Catholicism and Republicanism: More Than Compatible

Each electoral cycle, nearly six out of every ten American Catholics cast the ghastly vote of the libertine.  As such, one can only assume that the ideas and “lifestyles” emblazoned by these six out of ten votes follow faithfully (tongue firmly lodged in cheek!) upon such libertinism.  Regarding the shameful demographic ordeal, the orthodox American Catholic has grown accustomed to tearing at his garments and imploring in a maudlin falsetto: what is to be done?!

But last month, Patrick Deneen wrote an excellent article on The American Conservative announcing that these six out of ten Catholics don’t matter at all, in the larger scheme of things. “Liberal Catholicism has no future,” Deneen writes, “like liberal Protestantism, it is fated to become liberalism simpliciter within a generation.”  Notwithstanding the fact that liberal Protestantism—unlike liberal Catholicism—is in America an extreme minority position, I couldn’t any more agree with Deneen’s claim about ideological relevancy.  Don’t sweat the moot.  Instead, Deneen directs the Catholic faithful to look to their own ranks, with an eye to parsing the relative division or cohesion inhering there.  Those remaining four out of ten votes, Deneen admonishes us, represent where orthodox American Catholicism lives.  This too is a sagacious prompt.

Deneen asks: how compatible is Catholicism with self-government and how formative is the interplay of the two upon those intra-orthodox subgroups?   Recalling that reasonable minds can and do differ, Deneen splits either side of the dividing line into what may be called the “non-compatibilists” and the “compatibilists.”  Respectively, they are those who think “American Catholic” (or even more aptly, “Catholic citizen of a republic”) designates a contradiction in terms, and those who do not.

This is precisely where Deneen and I part ways.  Even if he is correct that the two sub-groups of American orthodox Catholics indeed self-identify thus, he forgot to write: “[sic].”  Such self-identification is spurious.  It presents a false dichotomy.  To say “compatible” is a gross understatement of the truth, and “non-compatible” is outright wrong.

Indeed, a major connection seems to have been missed by virtually everyone within the Church of Rome, from the laity to the Curia: the compatibilists, the non-compatibilists, and Deneen himself.  (And of course, as he points out, heterodox Catholics don’t even count.)  The Natural Law ideas of Catholicism requisition a certain, ineluctable outlook on government: republics require Natural Law, which itself needs a Catholic explication.  This is not to say that to be Catholic, one must believe in republican self-government.  Rather, if one already believes in self-government, as virtually every twenty-first century American or European does, his republicanism itself requires the ideas of the Catholic Church.

It is one thing to argue that Catholicism, alongside Protestantism or Enlightenment thought, can also sustain republicanism, as John Courtney Murray once argued, and as Samuel Gregg more recently has.  It is quite another thing altogether to argue that Catholicism alone can sustain republicanism—i.e. that Protestantism and Enlightenment thought cannot.  In this claim, which I stake, I believe I am sui generis.

America’s Declaration and, to a slightly lesser extent, its Constitution were structured almost exclusively upon the ideas of “Whig theory” from England in the prior century.  Whig theory’s mature form, John Locke’s 1689 Second Treatise, was in turn fertilized by the coalescence of two sixteenth century movements: the Enlightenment and the Protestant Reformation, which each repudiated (contrary to popular opinion) all the heftiest parts of Natural Law theory.  That is, nature is a forum for freedom, morality, intelligibility, and teleology.  Locke well knew that his own empiricist epistemology (and in an opposite/equal way, the Reformation epistemology) laid low these four important attributes formerly ascribed to nature.  Simply, if nature is unintelligible as he posed it, it can have no discernable law.

And this acknowledgement forced Locke to bifurcate bizarrely between true, Aristotelian Natural Law of the Catholic Church (which, as a Reformer and an empiricist, both of which rejected Aristotelianism, he had no choice but to reject) and his new brand of it, which adopted its conclusion but none of its primary four premises (nature’s freedom, morality, intelligibility, and teleology).  This cast the convincing, yet misleading, impression of a nature as simultaneously inscrutable yet somehow, still a source of rights.  By way of a heinous convolution of ideas and an egregious misnomer, he became Natural Law’s putative godfather, the cherry-picker of a conclusion with none of its premises.

In that way, and that way only, could he simultaneously a) plagiarize from the Scholastics of the Catholic Church in order to b) describe, in 1689, the prior year’s Glorious Revolution against Catholicism in England!  Whig Theory is intellectual history’s greatest irony: imagine getting into a fight with someone because you insist this person should not carry a knife.  In the ensuing struggle, you wrest the knife from him and use it on him … all to force him to acknowledge that he should not use the knife.  Of course you prevail, because the knife is indeed effective.  This was more or less the Whig stance on Natural Law (i.e. the “knife”) in England in 1689.  And the American Founders and Framers imported all this ambivalence into their “American Whiggism” a century later.  Thus, eighteenth century American Natural Law was no less tortured than seventeenth century English Natural Law.  Both were fueled exclusively by the Prot-Enlight amalgam of Whiggism, which rebuked but secretly incorporated Scholastic political theory.

But the whole hodgepodge, I acknowledge, also represents history’s best political experiment to date, which, irrespective of its etiological cover-up, got things 90 percent right or better at the beginning.  At the beginning.  On account of the idea’s low fidelity, however, it devolved rather quickly, in under two centuries.

Short of the complex theologico-political theory which produces my above view that America cannot survive without Rome, the simple politics invoked by both Deneen’s compatibilists and non-compatibilists are profoundly confused.  The two “sides” each misidentify easily correctible sources of their ideas.

Deneen describes the “compatibilitsts” as, more or less, Catholic neoconservatives and students of Leo Strauss, who supposedly affirm limited government and are “generally accepting of a more laissez faire economic position.”  Forget the above Catholic theology for a moment: this categorization is straight up bizarre.  Right off the bat, a “neocon” is a Keynesian and an opponent—not a friend—of purely free markets and subsidiarity.  A neocon changed political aisles—but never his political economy or his expansive view of federalism—during the late Cold War.  And they, especially the Straussians among them, retain their love for central planning and their distaste for locally ruled economies and ways of life, which they often slur as “neoconfederate.”  After all, to those ignorant of the Scholastic moral concept of subsidiarity, it appears in its demoralized Modern form to be no more than a recharge of the Confederate concept which led to Civil War.

In short, while neocons call themselves conservatives, conservatives they are not.  Quietly but consistently, they pledge support for federal control from Washington D.C. A compatibilist may be a lover of free markets or a lover or neoconservatism … but not both together.

Deneen’s description of the non-compatibilists is no less convoluted.   His foremost criterion for non-compatibilism is its view that the “natural communities” of Church and family, which it affirms, don’t fit within republics or liberal democracies, which it rejects.  More specifically, for the non-compatibilist these natural communities don’t jive with free enterprise: “deeply critical of contemporary arrangements of market capitalism.”  Now, this is entirely backwards: in reality, not only are the natural communities not inimical to free enterprise, but rather they are required by it.  Admittedly, the current status of “capitalism” in America tells a tale of bawdy consumerism on the demand-side, and self-absorbed careerism on the supply-side.  But non-compatibilists, my friends: don’t blame capitalism, which by definition can only be properly effectuated when the natural communities are robust!  Au contraire: for our dirty capitalism, blame the very death of the natural communities.

In a true republic, state-imposed restrictions on popular tastes for labor, products, and entertainment would be both obviated and rejected by the guiding role played instead by family, Church, and neighborhood associations.  But Deneen and the non-compatibilists (he says he is often counted on their side) missed the memo.  Failing to acknowledge that Church and state are locked in eternal competition for hearts and minds, the non-compatibilists evidently think the state can sometimes be a benign master—that sometimes the state can preponderate without taking away support from religion. The only alternative to market capitalism is the controlled economy.  Now how in the world does self-restraint square with the controlled economy—whose restraint is imposed not by the exercise of individual virtue learned in natural community, but by governmental mandamus and/or brainwashing?

And as deceitful or forceful “instructor,” it will overcome the people’s sovereignty entirely.  (Pardon my incorrect usage of the future tense in the previous sentence.)  Conversely, because family, Church, and neighborhood comprise natural communities—the social order that nature appointed for the individual, irrespective of compact—they can truly, gradually, and dialectically train his gaze upon “the true, the beautiful, and the good.”  And in that happy situation, free markets will remain clean, consumers won’t paganize commodities, and producers won’t idolize careers.

The self-contradiction inhering in both camps of Catholic orthodoxy should be apparent to any moderately observant student of government, even one abjectly uninterested in Catholic philosophy or theology.  Perhaps, given the great minds on the list of those who have missed it, it is something like a “purloined letter on the mantle,” invisible for all its obviousness.  Going a bit deeper and examining some theology and philosophy, of course, one would see that true republicanism indeed requires the Natural Law of Catholicism.  And this entails the natural economy and free choice of the compatibilists, but excludes neocons and Straussians by their own terms.  And on the “other side,” it incorporates the natural communities revered by the non-compatibilists, while by dint of implication, self-restraint excludes any who desire government intervention.

In sum, natural economy (capitalism) and natural community go together by necessity.  You can’t have one without the other, as we’ve attempted in America, on the basis of plagiaristic Whig theory; because we’ve attempted to have one without the other, we’ve wound up with neither.  And just as none among the Catholic orthodoxy have noticed the false dichotomy ascribable to the Whig germ embedded in our national archaeology, no one anywhere along the Protestant and secular right wing has noticed it either.  But most or all conservatives have begun to bemoan the symptoms: America’s present status as a centrally governed republic-in-name-only.  Diagnosing by symptoms, as we all know, makes for bad medicine.  Only by rooting out the arcane historical cause and correcting all the various cherry-picking pursuant to it, can our republic—or any republic—return to the genuine benefits of the Natural Law.

Editor’s note: This is an abbreviated version of an essay that first appeared in the The Imaginative Conservative on March 3, 2014.

Timothy J. Gordon


Timothy J. Gordon studied philosophy in Pontifical graduate schools in Europe, taught it at Southern Californian community colleges, and then went on to law school. He resides in central California with his wife and four daughters, where he writes as a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative.

  • Kenneth Perrin

    While I’m in agreement with Mr. Gordons assesment of whig philosophy, I base my self label of “non-compatibility” on my rejection of that theory as the foundation of the republic. If the foundation is sand, the edifice cannot stand. If whiggism is incompatible with Catholic thought, how can a government founded on it be? Perhaps if reset to being a Confessional Catholic state, acknowledging the Kingship of Christ, maybe. At this point, my sympathies lie toward a Catholic Monarchy.

    • TheAbaum

      Henry Tudor.

      • Arriero

        His daughter – and all the anti-Rome, anti-Authority, anti-government – would have been crushed if the weather would have respected the Holy Fleet sent by the Defender of the True Faith, Felipe II; son, in turn, of the greatest defender of the Faith against the protestant Enemy, Charles I of Spain.

        Maybe we should organize some more fleets and send them all over the world to put some order, don’t we? Will come the day that the Pope will call us to defend and restablish the Faith in all the known world, again. We will be prepared.

        Blas de Lezo y Olavarrieta, the greatest commander and strategist in the history of the Spanish Navy and one of the greatest officials in world history – apart from an indefatigable defender of the True Faith -, once said: «todo buen español debería mear siempre mirando a Inglaterra» (every good Spanish should always piss looking to England).

        History matters. We cannot forget our great Catholic heroes.

        • TheAbaum

          “been crushed if the weather would have respected the Holy

          Yeah well, the weather hasn’t respected me all winter, then again, I don’t expect it to respect me. How colossally silly.

          • Arriero

            Definitely, save for your retirement, then buy a house in a little town either in South-France or South-Italy or South-Spain and enjoy there a respectful weather, a calm enviroment, good wine and food and, last but not least, a Catholic life in a real Catholic place.

            PD- Knowing the weather in Minnesota and the Dakotas helps to be immune to bad weather, especially bad winters. Even the North Pole is a warmer place…

            • TheAbaum

              No interest in Europe, other than to see Rome. The rest of it is a cemetery and should not be used for recreation.

              • Arriero

                Maybe. Unluckily, a cementery managed by the ex-commie, divorced-with-no-children and daughter of a protestant pastor. She is also, the person who has completely destroyed the once very respectable conservative (mostly Catholic) party that was the CDU. Max Stirner would be proud of so much selfish destruction going on. The Ego and its own.

                Yet Europe always rises from the ashes. The main aim of Pope Benedict was ending this moral depravation and rebuilding Europe as what is has always been: the Faith and the Church. Apart from Rome, which is by the way a very dirty and untidy city, Europe is – should be – compulsory visit for any Catholic.

                In fact, every Catholic in the world, either culturally or ethically or ancestrally is European. And we are very proud of it.

                PD- I’m sure, this few interest will change with some more visits. If not, you will always have California as an alternative: same disbalanced budgets, big welfare, high taxes; but good wine, calm enviroment, Creedence Clearwater’s music and many Latinos to improve Spanish. Is not like the lovely southern Europe, but it could work as an alternative.

                • TheAbaum

                  “Europe is – should be – compulsory visit for any Catholic. ”

                  No. Your compulsions are your problem, not my obligation.

                  “I’m sure, this few interest will change with some more visits. ”

                  No, it won’t change. As for California, it too is a cesspool of statism, which is no doubt why you see it as an alternative.

        • RufusChoate

          Thank you for providing the name of Blas de Lezo y Olavarrieta for research and edification.

          • Arriero

            Spain is an endless source of Catholic heroes.

            There are many very interesting stories about the conquest and exploration of the current US territories. One of the best stories is that about Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca journey throughout the South-West of the US, he even wrote a wonderful account of the journey, considered the first historical narrative of the present territory of the United States ( ). Francisco Vázquez de Coronado was another impressive explorer who is sometimes regarded as being the first european to arrive to the current Dakotas territory. He called these lands “tierra de cíbola”, because a “cíbolo” was how a bison was called by XVIIth century Spaniards (now this beautiful word is no longer used). Needless to say, that the first European who arrived to the Mississippi was Hernando de Soto. I’ve recently been reading about the relation between the birth of jazz music in New Orleans and the Spanish-French domination of the place. Unlike english men, the Spaniards and the french, as good Catholics, respected much more local cultures and traditions and allowed black population to play instruments giving them enough freedom to thrive in an enviroment of respect. Hence, it’s no coincidence that one of the richest cities from a cultural point of view in the US had a very important French and Spanish influence. Bernardo de Gálvez (hero of Pensacola) was governor of Louisiana (the city of Mobile was, in fact, called Mauvilia, in Spanish and not in English) and he was a very good friend of George Washington, helping the american army against the english enemy. The paper of France and Spain in the American Revolution is actually very much forgotten in anglo-saxon circles.

            • TheAbaum

              Spain WAS the source of Catholic heroes.

              • Arriero

                It is, it is. Catholicism is, despite all the attacks, very rooted; as it is in France and Italy also. At least, education (good education, I should say) is still in the hands of the Church.

                «Qui était, conservé» (who had, retains)

                • TheAbaum

                  Interesting but unrelated to the assertion. So much for good education.

            • NasicaCato

              I never had the slightest interest in Spain until the Marine Corps made me go. What a great place, I’d go back in a heartbeat.

  • This must be some strange use of the words “liberal” and “libertine” that I am not aware of, since most Americans I know are in fact libertine on at least one issue.

    Dirty capitalism, as the author puts it, is what I call individualism- and is opposed to the subsidiarity of the natural communities, and promotes a libertine property license instead of a circumscribed right to stewardship and ownership.

    I guess I therefore fall into the non-compatibilist group, and was sucked in by a badly written headline that would seem to endorse a partisan political party as being compatible with Catholicism, when in reality, liberalism in either economics or sexuality is not compatible with Catholicism and only seeks to destroy natural communities.

    • Micha Elyi

      You call it “capitalism”, after Karl Marx’s term for the practitioners of what Adam Smith called “the system of natural liberty”. If you want to argue that natural liberty as the Scholastics developed the concept is incompatible with subsidiarity and natural communities, go ahead. I’ll bring the popcorn.

      • TheAbaum

        Theodore uses a lot of words he doesn’t understand.

      • theorist

        google “dildo assembly line”.

        That’s why I hate “natural liberty”.

        Fascism -because sometimes there’s more to life than economics.

      • The existence of contraception, proves that “the system of natural liberty” only serves to create license, not liberty.

  • Alan Lille

    The problem the author makes is to confuse “republic” with “liberal democracy.” I don’t see Deneen saying that Catholicism is incompatible with a republican form of government so much as the liberalism that undergirds the current republic. As to this quote: :In sum, natural economy (capitalism) and natural community go together by necessity” is patently false. This is a liberal argument that quite frankly in historical context, is unfounded.

  • MarkRutledge

    First, I thank the author for reminding all the definition of “neocon,” which in effect became a useful political slur of the 00s public debates, directed at anyone supporting Bush’s foreign policy, in whole or in part. An authentic conservative knows that which he wishes to conserve, and it seems to me conservative understanding enlightened by the Catholic Faith is the conservation of our freedom of religion, the conservation of the family, and the conservation of our freedom as laid forth in our Constitution. If we can conserve these, if you will, and in truth they need to be *repaired* and conserved, the landscape for implementing secondary institutions with a mind towards subsidiarity is wide open for us.

  • redfish

    Well, Deneen said “more laissez faire”, not “pure laissez faire.” Neo-cons do have a pro-capitalist ideology, tend to heroicize capitalism, and so have supported private entrepreneurship, privatization efforts, free trade policies, and migrant workers. It doesn’t mean they ever supported full laissez-faire, which would mean no government interference at all. Paleo-cons aren’t pure laissez-faire, either, though. They oppose free trade, and tend to be more supportive of infrastructure building, in the style of Henry Clay. Libertarian conservatives are a third, separate wing of the group, which has its own splinters.

  • Arriero

    I agree with the thesis that natural law is profoundly Catholic. I agree with the thesis that republicanism could be compatible with Catholicism.

    I go further and dare to say that: Liberalism is a Catholic invention (cfr. Bartolomé de las Casas – from a political point of view – and the first Scholastics from the School of Salamanca and Oporto – from a moral and economic point of view -), and the state is a liberal invention to: a) placate class struggle through a redistribution of wealth, b) ensure national sovereignty and order through the army and c) maintain (contractual) stability through a stable and fair legal framework. The rest are details of more or less importance. State-abolitionism is profoundly anti-Catholic, from an historic, magisterial and even pragmatic point of view. Blame governors, not govern. Of course, any good anarchist has always hated the state in the same way he has hated the Church, the foremost expression of political and Institutional power in world’s history. Without real power the Church would have never become the greatest Institution ever seen. We, true and old Catholics, very well know that; that’s why we hate playing with fire and also those who like to play with it. We could accept a Republic only if it’s a Catholic Republic; i.e. one where the Church has real power. The pseudo-calvinist relativist concept of «freedom of religion» is profoundly anti-Catholic (cfr. Theodosius and San Athanasius of Alexandria). Respect does not mean acceptance. The problem in the US is, and has always been, that Catholics are, and have always been, a very ill-considered minority. The Founding Father were everything but Catholic lovers. In any other millenarian Catholic Nation they would have been hanged for their opinions. This also explains the (phony) «Catholic exceptionalism» of (some) americans being the harmful pseudo-calvinist wing its maximum expression. Thankfully this Pope has clear in mind who Rome should not reward with anything but the stake (not literally, or yes?).

    Even so, Mr. Gordon should know that the Church has historically been closer to the monarchist path. So it’s even teached in seminars. Just in the same web-page Mr. Gordon published his article you will find the other side: .

    Be always skeptic of the anti-government-per-se people. They can even call themselves Catholics, but their views are nothing more than protestant nihilist of the worst kind. Either a Republic or a Monarchy, the Church must be in the middle, as always has been in millenarian Catholic nations.

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  • theorist

    If people were totally free they would choose dictatorship, liberalism (right or left)–>dictatorship. Is this not what real historical laissez-faire led to; anarchy which transitioned into anarcho-tyranny? Yet people would object that a dictator is unaccountable to the people, however this is a nirvana fallacy; real historical dictatorship is compared with a utopian alternative like “laissez-faire” and “freedom” which never historically existed. Historically dictatorships have had a track-record at least as good as democracies.

    Not to mention the whole debate is clouded by unscientific and poetic ideas like “freedom”. Freedom of what, from what? Do you mean freedom from taxes? That could exist under a dictatorship or any gov. (the roman state hardly collected any taxes for hundreds of years until the war against Veii and it was an aristocracy) Do you mean freedom of speech -again dictatorship and freedom of speech are no more opposites than representative democracy and hate-speech laws.

    As Mussolini said, “an anarchist is just a frustrated fascist.” and the same can be said for reactionary or conservative libertarians/republicans.

  • Thaddeus J. Kozinski

    No discussion of this issue can get to the truth unless it includes Chris Ferrara’s book Liberty the God that Failed, along with the encyclicals of Leo XIII, and the commentary on contemporary events by Paul Craig Roberts, in which the true nature of neoconservatism’s evils is brought out.

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  • NasicaCato

    Mr. Gordon,
    This is good stuff. I’ve read it three times today because it addresses what has puzzled me for a while now: How did a Tudor power grab develop into one of the greatest governing philosophies in world history and how did it all decay? Are you going to address the beliefs which animated the “average colonist” as well? Because I doubt one in ten of them knew who Locke was, yet without them willing to risk their lives against the forces of their own monarch, there would have been no American republic.