Baltimore’s Bishop

John Carroll

had a decision to make. It was 1805, and the diocese then encompassed the entire U.S. Years before, Pope

Pius VI

had urged Carroll to build a cathedral church. But what kind of building would it be? And what would it say about American Catholics? His choice would set American Catholicism’s tone for years to come.

Carroll spent decades at the nexus of Catholic and U.S. history. He was the new republic’s first Catholic bishop, appointed in 1789, and a second cousin of

Charles Carroll

of Carrollton, the sole Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence. The cathedral would have to be deeply Catholic and unmistakably American.

Eventually the bishop raised enough funds and acquired property on a prominent hill overlooking Baltimore harbor. He rejected a modest Gothic design and adopted an ambitious plan devised by

Benjamin Latrobe,

son of a Moravian minister and an architect of the Capitol, then being built.

John Carroll, the first Archbishop of Baltimore, Md. (1735-1815)


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Latrobe’s design took 15 years to execute. The cathedral’s unfinished stone walls were conscripted as Baltimore’s last line of defense during the War of 1812, and Carroll died in 1815, too early to see it completed. But when the Cathedral of the Assumption was finally dedicated on May 31, 1821, it was clear that he had made the right decision. Thanks to Latrobe’s genius in refracting light through the skylights and oculus of the structure’s classical dome, the luminescence of America’s first cathedral bespoke the Catholic commitment to the religious freedom proclaimed in the First Amendment.

Two hundred years later, this extraordinary building is more than a masterpiece of Federal-style architecture. It is the center of an innovative urban mission in one of America’s most troubled cities, and it is an unparalleled historical site: the place where more U.S. Catholic history was made than at any other.

During the 19th century, the Baltimore cathedral witnessed 10 meetings of the U.S. Catholic bishops. These “provincial” and “plenary” councils of Baltimore set the course of Catholic life in the U.S. in numerous ways, and the effects of their decisions are still felt. It’s fair to describe them as the most consequential Catholic exercises in collegial episcopal decision-making between the Council of Trent (which concluded in 1563) and the First Vatican Council (which met in 1869-70).

The councils held in the Baltimore cathedral created America’s Catholic school system—for decades, a powerful instrument for assimilating vast numbers of immigrants; today it is the church’s most effective antipoverty program. The Baltimore councils defended minority Catholics against anti-Catholic prejudice even as they celebrated the American arrangement on church and state, thus opening one path toward the Second Vatican Council’s 1965 Declaration on Religious Freedom. They resisted efforts to organize U.S. Catholicism along congregationalist lines, creating the legal template for Catholic dioceses and parishes that exists today. They legislated extensively on issues of clerical training and discipline, praised the reformist work of Anglican clergy like

John Henry Newman

in the Oxford Movement, supported temperance societies and declared the Blessed Virgin Mary the patroness of the U.S. under the title of the Immaculate Conception.

In two plenary councils after the Civil War, bishops meeting in the Baltimore cathedral called for national concord while urging the evangelization of previously enslaved African-Americans and helped forestall European-style working-class defections from the church by exempting trade unions from the prohibition of Catholic participation in “secret societies.” The bishops also created the Catholic University of America and mandated the Baltimore Catechism, which for decades was the basic instrument of Catholic religious education in the U.S. and a unifying force in an ethnically diverse church.

The cathedral’s luminosity was muted for many years by unfortunate 20th-century alterations in the structure and its decoration. But by 2007 an extensive restoration of what had become the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary made Latrobe’s genius evident once again. Still, a question remained: In the 21st century, could the Baltimore Basilica be more than a historical monument?

Under the leadership of Archbishop

William Lori

and a dynamic young rector, Father James Boric, the most historic Catholic site in America has become a vibrant parish for a largely young congregation—and a center of evangelization and outreach to Baltimore’s extensive homeless population. A new lay community, “Source of All Hope,” is now housed on the Basilica property. Formed by daily Mass and Eucharistic adoration, young urban missionaries, men and women, work daily on the streets of Baltimore to ease the isolation of the homeless, befriend them and encourage them to reconnect to their families, social services and the life of the church.

John Carroll, one imagines, would have approved.

Mr. Weigel is a distinguished senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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Appeared in the May 28, 2021, print edition.

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