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A History of American Christianity by Bacon

Which is known to Catholic writers as trusteeism


In the Roman Catholic Church of the United States, during this stormy period, there was by no means a perfect calm. The ineradicable feeling of the American citizen--however recent his naturalization--that he has a right to do what he will with his own, had kept asserting itself in that plausible but untenable claim of the laity to manage the church property acquired by their own contributions, which is known to Catholic writers as "trusteeism." Through the whole breadth of the country, from Buffalo to New Orleans, sharp conflicts over this question between clergy and laity had continued to vex the peace of the church, and the victory of the clergy had not been unvarying and complete. When, in 1837, Bishop John Hughes took the reins of spiritual power in New York, he resolved to try conclusions with the trustees who attempted to overrule his authority in his own cathedral. Sharply threatening to put the church under interdict, if necessary, he brought the recalcitrants to terms at last by a less formidable process. He appealed to the congregation to withhold all further contributions from the trustees. The appeal, for conscience' sake, to refrain from giving has always a double hope of success. And the bishop succeeded in ousting the trustees, at the serious risk of teaching the people a trick which has since been found equally effective when applied on the opposite side of a dispute between clergyman and congregation. In Philadelphia the long struggle was not ended without the actual interdicting of the cathedral of St. Mary's, April, 1831. In Buffalo, so late as 1847, even this extreme measure, applied to the largest congregation in the newly erected diocese, did not at once enforce submission.

The conflict with trusteeism was only one out of many conflicts which gave abundant exercise to the administrative abilities of the American bishops. The mutual jealousies of the various nationalities and races among the laity, and of the various sects of the regular clergy, menaced, and have not wholly ceased to menace, the harmony of the church, if not its unity.

One disturbing element by which the Roman Catholic Church in some European countries has been sorely vexed makes no considerable figure in the corresponding history in America. There has never been here any "Liberal Catholic" party. The fact stands in analogy with many like facts. Visitors to America from the established churches of England or Scotland or Germany have often been surprised to find the temper of the old-country church so much broader and less rigid than that of the daughter church in the new and free republic. The reason is less recondite than might be supposed. In the old countries there are retained in connection with the state-church, by constraint of law or of powerful social or family influences, many whose adhesion to its distinctive tenets and rules is slight and superficial. It is out of such material that the liberal church party grows. In the migration it is not that the liberal churchman becomes more strict, but that, being released from outside pressure, he becomes less of a churchman. He easily draws off from his hereditary communion and joins himself to some other, or to none at all. This process of evaporation leaves behind it a strong residuum in which all characteristic elements are held as in a saturated solution.


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