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Catholic Authors and Liberty of Conscience: 1649-1771


Considering all the dangers and obstacles they faced in those days, it is astonishing to see how many books our Catholic authors managed to print.


This year marks the 350th anniversary of Maryland's Toleration Act of 1649, a milestone in the history of liberty of conscience. In the New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967), T. 0. Hanley states that this law achieved toleration among Christian sects in a way generally unknown in Western civilization, except in Rhode Island at this time and Pennsylvania somewhat later. But since it is debatable whether Roger Williams ever offered refuge to Catholics in Rhode Island, the liberty of conscience found in early Maryland was very likely unparalleled in its day. One historian affirms with reason that the real spirit of religious liberty first came to America with the Ark and the Dove, the ships that brought Lord Baltimore's settlers in 1634. Indeed, Maryland even became the land of sanctuary for the Jew as well as for the Christian. [1] For astonishingly, one Jacob Lumbrozo, a Jew, was able in those early years to serve in public office.

This state of affairs, however, lasted only until the 1690's, when the penal laws and Test Acts came down in full force on those Catholics who had offered everyone else the civil and religious liberties of which they were now to be deprived.

The same religious liberty fostered in Maryland from the 1630's was to be found a generation later in the colony of New York, named after the Catholic heir to the throne. In 1674, James Duke of York instructed Governor Andros to leave everyone in peace and quiet on the subject of religion. And in 1683, when Thomas Dongan, a Catholic, was governor of New York, James approved without reservation a broad charter of religious liberty for his colony. This charter he expanded when he became king to include not merely all Christians, but people of all religions, or none. And so, as early as 1686, Christians, Jews and atheists in New York received equality under the law from a Catholic king. In England James had relieved Jews of restrictions, ordering all proceedings against them to be stopped, and released over 1200 Quakers from prison. [2] Understandably, he was called a Darius and a Constantine by members of the religious minorities to whom he granted such unheard-of liberty of conscience. His overthrow in 1688 was the direct result of his campaign to have the English Parliament repealwithout disestablishing the Church of Englandall persecutory laws in religion. He failed only because, like Lord Baltimore, he was more than a century ahead of his time.

Curiously, the adviser of the first Lord Baltimore was the Jesuit Henry More, a great-grandson of the Catholic martyr. In the last part of St. Thomas More's Utopia, we find a pattern of the liberty of conscience offered in early Maryland, New York, and England of 1686-88, for there each could be of whatever religion he chose and could strive to convince others of its truth by force of argument, provided his language remained modest and courteous. Any fanatical bitterness against other religions, however, was punished severely, as by exile. In Utopia, all religions were not equally true, but each one was allowed to present its case that the truth might prevail in the end, not by legal coercion, but by persuasion.

The view of St. Thomas More, the Lords Baltimore, and James II can be found expressed in several Catholic authors of the 17th and 18th Centuries. For example, the dramatist Harry Payne wrote, in 1685, that not one Catholic in England wished a greater toleration for himself than for every other peaceable Dissenter in the nation. Payne wanted the toleration of all religions because he saw persecution as deeply Antichristian. He made a typical Catholic argument when he said that men who persecute show a distrust of our Saviour's promise that his truth should prevail to the end, or tacitly confess they fear their own church may not be the true, in doubting that a toleration may destroy it. [3] In reality, they persecute not from too much, but from too little religion. They give up the core of Christianity, internal assent, and resort to outward conformity enforced by law. But now they make only hypocrites, not converts.

Several Catholics writers noted that persecution was always counterproductive. The witty author of An Expedient (1672) said that during the first fifteen years of Elizabeth, Protestants had increased in numbers until they comprised half the nation; but as soon as the sanguinary penal laws were enacted against the Old Religion, then daily conversions to Rome began, and not one in 7 years left them, except some scandalous fellow. Since persecution had only multiplied Non-conformists, he cleverly urged his countrymen to try religious liberty for a change, to make them go into decline. [4] In Britannia Rediviva (1688), a poem stoutly defending James II's campaign to establish civil and religious liberties, the Catholic poet-laureate John Dryden exclaimed:

No force the freeborn spirit can constrain,
But charity, and great examples gain. (301-2)

And another Catholic poet Alexander Pope, in An Essay on Man, spoke of a Golden Age before persecution, when Unbrib'd, unbloody, stood the blameless priest (3:158).

The Earl of Castlemaine, one of the chief spokesmen for Catholics from 1666 to 1688, heartily agreed that persecution was counterproductive. In France, he observed, the Huguenots had never had fewer converts than when they were secure under the laws. Expressing his horror of England's 24 penal laws for religion, he declared: I abominate for my own part the very thought of blood and persecution upon a religious account. [5] He had good reason: under the 1585 statute, for one, a Catholic priest could be hanged and quartered as a traitor only for being a priest in England, nothing more. In the summer of 1679, eight priests were executed under this statute, one of them ninety years of age. [6]

Castlemaine urged two grounds for granting freedom of worship to religious minorities: large numbers and long continuance. First, it had been recognized by the Edict of Nantes in 1598 that when a religion had grown large in numbers, only prayers, preaching, and books might be used against it, not legal coercion. This ground would have justified giving English Puritans at least the freedom to meet in conventicles. Second, it had been recognized since the days of Constantine and Ethelbert that those following an ancient form of worship, one of long, uninterrupted continuance in the land, had a right to be tolerated by those setting up a new religion. This ground would have justified giving Catholics at least the freedom to worship privately. [7] Ironically, although they were only one per cent of the population, Catholics of that time were denied a privilege that even the Ottoman Turks granted their co-religionists in Eastern Europe, namely, the liberty to worship in the privacy of their homes. Besides that, they were under legal penalties in England for not participating in the state-appointed worship.

Catholic dramatists in this age produced two plays in which a female saint was killed by an impious persecutorPhilip Massinger's Virgin Martyr (St. Dorothea), and Matthew Medbourne's St. Cecily . These plays dramatized a major Catholic argument against persecutionthat it arose not from religion, but from irreligion. It was daring in those days to make a vowed virgin a heroine, to dramatize the intercession of saints, and to have miracles occur onstage. Inspired by these precedents (Massinger's play was revived in the 1660s), Dryden wrote a similar play, Tyrannic Love (1672), about the virgin-martyr Queen Catherine of Alexandria. Already espousing the Catholic view of liberty of conscience long before his conversion, the poet presented the tyrant Maximin as a man scornful of all gods, yet hell-bent on public uniformity of worship. Like many English leaders of that day, the Roman emperor equated outward conformity in religion with political loyalty. But a Christian convert explained to him that faith, even if it were to prove an error, was involuntary, and so not the proper subject of criminal penalties:

If for religion you our lives will take,
You do not the offenders find, but make.
All faiths are to their own believers just;
For none believe, because they will, but must. (4.1.441).

After converting to Catholicism in 1686, Dryden wrote a long poem, The Hind and the Panther (1687), in which he marshalled all the arguments he could for liberty of conscience. In pleading in particular for the Puritans to be tolerated, despite their rebellion of the 1640's, he returned to the argument that religious differences are involuntary, arising from our not being able to think alike:

Of all the tyrannies on humane kind
The worst is that which persecutes the mind.
Let us but weigh at what offence we strike,
Tis but because we cannot think alike.
In punishing of this, we overthrow
The laws of nations and of nature too. (1:239-44)

For Dryden, persecution was not just anti-Christian, but anti-Reason. He traced its origin to Cain's murder of his brother Abel out of religious envy and spite: for there blood began its first and loudest cry/ For differing worship of the Deity.

Almost three generations later, the Catholic nobleman Viscount Taaffe, in his Observations on Affairs in Ireland (1766), repeated the same argument about the involuntary nature of religious difference. Even if we were to grant, he said, that Catholics were idolaters, this would not be a sufficient warrant for persecution or prosecution, because involuntary error, which includes no civil evil to the public, is not the proper object of pains and penalties. Taaffe was trying, but to no avail, to distinguish between being a member of a church and being a citizen of a nation. [8]

Many other Catholic writers tried likewise to distinguish between church and state. In England, the oftheard cry of popery and tyranny impugned Catholics as the inveterate enemies of civil freedom. In answer to this line of defamation, Castlemaine pointed out that far from being the enemies of free parliaments, English Catholics had in fact been the founders of their privileges and all ancient laws: nay, Magna Charta itself had its rise from us. And he added later: nor does anything more plainly demonstrate to me, that the principles of Popery tend not to a tyrannic and arbitrary sway, than that the laws which preserve our liberty and property were proposed in the flourishing times of that religion by Popish peers, were approved by Popish Commons, were put in execution by Popish judges and deemed good and holy by the Popish clergy. [9]

One of the most poignant pleas along this line was that of the 10th Duke of Norfolk, in his Considerations on the Penal Laws (1764). After congratulating his countrymen for allowing Jews and Moravians to find refuge in Britain and for letting them worship freely and buy land, he lamented that those rights were denied to native Catholics, who remained subject not only to the public magistrate, but to every other individual who might wish to bring down the laws upon them. And yet, he added, it was from our Catholic ancestors that those most valuable rights of Englishmen were derived. [10] John Curry, M.D., who began the movement that led to Catholic emancipation in Ireland, made a similar point in Observations on the Popery Laws (1771). There he asserted that Catholics, far from being the enemies of citizens' rights, were ready to give civil fidelity to civil government, since Magna Charta and the English Constitution were fought for, and obtained by our Popish ancestors, without whom we might be slaves, not freemen.' [11]

Since charges like popery and tyranny were based on the stereotyping of Catholics as a group, one powerful argument for liberty of conscience presented by Catholic authors in that age was the one against collective guilt. John Locke, in his Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), typically imputed collective guilt to Catholics by citing, as if it were Church doctrine, two sayings without attribution: Faith is not to be kept with Hereticks, and Kings excommunicated forfeit their Crowns and Kingdoms. The first saying meant that Catholics were given papal dispensations to lie under oath, so as to deceive Protestants. By sleight of hand, Locke presented the opinion of particular authors (not even mentioned by name) as the common belief of all Catholics everywhere. Such specious logic allowed him to conclude that Catholics had no right to be tolerated by the magistrate. [12] Locke, of course, was defending his own record: he had been the collaborator of the first Earl of Shaftesbury in 1678-1681, when the latter had spearheaded a persecution in which over 2000 Catholics were imprisoned and dozens of judicial murders took place, including that of St. Oliver Plunkett.

Responding later on to the above charge, that Catholics had papal dispensation to lie to Protestants under oath, Dr. John Curry noted that in Ireland they had refused for 70 years to take the religious Test for public employment. If they had not thought oaths to be sacred, they would have taken the Test by now and reaped the benefits. [13] These dispensations were completely imaginary, none having ever been found.

Against collective guilt, one Catholic argued in 1666 that none should blame the whole body (as the English custom is) for the faults of some members. And, he added, none should blame the present members for the deeds of past members. Harry Payne made a similar point twenty years later: no community is answerable for the rebellious political practices of their members; no, though their declarations to obtain their purposes be in the name of the whole, provided any number of the same societies protest and act against such declarations. Viscount Taaffe, in the next century, called it a species of civil superstition to quote a pope or a Roman doctor who has countenanced rebellious conduct or treachery as if that impugns all Catholics. [14]

Castlemaine likewise urged that the whole party should not be blamed for the crimes of a few, but that every man should suffer for his own and proper fault. In his Catholique Apology, a brilliant work of anti-defamation which reached 600 pages in the final 1674 version, Castlemaine examined closely all the major charges against Catholicssuch as Mary Tudor's bloody reign, the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, the pretended Irish Massacre of 1641, and the London Fire of 1666. He showed how Catholics had been charged with collective guilt for the crimes of a very few who, in some cases, were plausibly not even Catholic. Leaving theology completely aside, he put each defamatory charge in its historical context and tried to separate propaganda from verifiable fact. His aim (which he pretty well achieved) was to prove that not even the fortieth part of what was being said about Catholics in England was true.

In Fanaticism Fanatically Imputed (1672), Serenus Cressy (a former Dean of Oxford who became a monk) showed how the attribution of collective guilt to Catholics involved major distortions of truth. A typical ruse, he said, was to cite certain books defending a papal power to depose kings as if these expressed a common Catholic belief, when in fact those very books had been censured a century earlier with papal approval. Castlemaine also remarked on this point that for every 12 Catholics who had ever written of deposing kings, there had been 250 on the other side.

But this fact conflicted with the established myth in England. Furthermore, John Gother explained how attributing collective guilt to Catholics had become, by the 1680's, an artform. The attacker would pick out the abuses of some [Catholics], the vices and cruelties of others, the odd opinions of particular authors, and hold these forth for the doctrine and practice of our Church. [15] William Hubert, who had converted from Puritanism, observed that from childhood the English were constantly barraged with calumnies against Catholics. Many grew up believing the lies, yet many had doubts. The skeptics, however, were wary of looking into the matter for fear of being convinced of the truth of Catholicism. For then, they would damn their souls if they did not convert, or lose their estates and employments if they did. (16)

It follows from all this defamation that what Catholics needed desperately was freedom of the press. Setting the record straight was closely allied to achieving civil and religious liberties. But since the Reformation, the first opportunity they had ever had to enjoy freedom of the press was in 1686-88, during the reign of the Catholic monarch. The Franciscan John Canes noted that English books slandering Catholics could, by the Restoration, fill The Tower of London. Those slanders had so inflamed the English populace that the bodies, dignities, honours, fame, houses, and goods of Catholics were in constant jeopardy. Yet when John Milton asked for freedom of the press for Nonconformists in Areopagitica (1644), he explicitly excluded the oppressed Catholics. He was not ignorant of their culture and learning, however, since he had travelled to Italy in 1638 and had been warmly welcomed there by the Catholic literati. In his last work, Of True Religion (1673), he nevertheless asserted that the worship of Catholics was damnable idolatry and therefore not to be tolerated, even in the privacy of their homes. Indeed, he said that objects related to the Mass were to be forcibly seized from them. He published this fanatical advice a whole generation after the 1649 Toleration Act in Maryland. Yet Milton, like Locke, is regarded today as standing in the forefront of the struggle for liberty of conscience, while his Catholic contemporaries, the true champions of that cause, are completely neglected.

Concerning freedom of the press, John Canes wrote in 1672 that Catholics could not without insuperable difficulties and hazard print anything in reponse to the slanders against them. When Edward Stillingfleet, a popular leader of the Anglican clergy, published a new book in 1670 reviling Catholic worship of the Eucharist as something worse than Egyptian idolatry, the Catholics were challenged to reply but every press was kept under strict surveillance. Neither in churches, halls, universities, or schools are we permitted to speak or print anything to speak for us, Canes lamented, as if it were agreed on all hands that we should never be rightly understood. Indeed he was able to print only a fifth of his reply to Dr. Stillingfleet by means of many travels, vexations, expenses, and dangers. [17]

Considering all the dangers and obstacles they faced in those days, it is astonishing to see how many books our Catholic authors managed to print. Only a few of these authors have been mentioned here. There are 1139 entries in English Catholic Books 1641-1700, compiled by Thomas H. Clancy, S.J., and over 3000 entries in English Catholic Books 1701-1800, compiled by E. Blom. Besides these, Allison and Rogers have filled two volumes with entries of the Counter-Reformation works up until 1640. [18] Admittedly, too, these lists are incomplete. From sampling some of these authors we can learn much about our religion, but more especially about how to respond to defamation and persecution with grace, patience, wit, and infinite charity. We can be justifiably proud that these authors stood out so early and so far ahead of others in the struggle for liberty of conscience. It is unfortunate, however, that their works represent a side of English life that has been, as Father Clancy puts it in his introduction, sorely neglected in our intellectual histories.

At first glance, many of these books might seem to be dealing only with theology. But even they are part of the great anti-defamation campaign, which required setting the record straight in theology, too, for the sake of achieving religious and civil liberties. Take the example of Abraham Woodhead's The Greeks'Opinion Touching the Eucharist (1686). Since the Test for public employment was grounded on the calumny that the Catholic Eucharist was a form of idolatry, it had to be demonstrated in a learned way that other forms of Christianity dating back to antiquity held a similar belief in the Real Presence. For English Protestants accused only the Catholics, not the Greek Orthodox, of being idolaters of bread.

In 1654 certain Puritans who had been given asylum, land, and liberty in Maryland took the opportunity of Cromwell's ascendancy in England to bring about an intolerant law in Maryland. In one swoop they took liberty of conscience away from the very Catholics who had recently welcomed them. On learning of it, Cromwell defended the 1649 Toleration Act and restored Lord Baltimore to his authority. But now, instead of treating those Puritans as their ingratitude deserved, Lord Baltimore gave them amnesty and left them in peace on their lands. [19] Likewise, in 1686-88, James II took to his bosom men who had been his bitterest enemies during the Popish Plot years, men like Harry Care who were now willing to work for the repeal of the penal laws and Test Acts. Moreover, he kept welcoming and providing for the Huguenot refugees, who were themselves victims of persecution but who tended to join the Conformist party upon arrival, as well as to work for the enforcement of the persecutory laws against English Catholics. The magnanimous actions of Lord Baltimore and James II, as well as the printed works examined here, eloquently attest to the fact that Catholics of those times were deeply, even heroically committedcome what mayto liberty of conscience for all.


  1. J. Moss Ives, The Ark and the Dove: The Beginning of Civil and Religious Liberties in America (1936; rpt, New York: Cooper Square Publ., 1969), 198, 246. Back to text.
  2. Malcolm V. Hay, The Enigma of James II (London and Glasgow: Sands, 1938), 72-79. Back to text.
  3. Henry Neville Payne, The Persecutor Exposed (London: J.L., for the author, [1685]), 33- 38. To read the texts of the 24 penal laws and Test Acts, see H[enry] C[are], Draconica; or, An Abstract of All the Penal Laws Touching Matters of Religion; and the Several Oaths and Tests Thereby Enjoyned (London: George Larkin, 1687). Back to text.
  4. An Expedient or a Sure & Easy Way of Reducing All Dissenters whatsoever to an Exact and Sincere Obedience (London: 1662, 1672), 8.
    Back to text.
  5. Roger Palmer, Lord Castlemaine, A Reply to the Answer of the Catholique Apology (N.p., 1668), 271; A Full Answer and Confutation of a Scandalous Pamphlet called a Seasonable Discourse ([Antwerp], 1673), 20. Back to text.
  6. John Kenyon, The Popish Plot (London: Heinemann, 1972), 178-82, 272. This was St. John Kemble. St. Nicholas Postgate was 80 years old. For a list of those who suffered at that time for their priesthood, see Henry Foley, Records of the English Province of the Society of Jesus, 7 vols. in 8 (London: Burns and Oates, 1877-83), 5:95-97. Back to text.
  7. Catholique Apology 3d ed. (N.p., 1674), 551-52. Back to text.
  8. Nicolaus Taaffe, Observations on Affairs in Ireland from the settlement in 1691, to the present time (Dublin: J. Hoey, 1766),29. Back to text.
  9. Catholique Apology, 23; The Earl of Castlemain's Manifesto ([Amiens? ], 1681), 129. Back to text.
  10. Considerations on the penal laws against Roman Catholics in Engalnd, and the new acquired colonies in America, In a letter to a noble lord. By a country gentleman (London: R & J Dodley, 1764), 51, 59. Joseph Gillow (5:184) attributes it to Charles Howard, 10th Duke of Norfolk. Back to text.
  11. Charles O'Conor and John Curry, M.D., Observations on the popery laws (Dublin: T. Ewing, 1771), 23, 33. Back to text.
  12. John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration, ed. James H.Tully (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983), 50. Back to text.
  13. Curry, 22. Back to text.
  14. The Expedient, 8; Persecutor, 29; Observations, 14. Back to text.
  15. Hugh Paulin de, or Serenus Cressy, Fanaticism Fanatically Imputed (N.p., 1672), 78; Castlemaine, A Full Answer, 7; John Gother, Papists Protesting against Protestant-Popery (London: Henry Hills, 1686), 33. Back to text.
  16. William Hubert, The Puritan Convert (N.p.: 1676), 22-26. Back to text.
  17. John Canes, An Account of Dr Stillingfleet's late Book against the Church of Rome (1672), 73-74. Back to text.
  18. These books are all available from Ashgate Publishers, in Brookfield, Vermont. Back to text.
  19. The Ark and the Dove, 235. Back to text.


Gardiner, Anne Barbeau. Catholic Authors and Liberty of Conscience: 1649-1771. Catholic Dossier 5, no. 4 (July-August 1999): 17-22.

Reprinted with permission of Catholic Dossier. To subscribe to Catholic Dossier call 1-800-651-1531.

The Author

Anne Barbeau Gardiner is professor in the department of English at John Jay College, CUNY.

Copyright © 1999 Catholic Dossier
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