Patrick Deneen’s powerful critique of American liberal democracy has moved several Catholic writers to reconsider their church’s relation to it.


Patrick Deneen’s powerful critique of American liberal democracy has moved several Catholic writers to reconsider their church’s relation to it. Among the best of these efforts since Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failedcame out earlier this year was a provocative essay published by American Affairs entitled, “The Eclipse of Catholic Fusionism.” Author Kevin Gallagher declared therein that the prominent Catholics who had worked with political conservatives during the 1980s and 1990s to defend free-market principles were “adulterating the faith” with alien ideas and ignoring the “American Church’s long-standing skepticism of free-market economics.”

In Gallagher’s telling, American Catholics who helped shape the Republican Party’s politics from the Reagan presidency through those of George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush had to make ideological compromises that sapped Catholicism of its mission and shrouded the truth of its spiritual and moral claims. Supposedly what is needed to restore that mission is “a Catholicism more critical of the mainstream of American thought.” But the fact is that previous generations of Catholic Americans, well before the likes of Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak, George Weigel, or Robert George came on the scene, had shaped the mainstream of American thought.

To that tradition Gallagher pays scant attention, so great is his zeal to criticize the above-mentioned group. While a brief essay cannot cover the entire history of American Catholicism before the 1980s, it will attempt to show how misunderstood the relationship between liberal democracy and Catholicism has become recently. What follow are glimpses of history that will reveal that the “integralism” at work in Gallagher’s piece is just as foreign to the Catholic faith in America as Lockean liberalism is.

Carrollian Conciliarism

Starting before the time of the Revolutionary War, American Catholics began to offer a republican interpretation of Catholicism that, though devoted to representative government, nonetheless opposed classical liberalism, whether grounded in Protestant or in purportedly secular foundations. The originators of this interpretation were the most prominent Catholic Founders, the cousins Charles Carroll of Carrollton (the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence) and John Carroll, a Jesuit priest who became the first American Catholic bishop.

The republican interpretation was developed across generations of Catholic leaders, including Archbishop “Dagger” John Hughes of New York, Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, Venerable Fulton J. Sheen, and Father John Courtney Murray. These figures had no patience for Lockean liberalism, but neither did they have any patience for the declining throne-and-altar politics that were slowly failing Europe and the Catholic Church in its seat in Rome.

Charles and John Carroll had undergone an English and French Jesuit education at a time when the Jesuits were partially suppressed in Europe, and much of what they learned from their teachers was a republican reinterpretation of Catholic political theology. As Michael Breidenbach has argued, conciliarists insisted, first, that infallible statements of doctrine came with the assent of councils of bishops in conjunction with papal authority, thus linking the Pope’s executive authority to the legislative collective authority of the bishops. Second, conciliarists denied that the Pope had any claim to temporal governance of a state. Papal authority was purely spiritual and moral, and his influence could only come in the form of counsel or indirectly through the instruction of the faithful. While the first tenet of conciliarism faded in America, the second remained a critical component for integrating the Church as a minority faith into the republic.

The Carrolls deployed conciliarism to ground their defense of the rights of conscience and the cause of American independence from Britain. Defense of these rights was the best that Catholics, a small minority in America, could hope for in a new nation whose constituent states, such as New Hampshire and Rhode Island, barred Catholics from voting or holding office. Even their fellow patriot John Jay expressed to the 1788 New York Ratification Convention a desire to deny Catholics property and civil rights.

The Carrollian conciliarist tradition continued into the next generation of Catholic leaders, who had to contend with the rapid increase in immigration to the United States from Catholic Ireland. One of the most famous of these leaders was Archbishop “Dagger” John Hughes of New York, so nicknamed because of the cross that bishops traditionally place before their signatures and its resemblance (in the eyes of American Protestants) to a dagger aimed at the heart of the Republic.

In 1840, New York Governor William Seward offered to help Bishop Hughes secure state funding for the Catholic schools in New York City. The schools were struggling to stay open despite Hughes’s successful fundraising in Catholic capitals in Europe. Protestants dominated the Common Council, which was responsible for distributing state funds in the city, and Hughes sought to expedite Seward’s plan by requesting the Common Council allocate funds to his Catholic schools.

To justify the request, Hughes had to appear before a meeting of the Common Council, which very quickly became a war of words between New York’s Protestants and Catholics. Though he had no hope of winning the debate, Hughes affirmed the republican virtue of his flock and defended the religious liberty of the Church. Moreover, he warned that American Protestants should consider starting their own sectarian schools, as the efforts to form a consensus Protestant curriculum had produced what he derisively called “Nothingarianism.” By this, Hughes meant that it was a mishmash of ideas to which no actual Protestant subscribed and that, in effect, it taught students to be indifferent to any Christian confession. He warned that this kind of religious instruction could only end up turning young Americans into atheists.

The Republic of Ireland

After the end of the Civil War, secular organizations like the National Liberal League attempted to strip religion from public institutions. As Philip Hamburger has shown in his work, the league combined “powerfully anti-ecclesiastical fears with intense desires of an almost religious character,” while developing its own liberal versions of funerals and baptisms. After reaching the height of its influence around 1876, the league spent the 1880s tearing itself apart over whether or not to support obscenity laws. In addition, the American Protection Association and the Ku Klux Klan argued for a “theological liberalism” that specifically condemned the spiritual authority of the Pope.

It was in this context that American Catholic bishops decided, in 1884, to convene the famous Third Plenary Council of Baltimore. The nation was in the throes of a renewed anti-Catholicism when the Third Plenary gathered a scattered U.S. Catholic hierarchy in the old English Catholic refuge to assess the state of the Church in America.

In a sermon from that 1884 meeting on the relationship between the Church and the United States, Archbishop John Ireland preached that the “surest safeguards for the Church’s own life and the prosperity of the republic will be found in the teachings of the Catholic Church, and the more America acknowledges those teachings, the more durable will her civil institutions be made.”

Archbishop Ireland emphatically endorsed republican government and the rights of conscience—yet he equally emphatically condemned the “Doctrinaires” of liberalism as “liars.” Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau preached what Ireland called “political Protestantism,” a doctrine that reduced to the “sacred right of insurrection” but that contained no guidance as to when insurrection may be rightly pursued. He nonetheless insisted that the American people were the true sovereign, declaring that

There are no kings or rulers by divine right in the sense that specified men or families are directly called by God to reign, or that specified governments are authorized by Him. Rulers govern by the will of the people, and derive their just powers from the consent of the governed in the sense that the consent, the choice, of the governed is the condition upon which heaven conveys authority.

Ireland was bound up in a transatlantic dispute over the “quasi-heresy of Americanism.” Pope Leo XIII, in his 1896 encyclical Longinqua oceani and his 1899 encyclical Testem benevolentiae nostrae, reminded American Catholic clergy and laity to obey Church authority and resist the false liberty promised by a state refusing to affirm the spiritual authority of the papacy. The American bishops responded with obedience if not agreement, as the conciliar tradition continued development and awaited a champion.

Americanism and Its Discontents

During the early 1930s, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen (granted the title of “Venerable” by Pope Benedict XVI during his cause for canonization, which is ongoing) gained national renown as the most articulate and forceful advocate for the Catholic Church in America. The Illinois-born Sheen began his early life as a priest earning the highest academic honors but, after the anti-Catholic campaigns against Democratic presidential nominee Al Smith in 1928, moved into public advocacy in print and radio. Sheen gave popular religious addresses on the Catholic Hour and published paperbacks that provided edited transcripts of the addresses, and he eventually turned this success into an opportunity to appear on television. His show Life Is Worth Living was a surprise hit during the 1950s.

Sheen was contemptuous of liberalism for the same reason that Ireland had been: that it was unbounded by any external standard. He joked that reactionaries were simply old liberals preempted by a new generation that had redefined progress as something else entirely. In a litany of jokes mocking reactionaries and liberals alike, Sheen quipped, “The reactionary believes in staying where he is, though he never inquires whether or not he has a right to be there; the liberal, on the contrary, never knows where he is going, he is only sure he is on his way.”

Liberalism, whether old or new, was “a parasite on Christian civilization, and once that body upon which it clings ceases to be the leaven of society, then historical liberalism must itself perish,” said Sheen. The body politic required nourishment from the Jewish and Christian traditions that affirmed divine limits to human political action, these limits being the rights of individuals as created by God.

Naturally, Sheen regarded the Catholic Church as the supreme authority on the spiritual teaching concerning these rights, which he called, “Americanism.” Sheen defined it thus: “Americanism, as understood by our Founding Fathers, is the political expression of the Catholic doctrine concerning man.” To illustrate, he referred to the Founding, saying that the Declaration of Independence

affirms what the Gospel affirms as religion: the worth of man. Christ died on a cross for him, and governments are founded on account of him. He is the object of love theologically and politically—the source of rights, inalienable and sacred because when duly protected and safeguarded, he helps in the creation of a kingdom of Caesar which is the steppingstone to the Kingdom of God.

Even so, Sheen was careful to affirm the ultimate truth found in Catholicism as a truth that one could not be compelled to support. Hence his indefatigable efforts to bring more of his fellow Americans into the faith through debate and persuasion. To those who would take issue with his way of proceeding, he could merely gesture at the hosts of converts he had made, including the virtuoso violist Fritz Kreisler and the stateswoman Clare Booth Luce.

Enter John Courtney Murray

The New York-born Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray was ordained in 1933 and in 1940 became a professor of theology at Woodstock College. Within the decade, he defended the relationship of church and state in the American order, and this caused the Vatican to request that he cease publishing on the subject. At the same time, ironically, Protestants and Other Americans for the Separation of Church and State was fighting to cut Catholic churches off from any public funding at the state and federal levels for fear of “foreign” influence.

The great threat to Americanism was liberalism itself, which Murray warned was increasingly supplanting traditional religious faith in public institutions in the same manner that Hughes, the critic of “Nothingarianism,” had warned about over a century before. The abolition of religion from public schools was, as Murray argued in 1948, an affirmation of the religion of democracy “as our great contemporary myth.”

It was a myth under which

a secularist system of values, constructed without reference to God or to any human destiny beyond this world, that presents itself as higher, more unifying religion than all ‘sectarianism.’ It looks down with contempt upon the rivalries of sects, as somehow un-American. It wants all sectarian religion kept out of the public school, as divisive of the mystical unity of the American people, at the same time that it asserts itself to be the proper object of support and promotion.

After the Vatican eased its restrictions on his work, he published We Hold These Truths (1960) and saw the Second Vatican Council approve Dignitatis humanae—the Church’s affirmation of religious freedom, a statement that Murray himself had helped to compose.

In We Hold These Truths, Murray remained adamant that a “sectarian liberal” faith was a distortion of the U.S. Constitution and a threat to people of faith. For the votaries of this ersatz religion, the First Amendment had become an “object of religious faith” that was tantamount to “a religious test [being] thrust into the Constitution. The Federal Republic has suddenly become a voluntary fellowship of believers in some sort of free-church Protestantism or in the tenets of naturalistic humanism.”

The reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which was held in the early 1960s, had divisive effects among American Catholics, especially as regarded changes to the Mass. Also at issue was exactly how much of a break from prior teaching did the Church make in other respects, such as its relationship with political regimes. The inauguration in 1978 of Cardinal Karol Józef Wojtyła as Pope John Paul II (now canonized as Pope Saint John Paul II) provided the direction American Catholics needed—not just in liturgical life but in politics. The hope for many conservative Catholics in the United States was that a bridge could be built between the conservative movement and the “reform of the reform” that John Paul II ushered in to stabilize the Church in the wake of Vatican II and resume its fight against communism.

For a generation of conservative American Catholics, Pope St. John Paul II, with President Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was part of the Holy Trinity that undid the Soviet Union and ushered in decades of peace and prosperity in the United States and other Western democracies.

Integralism: An Ideology of Catholic Despair

Young Catholic intellectuals like Gallagher, born during the post-Soviet Pax Americana, seem to know little about American Catholicism before the “reform of the reform” under John Paul II, and before the general decline of episcopal leadership culminating in the clerical abuse crises of 2002 and 2018. The free market Catholicism of Neuhaus, Novak, and company during the 1980s is where they joined the conversation. They saw Catholic intellectuals show greater sympathy for the Republican Party and global capitalism than for Catholic social teachings on such matters as assistance to the poor, or stewardship of the natural world. They then saw that allegiance rewarded with perpetual delay on challenging abortion and utter failure in preventing the Obergefell decision, which was written by a purported Roman Catholic Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Not only had sectarian liberalism succeeded in capturing American institutions, it had captured prominent members of the Church.

One can understand why these Catholics believe that American liberalism is what caused things to turn out so differently from what Neuhaus and the others had promised. However, the blame does not belong to American institutions, but to the Church. The “dyarchy” of Catholic integralism (which subordinates secular political authority to the Catholic Church) is an intellectualization of despair—an expression of their unmet desire for clear, united, and orthodox teaching by a serious, truly celibate American Catholic clergy at a time when its leadership is divided, politically compromised, and often in open, unpunished violation of celibacy vows.

However understandable their view might be, it is also wrong. Lay Catholics like Novak or priests like Neuhaus may have had cultural influence within a faction of American Catholic intellectuals, but they did not wield the direct authority of a bishop. What have the priests and bishops of the past few decades been doing to lead the faithful in the United States? Why do they not meet with their congregations in church basements to fight for conscience rights like Hughes did, or exhort them on racial equality like Ireland did, or call for the defense against totalitarianism at home and abroad like Sheen did? At best (and with some exceptions), contemporary American Catholic bishops have been pious bureaucrats. At worst, they have behaved not like shepherds but like wolves.

Laity, even those as pious and serious as Gallagher (or, for that matter, as Robert George), simply cannot do what the American bishops should be doing. Not only has the episcopacy failed to lead or even protect its congregations, even as recently as the 2018 General Assembly of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, there has been little sign that the situation will improve any time soon. Engaged Catholic laity have responded with outrage. If Catholics cannot look to bishops, where can they look?

No wonder Gallagher expresses concern about “the youth” and no wonder he urges a “new political vocabulary.” As it turns out, however, the “new political vocabulary” is just the old vocabulary of over two centuries of American Catholic thought. Sadly, it is just new to him.

Finally, Gallagher’s admiration for the emerging discussions of “integralism” and “dyarchy” seems to make the very mistake he attributes to Neuhaus, Novak, and the rest of the previous generation of conservative Catholics leaders—that of confusing intellectual discourse for real episcopal leadership. Worse, this discourse already shows signs of degenerating into just another ideology hearkening toward a prefabricated political regime that will somehow come to be in the distant future. In the absence of a united, vigorous episcopal leadership today, American Catholics are left with well-meaning ideologues wishing for radical chic or play-acting the formation of the People’s Integralist Front. Under such circumstances, Catholicism becomes merely an identity (with noisome sub-categories like “leftCath” or “ethnoCath”), and the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas reduced to a tool to “own the libs” on Twitter.

James M. Patterson

James M. Patterson is Assistant Professor of Politics at Ave Maria University.

About the Author

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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One Response to Patrick Deneen’s powerful critique of American liberal democracy has moved several Catholic writers to reconsider their church’s relation to it.

  1. hellenback7 says:

    Well articulated, educational and interesting. Thank you for an the article.

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