'Catholicism and American Freedom': That Old-World Religion

Author: Michael J. Lacey

In two angry moments of praise and blame reported in The New York Times, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, last of the great New Deal liberals, vented his frustration over the certain passage of a welfare reform bill he had bitterly opposed from the beginning. The Clinton White House had collaborated with Newt Gingrich’s Republicans to overhaul in their fundamentals the workings of the nation’s poor laws, a field in which Moynihan was the Senate’s chief authority. They had done so in a fashion he thought morally evasive. An intense lobbying effort in opposition to the bill had been mounted by the Roman Catholic bishops, and Moynihan, a Catholic, acknowledged the importance of their advocacy. In 1995, alluding to their position on welfare and throwing an old political caution to the winds, he said: ‘’I just do what the Catholic bishops tell me. Write that down. They’ve been at this a hell of a lot longer than anyone else.‘’ A year later, as the fight ended, he added that the bishops ’’admittedly have an easier task with matters of this sort. When principles are at issue, they simply look them up. Too many liberals, alas, simply make them up.’’

He knew neither way is wholly admirable. There was a sting in the remark that should have given a shudder to bishops and liberals alike: it went to one of the oldest tensions in American life, a struggle over the meaning of freedom with deep roots in theological differences that long ago had opened the door to modernity. That tension is carefully charted in ‘’Catholicism and American Freedom,’’ John T. McGreevy’s brilliant book, which brings historical analysis of religion in American culture to a new level of insight and importance. It pits a long-sustained but eroding Catholic communitarian vision of the uses of freedom against a more pervasive, individualistic view that issued from Protestant doctrines of liberty of conscience and the rights of private judgment. Both sides had a point.

McGreevy, a historian at the University of Notre Dame, is concerned with the interplay of Catholicism and anti-Catholicism in what he calls ‘’the American intellectual imagination.’’ Though a world-class collector of data on anti-Catholicism — a bias rather astonishing, as he shows, in its historical depth, its varieties and their application to basic issues of modern democracy — he is not an apologist for the church. He wants to understand how the faith came to be what it is in tandem with America itself. ‘’The trick,’’ he says, ‘’is to capture two traditions in motion, not one: to explore American ideas about Catholicism along with the predispositions (at times blinders) framing the mental landscape of American Catholics.’’

It is a tough trick because most serious readers of American history know a good deal about the Protestant past, but next to nothing about Catholicism. There is the impression that it had been big, standoffish and ‘’priest-ridden,’’ as its adversaries put it, traits that most American thinkers from Jefferson to John Dewey and beyond have found reprehensible. Those intellectuals, generally native-born, who have driven changes in American social thought are well known, while many of those who drove changes in Catholicism, as McGreevy notes, ‘’did not always (or ever) write in English or work in the United States.’’ A beginner’s list would include, for example, Heinrich Pesch, Karl Rahner and Bernhard H* ring from Germany; Matteo Liberatore and Luigi Sturzo from Italy; John Henry Newman from England; Charles Montalembert, Jacques Maritain, Yves Congar and Henri de Lubac from France; Bernard Lonergan from Canada; Gustavo Gutierrez from Peru; and Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II) from Poland.

And the social impact of Protestantism on American democracy — the democratizing effects, for example, of waves of revivalism, the ‘’great awakenings’’ of the 18th and 19th centuries — has long been a staple in American history, while the complex influences of their counterpart, the transnational Catholic revival of the 19th century, have not been brought sharply into focus until now, by McGreevy.

Usually labeled ultramontanism by church historians, the Catholic revival was a major factor in shaping religion and politics in Europe, Latin America, Canada and the United States. It had to do with a long centralizing drive by the Vatican, culminating in the declaration of papal infallibility in 1870, to reassert its authority in the leadership of a transnational religious community and recover from wounds it had suffered at the hands of Enlightenment revolutionaries, particularly in France. There Catholicism’s role as the state religion of the ancien regime had cost it dearly. Its clergy had been turned into de facto civil servants who were targeted in what became a blood bath of recrimination. The revolution took on the militant character of a secular religion, aiming to ‘’de-Christianize’’ France as a step in the liberation of the people. The resulting chaos helped to set the Vatican firmly against the rhetoric of revolution and inspired deep suspicions of claims made on behalf of liberty and democracy.

The revival aimed to buttress the cultural legitimacy of the hierarchy, and it proceeded in a spirit of moral guardianship. It fostered an experiential kind of piety through new devotions. Most important, as McGreevy shows, it encouraged the development of the Thomistic moral philosophy of natural law, that part of the classical heritage it would use to counter all that it considered erroneous in rapidly multiplying modern philosophies. In America these ingredients added up to a recipe for subcultural separatism, and produced a struggle for ‘’Catholic control of Catholic institutions — as opposed to Catholic participation in state institutions.’’

The American response was to see in Catholicism something like the mirror opposite of liberal nationalism. Political and intellectual leaders distinguished between ‘’Romanists,’’ who might be acceptable as individuals, and ‘’Romanism,’’ a system, as they saw it, of mental slavery that rendered Catholics prone to authoritarianism and unfit for democratic citizenship. Horace Mann, in a remark that expresses an anxiety felt by most non-Catholic intellectuals since his day (and many Catholic ones, too), asserted ‘’the avowed doctrine of Catholicism was, that men could not think for themselves.’’ They depended not simply on individual conscience but on an instructed conscience that resulted from participation in the life of the church.

This is the fault line through contending meanings of freedom and conscience that McGreevy traces from the 1840’s, when Catholicism became the nation’s largest denomination, through the present. He shows its tension operating in the great debates over education, slavery and nationalism in the 19th century, and follows it through the 20th in the combination of economic liberalism and cultural conservatism that Catholic social thought produced, with its strong support for social justice and its aversion to birth control, eugenics, euthanasia and abortion — all long held by the hierarchy to violate the moral absolute of respect for life as specified in its interpretation of the natural law. He closes with splendid chapters on the erosion under siege since the reforms of the Second Vatican Council of the moral theology of natural law, due to its problems in dealing adequately with issues of historical change, subjectivity and dissent from authoritative formulations of its meaning. Particularly important here was the case of the ban on contraception, which inaugurated a gradual loss of confidence in church leadership that is now compounded by revelations of incompetence in dealing with the sex abuse scandal.

The hard test for historical writing comes to whether it suggests new ways to see things and new questions to put to the past. McGreevy succeeds.

Michael J. Lacey, director emeritus of the American program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, is an adjunct lecturer at the University of Washington.

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