One of the attractions of Catholicism for me was its promise of freedom from the puritanical deposit in the Protestant traditions. I mean this broadly, of course. We tend to reduce Puritanism retrospectively to prudishness about sex and drink, because modern man has had sex on the brain and perhaps too much to drink. The original Puritans were better than that; their prudishness encompassed much more. Their instinct was to remove themselves from the occasion of sin, which is to say, finally, remove themselves from the ancient Catholic society from which they had sprung.
We cannot pretend the United States was a Catholic creation. It was Puritan, Presbyterian, North British in its nature. The Mayflower was a removal, and the distinctively American “manifest destiny” was a continued removal, west ever west. Catholicism is just now catching up with it.
Quite a puzzle to assimilate for someone like me, who is not only Catholic by instinct but (for a foreigner) rather intensely pro-American. A mystery, on the plain of history, why the United States should have flourished in comparison to the explicitly Catholic societies that were implanted by the French to the north, Spanish and Portuguese to the south; and why explicitly Christian observance should persist longer here than in the “old countries”—the modern Europe that ceases not only to be Catholic, but even Christian.
Success is in itself among the arguments for Catholicism—2,000 years of holding the doctrinal fort, and in the face of adversities, progressing in the main from strength to strength. Which is precisely the American argument, in the shorter course of a couple of centuries. Something must be working if the United States remains alive and well.
Part of this at least I must attribute to a gradual inversion of the old puritanical creed. One sees it in the rediscovery of natural law—which President Bush articulates, with sometimes more eloquence than he realizes. From the free competition of the Protestant churches, what emerges is often much richer than any “mainstream” lowest common denominator (for those Protestant churches become extinct). The archetypal ideas and habits of Catholicism reemerge in the American ecumenical experience.
The Puritans’ descendants performed a kind of double inversion. On the one side, the “Max Weber” inversion, from a stripped-down Christian faith into an aggressive pragmatism and materialism. On the other, an increasing sacramentalism among those who persisted in Christian faith. And, as often as not, the two aspirations warring for balance in the same human hearts.
One of the challenges, for a convert like me, is to rediscover the Catholic threads in my own ancestral Protestant past. Did my people not have some peculiar role, in leaving the True Church, to return later in becoming stray sheep? Did we not take with us something that, in the fullness of time, we were bound to bring back, just when it is most needed?
For the “protestant” and the “catholic” tendencies, the centrifugal and centripetal, were both implicit in the mature Catholic Christian civilization of the High Middle Ages. I keep finding, in both its literature and historical events, a society with certain “American” qualities: with the “can do” spirit that enabled the West to prevail against the tide of Islam, when the East disintegrated. A “federalism” in both church and state that was in contrast with the bureaucratic centralism of the Byzantine Empire. An ability to “take charge” locally, from Poitiers to the reconquests of Spain and Hungary.
This, anyway, is something to mull on a long summer day. If she lifts the torch of Western Christendom from Europe’s dying hands, is America not implicitly Catholic?