Catholic Ties to the American Public Order Continue to Unravel

It has been clear for quite some time that a new and different public order is taking shape in America in which Catholics (or at least Catholics faithful to the magisterium of the Church) will have serious difficulty finding a comfortable place. The recent election does nothing to change this fact because it does not reverse the deep-seated social and cultural trends—above all, the ongoing de-Christianization of Western society—that have been driving this transformation.

This, of course, isn’t to suggest that Catholics could be completely at home in the old order, the order that is passing away. Imperfect as it was (and certainly not to be confused with the kingdom of God), this order nevertheless had features that were congenial to the Catholic mind and conducive to the freedom of the Church to exercise her divinely ordained ministry and the freedom of Catholics to live out their faith.

To begin with, the old order was shaped in important ways by the heritage of ancient and medieval thought. These premodern influences—especially the impact of the heritage of medieval constitutionalism—made for a political order in which Catholics could be comfortable because its organizing principles (the existence of an objective moral order discernable by reason, limited government, the rule of law, the distinction between state and society, etc.), in John Courtney Murray’s phrase, “approve themselves to the Catholic intelligence and conscience” and are “native to” Catholicism’s “own universe of discourse.” These political commitments, furthermore, created the legal space necessary for the Church to pursue her ministry and American Catholics to freely practice their faith.

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The fervent Protestantism of the American people, in turn, made possible a culture broadly committed to a common Judeo-Christian morality. America, as Tocqueville noted in the 1830s, was “the place where the Christian religion has kept the greatest power of men’s souls”; and while “each sect” worshipped “God in its own fashion,” they “all preach[ed] the same morality in the name of God” because “all” of them “belong[ed] to the great unity of Christendom, and Christian morality is everywhere the same.”

If America’s culture, like its political order, was one in which Catholics could be mostly comfortable, the fit was never perfect, and Catholics remained in important respects outsiders. If America’s democratic experiment was influenced by the heritage of medieval constitutionalism, it was also shaped by the heritage of the Reformation and Enlightenment. On the one hand, if the political principles which inspired the republic approved themselves to the Catholic intelligence and conscience, America’s understanding of these principles were colored by, and, at times, deformed by an individualism, voluntarism, rationalism and secularism derived from these sources.

At the same time, if American culture was broadly Christian, the Christianity that shaped it was an intensely Protestant Christianity incompatible in many respects with Catholicism, and characterized by a deep-seated and visceral anti-Catholicism. Even in the mid-twentieth century when America was frequently celebrated as a “Judeo-Christian” nation, America remained an overwhelmingly Protestant society in which Catholics (and other non-Protestants) could never feel totally at home.

Today, however, this old order is passing (if it hasn’t already passed). On the institutional level, the old American order was characterized by far-reaching decentralization, widely diffused authority at the national level, legislative predominance, separation of powers, checks and balances, and sharply limited government. In sharp contrast, in the new institutional order that is emerging, government is highly centralized, the power of the federal government is seen as essentially plenary in nature, governmental power is concentrated in an imperial executive and even more imperial judiciary, and administrative agencies enjoy not only far-reaching powers, but simultaneously exercise executive-legislative and judicial power. In this new order, government by the people has been largely supplanted by government by technocrats, government by executive and judicial fiat, and the state has become all-encompassing; no area of human life lies beyond the reach of the centralized state.

In sharp contrast to the old order, this new institutional order is not only incompatible with the Catholic understanding of government and its proper role in the overall economy of social life, but jeopardizes the independence of civil society, and with it, the freedom of the Church—the space the Church needs to exercise its ministry and the freedom Catholics need to practice the faith.

At the same time, we’re witnessing the ascendancy of a new public philosophy rooted in a radically post-Christian understanding of man and society. The hallmarks of this understanding are its individualism, subjectivism, and secularism. From the perspective of what might be called the ideology of the sovereign self, a human being is simply a sovereign will free to make of himself and the world, whatever he chooses.

The public morality that flows from this vision is simple and straightforward: “Truth,” as Francis Canavan, S.J. notes, becomes “only what the individual thinks is true,” and “good” becomes “what the individual personally prefers; what George Will terms the moral equality of appetites becomes the organizing principle of law and public policy; choice and self-creation are elevated to the status of the human good, and toleration and nonjudgmentalism become the highest moral virtues; the job of government comes to be understood as the creation of a framework of order allowing individuals the greatest possible freedom to pursue their vision of the good life consistent with the exercise of that same freedom by others; and substantive conceptions of the human good (especially those rooted in what Prof. Steven D. Smith calls “strong religion”) must be systematically excluded from the public square.

In this new order, the religion of the sovereign self occupies the position of an established doctrine; freedom of religion is reduced to mere freedom of worship; Catholicism (as its been traditionally understood) is seen as a scandal and offense, as something that must be excluded from public life or fundamentally transformed so as to make it compatible with the creed of the sovereign self; and Catholics are relegated to a position of dhimmitude. (As Hillary Clinton noted, this new order will demand that “deep-seated cultural codes, [and] religious beliefs” be “changed.”) What we’re witnessing, in short, is the rise of what was once famously called “the dictatorship of relativism,” of what might more technically be termed the liberal-secularist confessional state.

For American Catholics, the emergence of this new and different America represents a novel and disorienting development. It is one thing to live as a Catholic minority in a Protestant Christendom committed to a vision of limited, decentralized government and that afforded Catholics the considerable space to live out their faith commitments; it is an altogether different thing to live as a Catholic minority in a post-Christian society animated by an anthropology and public morality incompatible with Catholic truth and committed to the radical privatization of religious faith.

Forging the new and very different cultural orientation that this situation demands, however, will not be easy especially given the heavy psychological investment of American Catholics in proving that they were “good” Americans. Perhaps the central irony of American Catholic history is that the country American Catholics sought to be accepted in for so long—and believed that they could embrace with a clear conscience and perhaps even reinvigorate—ceased to exist at almost the very moment they believed that they had finally gained a seat at the table.

As far as the new cultural orientation we need is concerned, one hears much talk today of things like the “Benedict option,” the “Jeremiah option,” and the “Dominican option.” Whatever one makes of these “options,” it is clear that an adequate response to the new situation in which we find ourselves will involve a significant distancing of Catholicism from American culture, and, in particular, the American state; coming to terms with the emphatically—and aggressively—post-Christian character of America’s public culture; and truly rediscovering what it means to live as “alien citizens.”

(Photo credit: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)


  • Kenneth L. Grasso

    Kenneth L. Grasso is Professor of Political Science at Texas State University – San Marcos. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. from Fordham University, and his B.A. in Government and Politics from St. John’s University. He has edited or co-edited several books including Theology and Public Philosophy (2012), Defending the Republic (2008) and Rethinking Rights: Historical, Political and Philosophical Perspectives (2008).

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