A Declaration of Catholic Independence

G. K. Chesterton once described America as a “nation with the soul of a church.”  Many have wrongly interpreted this statement as Chesterton’s way of saying that America was a Christian nation, or that Americans were especially pious and devout people. Chesterton meant something rather different, and not especially complementary.  America is like a church in the sense that it has often understood citizenship in terms of assent to a creed.  One becomes an Englishman or Frenchman through history, through coming from a family that has lived in a particular place for generations.  In contrast, one can theoretically become an American simply by assent to certain abstract principles, the American creed.  Chesterton’s characterization of America as a creedal nation came to mind as I passed an election sign for the Romney-Ryan ticket that read, “Believe in America.”  What could this possibly mean?  Is America a god?  What precisely are we supposed to believe in?  In a word, liberty.  And make no mistake about it, liberty is a god.

That, at least, is the argument that Christopher A. Ferrara makes in his important and timely new book, Liberty, the God that Failed:  Policing the Sacred and Constructing the Myths of the Secular State, from Locke to Obama.  The title references the 1949 work The God that Failed, a famous collection of essays by ex-communists describing their disillusion with the utopian ideology of communism.  Liberal and conservative American political thinkers share a common characterization of communism and fascism as irrational, secular religions against which the American political tradition stands as a model of reason and moderation.  It is just such a conceit that Ferrara sets out to expose as a delusion.  At a time when the American bishops are calling on Catholics to defend the American tradition of religious liberty against state coercion, Ferrara argues that religious liberty itself has been the main ideology through which the modern state has sought to redefine and control religion. This is a difficult and challenging argument, one that goes against the common sense of American political thinking.  It is an argument based on a very different kind of common sense that comes from traditional Catholic understandings of the public nature of Church authority.

For the last fifty or so years, liberal and conservative Catholics alike have interpreted Dignitatis Humanae as a baptism of the U.S. Constitution.  Ferrara reminds his readers early on that even as the document affirmed the right to freedom from coercion in religious life, it also rejected the notion of a purely privatized religion and held up the traditional confessional state as an enduring political ideal.  For Ferrara, the Constitution’s rejection of religious establishment reflects a broader Enlightenment desire to privatize religion in a way that is counter to Catholic political traditions from the Middle Ages up to and including Dignitatis Humanae.  In the wake of debates surrounding the HHS mandate, conservative Catholics have been falling all over themselves defending our “sacred” Founders from the charge of privatization.

Much of how you judge the Founders’ intentions and the historical record of religion and public life in American history depends upon what you mean by religion.  Ferrara convincingly argues that the Founders were more or less Masonic deists to a man, with no desire to see anything like a robust, orthodox Christianity, even of the Protestant variety, shaping public life. They certainly believed that the health of the republic depended upon a disciplined, moral citizenry and believed that religion—at the very least, a belief in God and fear of damnation—was useful as a prop to support such a public morality.  That the moral probity of eighteenth-century Masonic British gentry strikes many a conservative Catholic today as a rough approximation of a Catholic world view should be troubling to Catholics, whatever their politics. The only God that the Founders acknowledged as having public standing was, as Ferrara’s title suggests, the God of Liberty.

For Ferrara, Liberty is not a political ideal, but a rival faith, a false idol.  His book is difficult reading for any Catholic, liberal or conservative, raised on the idea of the complete compatibility of Catholicism and the American Founding.  His argument seeks to shatter this illusion on both the level of ideas and institutional practice.  The early sections of this massive work deal with the development of modern social contract theory, particularly the work of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Ferrara shows that, with respect to religion, the attempt to present Locke as a kinder, gentler rationalist simply does not hold up.  Locke may have had a more benign view of the state of nature than Hobbes’s vision of a life nasty, brutish and short, but he leaves no doubt that the peace man seeks by entering the social contract requires the subordination of religious authority to that of the secular sovereign or state.

Following the work of William Cavanaugh, Ferrara argues that the whole modern social contract tradition has been nothing less than an alternative foundational myth, a parody or perversion of the origins of human society found in the Book of Genesis.  If traditional Christendom saw the purpose of political life to approximate, within the limits of our fallen nature, the City of God amidst the City of Man, the social contract tradition understands politics as a tool for protecting individual freedom, particularly through the instrument of rights.  In public life, Catholics have been all too willing to accept this myth as a guide to political action—such as the grounding of pro-life politics in a “right to life.”

If Locke’s political philosophy is at fundamental odds with Catholicism in theory, it is at odds with itself in practice.  The great philosopher of liberty significantly excluded Catholicism from his vision of religious tolerance, largely because, through the person of the pope, the Catholic Church still claimed to have some public authority over the rule of princes.  The so-called “Glorious Revolution” that drove a legitimate Catholic king (James II) from the throne of England and secured Protestant rule was followed by a century long battle to bleed Catholicism from the people of Ireland through a series of draconian penal laws.  The irony of coercion in the name of freedom was not limited to eighteenth-century Ireland or the French Revolution, but has characterized the reign of Lockean freedom in American history.  Here Ferrara particularly targets the historical myths peddled by libertarians, Catholic and otherwise, who tell of a golden age of libertarian freedom in America corrupted by a fall from grace with the advance of statism under Lincoln during the Civil War (or the statism of the Progressive Era, New Deal, Great Society, etc.).  For Ferrara, the Founders—that is, those who drafted and supported the Constitution—were statists from the start and would brook no opposition to (centralized) state authority.

A Case at Times Overstated
Here, I sometimes feel Ferrara overstates his case.  He is certainly right to highlight the role of state violence in an era (the Founding and early republic) that patriotic Americans like to think of as somehow bloodless.  He is also right to highlight the continuities between the American and French revolutions.  Still, even a reader open to such a critical interpretation has a hard time accepting a moral equivalence between the suppression of Shay’s Rebellion and the Reign of Terror.  Rightly calling attention to the Janus-faced character of American liberty, his exposé of coercive state power from the Founding to the Civil War would seem to draw its sense of moral outrage from the very concept of liberty he is critiquing. Modern nation-states, including the United States, have indeed exercised coercive powers beyond anything imagined by a medieval king or an early-modern absolute monarch, but pre-modern life was hardly “free” in the modern sense; rather, individual and family life were structured by a complex system of local laws and customs that would strike a modern libertarian as being just as restrictive as any power claimed by the modern nation state. I understand that it is just such libertarians that Ferrara is trying to outrage, but lacking an account of the local customs, laws and traditions that structured life in the early republic, his account threatens to keep the whole debate within the false libertarian dichotomy of individual freedom and state coercion.

So too, in an effort to demolish the libertarian myth, Ferrara often loses all sense of degree and proportion.  He is right in seeing a consistently statist direction in American political history. That is, whenever the prerogatives of state or local government came into conflict with those of the federal government, the federal government won out, most spectacularly and violently in the Civil War.  Still, at times he makes even the early republic sound like a Stalinist police state simply because the Founding generation quickly discovered that for all their talk of liberty, social order often requires the use of government power. Ferrara is on much firmer ground when dealing with the most overt forms of violence inextricably bound up with American freedom:  slavery and the extermination of Native Americans. Patriotic Americans are too quick to judge that dwelling on these matters amounts to America bashing.  It does not.  It is the only way to understand the true historical meaning of liberty in America.

The products of slave labor—first tobacco, then cotton—were at the heart of American economic life from the colonial period through to the Civil War. No sooner did America correct the historic wrong of slavery through the Civil War (at the cost of some 600,000 American lives) then the country turned its energies to “winning” the West through a genocidal war against Native Americans.  And let us not forget our own times.  No sooner did the Civil Rights Movement complete the work of slave emancipation then the apostles of liberty found another threat to freedom in the unborn child.  Abortion is not state mandated.  Americans freely choose to offer up roughly a million children every year to the altar of liberty.

The history of liberty in America is more complex than Ferrara presents.  He ignores many countervailing traditions that did, for a time, help to slow the “progress” of liberty.  Still, his history is selective with a purpose, and a noble one.  Any honest look at American history will show that negative liberty, “freedom from,” has consistently triumphed in its battle against positive conceptions of human flourishing and the common good.  It will also show that there is nothing in our quasi-Masonic public religion, from Washington and Lincoln to Ronald Reagan, which could have prevented this development.  Catholics can work with the American system, but they first must realize what it is.  When the Church converted the Roman Empire, it knew that it was dealing with a pagan institution.  American Catholics since John Courtney Murray have approached the U.S. Constitution, and the American ideal of liberty, as somehow crypto-Catholic and in need only of our full-throated assent.  If Catholics are to be truly Catholic in America, and not just a branch office of the Church of Liberty, we need to first stand apart from a political tradition born in a revolt against the Catholic Church. Christopher Ferrara’s book is an essential starting point and a necessary declaration of Catholic independence.

Christopher Shannon


Dr. Christopher Shannon is a member of the History Department at Christendom College, where he interprets the narrative of Christian history from its foundations in the Old Testament and its heroic beginnings in the Church of the Martyrs, down through the ages to the challenges of the post-modern world. His books include Conspicuous Criticism: Tradition, the Individual, and Culture in Modern American Social Thought (Johns Hopkins, 1996) and, most recently, Bowery to Broadway: The American Irish in Classic Hollywood Cinema (University of Scranton Press, 2010).

  • But they weren’t Masonic Deists, to a man. That’s unfair. You have to look beyond Jefferson, Franklin, and Madison…. Also, the Constitution was a blueprint for a governmental structure, outlining the relationship between the federal government and the state governments. The first amendment merely ties the hands of the federal government: Congress shall make no law. It didn’t outlaw the established churches in the states, although many people, for a variety of reasons, sought disestablishment there too…. I think the Constitution is best seen as a set of by-laws and mechanisms, and not as culturally determinative.

    • Christopher Blum

      Although they were not Masonic Deists “to a man,” the influence of freemasonry was a strong one. On this point, Steven C. Bullock’s Revolutionary Brotherhood: Freemasonry and the Transformation of American Social Order, 1730-1840 (University of North Carolina Press, 1998) is well worth the effort. Thank you, Professor Shannon, for a thoughtful review. Your point about how Mr. Ferrera’s critique seems at time to assume a libertarian principle of judgment is, I think, very important.

    • Adam_Baum

      With regard to the charge of Masonic Deism, this bears an uncanny resemblance to an argument I recently came upon that a certain type of economic thought was incompatible with Catholicism.

      In both cases, both authors attacking the idea, through the theological and philosophical dispositions of the author-making an ad hominem attack. I have no problem with criticisms of the “founders”, or the exploring the idea that absent a properly informed conscience patriotism degenerates into an idolatry of the state-

      The problem with this is both practical and philosophical. As a practical matter, there are going to be areas of inquiry that are going to be developed or revolutionized by non-Catholics or even those hostile to the Church. Should we then reject modern physics because Einstein was something of a cultural Jewish deist or Marie Curie left the Church in anger over the deaths of her mother and sister?

      However, if we are going to take this path, then lets examine Mr. Ferrara and his associations. Has there been any part of the modern state that is more hostile to religion than the legal profession? In any case, he lost me when he wrote his anti-EWTN screed some years ago-something I’ve watched and valued for decades. His association with the former Father Gruner gives me little comfort.

      I also remember the very public and pharistical piety of another Catholic, Mel Gibson. How’s that working out for us? People need to be very careful of those who are more Catholic than the Pope-they have a long history, and we would be wise to remember another one and what he did-495 years ago, tomorrow.

      • Adam_Baum

        “In both cases, both authors attacking the idea, through the theological
        and philosophical dispositions of the author-making an ad hominem


        In both cases, the authors attacked ideas, not exclusively on merit but through the theological and philosophical dispositions of the originators of the ideas-making an ad hominem attack.

      • Stephen

        With regard to what you state about “areas of inquiry that are going to be developed or revolutionized by non-Catholics or even those hostile to the Church,” I think it important to note the distinction between the natural sciences and philosophy. Since the latter, unlike the former, involves beliefs concerning human nature and the goal of human life, a critical (but not knee-jerk dismissive) eye toward non-Catholic formulations of political philosophy seems more warranted.

        I don’t have any knowledge about Mr. Ferrara or his associations, but I also value EWTN, so I’m curious as to the “screed” you mentioned. What did he say, and is it available online?

        • Adam_Baum

          “I think it important to note the distinction between the natural
          sciences and philosophy. Since the latter, unlike the former, involves
          beliefs concerning human nature and the goal of human life, a critical
          (but not knee-jerk dismissive) eye toward non-Catholic formulations of
          political philosophy seems more warranted.”

          Why make the distinction. Certain areas of physics for example, are being criticized by physicists as philosophy, because it makes assertions that are difficult, if not impossible to prove by empirical observation. It was years before the first experiments designed to assess relativity were developed and conducted (I think the first experiment was to measure the deflection of light by a massive object) and it was decades before the twisting of space was observed-it was an experiment that took decades to conduct. As weird and inimaginable as time dilation and length contraction are-quantum entanglement makes them look simple and obvious.

          As for the EWTN screed, it’s not available online. It’s a published book.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    The 19th century Catholic historian, Lord Acton, is very good on this. He stresses that the driving force behind both the American and French Revolutions was the passion for equality, as well as liberty, that was at the heart of Classical Liberalism

    “It condemns, as a State within the State, every inner group and community, class or corporation, administering its own affairs; and, by proclaiming the abolition of privileges, it emancipates the subjects of every such authority in order to transfer them exclusively to its own. It recognises liberty only in the individual, because it is only in the individual that liberty can be separated from authority, and the right of conditional obedience deprived of the security of a limited command. Under its sway, therefore, every man may profess his own religion more or less freely; but his religion is not free to administer its own laws. In other words, religious profession is free, but Church government is controlled. And where ecclesiastical authority is restricted, religious liberty is virtually denied.”

    He also points out that the passion for civic equality and the hatred of noble and clerical privilege is surprisingly tolerant of despotism. “Government must not be arbitrary, but it must be powerful enough to repress arbitrary action in others. If the supreme power is needlessly limited, the secondary powers [those “inner group and community, class or corporation”] will run riot and oppress. Its supremacy will bear no check.”

  • Lee

    General Washington repudiated the Masons in the strongest of terms. He had joined for a very short time, realized what he was dealing with, resigned saying that America had no use for a secret society. He also had visits at Mt Vernon from a Catholic priest that came over from MD (VA outlawing Catholics at that time) and the priest was at his bedside in his final illness. Some of his slaves thought that Washington had become a Catholic on his deathbed.

    • Stephen

      That is interesting what you assert regarding Washington and the Masons, particularly considering the large Masonic Memorial to Washington in Alexandria, VA. What is your source for this? Regarding the supposed visit of a Catholic priest to Washington’s deathbed in 1799, I had read that something that identified the priest as Fr. Leonard Neale, who later became the second Archbishop of Baltimore in 1815. However, does documentary evidence support this story?

      Regarding Catholicism in Virginia, it is my understanding that the Statue of Virginia for Religious Freedom, drafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1777 but not enacted until 1786, would have removed legal restrictions against Catholics there. By the end of 1795, at least two Catholic parishes existed in Virginia, in Norfolk and in Alexandria, the latter parish of St. Mary’s having been established with the help of Washington’s friend and an early mayor of Alexandria, Col. John Fitzgerald.

  • This more or less hits the nail on the head if you ask me.

    Here we have countless Catholic Americans praying for the continuation of religious freedom when in actuality we ought to be praying for the conversion of a nation and for restrictions on freedom, namely things like abortion, pornography, gay marriage, etc.

    We can sit and banter back and forth until we are blue in the face about who was masonic and who wasn’t or what the intent of the founding fathers was or wasn’t. But the more telling thing is to look at today. Our Lord said by their fruits you shall know them. 236 years into this country, what are its fruits?

    The line from this article says it best: “Americans freely choose to offer up roughly a million children every year to the altar of liberty.”

    Read Libertas Praestantissimum by Pope Leo XIII and one will see just how right he was…you can’t argue with the facts. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20…and that 20/20 was once Leo’s foresight.

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  • publiusnj

    The writer notes but then disagrees somewhat with Ferrara’s premise: “that religious liberty itself has been the main ideology through which the modern state has sought to redefine and control religion….” I think Ferrara is more right than not.
    The Glorious Revolution was fought ostensibly over religion. The Catholic James II wanted people to be free to choose their religion, even if it meant they chose a religion other than the one he nominally headed (Anglicanism). His 1687 and 1688 Declarations of Tolerance therefore invited but did not require that his people choose the one he thought true instead (Catholicism); they were instead free to choose any one they wanted. That was unacceptable to the British nobles who controlled Parliament, because they had used Anti-Catholicism as a proxy for their effort to control the State ever since the days of “Bloody” Mary and her sister-successor Elizabeth. Leicester and Cecil formed a Pro-Reform party that ofttimes controlled the State. Then under the Stuarts, that same pro-Protestant Party grew more and more oppositional to the Stuarts on purportedly religious grounds when Stuart efforts to control the religions og England and Scotland threatened noble prerogatives. Thus, the Bishops Wars and the English Civil War.

    In essence, James II did an end run around the Anglican Establishment by reaching out not just to the Catholics (some 25% of the British Isles even in those dark days) but to the Dissenters, including William Penn, whose status had grown progressively less tenable in Restoration England with the Pro-Anglican Laws passed despite opposition by the Monarchy. Anglicanism, being neither fish (Catholicism) nor fowl (Protestantism), couldn’t survive without state sanction and the Restoration Effort was premised on the “sanctity” of the King and His Church. Yet that was falling apart with James’s end-run. So, the Nobles (and their Anglican bishop confederates) allowed some inconsistency to fester in the “religious polity” they jury-rigged as they threw out the head of their Church. They would grant toleration to Protestant Dissenters while maintaining an Anglican Establishment. The only church that would not be allowed toleration was the only one that could threaten state-controlled Anglicanism: Catholicism. As the writer notes, over the next century and more, the Masonic State that arose out of that inconsistency did its best to “bleed Catholicism from the people of Ireland through a series of draconian penal laws.”
    In America, the Dissenters had already been able to create their own establishments in the New England states before the Revolution so Anglicanism was not needed there. What was needed was restraint on the power of “Congress” to undo the Dissenter Establishments that did hold sway there. Thus, the First Amendment. It was not a grand vision of Religious Freedom but just a continuation of the religious politics that arose in England.