Issue of Trusteeism

Report of Abrose Maréchal, Archbishop of Baltimore, to Pope  Pius VII, 1818

In the first half of the nineteenth century, Roman Catholicism moved from a nearly invisible minority to the largest single church in America. Such explosive growth brought vexing problems both internal and external. Among the Catholic laity, surrounded as they were by Protestant men and women who seemed to "own and operate" their own churches, sentiment grew for a greater voice in their own parish affairs. "Trusteeism, " as the resulting controversy came to be called, was formally, denounced in 1822 by Pius VII. The pope bemoaned the tendency of "trustees or administrators of the temporal properties of the churches" to act independently of their bishops, or to "arrogate to themselves" the choosing or dismissing of their pastors. Four years before that papal judgment, the archbishop of Baltimore, Ambrose Maréchal (1764 ‑1828), had reported to the Vatican on the state of Roman Catholicism in America. Generally optimistic ("There is no region in the world where the Catholic religion can be propagated more quickly or widely and where it exists more securely than in the United States of America"), Maréchal  nonetheless saw trusteetism as a serious matter and potential cause of widespread schism.

It should therefore be noted: ‑1. that the American people pursue with a most ardent love the civil liberty which they enjoy. For the principle of civil liberty is paramount with them, so that absolutely all the magistrates, from the highest to the lowest, are elected by popular vote at determined times in the year. Likewise all the Protestant sects, who constitute the greater part of the people, are governed by these same principles, and as a result they elect and dismiss their pastors at will. Catholics in turn, living in their midst, are evidently exposed to the danger of admitting the same principles of ecclesiastical government. Clever and impious priests, who flatter them and appeal to their pride, easily lead them to believe that they also possess the right of choosing their pastors and dismissing them as they please. 2. When the Catholics in some part of my diocese become numerous enough to think that they can build a church, first of all each contributes a few coins to the common fund; and since the amount is seldom sufficient, then they select two or three men, whom they depute as their representatives to solicit contributions in the cities and villages from their fellow citizens, both Catholics and Protestants.

When they have once collected enough money, then they buy a large enough tract of land upon which to build a church and priest house and to have a cemetery. However, when they have once decided to buy this tract, sometimes they hand over to the bishop the title of possession, so that he is the true possessor of this ecclesiastical property and is considered as such by the civil tribunals. But it often happens that the legislators of the province approach and obtain from them the title of possession, upon the condition that they transmit it to four or five Catholic men, who are elected annually by the congregation. In this case, these men are not only the temporal administrators of the temporalities of the church (marguilliers) as they are in Europe, but they have possession and are considered the true possessors of all the temporal goods of the church in the eyes of the civil tribunals and they can with impunity exercise over them the same authority as they do over their own homes and lands. However, a schism has never taken place in those churches, of which the bishop holds the civil title; in fact, it is impossible for it to happen there. For if the priest, who is constituted the pastor of this church, is addicted to drunkenness or impurity or other scandalous vices, and will not correct his life, then the bishop, by reason of the title he possesses, can at once remove him, just as any citizen has the right of expelling those who presume to occupy his home against his will. For he could easily obtain an order of eviction from the magistrates. But if the title of possession is in the hands of the temporal administrators (marguilliers),  then they can easily raise the flag of rebellion against the bishop. If indeed the greater part of them do not fear God and conceive a hatred for their pastor, they will continually remove him from the church, no matter how great the sanctity of his life and customs; besides they deprive the entire Catholic congregation of the use of the church. This is the state of affairs at Norfolk, where the impious Doctor Oliver Fernandez and two Irish drunkards, destitute of all religion, removed from their church a most holy man, the pastor, Mr. Lucas, [James Lucas, a French‑born priest, had been appointed in December, 1815, to serve the congregation at Norfolk, Virginia, by Archbishop Leonard Neale] and all his Catholic fellow citizens. Likewise when a priest is leading a scandalous life and, instead of nourishing, is rather devastating the flock of the Lord by his bad example, if the bishop takes measures against him, or also threatens to punish him, it often happens that the temporal administrators come to his defense with cunning and impious theories, whether by maintaining that the bishop is proceeding unjustly against him, or by declaring that he has appealed to Rome, or by arguing that they, and they alone, have the natural right of selecting and removing their pastors. And if he has once been able to convince them of these wicked principles, then the impious priest, protected by the temporal administrators, publicly withstands the authority of his bishop, calumniates him, sacrilegiously performs his sacred ministry, and lays waste the flock of Christ. Nor do the civil laws of the American republic offer any remedy for this great evil. Over and above, if such a priest is even more brazen and skilled in deceit, he gathers false testimony everywhere from the offscourings of the people. Then he busies himself in strengthening this testimony, by obtaining upon it the seal of Protestant magistrates, who secretly rejoice in dissensions of this kind among Catholics. After this, having collected money here and there, he sends to Rome a messenger, who knows well how to assume a semblance of piety and to speak in a reverential manner.