Americans under the age of sixty can hardly imagine a Roman Catholic president (of a party) running for president and having to declare his loyalty to the US Constitution. Recent coverage of Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment to the Supreme Court may be helpful thanks to concerns about her ties to the People of the Faith. But for Joe Biden, being Catholic is just as comforting as mom and apple pie. This wasn’t so for the Democrat who inspired Biden to get into politics, John F. Kennedy. Like Al Smith before him, the first Roman Catholic candidate (1928), Kennedy had to prove that his beliefs did not undermine his loyalty to America. In contrast, Joe Biden now speaks of faith as a source of inspiration for his public life without the slightest objection from journalists. Of course, many conservative church members and some bishops do not see Biden’s devotion as many in the press do. In order to promote public awareness of Catholicism’s place in American politics, current coverage of Biden is a useful barometer for American Catholics.
Even before the 2020 presidential election, the domestication of Roman Catholicism had become a problem for some writers, most notably Patrick Deneen and Adrian Vermeule. For Catholic anti-liberals, American Catholics mixed faith and politics in an unhealthy way. Deneen is best known for contradicting Anglo-American liberalism in Why Liberalism Failed, a book that contrasts the anthropology of John Locke and his American descendants with the ideas of classical and Christian antiquity. Vermeule takes the idea that the founders probably built worse than they knew and suggests integralism as an alternative. The arrangements of premodern Europe enchant Vermeule, who sees a fluid arrangement between church and state as superior to the liberal failure of America. Anyone familiar with the scriptures of medieval theologians for Christian royalty has little problem understanding the appeal of integralism.
What accompanies this criticism of America’s politics is usually a reprimand to the leaders of the American Conservative Movement, who, without exception, were themselves Roman Catholic or converted to the Church. If the American founders failed to create a “more perfect union,” the founding generation of American conservatism, so the complaint, was naively linked to Lockean liberalism. Consequently, the same conservatives, from William F. Buckley to George Weigel, made patriotism obscure piety. According to Kevin Gallagher, Catholic Americanists tended to “reject” publications by popes and bishops, which in turn reflected “rather shallow roots in tradition.” Church teaching should have led conservatives to be more critical of the nation’s politics than they are. Instead, these conservatives supported “the traditions of American liberalism” which “were far from typical even of the Church itself”.
Some of the discontent among anti-liberal Catholics could be due to limited historical awareness. The creation of the modern conservative movement came with considerable adversity. The traditional home in electoral politics for American Catholics was the Democratic Party. At the same time, American Catholics were working in broader American circles amid weary nativist objections that Roman Catholicism was medieval, against freedom of thought, authoritarian and superstitious. Even more challenging was the Vatican’s own anti-modernism, which was particularly pronounced during the French and the revolution of 1848, but continued into the 1950s. This version of traditionalism finally had through Leo XIII. Condemn (mild) Americanism as heresy. For American Catholics like Buckley, Russell Kirk, Richard John Neuhaus, and Michael Novak, it was truly remarkable to stand up to these trends and to maintain an extremely conservative and pro-faith attitude. New York University historian Thomas Sugrue, no fan of conservatism in politics or the church, admits that no “reasonable” historian or cultural observer of the 1920s or 1940s could have predicted “Catholic Americanism”. It is “one of the most important and least explored topics in the history of post-war America”.
Even more impressive about this Catholic Americanism was its emergence during a rise in anti-Catholic bigotry in the early 1950s. In 1949, Paul Blanshard, the product of major Protestant seminars (Harvard and Union in New York City) and at times a Congregational pastor, drew attention to himself with American freedom and Catholic power. The book relied on Protestant and nativist objections to Catholics. It has also dredged up previous anti-Catholic voices, such as the New Republic editorial of the 1928 elections, which stated that the real conflict in America was “not between a church and a state, or between Catholicism and Americanism, but between a culture, which is based on absolutism and encourages obedience “and another who” encourages curiosity, hypotheses and experimentation “.
John Courtney Murray responded almost single-handedly to this rise in anti-Catholicism, using an argument already present in American Catholic legal circles, namely that the American founding had a common ground with the natural law tradition of the Church. In the Time Magazine cover story about Murray, which appeared a month after Kennedy’s 1960 victory, the professor claimed that the founders shared a moral consensus with other Americans that people could only be free if they were “internally of moral law governed ”.
Rather than being encouraged by Murray’s response to anti-Catholic bigotry, professors at the Catholic University of America and officials at the Vatican Holy Office rejected American views of the Church and State. Eventually, his Jesuit superiors banned Murray from writing on the subject. But his fate changed with the inauguration of John XXIII. As Pope in 1958 and Kennedy’s election. Not only had the former U.S. Senator broken through the glass ceiling of the White House for American Catholics, but the Pope called on a council of bishops to understand and articulate how the church should deal with modern social circumstances. In Rome, the universal Church revised its understanding of religious freedom (among other things) to make Murray’s views acceptable. Murray was an advisor to the council himself, although he continued to suspect. His argument for religious freedom prevailed (mostly) in Dignitatis Humanae, which, according to George Weigel, “sought to” solve “the problem of Catholicism and modernity by embracing” pluralism “, which is understood in Murray’s terms Vatican II has since been viewed as a justification for the success of the American Church in the United States.
If the hierarchy of the Church is unwilling to reject Locke or Murray, anti-liberal Catholics can potentially be encouraged by a long line of Catholic intellectuals who have found the nation’s ideals of freedom to be impoverished.
Whether anti-liberal Catholics knowingly play with nativist stereotypes, their objections to Americanism reflect both Blanshard’s anti-Catholicism and the Vatican’s fears of Murray. The writer of American Freedom and Catholic Power noted that Murray “sought to prove, through a series of intricate historical analyzes,” that religious freedom and church-state relations under US law “could potentially win the approval of Leo XIII if he passed on Life would be today. ” For Blanshard, Murray was “nothing more essential than scientific wishful thinking”. This judgment was an indication of those that are often passed today by anti-liberal Catholics. According to Edmund Waldstein, Murray wrongly viewed the United States as a congenial polity, not because of the shortcomings of republicanism, but because American law “has constitutionally established a liberal view of political life” that is theologically at odds with the Church. Murray’s concept ensured that “Enlightenment ideas would undermine the teachings of the church and turn them into a metaphor for innerworldly progress.”
This contrast between Rome’s Middle Ages and America’s liberalism shows what the greatest irony of anti-liberal Catholicism can be. A return to an older social order – one in which the church’s understanding of human purpose and divine authority – requires the blessings of the church hierarchy. But since Vatican II, when the church took a welcoming stance towards modern politics, popes and bishops have sounded more like Catholic Americanists than anti-liberal Catholics. In fact, the American hierarchy has made freedom a central point in its political profile since 2012, if the Fortnight for Freedom is any indication. In their pamphlet calling for Church members to celebrate and pray for freedom in the two weeks leading up to July 4th, the bishops stated: “Freedom is not just for Americans, we consider it to be something of our particular legacy that was fought for at a heavy cost and a legacy that must now be guarded. “They added a quote from James Gibbons, the Archbishop of Baltimore, famous for Americanism:” In the brilliant atmosphere of freedom [the Church] blooms like a rose. “
If the hierarchy of the Church is unwilling to reject Locke or Murray, anti-liberal Catholics can potentially be encouraged by a long line of Catholic intellectuals who have found the nation’s ideals of freedom to be impoverished. In his book, Catholicism and American Freedom, John McGreevy writes that freedom meant something different to many American Catholics than what it meant to Protestants and liberals. “What bothered the Catholics was freedom as freedom of choice, diversity of opinion for the sake of diversity.” “That kind of freedom,” adds McGreevy, “without the virtue or character to make the right decisions was dangerous.” In other words, American Catholics have often thought of freedom in the broader context of order. The same was true of the Catholic Americans, who supposedly advocated libertarianism. Bruce Frohnen put it this way: “Conservatives support freedom that is properly – that is, socially, politically and morally – ordered and understood.” In a line reflected by Russell Kirk, “orderly freedom is the ability to pursue what is good with others.”
If this is how Catholic Americanists understand freedom, anti-liberal Catholics have caricatured that such as Weigel and Buckley have always placed freedom within a wider range of legal, political, and social considerations. Equally dubious is the notion that anti-liberal Catholics stand by the hierarchy of the Church, a claim that depends heavily on the interpretations of the Second Vatican Council and its teaching on religious freedom for non-Catholics. The greatest irony in the criticism of the Catholic Americanists, however, is the guilt anti-liberal Catholics owe their imaginary enemies. Thanks to the explicit and implicit way in which Catholic Americanists opened national debates for Catholic voices, these conservatives made room for anti-liberal Catholics to be heard beyond the forums to which older versions of integralism once restricted themselves. Even the mistakes of anti-liberal Catholics have rights now.