Published May 11, 2022
Two books have eaten up my time lately. Together they offer a lesson in Christian citizenship. And each text warrants attention. Here’s why.
Over the years, U.S. Catholics have been described more than once as “Protestants who go to Mass.” For many, their views and behaviors on issues related to sex, for example, are indistinguishable from the country’s formerly Protestant, and now secularized, majority. The criticism seems to make sense. The American Founding had plenty of Protestant and Enlightenment DNA. Both strains were hostile to Catholic “idolatry” and Romish political “interference.”
Colonial Catholics were suspect in their loyalties. They also bore the brunt of heavy discrimination. Fear of a papist power grab increased in the 19th century as swarms of poor immigrants arrived from Catholic European countries. As a result, given this history of distrust and exclusion, Catholics have always worked doubly hard to fit in, to prove their loyalty, and to materially succeed in this country. And they’ve done exactly that. . .so well that their impact on the character of American political life today can seem negligible.
Catholic entry into the U.S. mainstream is often attributed to a perceived break from Catholic tradition. In their support for the separation of Church and state, and for religious liberty for non-Catholics, American Catholics rejected elements of their own heritage. Or so the argument goes. Michael Breidenbach takes a different view. In his superbly researched and readable book, Our Dear Bought Liberty: Catholics and Religious Toleration in Early America, he argues that influential English and American Catholic families of the period drew on medieval Catholic, not Protestant, sources to distinguish their civil loyalties from their religious fidelity to Rome.
Powerful Catholic clans like the colonial Calverts and Carrolls reached back in Christian tradition past the Reformation for their views of civil authority and the limits of papal power. And they did so, claims Breidenbach, because of their “abhorrence for what they derided as papal usurpations of civil and episcopal jurisdictions.” They were guided by conciliarist thought of the 14th and 15th centuries – a time of fractured Church leadership and bad or bumbling popes. As a result, “While 18th century American Catholics had certain affinities with Enlightenment thought, Catholicism had its own, older version of Church-state separation and constitutional theory found in the conciliarist tradition.”
Over a 150-year period, conciliarists and papal supremacists in Europe disputed bitterly about the nature of Roman authority. Popes emerged the winners. But conciliarist views – which held that popes were neither infallible nor free to interfere with civil affairs, but subject to general Church councils, which could correct and even depose them – remained strong in places like France. And French Catholic schools had formed key members of the colonial Catholic elite. These men went on to have significant influence in and after the American Revolution. Breidenbach notes that Catholic leaders played an outsized role in supporting independence and later framing the Constitution and First Amendment. They did so not by tagging along with Protestant and Enlightenment thought, but based on their own Catholic roots.
Unfortunately, whatever one thinks of the Founding, the results of U.S. Catholic political engagement today are uninspiring. . .or worse. Plenty of sunny nonsense greeted the election of Joe Biden, based on his explicitly Catholic religious practice. Instead, his vigorous support for Roe and abortion “rights,” to name just one ugly example, has set a new standard in venality. And exactly this moral bankruptcy among nominally Catholic public leaders is what makes another, more modest book so interesting.
Catholic Leadership for Civil Society is the work of authors Cristofer Pereyra and Erin Monnin. Monnin is a young mother, entrepreneur, and former lay missionary. Pereyra, based in Phoenix, is the founder of the Tepeyac Leadership Initiative, a national, year-long program that “equips professionals to become virtuous leaders, influencing culture and serving the common good.” Their book is a slim volume and an easy read. But it’s also a very practical guide to the lay vocation: simple, clear, and rich; rooted firmly in the teaching of Vatican II; and warmly praised in its Foreword by USCCB president and Los Angeles Archbishop José Gómez.
Catholic men and women lead best by their fidelity to the faith they claim to believe – especially the part about not killing or enabling the killing of innocent life. Anything less is a lie. Which suggests that someone should send a copy of this good book to the White House.
My mind keeps wandering these days to some words of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during the Iranian revolution. He described the United States as “the Great Satan,” the paramount tempter and adversary of all things Godly. I’ve never quite forgotten those words. Khomeini was a hate-filled, murderous man. He despised the West. But even wicked men can say things leavened with a pinch of truth. The goodness in America – and a lot of goodness remains, and it’s very much worth fighting for – flows from the Biblical framework and moral substance of its Founding. The more we let that goodness bleed out in our little idolatries – our consumer appetites, corrupt leaders, sexual delusions, and anesthetics for the soul – the more we become what the late and bitter “holy man” of Iran accused us of being.
As Christians, we have a duty to engage the world, including our nation’s public life. What we do matters. We have the privilege and the obligation to make our country better through our service. But we do that best by recalling who we are, and acting accordingly. We’re Catholics first. We’re Americans second. The more we forget that, and the more we compromise our convictions, the more we need to remember a very old proverb: If you sup with the devil, you’d better bring a long spoon.
Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the 2020-22 senior research associate at the Notre Dame Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government.