Did the Church Reverse Course on Americanism?
American Catholic: The Politics of Faith During the Cold War
By D.G. Hart
Publisher: Cornell University Press
Review Author: Casey Chalk
The year 2020 will be remembered for many things, among them controversies over the role of Catholicism in American public life. Catholic churches and memorials to saints like Junípero Serra and Damien of Molokai were attacked for allegedly representing racism and colonialism. President Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court elicited warnings that the “dogma lives loudly” in her — meaning Catholic faith and practice. And, in November, America elected its second Catholic president, Joe Biden. In the background of all this was a debate — especially ironic given that its prominent interlocutors were Catholics — over the feasibility of liberalism as a political philosophy.
Well-timed, then, is Hillsdale historian D.G. Hart’s American Catholic: The Politics of Faith During the Cold War, which charts the story of how American Catholics over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries sought to reconcile their religious beliefs with the American political experiment. Hart explores how “politically conservative Roman Catholics, primarily in the world of opinion journalism and magazines, made Americanism safe for the church.” With their promotion of individual liberty and their antagonism toward communism, conservative Catholics forged political identities and alliances that dramatically transformed their role in the United States from outsiders viewed suspiciously by the Protestant establishment to America’s greatest champions.
It is a fascinating and curious story. Catholics have been a part of American history since the Ark and the Dove landed in Maryland in 1634, the passengers of which hoped to found a new colony that would promote religious toleration. Catholics served in the Continental Army, and Charles Carroll, a Catholic, signed the Declaration of Independence (two Catholics signed the U.S. Constitution). Catholics were on both sides of the post-revolutionary question of slavery. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney, a Catholic, authored the infamous Dred Scott v. Sanford decision (1857), which declared that blacks had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Other Catholics, particularly Germans in the Midwest, fought to preserve the Union and end slavery.
And yet, anti-Catholic prejudice remained. When Al Smith secured the Democratic presidential nomination in 1928, making him the first Catholic in American history to do so, New York attorney and Episcopalian Charles C. Marshall, in a famous Atlantic Monthly article, questioned whether Smith’s religious beliefs contradicted the principles of the Constitution. The Ku Klux Klan, in that same decade, enjoyed unprecedented popularity across both the North and the South, riding a wave of anti-Catholic nativism. It would be 32 years before another Catholic, John F. Kennedy, would lead a major-party presidential ticket.
Many are aware of Kennedy’s September 12, 1960, speech to a group of Protestant ministers in Houston, in which the senator from Massachusetts declared his support for the separation of church and state and promised he would not take marching orders from the Catholic hierarchy. This speech was part of a broader effort by Kennedy’s campaign to normalize his Catholicism, including a 1959 meeting with 51 bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church, as well as interviews with prominent magazines. Kennedy masterfully exploited the nation’s historic anti-Catholicism to appeal to both Catholic voters and open-minded non-Catholics. His losing opponent for the Democratic nomination, Hubert Humphrey, observed, “Apparently it is perfectly okay for every person of the Catholic faith to vote for Kennedy, but if a Protestant votes for me then he is a bigot.”
Protestant opposition to Kennedy remained during that 1960 election. Pro-GOP evangelist Billy Graham organized a summit of Protestant clergy in Switzerland to generate grassroots support for Republican candidate Richard M. Nixon. This group included preacher Norman Vincent Peale (of The Power of Positive Thinking fame), who pastored the Manhattan church attended by a young Donald J. Trump. Fuller Theological Seminary president Harold J. Ockenga, in turn, warned that Catholicism was a threat to disestablishmentarianism (opposition to the establishment of a state church) and even Protestant demographic dominance, given the Church’s rejection of birth control.
Hart tells a good story and mentions names that will be familiar to NOR readers, including L. Brent Bozell Jr., a convert to Catholicism, early contributor to National Review, and ghost-writer for Barry Goldwater’s famous book The Conscience of a Conservative (1960). Bozell, who died in 1997, was also a contributing editor of the NOR. (The magazine makes no appearance in American Catholic.) Garry Wills and neoconservatives George Weigel, Richard John Neuhaus, and Michael Novak, among others, are discussed at length. Hart’s narrative relates recent developments in conservative American Christianity, including Rod Dreher’s influential book The Benedict Option (2017).
However, American Catholic suffers from serious weaknesses. Most saliently, Hart, who is a Presbyterian, misrepresents Catholic teaching, including on issues central to his overarching thesis. That thesis goes something like this: In the late 19th century, the Catholic Church condemned as heretical something called “Americanism,” which, according to Hart, is more or less identifiable with classical liberalism and manifests in political realities like religious liberty or disestablishmentarianism. But through the influence of American Catholics like John Courtney Murray, S.J., the Second Vatican Council fundamentally reversed Catholic teaching regarding Americanism, as Rome embraced political liberalism.
Thus, Hart asserts, “Prior to Vatican II, Americanism was still a heresy,” as if it weren’t afterwards. Elsewhere, Hart claims that prominent Catholic conservatives like William F. Buckley Jr. of National Review and Richard John Neuhaus of First Things “domesticated” Americanism. “Americanism, though unacceptable until Vatican II, became the legitimate way for the laity and bishops to be Roman Catholic in the United States,” Hart contends.
Let us first examine Hart’s definition of Americanism, a heresy condemned by Pope Leo XIII in Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae (1899). In that encyclical, Leo XIII begins by noting that “we have often considered and admired the noble gifts of your nation which enable the American people to be alive to every good work which promotes the good of humanity and the splendor of civilization.” Yet, he continues, the idea that the American political project might be construed as a unique and even ideal form of political government that requires no reference to religious truth as taught by the Catholic Church is to be censured. Leo XIII reprimands those who “would have the Church in America to be different from what it is in the rest of the world.” In other words, American Catholicism enjoys no special privileges.
The condemnation of Americanism is thus a condemnation of extreme indifferentism — Leo XIII warns of the press’s “confounding of license with liberty” — regarding religious liberty, as well as a condemnation of the proposal that America’s peculiar political experiment should be normative for all nations. Indeed, when Leo XIII wrote Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae, there were still European political regimes, including the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Spain, that identified as explicitly Catholic.
Fast-forward to Vatican II. Hart interprets a reversal of the Americanist heresy in the affirmation in Dignitatis Humanae, the council’s “Declaration on Religious Freedom,” that people should be free from coercion in their pursuit of religious truth. “Never before had the church’s hierarchy recognized the legitimacy of religious freedom,” he writes.
This is inaccurate on multiple levels. First, the hierarchy’s acknowledgment of religious freedom long predates Vatican II. As Jewish historians Nachum T. Gidal (Jews in Germany: From Roman Times to the Weimar Republic, 1988) and Léon Poliakov (The History of Anti-Semitism: From the Time of Christ to the Court Jews, Vol. 1; 1998) have noted, religious nonconformity — including not only Jews but even heretics — was widely permitted by ecclesial authorities in early medieval Christendom. Coerced baptisms were and remain prohibited by ecclesial law. During the Black Death, Pope Clement VI issued bulls in 1348 condemning anti-Semitism and instructing Catholic clergymen to protect Jews. The Constitution of the short-lived Polish Catholic Republic of 1791 enshrined Catholicism as the “dominant” religion but legally tolerated other religious communities, both Protestant and Jewish.
Moreover, a robust Catholic intellectual tradition affirming liberty of conscience long predates Vatican II. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), in Summa Theologiae, affirmed that “if an adult lacks the intention of receiving the sacrament, he must be re-baptized.” He argued in De Veritate that “conscience binds, no matter how false it may be.” St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) urged King James I, an English Protestant, to respect the consciences of his Catholic subjects while also declaring that the state has no native competency over religious matters. Francisco Suárez, S.J. (1548-1617), in is Treatise on Laws and God the Lawgiver, asserted that “liberty is a matter of natural law.” St. John Henry Newman (1801-1890), in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, wrote that many Englishmen misunderstood popes as “speaking against conscience in the true sense of the word, when in fact they were speaking against it in the various false senses.” Hart cites none of these Catholics’ thoughts on conscience.
Hart’s history of Vatican II is likewise problematic. In his telling, Dignitatis Humanae is a result of Fr. Murray’s intervention. However, the American Jesuit was only involved through the third draft of the declaration, which, in its final draft (promulgated Dec. 7, 1965), owed just as much to French and Polish bishops, including then-archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, as it did to the American representatives. Indeed, Bishop Ernest John Primeau of New Hampshire acknowledged the central influence of the French and Polish bishops in the final draft. Yet, for Hart, “the historical tide” was squarely in Murray’s favor.
What of Hart’s claim that Dignitatis Humanae represents a repudiation of earlier Church teaching, including Leo XIII’s condemnation of Americanism? The declaration proclaims that “the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion” (no. 2). Yet this is simply a reiteration of what the Church has taught for centuries; indeed, the declaration states that “throughout the ages the Church has kept safe and handed on the doctrine [of religious liberty]” (no. 12).
Nevertheless, like Leo XIII, the council fathers in Dignitatis Humanae reject religious indifferentism: “Therefore it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ” (no. 1). Elsewhere, the declaration says, “Government therefore ought indeed to take account of the religious life of the citizenry and show it favor, since the function of government is to make provision for the common welfare” (no. 3). Dignitatis Humanae speaks of religious communities’ rightly claiming freedom, “provided the just demands of public order are observed” (no. 4). In other words, the Church teaches that religious liberty is not absolute but must be in accord with just moral norms and not indifferent to truth.
Nor does Dignitatis Humanae endorse classical liberalism as the new universal standard for government. Indeed, it expressly acknowledges the reality that, in some cases, “special civil recognition is given to one religious community in the constitutional order of society.” It is true that in the pre-Vatican II era, public exercise of religious observance of non-Catholic religions in Catholic nations was considered a disruption of public moral norms (cf. Pope Pius IX’s non-dogmatic Syllabus of Errors, particularly no. 78). Dignitatis Humanae rejected that thinking, which was a development, but not a contradiction, of previous dogma.
Whereas prior Catholic teaching emphasized the necessary legal connection between the political and moral orders and the obligations of political leaders to the true faith, Dignitatis Humanae sought to curtail the political order’s claim to the entire person, limiting the state’s power over religious exercise in light of the human person’s transcendent destiny. The duty of ordering the temporal to the eternal remains in both teachings, even if the post-Vatican II Church teaches that the public exercise of non-Catholic religions is not per se contrary to just public order. The Church has never abandoned the necessity of ordering the political to the eternal. Stated simply, there is no evidence that Dignitatis Humanae is an endorsement of Americanism, nor that it declares disestablishmentarianism normative, as Hart alleges.
American Catholic fails in reference to its central thesis because Hart fails to understand Church teaching. He doesn’t seem to understand the broader theological context of the doctrinal development of religious liberty within Catholicism. This is evinced, at least in one respect, by his overreliance on public American Catholics to explain and judge Catholic teaching, rather than seeking to understand Catholic teaching according to its authors and magisterial interpreters. His book is thus an interesting history but an incomplete and inaccurate one.
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