Sense and Nonsense: Principles of the American Experiment

Voiced by Amazon Polly

Terse statements of principle are a feature of the American Founding and its continuing explication. The Declaration of Independence is the most well-known. Too, we know some non-Americans perceptively describe our character—de Tocqueville, Lord Bryce, or Jacques Maritain. On receiving Letters of Credence from the new U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See on December 16, 1997, John Paul II gave his own brief statement (L’Osservatore Romano, December 31, 1997). It ought to be included, from now on, in every anthology of American documents. The pope recalls that Jefferson himself felt compelled to justify before mankind the revolution that separate us from the British Crown.

The danger of being founded on universally proclaimed principles that anyone, even a pope, can read is that we can be held to our own postulates if we are not living them. The pope’s address was this sort of document. It deserves wide attention as a restatement of “the principles of the American experiment.” We are all, I think, uncomfortably conscious of the degree to which we have in fact deviated from the obvious understanding of these principles. We suspect this deviation is dangerous. Oftentimes, someone from elsewhere best explains to us what we are about.

The pope begins by acknowledging the central role that America plays in world order. But he is concerned about a perceived disloyalty toward what we say about ourselves. “The Founding Fathers of the United States asserted their claim to freedom and independence on the basis of certain ‘self-evident’ truths about the human person, truths which could be discerned in human nature, built into it by ‘nature’s God.'” The Holy Father too knows George Washington’s notion of “ordered liberty.” On reading these founding documents, the pope is struck by their concept of a positive freedom designed to enable us to fulfill our duties to family and common good.

The pope, as he does everywhere, restates the fundamental human right of “religious freedom.” All other rights and freedoms are based on this basic principle. We should not miss the irony that today the principal advocate of religious freedom throughout the world is not some politician, American or otherwise, but the Roman pontiff. The Declaration, he notices, acknowledges that our freedoms do not come from charters, parchments, or seals but, citing John Dickinson, “from the King of Kings and the Lord of all the earth.” These founders knew about divine providence, its place in the lives of individuals and nations.


As the year 2000 approaches, the pope suggests that nations and states can reflect on themselves. Showing an acute insight into national ideological trends, he warns: “It would be a sad thing if the religious and moral convictions upon which the American experiment was founded could somehow be considered a danger to free society, such that those who would bring these convictions to bear upon your nation’s public life would be denied a voice in debating and resolving issues of public policy.” The separation of church and state was not intended to exclude the very grounds of the Founding from public expression. The pope knows that the “vast majority” think that religion has a place in public life.

The right to life, the pope recalls, is in the founding documents. “The United States of America was founded on the conviction that an inalienable right to life was a self-evident moral truth, fidelity to which was a primary criterion of social justice.” Why is it, we wonder, that it is the pope who has to explain our own documents to us? He sees that the very “credibility of the United States will depend on its promotion of a ‘culture of life.'” This is not an idle warning, I think. A nation founded on lofty, “self-evident” principles that does not live by them sends quite a different message to the world from one that does. The pope is aware that a disordered people can, by sophistic argument, freely reject the principles of human dignity upon which it pro-claimed itself to have been established.

Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln, I am sure, would have been surprised to learn that the primary defender of their own announced philosophic principles was not a politician or academic of their own land, but the very pope of Rome. It is the pope who says that the principles of the American Founding are now considered, not by him but by Americans, to be a threat to free society. The paradox is not that it is the pope who says this, but that no freedom exists without such principles. What we have arrived at is not freedom, but, for many, in its name, its very denial.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books including The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His later books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His last books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017); The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018); Run That By Me Again (Tan, 2018) and The Reason for the Season (Sophia Institute Press, 2018).