News Analysis

What it means to be an American Catholic

What is America? Is it a land, molded by geology and industry, and pregnant with legend? Is it a people, shaped by a common history and a shared destiny? Is it a social contract, defined by its founding documents and their principles?

It’s a complicated question, especially for Catholics, who have been suspected and often persecuted on religious, political and ethnic grounds since long before John Hancock placed his name on the Declaration of Independence. Even when we shared the land, we Catholics were considered alien to the people, their political project, and its principles.

It is in the context of the continuing re-evaluation of American identity, and the emergence of a kind of neo-nativism and the backlash against it, that Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles (pictured) released a short but powerful essay following the white nationalist terrorist attack in El Paso, Texas.

The sentence that grabbed headlines was this one: “But the myth that America was founded by and for white people is just that – a myth.” More interesting than this assertion, though, and essential to understanding its meaning and importance, is the implied claim about what America is.

Neo-nativists, or ethno-nationalists, focus on defining America as a people and a contract: outsiders can more easily earn their full membership if they share a cultural affinity (which is hard to disentangle from racial identity) or contribute immediately to the common weal. But the poor and culturally/ethnically alien are considered threats to both the American people and the contract that binds them together. The preoccupation with borders is about seeing the space bounded by them as the possession of the people and an expression of the social contract. The land was not meaningfully “America” until it was brought under the sovereignty of the American people, among whom northern Europeans have historically been predominant in numbers and power.

Archbishop Gómez, on the other hand, wants to expand, subtly but radically, that understanding of America. The very first words in his essay after denying that this is a country by and for white people are: “this land”. “This land was born as an encounter of cultures, first with Native Americans,” he wrote. “Hispanics arrived in Texas in 1519. Asians started arriving in California about 50 years before the pilgrims made it to Plymouth Rock. The first non-native language spoken in this continent was Spanish, not English.”

While the archbishop’s rhetorical move is meant to undermine a strictly demographic definition of America, it also has significant implications for American Catholic identity.

From the beginning of the American project, the identitarian-contractual understanding of the nation has been used to exclude and persecute Catholics and the institutional Church. The odd English Catholic (such as the Carrolls of Maryland) had it bad enough, but the later waves of Catholic immigrants were almost exclusively from ethnic groups considered unsuited to American-style self-government: Irish, Italian, Slav, and now Latino. The language of invasion and subversion, so prominent in the El Paso shooter’s manifesto and in mainstream anti-immigration rhetoric, has been used for more than two centuries against Catholics.

As a result, American Catholics have always lived with a distinctive tension in our religious and political identity. Patriotism – rightly understood as the piety owed to one’s country, not a mindless allegiance of “right or wrong” – is a virtue and a religious duty. And yet this country, in its principles, history and ongoing self-understanding, has systematically excluded the Church and her vision for a society based in the authentic virtue of religion.

Archbishop Gómez’s analysis shows us a way forward: rediscovering the Catholic roots not so much of American principles – a project that too easily falls into indifferentism and the condemned philosophy of Americanism – but of the land this country has brought under its sovereignty.

The writer Stefan McDaniel sketched this view two years ago in a beautiful essay, called simply “Catholic America”, in First Things. Relying on the 1940 book Our Land and Our Lady by Daniel Sargent, McDaniel described the deeper history of this land: “America, like many of its current residents, may have been raised Protestant, but it was baptized Catholic. Almost every region was first discovered, explored, and charted by ultra-Catholic Spaniards and Frenchmen. From the Bay of the Mother of God (the Chesapeake) to the River of the Immaculate Conception (the Mississippi) to the Bay of San Francisco, these Catholics christened the land with Catholic names.”

And let us not forget Los Angeles, where Archbishop Gómez serves the Church that founded his city, and the Queen of Angels who preserves it.

The archbishop’s essay, then, is not just a brief against ethno-nationalism, but also a gesture toward a renewed understanding of the place of Catholics in America. It is an invitation to engage these alarming times with our greatest confidence not in the specific destiny of this country, but in the universal destiny of the Church, which consecrated this land before liberals and Protestants acquired it.