By John J. Pilch, Ph.D
Once independence was achieved, the mode of Church governance until then would no longer do. Clergy in the English colonies of America had previously been subject to the Vicar Apostolic in London. To continue this arrangement, or to put the new country under the Roman Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, would only confirm American suspicions about the loyalty of American Catholics. American Catholics wanted an independent spiritual leader.
On June 9, 1784, Rome appointed John Carroll as Prefect-Apostolic of the Catholic missions in America. Rome made this decision in part because it wanted to please Benjamin Franklin, who had warmly recommended John Carroll for the position. The two were good friends ever since their unsuccessful effort to win Canada to the American cause in 1776.
Pius VI [1717-1799]
"Prefect" rather than "Bishop" seemed to Rome a good compromise response to the American anti-prelacy sentiment. John Carroll was less than pleased. A Prefect had limited powers and depended upon the Roman Congregation of the Propaganda of the Faith which claimed jurisdiction over the Catholic "missions" in America. This ran the risk of confirming American suspicions. But when the clergy persuaded him that this less-than-perfect solution was at least a first step, he accepted the position in a letter dated February 27, 1785.
Three subsequent events convinced the clergy and laity that American Catholics needed and would not suffer any harm from having a Bishop. Serious problems arose with some laity in New York which Carroll's limited powers as Prefect could not handle; religious freedom became more general and more real in State legislation and ultimately in the Federal Constitution; and Episcopalians consecrated a Bishop for their Church in November, 1784, with no untoward results.
In March, 1788, the priests drew up a petition to Pope Pius VI in which they recognized the need for a Bishop with full independent jurisdiction and they asked for permission, at least for the first time, to choose him themselves.
The Pope concurred. "For the first time only, and by special grace," the Pope allowed the priests in America to decide the town in which the diocese should be located and to elect the Bishop from their number.
On May 18, 1788, the priests selected Baltimore as the diocese because most priests and Catholic laity resided in the region, and it was geographically well situated for communication with the other colonies. Twenty-four of the twenty-six priests assembled voted for Carroll as Bishop. The Pope sent his approval in his letter of November 6, 1789, but noted that future Bishops would be chosen by the Pope "in all future vacancies."
Full story here. See also our Mark DeForrest's recent post on Bishop Carroll's prayer for America here.