Our faith has informed our nation from the beginning
By Brian Caulfield, Fathers for Good editor
Before Jamestown in Virginia (1607) there was St. Augustine in Florida (1565). Before the English Pilgrims at Plymouth (1620), there was a century of Spanish explorers and missionaries throughout the hemisphere. They followed the Columbus trail, settling in the Caribbean and Mexico, and pioneering what would become the U.S. South and Midwest in search of cities of gold and precious souls for conversion. From as far south as the Rio Grande to the northern reaches of the California missions and beyond, their intrepid footprints are found on U.S. soil.
This is the Catholic chapter of American history that few learn in the classroom, where the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving hold pride of place. It is a story even Catholics are unfamiliar with and slow to tell.
Yet it should come as no surprise to readers of Fathers for Good – a website of the Knights of Columbus – that we take great pride in the Catholic roots of America. One of the main reasons the founder of the Knights – Father Michael J. McGivney – chose to name the fraternal Order in honor of Christopher Columbus was to draw on the good name of the Catholic discoverer of the New World. Anti-Catholicism ran deep in the American Protestant mind in 1882, when Father McGivney gathered a dozen or so Catholic gentlemen in St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, and this group knew they needed to define themselves as both for the Church and for America. What better symbol of Catholic America than the heroic Columbus, who at that time was a universally recognized icon of courage and freedom?
Today, Knights of Columbus continue that work and witness to the truths of the Catholic faith and the founding principles of the United States. And on this Fourth of July, we celebrate the Founders’ “shot heard round the world” – not the first rifle report at Lexington and Concord, but the statement of July 4, 1776, that
“we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Catholics also had a strong hand in the Declaration of Independence. Charles Carroll of Carrollton (Maryland) was the lone Catholic to sign the document – not so much because other Catholics objected to it, but because Catholics at the time were, either by law or prejudice, kept from the political realm. Charles Carroll’s family, however, was rich and educated enough to rise above the anti-Catholic sentiment, and he had the distinction of being the last surviving signer of the Declaration when he died at age 95 in 1832.
It is sad that even many Catholics do not know his story, which is told in a recent biography, American Cicero. We should all strive to learn and honor the Catholic roots of our nation. As things stand today – with abortion imbedded in our laws and other attacks on religion and family life gaining ground – the teachings and traditions of the Catholic Church stand as one of the few defenders of our Founders’ original vision of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”