Luca Codignola: "Roman Catholic Libertinism in a New North Atlantic World"

Luca Codignola: "Roman Catholic Libertinism in a New North Atlantic World"

On Tuesday, January 27, 2015, Ave Maria University hosted Distinguished Visiting Scholar Luca Codignola, Professor of North American History at the University of Genoa, Italy. Codignola specializes in the history of the Roman Catholic Church in the North Atlantic area during the early modern era. His lecture was entitled: “Roman Catholic Libertinism in a New North Atlantic World, 1760-1829: Spirit of Liberty or Freedom to Misbehave?” Dr. Codignola’s talk was followed by a response from Andrew Dinan, Associate Professor of Classics at AMU. The event was hosted by theHistory Department and chaired by Michael Breidenbach, Visiting Assistant Professor of History.

In his talk, Codignola set out to examine whether ecclesiastical misbehavior in the North Atlantic area during the late 18th and early 19th centuries could be construed as a branch of political radicalism, a form of “libertinism.” As part of his investigation, Codignola addressed the question of whether ecclesiastical misbehavior was a phenomenon unique to the United States, or whether it was applicable to the entire North Atlantic region.

Codignola categorized incidents of ecclesiastical misbehavior into three types, giving evidence for and examples of each: alcoholism, abuse of money, and sexual impropriety. After examining and summarizing the relevant literature, Codignola affirmed that ecclesiastical misbehavior was a pervasive pattern in some areas of British North America. “Furthermore,” he said, “ecclesiastical misbehavior was not a uniquely American phenomenon, in that misbehaving priests existed throughout the North Atlantic.” Additionally, just as some regions showed a greater occurrence of misbehavior among priests, so too did some ethnicities. “The Irish produced more misbehaving priests than other ethnic communities, particularly so in North America,” Codignola explained.

Codignola concluded by addressing the driving question behind his research: “Can individual misbehavior be construed as a way to communicate the new demands for democratization that were making their way into the Church…or does it more literally represent human frailty…resulting in all sorts of wrongdoings?”

Above: Luca Codignola and Michael Breidenbach

Although it may seem plausible to describe the misbehaving priests as political radicals influenced by the French Revolution and the spirit of liberty, Codignola cautioned that the evidence from archival research does not support such a hypothesis. The instances of ecclesiastical misbehavior, Codignola explained, should be understood in the context of poor education, varying standards of morality in the new world, the difficult and often harsh climate of the frontier, isolation, rivalry, the lack of structure and stability in mission territory, and personal failure.

“In my view,” he said, “misbehaving priests in North America took advantage of the new spirit of liberty… [and applied] individual solutions to issues and problems that they shared with the rest of the clergy.” Toward the mid-19thcentury, he concluded, “the advent of a more structured Church throughout the Atlantic put an end to the collective threat represented by misbehaving priests. Misbehavior, of course, did not cease, but it reverted back to the domain of individual choice and personal conscience.”

Dr. Andrew Dinan responded to Luca Codignola’s address by urging an appreciation for letters as resources for historical inquiry. “Letters enable us,” Dinan said, “to come very close to past persons, places and events.” Using the collection of over 1,000 letters written to and by Mathias Loras, first bishop of Dubuque, Iowa, Dinan illustrated why we ought to prize these archives as a “precious resource for those wishing to trace this dramatic time in American history.” The collection of Loras’ letters, and others like it, bring the past to life in a direct and powerful way.

Above: Andrew Dinan responds to Luca Codignola’s address

During Dr. Codignola’s visit, Ave Maria students, faculty and staff gathered together for a small seminar to discuss his paper, ‘Benjamin Franklin and the Holy See, 1783-4: The Myth of Non-Interference in Religious Affairs.’

Dr. Luca Codignola served as Head of the Institute of History of Mediterranean Europe of Italy’s National Research Council from 2008-2012. He is also Adjunct Professor at St. Mary’s University, Canada. He has authored ten books and published over 100 articles. Dr. Codignola lives in Italy with his family.