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Acton Commentary

Are Catholicism and America compatible?

    “America,” proclaimed Pope St. John Paul II in 1995, “has always wanted to be a land of the free. Today, the challenge facing America is to find freedom’s fulfillment in the truth.” This question of freedom in truth and what to do with one's freedom had long been a special challenge for Catholic Americans. The United States was a country born in revolution during the Enlightenment, often speaking the languages of liberalism and Protestant Christianity at the same time. While popes condemned liberalism, American Protestants argued that Catholics were unable to participate in a democratic polity because their faith was inimical to civil and religious liberty.

    Saint John Paul was aware of this history but he did not condemn Americans; he challenged them. “We must guard the truth that is the condition of authentic freedom, the truth that allows freedom to be fulfilled in goodness.” What sort of truth? “The truth that is intrinsic to human life created in God’s image and likeness, the truth that is written on the human heart….” John Paul boiled it down to truths about God and truths about the human person. “Sometimes, witnessing to Christ will mean drawing out of a culture the full meaning of its noblest intentions, a fullness that is revealed in Christ. At other times, witnessing to Christ means challenging that culture, especially when the truth about the human person is under assault.”

    Catholicism and Democracy

    “The basic question before a democratic society,” the pope went on to say, is “how ought we to live together'?”

    “The basic question before a democratic society,” the pope went on to say, is “how ought we to live together'?” That question is among the oldest questions of mankind. Democracy adds to this, John Paul claimed, because citizens have our own determinative role to play toward the common good. During the Civil War Abraham Lincoln had argued that America's real roots were to be found in the claim that, “All men are created equal.” It was in Lincoln's argument that John Paul found the answer for late twentieth-century American soul-searching. Importantly, this answer turned out to be the same Christian anthropology proposed by the Catholic Church: “President Lincoln’s question is no less a question for the present generation of Americans. Democracy cannot be sustained without a shared commitment to certain moral truths about the human person and human community.” In words that echoed Lord Acton’s, John Paul reminded Americans that “freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”

    The truths about the human person and thus also about the “human community” that are present to some degree in the words of Jefferson and Lincoln are seen at their fullest in Catholic social teaching. This is why G. K. Chesterton referred to democracy as “mystical democracy” and why he argued that as long as American democracy “becomes or remains Catholic and Christian, that democracy will remain democratic. Insofar it does not, it will become wildly and wickedly undemocratic.” Catholic social teaching is rooted in three assumptions about the human person and natural law 1) The human person has transcendent value. 2) Because of this the good of the person cannot be subordinated to other goods. 3) It follows that social structures must either be ordered to this good or at least not interfere with it. The Catholic Church teaches that the ultimate purpose and final end, or telos, of the human person is to know, love, and serve God. This is revealed truth, unknowable through other means, including reason. This is the truth that sets one free. This revelation of truth means that all human relationships ought to be ordered according to love.

    Is the American political order compatible with Catholicism? The answer rests on what “compatibility” means. No political order is fully compatible with Catholicism or the Christian dispensation but heaven—not even that great civilization called Christendom that produced Dante, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Thomas Aquinas. John Paul clearly found great promise in America, in its democracy, in its religious freedom, and in the claims made by Lincoln regarding human equality. John Paul knew that to talk of compatibility with democracy is not to approve every decision the demos makes, any more than our freedom of the will means God approves every decision we make. 

    Redeeming the time

    The Catholic Church gives no prescription for a political order for Christians. Christianity has flourished under deep oppression (Rome before 313, for example) and it has atrophied in states where Crown and Altar were unified, including in the Papal States. Saint Augustine of Hippo argued that the true end of the City of Man is the maintenance of peace and perpetuation of justice on earth. As a good, this is in agreement with the highest good of mankind, the City of God. The state’s most appropriate role is to ward against the various forces of destruction so that people might be free to reach their end in God. 

    In 1931, T. S. Eliot ruminated on the future of Christian culture. The world, Eliot wrote, is “attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time: so that the faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization and save the World from suicide.”

    In calling on Christians to “redeem the time,” Eliot was quoting the fifth chapter of St. Paul's Letter to the Ephesians: “For you were heretofore darkness, but now light in the Lord. Walk then as children of the light. For the fruit of the light is in all goodness, and justice, and truth;… See therefore, brethren, how you walk circumspectly: not as unwise, But as wise: redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” This is precisely the question Catholics must ask in any age: What is needed to redeem the time?

    Is the American experiment so intrinsically incompatible with Catholic social teaching that Catholic should wash their hands of it and shake its dust from their feet? Is redeeming the time a waste of time for Catholic Americans? The English Catholic historian Christopher Dawson, who spent several years in the United States while teaching at Harvard University, did not think so. Despite “the pressure of secularization,” he wrote in 1961, “at the same time America still possesses the priceless advantages of educational and intellectual freedom, so that we are still free to work and plan for the restoration of Christian culture.” America, Dawson believed, held “the best prospect for the development of a Catholic culture.”

    The American experience and the development of the Church’s social doctrine since Rerum Novarum, particularly at the Second Vatican Council and during the papacy of St. John Paul II, corroborate Dawson’s optimism. Yet there is a growing tendency among otherwise conservative Catholics to regard the American experiment not only as doomed to fail but to find in liberal democracy so much that is contrary to the faith that a Catholic in good conscience must forswear the whole American project.

    The Kingdom not yet come

    To say Catholicism is inimical to republicanism is to misunderstand both.

    The ancients and medievals are not poster children for authentic self-government, the practice of virtue, the proper exercise of liberty, and the balance of the individual with the community, even if they promoted these ideas. We ought not be too nostalgic for their age. We certainly would not say that Catholicism is incompatible with monarchy or aristocracy because of the failures of monarchs, any more than we would argue that Catholicism is incompatible with the papacy due to the grim machinations and personal infidelities of certain popes. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine reminds us that “the coming of the Kingdom of God cannot be discerned in the perspective of a determined and definitive social, economic, or political organization.” Nor does the Church offer a one-size-fits-all social democratic blueprint. In the words of John Paul II, “Since it is not an ideology, the Christian faith does not presume to imprison changing socio-political realities in a rigid schema, and it recognizes that human life is realized in history in conditions that are diverse and imperfect.” America's Catholic critics need to recognize that the only authentic instantiation of the Kingdom of God is heaven. All else is to be sanctified and transformed by Catholics, working with and trying to expand what is well and good. The current state of affairs cries out for sanctification, redemption, and restoration, not despair and abandonment.

    To say Catholicism is inimical to republicanism is to misunderstand both. It is to misunderstand republicanism as an ontologically singular thing based on a blueprint written by Publius and Locke. Likewise, it is to misunderstand Catholic teaching as unable to respond “with new strategies suited to the demands of our time and in keeping with human needs and resources.” It also is to forget that the Church, in her social doctrine, “does not attempt to structure or organize society, but to appeal to, guide, and form consciences.” John Paul II rightly notes in Centesimus Annus that, “The Church respects the legitimate autonomy of the democratic order and is not entitled to express preferences for this or that institutional or constitutional solution. Her contribution to the political order is precisely her vision of the dignity of the person revealed in all its fullness in the mystery of the Incarnate Word.”

    This commentary is excerpted from the latest volume in the Acton Institute’s Christian Social Thought Series, The American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. Available for pre-order below:


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    John C. Pinheiro (PhD, University of Tennessee) is professor of history and the founding director of Catholic Studies at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he also cofounded the Semester-in-Rome. Prior to joining the Aquinas faculty in 2004 he was assistant editor on the Presidential Series of the Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia. Dr. Pinheiro also is the consulting editor on James K. Polk for the American President Resource at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. He is the author of books and articles on the early American republic, including the award-winning Missionaries of Republicanism: A Religious History of the Mexican-American War (Oxford University Press, 2014).



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