Why did American Catholicism suffer a violent collapse? Was it the fault of the country’s own political traditions? We asked two writers to exchange emails.
Dear Mr McGinley,
I should say from the outset that I am not a liberal, so I will not argue in favor of liberalism or that its “friendship” with the US Church has presently succeeded. Instead, what I will argue is that the friendship succeeded for a time but no longer does.
Americans during the Founding did not call themselves “liberal.” With a couple exceptions, the Founders called themselves “Protestant.” All called themselves “republican.”
It was later, in the mid-20th century, that the friendship between the Church and liberalism succeeded. However, it was the amorphous liberalism of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was president when many Catholics remained in urban strongholds of unionized labor. At this point, Mgr “New Deal” John A Ryan defended FDR as implementing Catholic social teaching. His former student, Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen, preserved what was true in the American political tradition while affirming the spiritual and moral authority of the Pope.
By the 1980s, American Catholics divided over the implementation of the Second Vatican Council reforms. To combat secular liberalism at home and communism abroad, the more traditional Catholic leaders allied with Movement Conservatism composed of evangelical Protestants, libertarian economists, and other groups that supported the election of Ronald Reagan.
By the 1990s, communism was gone and so were the urban Catholic enclaves; however, in part because of the Reagan-era politicization of religion, secular liberals advanced. Some Catholics acceded to it; many became more conservative but increasingly find themselves unhappy with the nostrums of “zombie Reaganism.” The missing voices here have been the bishops who once tenaciously defended their flocks, but have left the laity to fight among themselves over what to do now.
Prof James Patterson
Dear Prof Patterson,
There is no question the mid-20th century was the heyday of American Catholicism – that is, a way of experiencing the Faith inflected with distinctly American intellectual and political habits. And I don’t mean this in a snide way: There was much to admire about the synthesis.
We are forced to ask, then, how it all collapsed so violently in the second half of the century. Of course there’s no simple answer: demographic and geographic shifts, for instance, had at least as much impact as anything else. But to focus on the habits of mind that have defined American Catholicism, it seems to me that the Church became a victim of her own success at integrating into the American scene.
What had generally been seen as an imperfect but acceptable position for the Church – as one religious institution among many participating in a free public square – came to be seen as normative, as an expression of reality itself. That is, the Church came to be seen by prelates and, more importantly, regular Catholic families as a club or special interest group, extraordinary primarily because she was ours, not because she’s the mystical Bride and Body of Christ or any rudely sectarian business like that. What had been rhetorical compromises to assuage secular-Protestant anxieties became, explicitly or implicitly, points of principle.
This hollowing-out of the Church’s self-understanding is a direct result of her attempt to appeal to liberalism, and has proved devastating for the faithful and our civilization.
Now, to be a little provocative, in terms of this effect on the Church I don’t see an enormous amount of daylight between liberalism, which you seem to characterize as a foreign ideological pathogen within American republicanism, and American republicanism itself, understood as the on-the-ground institutions and habits that form our political life. A great deal of the accommodation made by the Church to American culture has been related to precisely those habits and institutions, at least as much as it has been to an abstract liberal ideology.
This requires a lot more fleshing out, but I have gone on too long already. I eagerly await your thoughts on these matters!
On the shelf behind me is a mausoleum for books on “The Catholic Moment”, which appeared so regularly from the 1980s to recent years. A closer look reveals the intellectual compromises you observed: the earlier texts are aspirational, the later ones partisan and ideological, trying to fuse John Locke’s liberalism with Catholic teaching. The idea was to help form a political coalition with Evangelicals. The result was intellectually incoherent.
The mistake, in retrospect, was to believe such a fusion was necessary. When Sheen or Dr Martin Luther King Jr invoked the “Judeo-Christian Consensus,” they did not need the different denominations to believe the same thing but only to share enough common values to ground just laws. To paraphrase Sheen, “would to God that we could meet in the same pew, but we can at least meet on our knees in prayer.”
Recent scholarship suggests that the deepest American traditions are not “liberal” ones. The American republican tradition preceded liberalism by a century and had deeply religious roots. The settlement of English colonies, including recusant Maryland, required colonists to engage in local and relatively democratic self-government mostly out of necessity. Colonies were far from the mother country and from each other.
The American republican tradition led to some excesses, as when Catholic laity affirmed a direct role in selecting clergy. Bishops responded by centralizing diocesan authority, perhaps giving rise to the institutional capacity for later bishops to surrender their religious responsibilities in the way you described. They have been effectively unaccountable, as the Vatican is reluctant to intervene where intervention may make matters worse.
As I think about all this, I am forced to wonder if a non-liberal republicanism was ever sustainable. More pertinently, I wonder if a satisfactory existence for the Church within republicanism was ever possible, or is now recoverable.
For all the real good in the republican tradition – and there is much, especially its recognition and nurturing of genuine virtue – its security is based on the separation of the political from the theological. This was seemingly necessary to skirt the differences over which Europeans came to blows in the centuries prior to the American Founding, but it also results in a thin and unsound vision of the common good.
Republicanism depends, of course, on the maintenance of a consensus among the people that virtue really matters. But to say that virtue is a political good, while the particulars of the faith that sustains virtue are private, is the very seed of liberalism and secularism.
Returning to the topic at hand: What is the point of the Church in a republican society? It seems that the only role acceptable for her on republican terms, and the one she embraced, was to be one virtue-forming institution among many.
There seems to be a direct line from this republican conception of the Church to so many of the pathologies that blight her today. We might point to today’s Americanist view of Church leadership and doctrine – susceptible to lobbying, changeable by administrative fiat. But at least as corrosive is the view that the Church can function fully and comfortably on republican terms. This is how we end up with the sacraments as subjective aids to personal holiness at best and bourgeois rites of passage at worst, rather than the essential spiritual scaffolding of civilization itself.
My thesis, then, is that while republicanism and liberalism may be conceptually distinct, when the Church embraces a limited republican role for herself, that distinction fades away.
All this talk of doom is unnecessary! The American republican tradition is in no need of recovery. It is still alive today. Examples abound: from local homeschool co-ops to parish support for undocumented workers to the Cajun Navy providing flood relief. The diminishment of republican life is in places where self-government is hardest. These include lower-income communities in need of economic opportunity, but often overlooked are large cities. In cities, wealthy interests cooperate with municipal government to control land use, licensing, and nearly every aspect of city life and thereby marginalizing public service efforts. Even so, when there is no such structure, Americans prove ready to serve the common good, often for free. For example, to deal with Covid-19, neighbors in my parish have assembled masks and just left them for free on their front porches.
Republicanism and liberalism are not the same. As a regime, republics have been around for millennia, and many were Catholic: places like Venice, Genoa, Pisa, and some of the Swiss Cantons. They formed without liberalism and found ways to decline despite confessing the Catholic faith.
Moreover, the Church has had quite favorable things to say about the American republic. In Longinqua, Leo XIII wrote that America had emerged in “some design of divine Providence”, especially as “the American colonies, having, with Catholic aid, achieved liberty and independence, coalesced into a constitutional Republic, the ecclesiastical hierarchy was established amongst you; and at the very time when the popular suffrage placed the great Washington at the helm of the Republic, the first bishops was set by apostolic authority over the American Church.” Leo XIII regretted how the regime “dissevered and divorced” Church and State but believed even this could be remedied. To that end, he recommended “using every means of persuasion” and by “force of example”, which were easy enough to use because the Church was “unopposed by the Constitution and government” and “free to live and act without hindrance.”
Here we have one of the greatest popes in history praising a largely Protestant nation for laying the groundwork for its own Catholic evangelization – providential indeed! Vital to that evangelization was, as Leo XIII instructed, for American bishops to build schools and form communities in the Faith. As I said from the beginning, the bishops have fallen away from serving this role.
Whatever excuse they might offer – whether it is a liberal one or not – seems less important than that they stop making excuses in the first place. Indeed, all the talk of liberalism seems inadvertently to let clergy off the hook. If liberalism always doomed America, then the failure of the clergy to instruct the faithful does not matter. Of course, Leo XIII said otherwise – that America was well founded as a republic and merely in need of good formation in the faith. Over a century later, His Holiness is still right.
Few can surpass my affection for Pope Leo! (I once checked to see if LEO XIII was an available vanity license plate in Pennsylvania, and it was! But I decided it would be a little much.) And “republicanism” of the limited sort you describe – that impulse to take private initiative and to form civic associations – is a distinctly American genius, one that has served the Church well: the sodalities and apostolates and so on that flowered in Catholic enclaves, and still exist to a lesser extent, reflect this tradition.
And yet the virtues of republicanism – or republican virtues, for that matter – do not stand alone, detached from grace and the ministry of the Church. As Leo XIII said later in Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae, “To practice virtue there is absolute need of the assistance of the Holy Spirit.”
There are certainly some social virtues – neighbourliness, compromise, and so on – that are nurtured by republican political forms, but these are ultimately manifestations of Christian virtues – liberality, prudence, and so on – that are primarily nurtured by the Holy Spirit and the sacramental life of the Church. The practices and habits of republicanism require the support of correct notions of theology and ecclesiology.
This is what I mean when I say that the costs of accommodation to American norms have been too great.
But, to the extent that we can make the republican/liberal distinction, I think it offers a promising way forward for American Catholics who are looking to fit a non-liberal Catholicism into the American tradition. I’m not sure exactly what that looks like yet, but this discussion has inspired me to consider it more deeply.
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