The Curious Case of America, Benjamin Franklin, and the Papal Nuncio

By Sally Morem
America is the world's first genuinely secular nation. I realize this is a controversial statement, considering how many religious people live here, but I believe it's true. American thought ambled about in strikingly secular paths as long ago as the 18th century. Let me tell you a little story to illustrate my point: Soon after the end of the American Revolution and several years before American delegates gathered in Philadelphia to hammer out the new nation's Constitution, the Papal Nuncio of Paris (the Pope's diplomatic representative in France) was ordered by the Pope to make contact with the government of the new nation, the United States of America. The Nuncio knew this might be tricky, considering how little he knew of America's revolutionary republican form of government and the fact that America was largely Protestant. For centuries, national governments and papal representatives had engaged in the sensitive business of negotiating detailed "rules of engagement" under which the Catholic Church would be permitted to operate in European nations--Protestant and Catholic. Nations took their power over church life within their borders very seriously. Church and state were deeply intertwined. Some regulations were so precise they included the number of votive candles that could be set on the alter of each church! Micromanagement, indeed! The Nuncio was prepared to undergo the same arduous diplomatic work with the Americans in order to receive permission for the Catholic Church to conduct its normal religious affairs in the new nation. But he was in for a big surprise. He asked friends in Paris to recommend names of Americans in France who might have useful advice for him. Everyone told him to talk to Benjamin Franklin, America's widely respected envoy to France. After a bit of friendly conversation, the Nuncio asked Franklin, "What would be the best way to approach your Congress so that we may discuss the organization of the Catholic Church in America at this time of great change? I'm sure you agree this is a matter of some concern to the Church and to Americans." (I'm paraphrasing here.) Franklin looked at him somewhat curiously and asked, "Why would Congress care about that? Do what you want." (I'm paraphrasing here again.)

The distance of time does not permit us to know exactly how the Nuncio reacted to such an astounding statement. But we may reasonably assume that his mouth dropped open in stunned shock. The great American, Franklin, the one who stole lightning from the skies, didn't desire any power over the Catholic Church, and by extension, he may have presumed, over any church. And Franklin apparently didn't believe his fellow countrymen desired such power either. I believe this story is one of the earliest documented indications in our history on how American civilization was already splitting away from its European parent. The nonchalant, almost unthinking way in which Franklin brushed off the Nuncio's concerns indicates that Franklin inherited a long-held American assumption that governments didn't meddle in church affairs and vice versa. If so, I believe that the utter lack of religious sentiment found later in the American Constitution and the existence of a clause forbidding any religious test for political office grew directly out of our unique American historical experience and that America's split from Europe happened well before the American Revolution. Americans as a frontier people had to take responsibility for all aspects of their lives for generations, even though they were nominally under British rule. The wide Atlantic and the slow sailing ships effectively prohibited day-to-day control by the British. Also, travel was very difficult between widely separated colonial towns. No colonial governor could command the colonists in anything but the most general laws and few had any interest in doing so. Thus, slowly, incrementally, we see Americans building up the concept and practice of congregationalism--both in religious and secular realms. Congregationalism means members of an organization control that organization, and need bow to no outside authority for permission and direction in order to conduct their affairs. By the time Franklin met the Nuncio, congregational sentiments were so well established among Americans, they barely knew of the existence of systematic meddling in religious affairs in European nations. Americans regularly violated the rules laid down by the few American states that still recognized an official state religion. We've inherited and built upon that wholly secular American attitude, ironically enough, creating a genuinely secular nation among a mostly religious people.