For the most part, American Catholics have wanted to be like other people. They arrived in America as immigrants from places where they had a definite (if sometimes lowly) position. They left that for a country where social positions were fluid, they would be held in contempt if they stayed as they were, and they could rise to the heights if they Americanized.
So they became dedicated Americans. They were used to being part of the social whole, and that was the way to be part of it here. What they lost in security of position by moving to the New World they could, if they gave themselves whole-heartedly to their new way of life, gain in eminence and (as it seemed) freedom to go their own way.
And going their own way is what people want here. America’s the land of opportunity, where anybody can become anything. We’re all independent individuals, and we don’t like labels, so background and connections aren’t supposed to matter. If a candidate for office is Catholic that’s not supposed to be an issue. Each of us has a mind and will of his own, so we should be judged individually and not lumped together.
The strategy of conforming to individualism has been a roaring success in its way. American Catholics have become like everyone else only more so. If anything, they are to the left of their compatriots on social issues. Six justices of the Supreme Court are Catholics, and if John Kerry is nominated and confirmed as Secretary of State the first four offices in the line of succession to the presidency will be held by Catholics as well. As immigration proponents say, assimilation works!
Even so, something seems amiss, something about gaining the world and losing what is more important. Catholics have something in common that’s different and important, that other people don’t necessarily agree with, and that ought to affect our outlook and loyalties and how we act. Is it really a good thing if none of that says anything about how a politician will act in office?
Catholics want to fit in, and they want to live the American Dream. That’s understandable, given human nature and the history of how most of us came here and what we found when we arrived, but it doesn’t seem entirely what Our Lord had in mind:
If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you. (John 15:19)
Most people don’t pay much attention to such comments today. People who do are considered fundies, cultists, or misfits looking for a reason to explain why they are failures and nobody likes them. Sensible, public-spirited people mostly want to participate in today’s pluralistic democracy, in a Catholic manner if they happen to be Catholic, but by the rules and within the limits set by the overall system.
Distinguished Catholic thinkers like Fr. John Courtney Murray have thought the circle could be closed, so that Constitution and Church would go together like Throne and Altar. The key was to renew America’s founding principles, and with them the unstated core of natural law they inherited from antiquity and the European Middle Ages. Accept the First Amendment as the guardian of civil peace and the freedom of religion, and we could pursue Catholicism in private life and civil society, and discuss politics with our fellow citizens based on right reason. We could be fully Catholic as well as fully American.
That looked like an admirable solution to a difficult problem, but it doesn’t seem to be working. Our leaders in every field of public life, as a matter of fundamental principle, increasingly reject natural law in favor of will and technology as a guide to life. That’s the meaning of Choice and Change, and it’s why abortion has become a right guaranteed by the Constitution. That rejection is taught in the schools, propagandized by pop culture, and enforced by the courts. As public opinion polls and the recent election shows, it has also gained traction among the people at large.
Nor is the belief that things are good or bad by human decision rather than nature a random trend that could easily turn the other way. Natural law requires positive authority to become a workable system, because the specifics are not always immediately obvious. The human world is complex and subtle, and it’s easy to go astray when we try to make sense of it. Reflection and experience are needed for its realities to come into focus, and habit and education to recognize them as natural. As a practical matter, an understanding of natural law can become effectual only when embodied in a living authoritative tradition and way of life.
That’s a problem, because we’re individualistic and multicultural today. The rejection of hierarchical and transcendent authority that led to the rejection of Pope, Church, and King has continued. It now demands rejection of the authority of tradition and culture in ever more thoroughgoing ways. They’re great as a source of suggestions—why else have ethnic cookbooks?—but to feel bound by them would deny our right to go our own way. The only tradition and culture that now has public authority is the tradition and culture of rejecting tradition and culture.
So it seems that there’s a basic conflict between Catholicism and the principles that are increasingly defined as normative by public authorities in America. So what do we do?
In spite of all difficulties, the effort to reconcile America, modern life, and the Church by way of natural law remains worthwhile. Modern life is more than a dominant ideology, and America more than official rhetoric. We live in a complex society of human beings who succeed or fail in their efforts to realize true or false goods. To deal with that situation intelligently we need a realistic understanding of human life that dispenses with platitudes and concentrates on the things that have actually helped bring about the goods that have existed among us. Such an understanding would necessarily involve natural goods and tendencies, and therefore natural law.
Society could not exist if it truly accepted “do what you want” and “one is as good as another” as first principles. Freedom and equality are always limited, and until recently Americans limited them by vaguely referenced but nonetheless authoritative principles of religion and natural law. That situation changed decisively in the Sixties, and since then the theory has been that freedom and equality should be limited only by their own demands. That hasn’t worked, and the result has been a mess of contradictions: administered freedom, supervised democracy, inquisitorial tolerance, bureaucratized equality, and the slavish uniformity of pluralism. The abolition of cultural and religious authorities has meant not freedom and progress but political and social dysfunction and the absolutism of bureaucracy, the market, and the media.
It’s evident we need a better direction, one that takes into account human nature and the enduring need for principles that are higher than getting our own way. At some point the bubble of progressivist illusion will burst, and that need will become evident to all but the most obdurate. Catholics became American by conforming to what is dominant here. We can help restore our country to itself by aspiring to what has been best in it, as well as in our own tradition. That may not fix things fast, but nothing else will either, and as citizens and Catholics we can do no less.