Americans under the age of sixty will find it hard to imagine a Roman Catholic running for president (from any party) and having to explain his or her loyalty to the U.S. Constitution. Recent coverage of Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court may help thanks to worries about her ties to the People of Faith. But for Joe Biden, being Catholic is as reassuring as mom and apple pie. That was not so for the Democrat who inspired Biden to go into politics, John F. Kennedy. Like Al Smith before him, the first Roman Catholic nominated to run for president (1928), Kennedy needed to prove his faith did not undercut his loyalty to America. Now, in contrast, Joe Biden speaks of faith as a source of inspiration for his public life without the slightest objections from journalists. Of course, many conservative church members and some bishops do not see Biden’s devotion as many in the press do. But for the sake of public perceptions of Roman Catholicism’s place in American politics, current coverage of Biden is a useful barometer of American Catholics.
Even before the 2020 presidential election, the domestication of Roman Catholicism had become a problem for some writers, among them most visibly, Patrick Deneen and Adrian Vermeule. For Catholic anti-liberals, American Catholics have blended faith and politics in unhealthy ways. Deneen is known for his dissent from Anglo-American liberalism in Why Liberalism Failed, a book that contrasts the anthropology of John Locke and his American descendants with the ideas of classical and Christian antiquity. Vermeule advances the idea that the Founders likely built worse than they knew and proposes integralism as an alternative. The arrangements of pre-modern Europe enchant Vermeule who regards a fluid arrangement between church and state as superior to America’s liberal failure. Anyone familiar with medieval theologians’ briefs for Christian kingship has little trouble understanding integralism’s appeal.
What accompanies this critique of America’s polity usually is a rebuke to the leaders of the American conservative movement who themselves were invariably Roman Catholics or converts to the church. If the American Founders failed to create a “more perfect union,” so too the founding generation of American conservatism, so the complaint goes, were naively attached to Lockean liberalism. By implication, those same conservatives, from William F. Buckley to George Weigel, let patriotism obscure piety. According to Kevin Gallagher, Catholic Americanists tended to “dismiss” the publications of popes and bishops, which in turn reflected “rather shallow roots in the tradition.” Church teaching should have led conservatives to be more critical of the nation’s politics than they were. Instead, those conservatives supported “the traditions of American liberalism” that were “far from typical even with the Church itself.”
Part of the discontent among anti-liberal Catholics may owe to limited historical awareness. The creation of the modern conservative movement was up against considerable odds. The traditional home in electoral politics for American Catholics was the Democratic Party. At the same time, in wider American circles, American Catholics labored under tired nativist objections that Roman Catholicism was medieval, opposed to intellectual freedom, authoritarian, and superstitious. Even more challenging was the Vatican’s own anti-modernism, particularly pronounced during the French and 1848 revolutions but still lingering in the 1950s. That version of traditionalism had, after all, through Leo XIII condemned (mildly) Americanism as a heresy. For American Catholics such as Buckley, Russell Kirk, Richard John Neuhaus, and Michael Novak, to stand up to these trends and cultivate a distinctly conservative and faith-friendly outlook was truly remarkable. New York University historian, Thomas Sugrue, no fan of conservatism in politics or the church, concedes that no “sensible” historian or cultural observer from the 1920s or 1940s could have predicted a “Catholic Americanism.” It is “one of the most important and understudied themes in the history of postwar America.”
Even more impressive about this Catholic Americanism was its emergence during a spike of anti-Catholic bigotry in the early 1950s. In 1949, Paul Blanshard, the product of mainline Protestant seminaries (Harvard and Union in New York City) and for a time a Congregationalist pastor, drew attention with American Freedom and Catholic Power. The book relied on standard Protestant and nativist objections to Roman Catholics. It also dredged up earlier anti-Catholic voices, such as the New Republic editorial from the 1928 election which declared that the real conflict in America was “not between a Church and State or between Catholicism and Americanism, but between a culture which is based on absolutism and encourages obedience” and another that “encourages curiosity, hypotheses, experimentation.”
John Courtney Murray almost single-handedly responded to this surge of anti-Catholicism and did so by employing an argument already present in American Catholic legal circles, namely, that the American Founding shared a common foundation with the Church’s tradition of natural law. In the Time magazine cover story on Murray that appeared the month after Kennedy’s 1960 victory, the professor claimed that the Founders shared a moral consensus with fellow Americans that assumed people can only be free if they are “inwardly governed by the moral law.”
Rather than take encouragement from Murray’s response to anti-Catholic bigotry, professors at the Catholic University of America and officials in the Vatican’s Holy Office objected to the American’s views on church and state. Eventually his Jesuit superiors forbade Murray from writing about the subject. But his fortunes changed with the inauguration of John XXIII as pope in 1958 and Kennedy’s election. Not only had the former U.S. Senator broken the glass ceiling of the White House for American Catholics, but the pope called for a council of bishops to understand and articulate how the church should engage with modern social circumstances. In Rome the global church revised its understanding of religious freedom (among other matters) in ways that made Murray’s views acceptable. Murray was himself an adviser at the Council, though he continued to face suspicions during it. His case for religious freedom prevailed (mostly) in Dignitatis Humanae, which according to George Weigel “sought to ‘solve’ the problem of Catholicism-and-modernity through an embrace of ‘pluralism’ understood in Murray’s terms.” Members of the American church have since regarded Vatican II as a vindication of the American church’s success in the United States.
Whether anti-liberal Catholics knowingly play to nativist stereotypes, their objections to Americanism mirror both Blanshard’s brand of anti-Catholicism and the Vatican’s fears about Murray. The author of American Freedom and Catholic Power noticed that Murray had “set out to prove through a series of complicated historical analyses” that the religious freedom and church-state relations of U.S. law “might possibly win the approval of Leo XIII if he were alive today.” For Blanshard, Murray represented “nothing more substantial than scholarly wishful thinking.” This verdict foreshadowed ones often made by anti-liberal Catholics today. According to Edmund Waldstein, Murray was wrong to see the United States as congenial polity, not because of republicanism’s defects, but because American law “enshrined a liberal conception of political life in their constitution” that is theologically at odds with the church. Murray’s conception ensured that “Enlightenment ideas would subvert the teachings of the Church, making of them a metaphor for inner-worldly progress.”
This contrast between Rome’s medievalism and America’s liberalism reveals what may be the greatest irony of anti-liberal Catholicism. A return to an older social order—one where the church’s understanding of human purpose and the godly magistrate rule—needs the blessing of the church’s hierarchy. Yet, ever since Vatican II, when the church adopted a welcoming posture to modern politics, popes and bishops have sounded more like Catholic Americanists than anti-liberal Catholics. In fact, the American hierarchy since 2012 has made freedom central to its political profile if the Fortnight for Freedom is any indication. In their pamphlet that called church members to celebrate and pray for liberty during the two weeks before July 4th, the bishops declared “Freedom is not only for Americans, but we think of it as something of our special inheritance, fought for at a great price, and a heritage to be guarded now.” They added a quotation from James Gibbons, the Baltimore archbishop famous for Americanism: “in the genial atmosphere of liberty [the Church] blossoms like a rose.”
If the church’s hierarchy is not disposed to reject Locke or Murray, perhaps anti-liberal Catholics can take encouragement from a long line of Catholic intellectuals who have found the nation’s ideals of liberty to be impoverished. In his book, Catholicism and American Freedom, John McGreevy writes that for many American Catholics liberty meant something different from what it signified for Protestants and liberals. “What bothered Catholics was freedom as freedom to choose, diversity of opinion for diversity’s sake.” “This sort of freedom,” McGreevy adds, “without the virtue or character to make proper choices, was dangerous.” In other words, American Catholics have often conceived of liberty in the broader context of order. The same was true of the Catholic Americanists who supposedly embraced libertarianism. As Bruce Frohnen put it, “Conservatives support liberty that is properly—that is socially, politically, and morally—ordered and understood.” In a line that echoes Russell Kirk, “ordered liberty is the ability to pursue the good in common with one’s fellows.”
If that is the way Catholic Americanists understand liberty, anti-liberal Catholics have created a caricature since the likes of Weigel and Buckley always situated freedom within a broader set of legal, political, and social considerations. Just as dubious is the notion that anti-liberal Catholics stand with the church’s hierarchy, an assertion that depends heavily on interpretations of Vatican II and its teaching about religious freedom for non-Catholics. Still, the greatest irony in the critique of Catholic Americanists is the debt that anti-liberal Catholics owe to their imagined foes. Thanks to the explicit and implicit ways that Catholic Americanists opened national debates for Catholic voices, those conservatives created space for anti-liberal Catholics to gain a hearing beyond the forums to which older versions of integralism used to be confined. Even the errors of anti-liberal Catholics now have rights.