America, Liberalism, and Catholicism


Published on April 15, 2021

Public Discourse

This piece is adapted from Ryan T. Anderson’s introductory remarks delivered on April 15, 2021, at the University of Dallas’s conference on America, Liberalism, and Catholicism.


Since the settling of our shores, let alone the founding of our nation, Catholics in America have been debating and disagreeing with each other about politics. Current debates on these matters are simply the latest in a several-hundred-year-long running conversation. Perhaps we’ll eventually settle the issues. Perhaps not.

But before turning to our shores, let’s start in Rome.

In 1832, Pope Gregory XVI condemned the freedom of the press and the separation of Church and state. He also called the claim “that liberty of conscience must be maintained for everyone” an “absurd and erroneous proposition.”

In 1864, Pope Pius IX issued his Syllabus of Errors, condemning the proposition that “it is no longer expedient that the Catholic religion should be held as the only religion of the State, to the exclusion of all other forms of worship.” In this document, the pope famously rejected the proposition that “[t]he Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.”

Just a decade later, Cardinal St. John Henry Newman would speak in defense of conscience, toasting the pope, but conscience first, explaining that “conscience has rights because it has duties.” Here, I might suggest, Newman is relying on a rather different conception of conscience from the one Pope Gregory XVI had condemned.

Over a century later, in his 2005 Christmas address, Pope Benedict XVI would explain that “The martyrs of the early Church died for their faith in that God who was revealed in Jesus Christ, and for this very reason they also died for freedom of conscience and the freedom to profess one’s own faith—a profession that no State can impose but which, instead, can only be claimed with God’s grace in freedom of conscience.”

In other words, it only took 150 years to go from one pope condemning “liberty of conscience” as an “absurd and erroneous proposition” to another pope highlighting the martyrs as witnesses to God’s gift of “freedom of conscience.” Is this a contradiction? A development of doctrine? Or were Popes Gregory and Benedict using the phrase “freedom of conscience” to refer to different concepts?

This question leads me to offer a caution—and a suggestion—to all those who would engage in conversations about America, liberalism, and Catholicism. You’ll want to be attuned to how terms are being used. In any given usage, does “liberalism” refer to theological liberalism, philosophical liberalism, political liberalism, liberal ideas, or liberal institutions? Are there connections between these various forms and usages of the word liberal? Is it misguided to try to distinguish between the good and the bad forms of “liberalism”?

Most importantly, we must go beyond labels to the evaluation that matters most. The Catholic philosopher John Finnis offers an important suggestion about methodology:

It is, I think, a mistake of method to frame one’s political theory in terms of its “liberal” or “non-liberal” (or “[anti-]conservative” or “[non-]socialist” or “[anti-]capitalist”) character. Fruitful inquiring in political theory asks and debates whether specified principles, norms, institutions, laws, and practices are “sound,” “true,” “good,” “reasonable,” “decent,” “just,” “fair,” “compatible with proper freedom,” and the like—not whether they are liberal or incompatible with “liberalism.”

So, when we have these debates, we ought to clarify the meaning of “liberal” and “liberalism” we have in mind when using that word—and, most importantly, we ought to think in terms of what is sound, true, good, reasonable, etc.

As the example with conscience suggests, sometimes it seems that different evaluations depend on differing understandings of concepts. A faulty understanding of the freedom of conscience should be rejected, while a sound understanding of the freedom of conscience embraced. That’s one possible way to think about these topics.

Another possibility is that changing historical circumstances may influence how thinkers evaluate the application of principles to practicalities. How does, for example, political authority best promote true religion? I already mentioned that in 1864 Pope Pius IX condemned the proposition that “it is no longer expedient that the Catholic religion should be held as the only religion of the State, to the exclusion of all other forms of worship.” Consider too, Pope Leo XIII’s 1895 encyclical on Catholicism in the United States. After praising the freedom of the Church and her prosperous growth in America, he concludes that the church “would bring forth more abundant fruits if, in addition to liberty, she enjoyed the favor of the laws and the patronage of the public authority.”

Now compare Pius and Leo’s statements with one from Pope Francis in 2016. Francis notes “the difference between secularism and secularity. . . . Vatican II speaks to us of the autonomy of things, of processes, of institutions. There is a healthy secularity, for example, the secularity of the state. In general, a lay state is a good thing; it’s better than a confessional state because confessional states always finish badly.” It took 120 years to go from one pope saying the Church would bring forth more abundant fruits if it enjoyed the patronage of the state to another pope saying confessional states finish badly.

Here, Pope Francis was building on the Second Vatican Council and echoing Pope Benedict, who had given several addresses distinguishing secularism from a healthy secularity. In 2006, Benedict urged “all believers, particularly believers in Christ, to help formulate a concept of secularity which, on the one hand, acknowledges the place that is due to God and his moral law, to Christ and to his Church in human life, both individual and social; and on the other, affirms and respects the ‘rightful autonomy of earthly affairs’”—citing the Second Vatican Council.

Benedict argued that the “conciliar assertion constitutes the doctrinal basis for that ‘healthy secularity’ which involves the effective autonomy of earthly realities, not indeed from the moral order but from the ecclesiastical sphere. . . . Any direct intervention from the Church in this area would be undue interference.” But, he continued, “‘healthy secularity’ implies that the State does not consider religion merely as an individual sentiment that may be confined to the private sphere alone.”

Where does that leave us in America? Does America exhibit the sort of healthy secularity that Benedict and Francis propose or the unhealthy secularism that they condemn? In our circumstances, how could political authority best promote true religion? Is the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, Benedict, and Francis compatible with—and a development of—earlier teachings on the indirect spiritual power of the Church over temporal affairs? Or has the modern magisterium downplayed important truths? And how do we understand the levels of magisterial teachings—Pius and Leo’s comments quoted earlier are from encyclicals, Benedict’s from an address to lawmakers, and Francis’s an interview with journalists. The Second Vatican Council was an ecumenical council, but are its documents dogmatic or merely pastoral?

We should consider all of this in light of three big questions: What is the nature of the American regime? How should we evaluate it? And what should we do now?

We can think about this at various levels. There’s a historical question about which ideas influenced—and in which proportion they influenced—the founding of our nation and our political structures. John Locke? The Bible? The common law? The natural law? Natural rights? Self-interest, rightly understood? Self-interest, just as such?

Who, for example, was being most faithful to the American conception of liberty? The Catholic jurist Anthony Kennedy, when he said, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”? Or Abraham Lincoln, when he debated Stephen Douglas and declared that no one could claim a right to do wrong? Martin Luther King, Jr., when he cited Augustine and Aquinas to explain that an unjust law is no law at all? Or Pope Benedict XVI, who argued, “From the dawn of the Republic, America’s quest for freedom has been guided by the conviction that the principles governing political and social life are intimately linked to a moral order based on the dominion of God the Creator”? Is American liberty Anthony Kennedy’s sweet mystery of life or Pope Benedict’s moral order based on the dominion of God?

You can think of this as the debate over how Lockean was the Founding, and which Locke did the Founders read—the Hobbesian Locke of Leo Strauss, or the Christian Locke of Jeremy Waldron?

And, of course, there’s an evaluative question about those ideas. Is Lockean thought sound or unsound? Are natural rights real, or imaginary unicorns? Is the Bible true or false?

Separate, perhaps, from the ideas are the institutions. So, there’s also an evaluative question about political and legal institutions: regardless of which ideas informed the Founding and how we evaluate those ideas, what do we make of the concrete political and legal structures that govern us? Is the separation of church and state condemned, prudent under certain circumstances, or ideal? Is the free exercise of religion and freedom of the press to be celebrated or lamented?

Do our political structures promote human flourishing and the common good, or do they lead to individualism, hedonism, and the dictatorship of relativism? Do our political institutions embody a misguided liberal ideology that deforms the souls of citizens? Or are our political institutions the providential embodiment of Catholic thought that orders the soul to the Highest Good? Were the Bishops at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore correct when they claimed that the founders “built better than they knew”? Is Hillsdale professor Nathan Schlueter correct when he counters that the Founders “knew more than they said”? Or did the Founders simply get it wrong? Is Orestes Brownson’s distinction between liberal philosophy and liberal institutions sustainable? Or do liberal institutions necessarily embody and express and shape the souls of citizens according to liberal ideology?

And then there’s a prudential question of what faithful Catholics in America should do today. How you evaluate the various ideas and the various institutions will influence how you evaluate today’s threats to human dignity and human flourishing—and thus what practical steps faithful Catholics need to take. Do we need to return to the Founders’ vision? Or, if today’s problems are the inevitable logical outgrowth of that vision, what concrete reforms should we establish?

As you consider all of these questions, keep George Will’s advice in mind. In his view, “the most important four words in politics are: ‘up to a point.’” Few of the questions I’ve posed here lend themselves to pat answers. Liberty of conscience, good or bad? Separation of church and state, right or wrong? Freedom of speech, pro or con? All require definition of terms, application to historical circumstances, and then determination of the limits. Rather than black and white issues, we may be dealing with various shades of gray, where determining which shade is most appropriate is the hard work. Liberty of conscience? Up to a point. Which point is the challenge.

Resist the temptation to outsource your thinking to a team or a party. Rooting for a team is appropriate in sports, and partisan politics may be a necessity of a political system like ours, but both are detrimental to the intellectual process. Do not think of this discussion as a Battle Royal between competing camps—but as a conversation among friends seeking the truth in community.

The reality is that none of us has all the right answers, and none of us on our own can arrive at all the right answers. We need community. Indeed, we need community for a variety of reasons. In this context, we need an intellectual community to share and discuss ideas with, to think together, if we are ever to make intellectual progress. I need a community of scholars to help me see when I’ve made intellectual mistakes. This is why the Catholic Church throughout the ages has taken university life so seriously, and the intellectual give and take of arguments, reasons, evidence, so seriously. For this intellectual process to achieve its telos—arrival at knowledge of the truth—certain intellectual and moral virtues must be embodied: charity, humility, honesty, and fidelity being foremost among them.

Ryan T. Anderson is the Founding Editor of Public Discourse. He is also President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.


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