics to believe that good Catholics could be conciliarists and for Protestants to believe that they were.
In this, two friendly questions present themselves: First, can good Catholics be conciliarists? Second, were American Catholics conciliarists in good faith (as it were), or did they adopt conciliarism out of convenience?
On the first question, well, someone else will have to answer that. It is interesting, though, that Breidenbach cites (among the many fascinating and varied sources that he brings) some of the more radical conciliarist writings, which do seem to stray from orthodoxy. In one case, Breidenbach informs us that the author of a claim that “all papal power—including in the spiritual realm—came from the consent of the people” himself admitted that the extreme phrasing was only for polemical purposes (485). Apparently, some conciliarism is in bounds, and some is not. Another provocative line is in Breidenbach’s statement: “By reframing Catholicism as merely religious opinion, rather than upholding its political implications, the [conciliarist] Carrolls concluded that the denial of civil and religious rights was unjust” (496). Is Catholicism merely religious opinion? Can one rightly jettison its political implications?
On the second question, Breidenbach does assert that the relevant American Catholics did not adopt conciliarism because it “proved to be an acceptable ecclesiology” and because those who held it were “more likely to be tolerated” (474, 473). Rather, they just happened to be conciliarists. To wit: “Their conciliarist and republican commitments were not the postures of mere political convenience” (476). To be fair, it is entirely reasonable that conciliarists, as opposed to papalists, would have been disproportionately attracted to the American project. But I think there is room to say more. When we hear that British Catholics had to “renounce foreign ‘interference’” by the pope in order to “gain equal rights,” we could be forgiven for wondering the pressure did not induce some to accept conciliarism who might not have otherwise (483-4). In several places in the article, Breidenbach returns to the language of utility, such as in affirming that “conciliarists ideas were especially useful for American Catholics” (471). Of course, conciliarism could be both sincerely held and useful—nothing wrong with that. But given the strong incentive to render Catholicism acceptable to the American republic, it is arguable that the pull of conciliarism also benefited from some push.
So, back to the historians to sort it out.