God Bless America?

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:

*60,000 priests
*25,000 seminarians
*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).

32 Responses to God Bless America?

  • Good piece, but two points. The first bishop of America was named John, not James, Carroll, and he didn’t sign the Declaration of Independence. His cousin, Charles Carroll, did.

  • Yeouch! I really messed that up. ::goes to edit::

  • John Carroll’s brother Daniel signed the Constitution. John was very much in support of the American Revolution and went on a diplomatic mission to Canada early in the war. John Carroll is an endlessly fascinating man and someday I will feature his life in a post for AC.

  • Another outstanding post, Joe. Thanks.

  • Mozart was an ardent Mason but recanted and returned to Holy Mother Church, he died a Catholic. Mozart Requiem is a world classic; he also wrote a fair bit of Masonic ritual music, some of it quite stirring. His opera, the Magic Flute is a Masonic allegory.

  • Excellent post again Joe. Now get some sleep.

  • Also I was wondering if you’ve read Cardinal George’s recent book. My take is he seems to take a somewhat negative perspective on the American founding and its source in the Enlightenment.

    Thoughts?

  • This is exactly the kind of post I was hoping to see from American Catholic. I hope we see some good dialogue on this issue.

  • Perhaps you can start.

  • Philip:

    I would love to, but to do so properly requires time, an luxury that my law professors are denying me at the moment.

  • Understand. My patients don’t allow me much time for more complex arguments. Perhaps we can look forward to something in the future.

  • Phillip,

    I have not read that book. What’s the title?

  • “The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion and Culture,”

  • I think it is perhaps best to think of ourselves and the Church here as being in America and not of America, much as it is often said of the world. In point of fact a Catholic can at best only be “in” any nation or state that is not itself Catholic. Even in the case of a Catholic state, I do not think we can be “of” it but in the most partial and incomplete sense, if even that.

    To be quite honest, we are really only temporary resident aliens here. Our real home is elsewhere. Yet, in another sense we can also claim that citizenship can be best and fully realized only in a Catholic way. In the same way, this world belongs to the prince of darkness, yet it also can be rightfully claimed by the people of God, which is something of a contradiction.

  • I call it an antagonism, not a contradiction. But I agree. Our first duty is always to God. Historically this duty did not conflict with good American citizenship, and it still doesn’t.

    The big problem I see with critiques of America at this point is that they conflate problems I would attribute to the post-war world with “cultural” or “ideological” issues that supposedly go back hundreds of years.

    I wouldn’t discount those issues but the historical record is clear – they never affected the growth or vitality of the Church. They may have become volatile upon contact with the malignant forces unleashed in the 60s, but they were not evil or toxic in themselves.

    So lets give credit where it is due, and blame where it is due. It wasn’t the age-old pressure of American ideas, but some very contemporary European cardinals, that wanted to Protestantize the Church and the Mass.

  • A few weeks back, there was a discussion about Pat Buchanan on this site. I argued that he’s not an anti-Semite, but someone who doesn’t think to avoid the crazier theories and causes. Politically, he’s on the part of the bell curve that looks almost flat, and that includes everyone from the slightly offbeat to the nearly psychotic.

    I think there’s an element of this in the traditionalist movement. On the scale of religious zeal, the TLM is going to attract a good percentage of the devout, but nearly 100% of the crazed, simply because there’s nothing more extreme. I don’t mean that in a negative way, I hope you realize. It’s just that if you want to be a liturgical progressive, there’s always something more progressive that you can do. But you can’t be any more ancient than the Tridentine Mass unless you become Jewish.

    So we traddies (I’m proud to say “we”) just nod and smile when a fellow TLM attendee corners us and explains that Benedict Arnold was framed by the Freemasons. Yes, I’ve actually had that conversation. I wouldn’t say that the majority of traddies subscribe to the kind of craziness depicted in this article, though.

    Great article. It’s time the mainstream of American Catholic thought spoke up.

  • The irony is that I agree with Pat Buchanan on many policy issues. And Ron Paul. I’ve never really considered myself part of the “mainstream”, but I suppose I’m certainly closer to it than the people I criticize here.

    I think there are good people who are, as you might say, offbeat, but certainly not insane, crazy or psychotic, who buy into a bogus view of American history. I think they’ve been sold a bill of goods that isn’t based in historical accuracy.

    And its not just trads – its much of the Catholic left as well. And both of these groups never tired of quoting encyclicals, yet they’re all conspicuously silent on the encyclicals or letters that single out America for praise.

    I think if American Catholics want to be heard in American public life, they ought to follow in the Papal footsteps. Really, I’m on the verge of just declaring my politics, my theology, my moral views, just “Papal.” The Papacy always has a perspective I agree with, and it is always based in a through understanding and consideration of all the facts.

  • Two points on God and country. Of course, our first allegiance is to God.

    One, General Washington (God bless him) and the Continental Army were constant beneficiaries of the Divine Assistance. How else could they have survived, much less prevailed, in the war against the most powerful and professional army and navy of the day. Read David McCullough’s 1776 and Barnet Shechter’s Battle of New York – God’s Will gave us our country.

    Two, one of he Ten Commandment requires us to honor our fathers and mothers. That includes the government. Only God is perfectly good. America is imperfect, but compared to other hellholes it is Heaven.

    Forgive all injuries. Pray for your persecutors. Where does it say you may hate anyone or anyhthing no matter what they did to you?

  • Where is it declared that to be traditional and love the TLM you have to believe every conspiracy theory out there? Of course, just because some of those theories are kooky doesn’t mean none of them are real. Freemasonary (Illuminatism, Jacobinsm, Collectivism)is a real conspiracy and I am fairly confident that they didn’t succeed in doing anything bad in Vatican II. They could be involved in much of the rebellious degradation that has occurred since as a radical misinterpretation of Vatican II. They are just another worldly arm of the Evil One.

    Of course not all Masons are involved and many may simply be unsuspecting dupes, like most Mormons. Did Masons have something to do with the independence from England and the founding of the USA? Sure. But this Christian country, by God’s grace, survived them – well for a little over one-hundred years anyway. They’re back and they are still working on destroying this country and Holy Church.

    They may succeed in killing this country, just not yet I hope and they will fail in killing the Church but that doesn’t mean she won’t be pierced by their sword.

    In many ways, America was destined to be one of the most Catholic countries. This is a good thing. Joe’s Lebanese ancestors came and built America along with the Germans, Poles, Irish, Italians, Africans, etc. Distinct. Catholic. American. That is a thing of beauty. Being a more recent immigrant from the same land of white mountains and tall cedars (see today’s reading) I can tell you that spirit is gone. Most immigrants today don’t wish to be American just as many Americans are ashamed of the evil American empire they were born in.

    Of course being Catholic-friendly is also a bad thing. Many Catholics belong to the club but don’t live the Holy Faith in their hearts. Too many of us have become worldly, modern and secular American Catholics as opposed to Catholic pilgrims with American citizenship, proud of our temporal home warts and all – seeking to improve her here so we can enjoy her perfected in Eternity.

    This land can be Jerusalem, but we can turn easily turn into Babylon. It is up to us. Nice article. Thanks for writing it.

  • “Where is it declared that to be traditional and love the TLM you have to believe every conspiracy theory out there?”

    In the Remnant, lol.

  • Knight, I don’t think it’s required. I was discussing this very point.

    Once you’ve been scowled at by a mainstream priest, and discover a parish that follows all the old rules that people say don’t apply any more, you lose confidence in the mainstream. You’re going to be slower to write off some idea simply because it’s unusual. You’re also potentially going to be exposed to more offbeat theories by spending time in traditionalist circles.

    That’s how after-the-fact extremism develops, the process that makes a traditionalist become extreme. I already talked about before-the-fact extremism, the process that makes an extremist become traditionalist.

    There’s one other factor at work, and I don’t know how to classify it, but I have been through it so I know it’s real. Let’s say an average cradle Catholic goes through CCD, attends weekly Mass, and learns 2% of the Faith. Then he encounters the rich tradition of the Church and triples his knowledge. He only knows 6% now. As Chesterton said, orthodoxy is balance. The new traddie who learns that outside the Church there is no salvation, and that St. Malachy’s prophecy is almost done, isn’t going to understand how to put these thoughts in context.

    I once had a priest call my scrupulousity “the pre-Vatican II disease”. He knew I was a traditionalist, so I took it as an insult. I explained to him that it’s a post-Vatican II disease, because we young people grew up so poorly catechized and led that we were floundering trying to figure out the Faith on our own.

  • I get so tired of people’s opinions, habits, and artistic tastes always having to fit into some “box” of liberalism, conservatism, progressivism, traditionalism, or whatever.

    I love Gregorian chant, and I think there ought to be more Latin in the Mass; but I have nothing against the Novus Ordo Mass either. So I wouldn’t be accepted in many Traddie/TLM circles.

    I am pro-life and pro-2nd amendment, and believe in free markets and free enterprise. However, I happen to think there are some instances when tax increases can’t be avoided, and I don’t think that every single illegal immigrant must be immediately deported. Guess I don’t fit into either political party.

    I listen to EWTN radio but I also listen to NPR. I can’t stand Daily Kos or Huffington Post, but I can’t stand Limbaugh or Beck either, and I still don’t think Sarah Palin is quite ready to be POTUS. So, I guess I’m not a “real” conservative either.

    Pinky’s comment about balance is very insightful. It’s very easy to assume that every disaster or crisis is the worst ever and that every problem is insoluble if you have no idea that the Church, and society, have been through this before and survived.

  • Elaine,

    Sounds to me like you’re just being a conscientious Catholic. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m the same way – I change my “political views” label on my myspace profile at least once a month because no label can hold my view of politics.

    But there are people who love their labels very much. They willingly walk into boxes. And the boxes are real; philosophy, religion, politics, are all worlds that are comprised of mutually exclusive propositions and ideas that require distinct labels.

    Which is why I said I’m becoming a “Papist” – rejecting nothing that is true, sparing nothing a critique, applying the right methods to the right issues, and subordinating everything to love of God and neighbor.

  • Joe, that last comment is full of epic win. QFT!

    As to Cardinal George’s new book – on the issue of American Catholicism (at least as it relates to this article), I think he comes down fairly middle-of-the-road, but that’s probably because I tend to be more of the “Americanism is a heresy/keep the flag out of the sanctuary” type of guy myself. His paradigm, though decidedly papist, contains argumentation that is, IMO, informed by the NCR/Commonweal/Remnant schema of “ZOMG(osh) America is the product of atheism and freemasonry and warmongering and capitalism and anti-Catholicism!!!111!!!” Still, there are portions where his Eminence incorporates Papal quotes that laud our country; I seem to recall some quotables from JPII, which are echoed by PBXVI’s words that you quoted in your piece, Joe.

    A good article for me, especially as a Leo XIII fan. I tend too much towards the “glass-is-half-empty” side of the spectrum on this issue myself, so informative orthodox commentary is very much appreciated. Keep up the good work, Joe!

  • Thanks a lot Andy, I shall try :)

  • It’s regrettable that you keep trying to call out traditional Catholics as being unable to make sense. I hope you enjoy basking in the self-glory of your writings.

    Please, read about Americanism as defined by Leo XIII in his letter to James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Americanism_%28heresy%29

    While the Cardinal was able to deny any such thing was taking place, it is quite clear that he was wrong.

  • Yeah…

    “The disturbance caused by the condemnation was slight; almost the entire laity and a considerable part of the clergy were unaware of this affair. However, the pope’s brief did end up strengthening the position of the conservatives in France.[1] Leo’s pronouncements effectively ended the Americanist movement and curtailed the activities of American progressive Catholics.”

    Talk about a tempest in a teapot…

    I may write more about this in the future.

  • Joe, but it seeped back into the Church still. I think for the sake of appearances, certain clergy kept quiet…it’s like saying after Pius X’s encyclical on Modernism all the progressives were squashed. Well, they showed up again a mere 50 years later.Keep in mind, Pius XI and XII also have been documented to have been against modernism.

    It didn’t help that the St. Michael the Archangel prayer was suppressed shortly after VII either. * sigh *

    Ack! I’ve spent too much time here today! OK! I’m off now.

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