If were to ask you what some Catholic traditionalists and some radical leftists had in common, you might be left scratching your head for a few moments. On most matters you wouldn’t expect them to agree on much of anything. But there’s one issue they do tend to converge upon, and that is their take on American history.
When I read some Catholic trad descriptions of American history and Catholicism’s place in it, I find myself wondering if I’d accidentally picked up and began reading something by Charles Beard or Howard Zinn. I’m not associating these tendencies in order to delegitimize the Catholic trad critique – which contains, as do most critiques which catch on with at least some people, elements of truth. But the trad critique, in its shrillness and its refusal to engage historical facts that may falsify or at least cast reasonable doubt upon its substantive claims, deserves to be set alongside the vulgar leftist critique of American history. And bear in mind, I say this as a Catholic trad myself, albeit one who is more of a romanticist than a true reactionary.
I also say it as someone who once bought into this whole idea. As a young man emerging from a long and involved commitment to Marxism, both academic and political, into Catholicism, a religion I had little to do with since the age of 13, I had sort of stumbled upon this narrative on my own. There was still something romantic and alluring about rejecting “Americanism”, now from a Catholic perspective.
After all, the two critiques often make use of a lot of the same themes – a rejection of individualism, of bourgeois Protestant values, a savage critique of the Enlightenment, invocations of slavery and other manifestations of racism and inequality, and perhaps more specific to the Catholic angle, reminders of Freemasonry and the Illuminati (though to be fair, Mozart was a Freemason too, back in the days when it wasn’t yet forbidden by the Church. I don’t think that’s ever stopped a trad from enjoying his Requiem, but I digress).
Now, given the popularity of this critique, not only among trads, but also among the Catholic left, the “peace and justice” crowd – of course, for much different reasons and to much different ends – one would surely expect to find a solid foundation or at least an implied resonance within Church history, tradition, and teaching.
If you hold that expectation, prepare to be utterly disappointed. Or delighted, as the case may be.
As is the case with a few other matters, some quarters of the laity are well outside the Papal tradition. I say tradition, because there is no teaching on this matter, except for the general teaching that patriotism is a virtue (provided the government isn’t ordering you to violate God’s laws, which, at least until the latter half of the 20th century, this government generally did not do). Not only is it outside Papal tradition, however; it also appears to be at odds with what lay Catholics who have established themselves in America since the 17th century appear to have believed about it.
The first fact we have to keep in mind is this: that North America, at least for subjects of the British crown in 17th century, was seen as a land of religious opportunity. We all know this was true of the Puritans and other Protestant non-conformists. But for some reason, we tend to forget that this was also doubly true for British Catholics, who came to America and established the colony of Maryland in 1634.
For the same ultimate reasons, at least on the political level, as the Puritans and other non-conforming sects, the Catholics had every interest in establishing a safe-haven in the New World. But even in America, Catholics were outnumbered by Protestants. Not only by Protestants, but Protestants who were kicked out of Britain, or who fled, because they believed the British government was becoming too Catholic (or at least not anti-Catholic enough) under the Stuart kings.
This double disadvantage impelled the Catholics of Maryland to take historic action. It was here that the Anglo-Saxon world’s first religious Toleration Act was established in 1649. Now, the Act wasn’t everything a modern liberal would like, far from it – anyone who denied the divinity of Christ was sentenced to death. But in a time during which almost everyone at least professed that belief, and which men were killing one another over variations on that belief, the Toleration Act was a historical milestone.
And it must be repeated: this was not the result of a Masonic plot (the Masons didn’t exist yet, at least in America), or “Protestant individualism”, or “Enlightenment rationalism” (the evil Enlightenment slave-owning empiricist John Locke didn’t publish his Essay on Toleration until 1689) , or “neo-pagan idolatry” or any other weird anti-Catholic ideological bogeyman. It was an act of self-preservation AND good will on the part of America’s first Catholic refugees. Toleration was extended, after all, to many other non-conforming Christians and the idea was that they might all get along. American Catholics can and ought to be proud of this.
I don’t wish to lightly brush over the subsequent difficulties faced by the Catholics of Maryland. They faced a Puritan revolt, an unfortunate by-product of the English Civil War, which expelled them from political authority and proscribed their religion, and later, the establishment of the Church of England. For a period of roughly 100 years, Catholics had become outcasts and even sometimes outlaws in the colony they had established to promote religious freedom. This changed with the victory of the colonists over Britain – a victory in which the long-suffering Catholics of Maryland participated. Evidently, they did not regard their persecution as a justification or rationalization for withholding their efforts from the American Revolution.
The first bishop of Baltimore, the first bishop of the United States, John Carroll, was a friend of George Washington. His cousin Charles was a signatory of the Declaration of Independence (which is based, I believe, upon Catholic political ideas). Washington in turn was a friend to Catholics, condemning colonists who burned an effigy of the Pope. And the Papacy, along with France and other European states, had an interest in Britain losing the war. Once the Constitution was ratified, religious liberty and toleration were restored.
After this, for Catholics in America, the sky was the limit. Yes there was continued discrimination by the Protestant majority, and no, things were not perfect. But the rate at which Catholicism grew and spread in the United States, at least in my view, undermines any notion that there is something inherent in the American experiment that is hostile to Catholicism.
The Papacy has always shared this view. Though I don’t have many encyclicals written by Popes prior to Leo XIII on hand, his Pontificate is as good as any a place to begin. In Longinqua, written in 1895, Leo writes,
Precisely at the epoch when the American colonies, having, with Catholic aid, achieved liberty and independence, coalesced into a constitutional Republic the ecclesiastical hierarchy was happily established amongst you; and at the very time when the popular suffrage placed the great Washington at the helm of the Republic, the first bishop was set by apostolic authority over the American Church. The well-known friendship and familiar intercourse which subsisted between these two men seems to be an evidence that the United States ought to be conjoined in concord and amity with the Catholic Church. (4)
What do today’s trads know that Leo XIII didn’t know? I’ll wait for them to tell me. Expounding on the subsequent development of the American Church, Leo writes,
That your Republic is progressing and developing by giant strides is patent to all; and this holds good in religious matters also. For even as your cities, in the course of one century, have made a marvellous increase in wealth and power, so do we behold the Church, from scant and slender beginnings, grown with rapidity to be great and exceedingly flourishing. (5)
What was he smoking when he wrote that? If you’re a trad who gripes bitterly about how unCatholic America was, is, and ever will be, you have to imagine it was some pretty powerful stuff. Of course Leo was absolutely right, and I turn to a brief quantitative overview of the American Church circa 1950 by a Msgr. George Kelley in his book, The Battle for the American Church:
*150,000 religious teachers
*5 million children in Catholic schools from kindergarten to college, 5 million more in non-Catholic schools receiving religious instruction
*75% of married Catholics attend Mass every Sunday
*50 take Holy Communion once a month
*85% of single people went to Mass every Sunday
*College educated Catholics were the most faithful of all
The last statistic alone is enough to leave my mouth open. College educated Catholics were the most faithful of ALL? I submit this as further evidence that something between America and the Catholic Church “clicked.”
But the Papal story doesn’t end with Leo. I’ll turn next to Pius XII, perhaps the greatest pontiff of the 20th century. After mentioning some of the difficulties faced by the fledgling American republic in Sertum Laetitiae, he goes on to write:
This ruinous and critical state of affairs was put aright by the celebrated George Washington, famed for his courage and keen intelligence. He was a close friend of the Bishop of Baltimore. Thus the Father of His Country and the pioneer pastor of the Church in that land so dear to Us, bound together by the ties of friendship and clasping, so to speak, each the other’s hand, form a picture for their descendants, a lesson to all future generations, and a proof that reverence for the Faith of Christ is a holy and established principle of the American people, seeing that it is the foundation of morality and decency, consequently the source of prosperity and progress. (3)
Evidently Pius XII bought into that same old patriotic hokum that Leo XIII was fond of. Maybe he was just being diplomatic. Or maybe in a world in which the supposedly more encultured, enlightened, socially-conscious Europeans had turned their continent and the world upside down with inhuman totalitarian ideologies, and threatened the Church with total destruction, the American experiment and the Church’s place in it look liked a new Promised Land, at least in comparison.
So, there’s at least two pre-counciliar popes that looked fondly upon the Catholic experience in America, that did not dwell on the difficulties, and that never attributed to America any kind of special or extra capacity for the spread of anti-Catholic doctrines. I could quote post-counciliar popes at length as well, but trads are divided in their evaluation of them. As more of an Una Voce trad, I don’t hesitate to state my admiration for many of John Paul II’s and Benedict XVI’s encyclicals.
For now, though, I will limit myself to one reference. This comes from an interview with Pope Benedict in April of 2008, regarding his visit to the United States. A reporter asks him about the American model of church and state, and whether or not it may be useful for Europe. The Holy Father responds:
What I find fascinating in the United States is that they began with a positive concept of secularity, because this new people was composed of communities and individuals who had fled from the State Church and wanted to have a lay, a secular State that would give access and opportunities to all denominations, to all forms of religious practice. Thus, an intentionally secular new State was born; they were opposed to a State Church. But the State itself had to be secular precisely out of love for religion in its authenticity, which can only be lived freely.
What, no denunciations of Freemasonry? Of Lockean empiricism? Of Protestant individualism? Can you hear the tumbleweeds? Benedict continues:
And thus, we find this situation of a State deliberately and decidedly secular but precisely through a religious will in order to give authenticity to religion. And we know that in studying America, Alexis de Toqueville noticed that secular institutions live with a de facto moral consensus that exists among the citizens. This seems to me to be a fundamental and positive model.
This shouldn’t surprise anyone who keeps up with Benedict’s writings; his latest encyclical insisted that there is no fundamental break in the social teaching of the Church, a “before” and “after” Vatican II division. This is evidently true of the Papal attitude towards American history and the Catholic place in it.
Now, let me make this a little more personal. In response to a critique of American Catholicism very similar to the trad critique, only made by a more left-of-center Catholic friend of mine, I found it easier to make my point by also referring to some of the Catholic experiences of the 20th century as they relate to me personally.
For my great-grandparents came to the United States almost 100 years ago from Lebanon, with millions of other Catholics from Europe. These Catholic immigrants, for the most part, never saw a conflict between their religion and what, to them, America was “all about.” It is evident that they didn’t somehow choose “America” over their religion, but like the pragmatists they were, simply assumed that their heritage, culture, and religion would be tolerated in the United States.
For the most part, they were right. If my immigrant forbearers did suffer for their Catholicism, they never let on about it. My Lebanese grandparents were as ardently patriotic as they were Catholic, and would not tolerate “anti-American” talk for a moment. My great-grandfather worked in a factory and carried his family through the Great Depression. This experience did not weaken, but strengthened both religion and patriotism. They celebrated America’s victory over the Nazis and the Japanese, they were grateful for their children’s opportunity to attend Catholic schools.
Now all of this isn’t to say that America is some sort of Hegelian embodiment of the Catholic Idea in history. I’ve had to “bend the stick” in that direction because I’m making a case against a position which I think is as extreme as it is misguided as it is entrenched, and that requires, at first, going in the opposite direction.
But in this matter, as in many others, I am still an Aristotelian, a practitioner of mesotes, of the middle way. And so yes, I will acknowledge that America’s history is not perfect, it is not all sunshine and roses, there was discrimination, war, hardship and a host of other problems. The founding fathers were politically wise, but they were not prophets.
At the same time, I can’t help but notice that virtually every problem assigned to the “American Church” is also affecting the Church in every other affluent country. The spiritual diseases of materialism, consumerism, relativism, indifferentism, etc. are not unique to America. If we treat them as if they are, we miss the real root of the problem.
If anything, America’s federalist system – if it is faithfully interpreted and defended – still offers more opportunities for religious freedom than any other developed country I can think of. And so I think it is something worth preserving and defending, both in deed and in rhetoric.
On the other hand, critiques of America that fail to consider the positive aspects of the Catholic experience in this country just sound like the rants of ticked-off leftist college professors. America can be critiqued, and should be critiqued by Catholics – but an honest critique always takes into consideration the best arguments of the opposition, and does not create ridiculous strawmen by omitting obvious, relevant, and important facts. It also doesn’t help to completely ignore everything the Papacy has said about America, especially among people who typically hold up Papal encyclicals on other matters as documents that are, if not binding on Catholics, at least worthy of acknowledgment, consideration, and respect.
Update: A big thank you to commenter Thomas McDonald, who pointed out some embarrassing historical errors (which goes to show that staying up writing until 4 am has its drawbacks).