Skip to main content

Church-State Relations in America and Europe (Part 3 of 3)

Robert Kraynak on Catholicism and Americanism

HAMILTON, New York, MARCH 29, 2005 (Zenit) - Catholicism in the United States is in tension with both the anti-papist theology of original Calvinism and the social forces of democracy that are independent of Calvinism.

So says Robert Kraynak, professor of political science at Colgate University and author of "Christian Faith and Modern Democracy: God and Politics in the Fallen World" (Notre Dame).

Kraynak shared with us how, despite tensions, Catholics have contributed to the vitality of American democracy by keeping alive the natural law tradition of the American founding that most Protestants never fully appreciated and that modern skeptics now denigrate.

Part 2 of this interview appeared Monday.

Q: What role did Catholics such as Charles Carroll play at the American founding? How have Catholics such as Orestes Brownson, John Courtney Murray, S.J., and Michael Novak contributed to the continuing vitality of American democracy?

Kraynak: Despite the tensions mentioned above, most Catholics have a deep love for America. The anti-Catholicism of Protestant America did not prevent Catholic immigrants from Europe and Latin America from feeling gratitude to America for its economic opportunities and religious liberty, even if meant living in separate Catholic ghettos or neighborhoods.

In fact, many Catholic leaders and intellectuals eventually came to believe in an essential harmony of Catholicism and Americanism.

Charles Carroll, for example, was a member of a prominent Catholic family in Maryland and also a signer of the Declaration of Independence who became a personal friend of George Washington.

Orestes Brownson was a lively 19th-century intellectual who converted to Catholicism. In his book, "The American Republic," he argued for the unity of the republic based on a higher law that was more fundamental than a social contract of the states.

Likewise, John Courtney Murray argued in the 20th century that the American experiment in self-government is based on the higher law of the Declaration of Independence -- on God-given natural rights that find their fullest expression in Catholic natural law and its teaching about the dignity of the human person.

Michael Novak follows in Murray's footsteps, arguing that Catholic natural law is the true basis of America's "democratic capitalism" with its voluntary associations of free persons.

I think these Catholics have contributed to the vitality of American democracy by keeping alive the natural law tradition of the American founding that most Protestants never fully appreciated and that modern skeptics now denigrate.

At the same time, Catholics have insisted that the natural law tradition of America must go beyond its Enlightenment roots in Lockean liberalism and be supplemented by the natural law teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas which directs freedom to the higher ends of virtue and the common good.

The split among Catholics is whether the elevation of American natural law to Thomistic natural law is easy or hard. The figures mentioned in this question think that the fit is relatively smooth and harmonious, while others think that inherent tensions between Catholicism and Americanism mean that the best that one can achieve is a prudent alliance.

Q: Francis Cardinal George has said that the United States' cultural and political heritage is "Calvinist" in orientation and that there is a tension between Catholicism and the American Experiment. Is this an accurate view from your perspective?

Kraynak: The relation between Catholicism and Americanism is a complicated story, although it usually boils down to two schools of thought. One school views the relation as inherently harmonious, the other sees inherent tensions.

The school of "harmony" is very popular and includes influential figures such as John Courtney Murray. The school of "disharmony," however, is gaining adherents and includes Francis Cardinal George, David Schindler of Communio and many traditional Catholics.

While I lean to the second school, I disagree with Cardinal George about the causes of the inherent tensions. He dislikes the competitive individualism of America because it seems incompatible with Catholic notions of solidarity and the common good, and he rejects a consumer-entertainment culture that trivializes spiritual life. He traces these tendencies to the "secularized Calvinism" of America.

Certainly, Calvinism is a crucial part of American history because the early Puritans were Calvinists, and their theology was intensely anti-Catholic -- many Puritans viewed the Pope as the Antichrist.

But Calvinism is not the best explanation for the social trends that disturb Cardinal George ...

1 | 2  Next Page

Rate This Article

Very Helpful Somewhat Helpful Not Helpful at All

Yes, I am Interested No, I am not Interested

Rate Article


Leave a Comment

Comments submitted must be civil, remain on-topic and not violate any laws including copyright. We reserve the right to delete any comments which are abusive, inappropriate or not constructive to the discussion.

Though we invite robust discussion, we reserve the right to not publish any comment which denigrates the human person, undermines marriage and the family, or advocates for positions which openly oppose the teaching of the Catholic Church.

This is a supervised forum and the Editors of Catholic Online retain the right to direct it.

We also reserve the right to block any commenter for repeated violations. Your email address is required to post, but it will not be published on the site.

We ask that you NOT post your comment more than once. Catholic Online is growing and our ability to review all comments sometimes results in a delay in their publication.

Send me important information from Catholic Online and it's partners. See Sample

Post Comment

Newsletter Sign Up

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Malachi 3:13-20
'You have said harsh things about me, says Yahweh. And yet you ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 1:1-2, 3, 4, 6
How blessed is anyone who rejects the advice of the wicked and ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 11:5-13
He also said to them, 'Suppose one of you has a friend and goes ... Read More

Saint of the Day

October 8 Saint of the Day

St. Pelagia
October 8: Pelagia, more often called Margaret, on account of the ... Read More