At first, it may seem Catholicism contributed little to the American founding. The Founding Fathers were Protestants or deists and had themselves mostly arrived from the formerly Catholic kingdoms of England and Scotland, many as dissenters from the initial dissent of King Henry VIII. They had little obvious sympathy for Catholic doctrine or political thought.
Among the Founders in 1776, only Charles Carroll of Carrollton was Catholic. The Acton Institute’s Samuel Gregg has invoked Carroll as an example of a Founding-era Catholic who sought to integrate his faith with the secular republic of the young United States, even though at the time Catholics labored under significant civic restrictions. But Carroll was an outlier, both in terms of his faith and his influence, owing to the fact that he was one of the richest men in the Colonies at the time of independence.
Catholics were a minority in the Colonies and initially of little political significance. There was a further problem. In Europe, the Church was facing the inferno of the French Revolution and was in no mood to endorse or support a government across the Atlantic that rejected the Church and, instead, literally deified reason. The government the Founders instituted in the United States, with its religious freedom, popular sovereignty, and individual liberty, seemed quite far from that of Catholic states such as Spain or the Holy Roman Empire. The invocation of “Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence, and the separation at the federal level between ecclesial and political authority, was foreign to much of the Catholic experience of political life. Moreover, the placement of sovereignty with the people and the absence, for example, of clear references to the common good or to the obligations of citizens to God in the founding documents were likewise foreign. At base, it seemed, America was a Protestant nation, in which Catholics could not feel welcome.
But that is not the whole story. America, as it happens, is larger than the original 13 Colonies. The history of Catholics in America is older than the nation itself and older even than the British Colonies. St. Augustine, Florida was founded by the Spanish in 1565, and the French were in parts of Maine by the first years of the 17th century, followed by the Spanish again in Texas and the West. The Louisiana Purchase is an early example of the new nation absorbing a large land mass settled and populated by Catholics, with a different political and legal tradition.
Like many progressive political impulses, outrages like the recent toppling of statues of Saint Junípero Serra in California may have the opposite effect by erasing even further the non-white, non-Anglo-Saxon, non-Protestant history of the country, eliminating the Spanish and indigenous settlements that were there by the time the “Americans” arrived. On the other hand, if this iconoclasm is appropriately resisted by those who care about the nation’s admittedly complicated history, it may herald a return to the larger history of contributions of Catholic settlements to the American story. Indeed, some “postliberal” Catholic writers half-jokingly refer to the “Empire of Our Lady of Guadalupe” as a successor to America.
Even that is not the whole story. Since the founding, America has proven to be a congenial home for millions of Catholics, especially as they began to arrive in greater numbers in the 19th century. These Catholics were unrelated to French or Spanish efforts at empire building, but were instead fleeing the poverty of the Old World. They embraced the “American way of life,” sometimes without knowing it, and the tensions between the Catholic and “American” understandings of political life grew less severe.
Sure, the Know Nothings made life difficult for Catholics, and the last of the anti-Catholic Blaine Amendments was overruled by the Supreme Court just this year. But in spite of these hurdles, Catholics built up a network of their own social and political structures within America. By the early 20th century, Catholics were well-established in most urban centers across the country. World War II and the Cold War gave them the opportunity to prove their loyalty. By the 1980s, Catholic writers like George Weigel and Michael Novak were quite happy to harmonize neoconservative economics and foreign policy with Catholic thought.
Nevertheless, the basic conundrum of Catholics in America, evident from Carroll’s time, remained: there was much to be celebrated and supported in the Founding, but it remained somewhat incomplete. Catholics could not shake the fact that there seemed to be something not quite right about America. In 1864, papal statements such as Quanta cura and the Syllabus of Errors condemned various theses that seemed awfully analogous to the American experience of religious liberty and personal freedom. They were a challenge to Catholics, who tried to find some common ground between the papal condemnations and the flourishing Catholic culture in America during the late 19th and 20th centuries.
The writer Orestes Brownson, for example, ultimately interpreted these documents in accordance with what he saw as the true spirit of American liberty as well as Catholic teaching. But he also saw that the coming “liberalism” of post-Civil War America meant more than simply providing for the freedom of conscience and of the Church. It was rather “a total rejection of authority in church or in state, an absolutizing of individual conscience, a complete independence of church from the state (that is, political atheism),” and other factors.
Two things were happening at the same time. Catholics were becoming integrated into American society; also, Catholic thinkers were looking at the arc of liberalism and trying to shore up defenses against it. More recently, beginning in the 1950s, Catholic writers began to argue that in fact there were connections between the Founding and the older philosophical and religious traditions of the West. This connection was based on the idea of natural law. The Christian man formed over 2,000 years was a certain kind of being, and one different from the communist citizen or the emerging secular citizen.
Russell Kirk saw in the Constitution the glimmers not only of John Locke, but of the Anglican divine Richard Hooker, and through Hooker to Saint Thomas Aquinas and the scholastic tradition. Kirk saw in the provisions of the Constitution a reflection of the natural law tradition. Indeed his great work, The Roots of American Order (1974), was written to make precisely this point. America derived from the ideas of Montesquieu, Edmund Burke, David Hume, and William Blackstone. From these four one could find a good portion of the intellectual heritage of the West.
In Kirk’s view, this heritage was reflected by, but not fully contained in, the Constitution, whose framers “took it for granted that a moral order, founded on religious beliefs, supports and parallels the political order.” For generations of Catholics, this was a close enough alignment to Pope Saint Gelasius I’s Two Swords theory, positing the autonomy of the temporal and spiritual powers, for them not to worry too much about the niceties of political theory.
Kirk also argued that religion could not be separated from politics, though politics could not dominate religion. He wrote:
Religion in America has never been a private concern merely. It is religious faith, indeed, that has made the American democracy successful; the lack of religious foundation has been the ruin of other democracies.
John Courtney Murray, S.J., in his famous book We Hold These Truths (1960), held that the First Amendment was meant to form a structure amenable to most of the Christian sects. They generally sidestepped the questions raised in Quanta cura by arguing that American constitutionalism was not substantive, like the philosophes’ France.
One should not take these arguments too far, of course. No important Catholic writer thought that the Constitution permitted a confessional state, for example, or that it secretly imported Catholic theological concepts, despite rumblings by writers like Paul Blanshard. Murray believed that religious liberty was recognized in the Constitution because it was a good thing. Moreover, because religious faith—as well as its institutional and practical expressions—was a good thing, the country could prefer religious belief over nonbelief. Thus Catholics could have a seat at the table, because the Founders, in Murray’s words, “built better than they knew,” and reflected the natural law in their constitutional design.
Murray and Kirk caught a glimpse of what was coming, with Murray identifying the “post-modern” as the Cartesian dream of reason’s mastery over the world and ourselves becoming, in fact, a nightmare. However, the speed of the rise of the “woke” brigades and the accelerated abandonment of America’s Christian heritage has once again caused Catholics to doubt the compatibility of their faith with the American experiment. We see this in challenges to Catholic judicial nominees such as Amy Coney Barrett or Brian Buescher, as well as in more intentional attacks such as the Obama administration’s attempt to coerce Catholic nuns into complying with its contraceptive mandate.
In response, a number of scholars dubbed “integralists” have argued that liberalism, arising out of the Protestant ground of the founding, cannot be reconciled with the Catholic understanding of the common good or the citizen. Patrick Deneen, Gladden Pappin, and Adrian Vermeule, for example, have in recent years mounted substantive critiques of liberalism that in general seem to take the position that the American experiment had to end in failure, that Lockean man inevitably leads to the woke activist. Economic liberalism is a dead end of exploitation and inequality that destroys the common good.
More important, the value of religious freedom is a Trojan horse: religious authority and government need to work together to support virtue. The famous story of Benjamin Franklin expressing the government’s disinterest in whomever the Church appointed as bishops in the new nation—to the astonishment of the Vatican, accustomed as it was to negotiating with secular powers for ecclesiastical appointments—is turned on its head. Where it used to be a sign that Catholics, like others, could worship freely, in the integralist view the lack of sensitivity toward the mission of the Roman Church becomes an ultimately fatal weakness.
As a Catholic, I have some sympathy for the integralists, and would be very happy to live under the Catholic Habsburgs, for example. In particular, I appreciate their central insight that cultures are always animated by religious faith even if it is not recognized as such. Kirk himself, drawing on Christopher Dawson, for example, said much the same about secular replacements for religion. So yes, progressivism is a religion for some, with its own heroes and villains, saints and martyrs, holidays and rituals. And it is a secular religion, hostile to Christianity. Vermeule notes there is now a hierarchy of speech, where protests for acceptable, progressive causes are permitted despite the pandemic risk, but funerals and church services are prohibited.
What the integralists have done is to reveal the “neutral liberalism” of the aging baby boomers was a fantasy. For a generation, intellectuals on the right internalized the idea that so long as the economy was thriving and judges set out a level legal playing field, they could leave Hollywood, the media, and Silicon Valley to their own cultural devices. This was incorrect. The founding generation did not believe it, and the progressive, post-Christian elites do not believe it, and these latter are not afraid to use government power to enforce their beliefs.
The liberal consensus of the 1950s and 1960s broke, in part because elites forgot the connection between religious belief and public order. But those wishing for a Guadalupean Catholic empire in America also must face a similar problem. Taking the woke elites and the dispirited or misguided populace into an integralist state is inconsistent with the pluralist American tradition, and is unlikely to succeed—at least in a peaceful way. Moreover, as Richard Reinsch and others have written, Catholic contributions to political thought support the federal constitutional system and should be used to do so. Brownson, Murray, and Kirk realized that the Catholic contribution to the founding was to recast the combination of reason and faith that made it possible in the first place.