Catholic vs. American?

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The Basilica of the Assumption (Baltimore, MD) with its Jeffersonian architecture

It’s come to my attention lately that a certain segment of American Catholics seems to feel ambivalent about America. Fr. Dwight Longenecker, a popular writer and blogger, writes that “the American founding philosophy is fundamentally opposed to Catholicism” (read his comments in context here).  Now, I have never perceived a conflict between my faith and my nationality. Yet I think I know where the sentiment comes from.  As serious Catholics we feel dismay at our ever more secularized culture and the negative influence it is visiting even upon the Church.  But some among us have misguidedly hung the whole mess on America – not just the America of today but the America of the Founding Fathers. It’s as if the history of the modern world is one long parade marching into the abyss, and Thomas Jefferson and George Washington are the grand marshals. Meanwhile another Catholic author, Joe Hargrave, has a different view: he writes (here) that “the concept of religious liberty that eventually crystallized in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights was actually imported to North America by British Catholics fleeing persecution.”

So in a nutshell, according to Fr. Longenecker the American founding was inimical to Catholics, and according to Mr. Hargrave the American founding was Catholic.  What are we to think?

In honor of Independence Day, I’d like to make a modest attempt at clearing up some of the fog.  I will briefly address a few common assumptions about America and Catholicism, bringing some history and philosophy into the mix.  I hope, at the very least, that my words will bring a little cheer over this July 4th weekend.

George Calvert, founder of Maryland

Lord Calvert, founder of Maryland

America from the start was fundamentally Protestant and Puritan, wasn’t it?


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Charles Carroll, signer of the Declaration of Independence

Yes, the colonies were overwhelmingly Protestant, and much anti-Catholicism darkened the scene. Yet our faith had a small but notable presence in America from the beginning.  There was Columbus, of course, and the Spanish missionaries in Florida and Louisiana.  The colony of Maryland was founded in 1634 by Lord Calvert as a haven for English Catholics. Calvert, a committed Catholic, was instrumental in passing the Toleration Act, a pioneering religious freedom law which is considered a direct antecedent of the First Amendment (Puritans later took control of the state and overturned the law). Another Maryland Catholic, Charles Carroll, in 1776 became the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence (his cousin John was eventually ordained the first Archbishop of Baltimore).  Meanwhile, George Washington was a firm promoter of the liberty of Catholics, was personally friendly with a number of them, and during his presidency acknowledged that Catholics had played a prominent role in the Revolution (see here). Thomas Jefferson, religious skeptic though he was, nevertheless became one of the brains behind the architectural design of the Basilica of the Assumption in Baltimore, America’s first Catholic cathedral. These and other Catholic elements in our early history ought to be studied and celebrated.

Didn’t the founding of America proceed from Enlightenment ideas that were contrary to Catholicism?

The Enlightenment was far from monolithic.  There were French and Anglo-American versions; only the French Enlightenment was explicitly anti-Catholic, anti-clerical and tending towards atheism.  Catholic reflection upon the Enlightenment as a whole in recent times has shown that much of what was positive in it not only is reconcilable to Catholicism, but indeed had Catholic roots.  The American Constitution echoes the Catholic social doctrine of subsidiarity (e.g., in preserving states’ rights and limiting the power of the federal government), while the so-called separation of church and state (aimed primarily at protecting the former from the latter) provides a viable solution to the medieval question of the balance of power between bishop and king. The Declaration of Independence is based on natural law, that fundamental idea of the Catholic tradition classically expounded by St. Thomas Aquinas. G.K. Chesterton actually compared the Declaration to a papal encyclical. “America,” he wrote, is “the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed,” a creed that is “set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence.” More examples could be cited, but these should suffice to illustrate that Catholicism and the ideas behind the American founding don’t exist on two separate planets.

Americanism” is a heresy condemned by Pope Leo XIII, no?

Yes, but let’s understand clearly what Pope Leo meant by the term as he used it in his 1899 encyclical Testem Benevolentiae.  The pope made explicitly clear that he was not attacking America’s founding philosophy, system of government or way of life.  “Americanism” was a nickname for a series of heresies which had recently taken root among U.S. Catholics, heresies which included most of the by now thrice-familiar “modernist” beliefs: that the Church needed to change her teachings to conform to modernity, that private judgment trumps obedience, that the active life is better than the contemplative. Pope Leo was anathematizing this specific set of ideas, and nothing else. Leo had high praise for America and her people and insisted that America was providing a fertile ground for the growth of the Catholic Church.  Could this be one reason why the Church is in better shape in America than in Europe today?

Isn’t patriotism spiritually suspect? 

There is a certain mindset that regards love of country as bordering on the sacrilegious.  I imagine it’s felt by some that pledging allegiance to the flag is just a few rungs up the ladder from devil worship.  Yet isn’t ours an incarnated faith? Even our Lord had a country which He dearly loved (see Mt. 23:37-39).  Jesus bade us to give Caesar and God their respective due, and to be His disciples in the midst of the world.  To be sure, patriotism needs to be cleansed of impure motives, purged of the errors of utopianism and millenarianism.  On the other hand, we need not lead a disembodied existence, unconnected to the country we live in.  We can and should be both Catholics and Americans; we must live in this city of man while aspiring to the city of God.  So if you’re Catholic, feel free to take pride in your country’s founding and wave her flag a little; feel no shame in the innocent joys of Independence Day.

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