Every practicing Catholic in America is stuck between two worlds. On one hand, he inhabits a broadly secular culture, one indifferent to claims about the transcendent, in which the currency of human exchange is always some mix of money, pleasure, and power. His participation in that culture is nearly constant—it surrounds him in mass media, on the internet, in patterns of speech, in social expectations, and in the aims and operations of his government. The modern Catholic in America is swimming in secularity.
On the other hand there is the Church, which stands apart from the sea of secularity, and offers a set of fundamental commitments and values. Here one makes vows that are lifelong and indissoluble. Here one's duties are insuperable and absolute. The currency of exchange put forward in the Church is based not on pleasure or power but truth, charity, and oblation. Here the economy of domination is swept away by the blood of the Lamb.
The tension between these two forces in American Catholic life causes a great deal of confusion. I suspect many Catholics exist in a state of double-think, where they see the world through Christ at Mass, see it through the lens of materialism at work, and maintain an incoherent mix of the two at home with their families. The tension remains unresolved for ordinary Catholics because of persistent ambiguities in the institutions (Church and State) to which each side is anchored.
When one recognizes that man is, in essence, a political animal, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the Catholic Church must, sooner or later, by virtue of its mission, seek to convert the public square and the powers which govern it to Christ. And yet, for decades, the Church hierarchy in the United States has maintained a cautious, hands-off approach to engagement in politics. It's not that the bishops have renounced the political duties of the Church, or that they have stopped speaking out about issues of natural right and justice. The disengagement is revealed more in the framing of their public appeals.
When they enter the public square to defend some moral truth or principle of justice, Church leaders tend to leave Christ behind and become benevolent humanitarians. How many times have we heard bishops oppose the Contraceptive Mandate on the grounds of the secular principle of religious liberty? And how many times have we heard them oppose it on the grounds of its incompatibility with the Gospel? Though not totally relegated to the private sphere, the Church's engagement in public affairs seems to take place mainly on secular terms, with the Church operating as just another defender of secular liberal values, albeit with a Christian slant.
This compromise, in which the Church maintains its right to speak politically by bowing to the secularity of the state, is the flip side of a compromise on the part of the state. The First Amendment binds the state to two principles. It limits the integration of the Church into government by outlawing the establishment of any state church. Taken broadly (as it has been historically) this principle guarantees that the government of the United States will be irreligious, that its jurisprudence will not flow from the Gospel, but from whatever political wisdom is naturally available. This limitation has effectively removed the Church from the key sites of political action, as we see today.
The First Amendment follows up this guarantee of political secularism with a guarantee of “free exercise” for religious groups, thus tying the hands of the state. But notice: The state limits itself, not as a recognition of eccesiastical rights over the sacred, but for its own reasons and by its own authority. The principle guaranteeing freedom of religion in America is not religious but secular—it places the Church under the authority of the state, even while limiting the exercise of that authority. The resulting tension has created the ambivalent “free exercise” in which Catholic bishops defend their faith publicly by speaking in favor of secular political principles. The Church is safe. Perhaps it is safe from state interference (perhaps not). But certainly it is no threat to the secular regime, because under this arrangement any claim the Church might make to independent authority or free exercise is adjudicated by a secular state court.
The tensions in American Catholicism are, in their origin, distinctively American, even though they have become more or less universal. Because liberalism was established here long before the revolutions of 1848, American Catholics had to find a modus vivendi in the modern liberal state well before it became clear in Rome that the same political arrangement lay in store for most of Christendom. This was both a blessing and a curse for the American hierarchy. A curse, because the bishops were forced to forge a new path, and their deviations from the norm were treated with (sometimes justified) suspicion by the Vatican. A blessing, because once the Church conceded to the reality of the modern liberal state in the 1960s, the American solution lay ready for the Church to take up and implement across the board. Thus American Catholicism, thanks to Dignitatis Humanae and John Courtney Murray, became a model for Global Catholicism's interaction with politics in the modern world.
There was a hope in the 1960s that the integrity of secular liberalism and its humanitarian values would dovetail with the mandates of the Gospel, making Church and State partners in the advancement of the material and spiritual welfare of mankind. Unfortunately, secular liberalism has continued on its own path. Far from becoming the friend to the Gospel envisioned by the Council Fathers at Vatican II, the modern liberal state has become host to a welter of nihilistic materialism and utilitarianism. As the liberal state moves further away from the Church, the balance between political secularism and free exercise shifts further and further toward the former, and the friendship once hoped for is replaced by hostility and oppression. Already there are a number of professions that cannot be occupied by Catholics in America. That number is increasing, and will continue to increase, as the state blesses the exclusion of Catholics from one area of public life after another.
In the present moment, that distinctively American Catholicism so lionized after Vatican II seems to have failed. For us, as American Catholics, this is rather embarrassing. With the pax between Church and State reaching its end, we need to re-think our political engagements and re-examine the foundations of the compromise, in order to better grasp the range of alternatives before us. This Saturday, the Thomistic Institute in New York City will be hosting a conference examining these issues. Participants will include R. R. Reno, George Weigel, Russell Hittinger, Michael Hanby, Phillip Muñoz, and Mary Eberstadt. Discussion is sure to be lively and productive.
Elliot Milco is an editorial assistant at First Things.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?