The Catholic Way of Being American

Can Catholic Americans be trusted in the public square? That question may strike some as anachronistic. Surely, they might say, it is an outdated question that is no longer pertinent to our day or to the call for a vibrant Catholic participation in American public life. After all, we do not live in a time when the Know-Nothing Party and other anti-Catholic bigots charged that Catholics owed their loyalty to an alien power—a power that taught that “error has no rights” and declared the political ideal of a “Catholic state in a Catholic society.”

Such anti-Catholic suspicion, we might think, was a long time ago. Surely Catholic Americans have demonstrated over these two hundred years that they are loyal citizens, that their success in America is more than matched by their contributions to America, that they are prepared, when necessary, to seal their pledge to freedom by the shedding of their patriot blood. All this is true enough.

In fact, it has been observed that Catholics, especially those stemming from the great immigrations of the last century, have tended to be superpatriots so eager have they been to demonstrate their Americanism. In the years since the Council many Catholics have boasted that Catholics are now just like everybody else in America. It is not at all clear that this is something to be proud of.

We hear it said frequently that there is a peculiarly American way of being Catholic. It is usually added that the big problem in the Church is that Rome doesn’t understand that. Those who speak that way emphasize that they are American Catholics. The great challenge for the years ahead, however, is to demonstrate not that we are American Catholics but that we are Catholic Americans—meaning that there is a distinctively Catholic way of being American.

That challenge comes with a risk. The risk is that people will once again ask whether Catholics can be trusted in the democratic public square. In 1984, when John O’Connor arrived as archbishop of New York, our institute held a number of dinners for him to meet with various leadership sectors in the city. You will recall that that was the year when a vice presidential candidate took it upon herself to present a rather eccentric view of Catholic teaching on abortion. The new archbishop responded with a public statement clearly setting forth the Church’s teaching on the matter. This caused an enormous furor, with editorials railing against the archbishop for “interfering” in politics and “violating the separation of church and state.”

The controversy came up at one of these dinners, at which one of the most influential editors in the country said, “Archbishop, when John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960, some of us thought that the question had been answered whether you Catholics really belong here, whether you understand how we do things around here. But I must tell you frankly, Archbishop, that in the short time you’ve been in New York some of us are beginning to ask that question again.”

“That question” has two parts: Whether we belong here, and whether we understand how they do things around here. The implication is that we do not really belong unless we understand—and agree with—how things are done around here. American Catholics might go along with that implication; Catholic Americans will not. We know that we belong here; there is no question about that. But, inspired by the bold leadership of such as Cardinal O’Connor, we also know that we belong in America in order to change the way things have, for far too long, been done in America.

Catholics are by no means alone in working for such change—in working for nothing less than the moral renewal of what the founders of this country called the American experiment in ordered liberty. On the most fevered question in our public life—who belongs to the community for which we accept common responsibility?—it seemed for a long time that Catholics were alone in contending that unborn children belong to that community. But today, thank God, in the abortion struggle we are joined by growing legions of other Christians—especially by evangelical Protestants—but also by many Jews and those who profess no religion. There is a truly ecumenical convergence in the confident determination that we can, and by the grace of God we will, turn back the encroaching “culture of death.”

While we should judiciously cooperate with various alliances and coalitions, Catholics have a most particular responsibility. By virtue of our numbers, by virtue of the richness of our tradition, and by virtue of our worldwide communion with bishops in communion with the Bishop of Rome—who is Peter among us—ours is a distinctive responsibility and ours a singular role to play. If the Catholic Church is what she claims to be—and she is—she cannot be subsumed under any movement or cause or coalition or ideology, no matter how attractive. To those who would recruit the Church for the advancement of their agenda, whether they be of the left or of the right, we must lovingly but firmly say: The Bride of Christ is not for hire.

Surely our bishops are right when they say that in the everyday give and take of politics, the Church must be nonpartisan. And surely we must share their regret when on so many questions their official statements are perceived as scrupulously nonpartisan on the side of the Democratic Party. We are assured that that is not their intention, and of course that assurance must be accepted. The bishops have acknowledged their problem of working through a burdensome bureaucracy—a bureaucracy that is astute at “reading the signs of the times,” but of late seems to be reading the signs of yesterday, which is to say the editorial page of the New York Times of today.

But the teaching of the Council is clear that the primary Catholic voice in the political give and take of the public square must be the voice of the Catholic laity. As the bishops put it in their “Political Responsibility” statement for 1966: “It is the laity who are primarily responsible for activity in political affairs, since they have the major responsibility for renewal of the temporal order.” Catholic Americans who are determined to play their full part in our public life, who are determined to change the way things are done around here, will form alliances with others and will strengthen such alliances by being unapologetically Catholic. I might even say by being proudly Catholic, but pride is a sin. It is not with pride but with gratitude that we can point to the singular role Catholics have played in restoring a measure of moral sanity to a world gone mad.

To cite but one obvious example, there would today be no pro-life movement in America or in the world were it not for the Catholic Church. In resisting euthanasia, in the defense of the radically handicapped, in the restoration of sexuality worthy of human beings made in the image of God, in securing for parents the right to direct the education of their children—on these and a host of other questions Catholics bring to bear a doctrine divinely revealed and tested through the centuries by the faith and life of the Catholic people.

Catholics may sympathize with the conservatisms that come and go in the public square, but such conservatisms are all passing novelties compared with the Church’s great conservation of moral truth. It is that conservative movement—the Catholic Church itself—that claims our utmost devotion, for it bears the truth from the past that points us with utmost confidence to the future.

Consider where we are at the end of the twentieth century, at the edge of the third millennium. At the end of this slum of a century—this century in which ideological madnesses have piled up mountains of corpses and loosed rivers of blood—there is on the stage of world history only one message and one messenger that speaks a compelling word of hope. The message is, “Be not afraid!” And the messenger is Pope John Paul II. Wherein lies the authority with which he speaks? How to explain why the world is turning its tear-stained face to this old man, this son of the grief-drenched soil of Poland? Surely it is because he is the messenger of the one who is both the messenger and the message, the crucified and risen Christ.

“Be not afraid!”—so says our Lord and so says his faithful servant, John Paul II. Be not afraid to cross the threshold of hope. Be not afraid to cross the threshold of the third millennium with the flag of faith unfurled. Do not hesitate at the threshold, filled with fear and doubt. “He has gone ahead of you into Galilee,” the Easter angel announced to the terrified disciples. And so the Holy Father says to a dispirited and terrified world: Christ is going ahead of you into the third millennium. Follow him. Be not afraid to step from the shadow of your fears to cross the threshold into the sunlight of hope. To a world enthralled to the culture of death, comes one who has returned from the dead to announce the evangelium vitae, the gospel of life.

This, then, is the faith and this the truth that emboldens Catholic Americans in every dimension of their discipleship, and not least in their public determination to change the way things are done around here. In American public life, such faith and such truth is deeply troubling to many. As with the editor who challenged the man whom I am pleased to call my bishop, it makes them wonder whether Catholics really belong here. It is fine to have faith, they say, but don’t you understand that you should keep it to yourself? And as for truth, well, perhaps there is such a thing, but don’t you understand that in a democracy all truths are equal? And don’t you understand that the separation of church and state means that the public square must be kept free of religion and religiously grounded morality? Don’t you understand, in sum, that this is a secular society?

We should listen respectfully and then say as clearly as possible: No, we do not understand any of those things. We understand that that is the way you think things are, and that is the way you think things should be done around here; we understand that that is the way things have been done around here for a long time. But what you don’t understand, we must say, is that we, along with millions of other Americans, have determined that we are not going to do things that way anymore. We are going to do things the old-fashioned way, the way the founders of this country envisioned they should be done.

We believe with the founders that truth is not the enemy but the best friend of freedom. We believe with the founders that this great experiment is premised upon truth—as in “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” We believe with the founders that the separation of church and state does not mean and cannot mean the separation of religion from public life. On the contrary, the very idea of the limited state requires the acknowledgment of a higher sovereignty. As in the founders’ appeal to “nature and nature’s God.” As in the pledge of allegiance to “one nation under God.” And so we say to those who distrust us that we understand them very well. Now it is time for them to understand; it is time for them to understand again, or maybe for the first time, the truths by which this American experiment was launched and by which alone it can be sustained in the future.

The great question is truth, including moral truth. Not simply moral truth in our personal lives—as critically important as that is—but moral truth in our public life. The truth about freedom is that there is no freedom apart from truth. This is the argument advanced by the Holy Father in his 1991 encyclical, Centesimus annus (“The Hundredth Year”). Writing in support of liberal democracy, he contends that democracy cannot be sustained apart from the truth about freedom:

Today there is a tendency to claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life. Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it are considered unreliable from a democratic point of view, since they do not accept that truth is determined by the majority, or that it is subject to variation according to different political trends. It must be observed in this regard that if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without moral truth easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.

It is not too much to say that the way things have been done around here for the last fifty years and more were leading us in the direction of a “thinly disguised totalitarianism.” The naked public square, the refusal to acknowledge a sovereignty higher than the state, resulted in a government of unbounded ambition to control more and more of the life of society. A perverse reading of the separation of church and state meant that wherever the government advanced, religion must retreat—and the government was advancing almost everywhere. The same perverse reading meant that the deepest moral convictions of the people, grounded as they are in religion, must be excluded from public deliberation and decision. Although promoted in the name of democracy, this claim is profoundly antidemocratic. It is in fact a thinly disguised totalitarianism, and, if not resisted, it can well end up in totalitarianism without disguise.

But now we see evidence of a new determination to do things differently around here. Maybe we will start doing things the old-fashioned way, which is the way of the future. The founders called this experiment a novus ordo seclorum—a new order for the ages. That is perhaps saying too much. No order is forever, except the order of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. But, whatever the fortunes of this American experiment, the future belongs to the spirit of freedom. And that is because human beings were created for freedom, and freedom can be secured only by the truth. “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” This is a theme repeated again and again, like a trip-hammer, throughout this pontificate. I think it likely that two generations from now, like Popes Leo and Gregory before him, this pope will be known as John Paul the Great. And when they reach for the phrase that best describes his greatness, they will call him “The Pope of Freedom.”

Seldom in two thousand years has there been a teaching pontificate of such energy and intellectual persuasiveness. Consider only the most recent encyclicals. Centesimus annus: Nowhere else in the world is there to be found such a comprehensive and convincing account of what makes for a free and virtuous society. Veritatis splendor: The splendor of the truth worth dying for that makes life, now and forever, worth living for. Evangelium vitae: The Gospel of Life addressed to a world infatuated with death. Ut unum sint: Calling us to act in obedience to the prayer of our Lord that “they may all be one,” so that the unity of Christians becomes a sign of the promised unity of humankind. These four documents alone present the world with an ensemble of reasons to hope, of reasons to believe, of reasons to act, of reasons to be not afraid. There is nothing else even remotely like this teaching in the whole of the world.

The teaching of the magisterium equips the Catholic laity to assume their rightful role in giving voice to moral truth in our public life. And yet some of our fellow Americans worry that we are trying to impose our truth upon them. We have the duty of trying to understand why they worry about that. In the words of Redemptoris missio (The Mission of the Redeemer) we must assure them, “The Church imposes nothing, she only proposes.” The truth about truth is that truth cannot be imposed. This year is the thirtieth anniversary of Dignitatis humanae, the Council’s great Declaration on Religious Freedom. The declaration teaches, “The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power.”

“The Church imposes nothing, she only proposes.” But what a proposal! We Catholic Americans are chosen for this moment to demonstrate in our personal lives and to propose in the public square the truth that makes and keeps us free. To those who have been in charge of how things were done around here, to those who fear the revitalization of American democracy that is now under way, Catholic Americans say, “Be not afraid.” Be not afraid to listen to the truth, be not afraid to engage the truth, be not afraid to trust the truth. For finally, nothing can be trusted but the truth.


  • Richard John Neuhaus

    Richard John Neuhaus was a prominent Christian cleric (first as a Lutheran pastor and later as a Roman Catholic priest) and writer. Born in Canada, Neuhaus moved to the United States where he became a naturalized United States citizen. He was the founder and editor of the monthly journal First Things and the author of several books, including The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (1984), The Catholic Moment: The Paradox of the Church in the Postmodern World (1987), and Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth (2006).

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