John Carroll Died 200 Years Ago Today

When he founded Georgetown, John Carroll wanted it to "diffuse knowledge, promote virtue, and serve Religion," by engaging in the "moral, religious, and literary improvement of students" with the goal that the University would one day be "the main sheet anchor of [the Catholic] Religion" in the United States.  

Today Georgetown is a famous university and is considered among the top institutions of higher learning in the United States, if not the world.  The University certainly does diffuse knowledge, and in certain ways promotes virtue while simultaneously promoting vice.  

But to say, on the whole, that it remains true to its explicitly religious founding or is the Catholic Church's "main sheet anchor" is more than a bit of a stretch.  

If you want to know more about why, we encourage you to read the eight-part History of TGA, which is an excerpt of Exorcist author William Peter Blatty's petition to Rome asking for the Holy See to review whether Georgetown is in compliance with the papal encyclical on Catholic universities, Ex corde Ecclesiae, and if not, to determine if it is appropriate for Georgetown to continue calling itself a Catholic school.  

At any rate, since this is the 200th anniversary of John Carroll's passing, we thought it might be worth publishing another excerpt, this time from a Georgetown history book written by Father Joseph Durkin, S.J., and which was published fifty years ago.  

The book is Georgetown University: First in the Nation's Capital, and it consists of a series of short essays and vignettes about interesting people and events at Georgetown going all the way back to the University's founding.  The following essay is the book's first.




John Carroll, Pioneer Churchman

By Father Joseph Durkin, S.J.

The United States and Georgetown College were established in the same year, 1789, and were based on similar ideals.  The one sought to protect man's freedom under law; the other, to show him how to use his freedom as a son of God for the highest individual and social ends.  Both institutions, each in its own way, were implementations of the American Way of Life.

The creator of the College -- John Carroll -- was a typical product of the great age of the Founding Fathers.  He was, like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, a man of fundamental simplicity, clear thought, and serene courage.  Like his eminent contemporaries, he had three profound loves -- his God, his country, and his fellow man.

Born at Upper Marlboro, Maryland, in 1735, Carroll had received most of his early education at Saint Omer's College, in French Flanders.  He had joined the Jesuit Order in 1753, had made his philosophical and theological studies at the University of Liege, in Belgium, and was ordained to the priesthood in England in 1769.

When, in 1784, the future founder of Georgetown became superior of the missions of the Catholic Church in the United States and vicar apostolic or special representative of the Pope, he could claim acquaintance with many of the statesmen who were preparing the ground for the new republic of the Western world.  He was a cousin of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.  With Benjamin Franklin, John Marshall, Samuel Chase, and Charles Carroll he had undertaken, in the early years of the Revolution, an official journey to Canada in an effort to secure the support of the Canadians for the American cause.  Later, he was more than once in the small group that rode to the outskirts of Baltimore to greet George Washington on the General's visits to that city.  

In 1789 Carroll was appointed the first bishop of the American Catholic Church.  Before the appointment was made, he had shown his appreciation of the need for accommodation to American ideas.  He had warned the Roman authorities that his Protestant fellow citizens would dislike the appointment of a "foreigner" to the first Catholic American See.  He therefore requested that the American Catholic clergy be permitted to nominate for the office three of their own number, the final choice to be made by the Pope.  The plea was granted.

When Carroll assumed his new responsibility the total number of priests in the United States was about thirty.  Carroll reported in 1790 that since his appointment as Prefect Apostolic he had "received or recognized" thirty Catholic clergymen who were then or had subsequently entered the country.  Of these, most were "ex-Jesuits," a term that requires explanation.

The Society of Jesus had been canonically suppressed in 1773.  Certain governments of Europe in the late eighteenth century were continually harassing the Pope in their efforts to achieve decisive power over the Catholic Church in their territories.  In this conflict the Jesuits vigorously supported the Holy See and consequently became personae non gratae to the political despots.  The politicians sought, as part of their campaign against Rome, to weaken these allies of the Pope.  By a series of decrees the governments "suppressed" the Order within their respective boundaries, and threatened the Pontiff with further annoyances unless he declared the Society of Jesus to be canonically nonexistent. This was not the first time the Holy See had been faced with the apparent necessity of sacrificing, at least temporarily, some embers of the Church in order to protect the Church as a whole; and the Jesuits, according to their code of complete devotion to the Pontiff, were willing to be made expendable.  Yielding reluctantly to pressure, Rome withdrew from the Order its canonical status. 

So, at the time of the founding of Georgetown, the former members of the Order in America were "diocesan" priests, that is, priests attached to the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of Baltimore, with Archbishop Carroll as their superior.  (Carroll himself, because of his new office, would have been obliged by Church law to resign from the Society even thought he organization had been legally alive.  The duties of a bishop preclude being bound by the three vows that constitute the status of a member of a religious order.)  In 1789 the Baltimore diocese embraced the whole of the United States.

The "ex-Jesuits" regarded themselves as belonging in spirit to the Society of Jesus, and they looked forward ardently to a restoration of the Order.  (This was to occur in 1814.)  In their devotion to their "spiritual mother," no one was more enthusiastic than Carroll.

That these priests should conceive the idea of establishing a school is not surprising.  The Jesuits had planted liberal arts colleges and professional schools throughout Europe since the late sixteenth century.  Their prestige as educators was high, and their services in the field were widely sought.  Their teaching methods combined the ideals of Christian Humanism with the values of Renaissance learning.  

The initial prospectus for Georgetown College was written by Carroll in 1786:

The object of the proposed institution is to unite the means of communicating Science with an effectual Provision for guarding and preserving the Morals of Youth . . . It [the Establishment] will therefore receive Pupils as soon as they have learned the first Elements of Letters, and will conduct them through the several Branches of Classical Learning to that State of Education from which they may proceed with Advantage to the Study of the higher Sciences in the University of this or those of the neighboring States . . . Agreeably to the liberal Principle of our Constitution, the Seminary will be open to Students of every Religious Profession.  They, who, in this Respect, differ from the Superintendent of the Academy, will be at Liberty to frequent the places of Worship and Instruction appointed by their Parents; but with Respect to their moral Conduct, all must be subject to general and uniform Discipline.

Funds for the project came from two main sources: the Cahtolic clergy and a few wealthy Catholics in England.  A site for the school was purchased "at George Town on the Potowmack," and in the early spring of 1788 Carroll reported:

We shall begin the building of our Academy this summer.  In the beginning we shall confine our plan to a house of sixty-three or sixty-four feet by fifty, on one of the most lovely situations that imagination can frame.  It will be three stories high . . . On this Academy is built all my hopes of permanency and success of our H. Religion in the United States.


You can learn more about John Carroll at the website of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.  

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