Liberalism and Catholicism

In the years immediately after World War II, American liberals split apart over their attitudes toward communism. Those who called themselves progressives rallied around the presidential campaign of Henry Wallace in 1948, despite evidence aplenty that the Communist Party was disproportionately calling Wallace's shots. Others, including the founders of Americans for Democratic Action, fashioned themselves into anti-communists and lined up behind Harry Truman. For all the differences they demonstrated over communism, however, postwar liberals, as the Notre Dame historian John McGreevy has pointed out, were more unified in their hostility toward the Catholic Church. Three of the countries that had been fascist--Spain, Italy, and Vichy France--were Catholic. Pius XII, recently described as "Hitler's Pope" in Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII by John Cornwell, failed to help the Jews. Father Coughlin was a notorious anti-Semite and demagogue. Catholic colleges and universities were viewed as hostile to academic freedom and as hopelessly dogmatic and sectarian. Joe McCarthy was Catholic. So was Cardinal Spellman, who loved nothing more than supporting his co-religionists in the New York City Police Department. Film moguls in Hollywood were forced to submit their products to Catholic censors. No one talked about abortion back then, but that was the point: The Catholic Church was a crucial component of the consensus that made abortion illegal. In Texas and Connecticut, a Catholic oilman named Buckley was raising his children, many of whom would go on to revive American conservatism. John Dewey spoke for many liberals when he dismissed the Catholic Church as a reactionary world organization.

If liberals were hostile to the Catholic Church, the latter returned the favor. In 1864, Pius IX had issued Quanta Cura and its accompanying Syllabus of Errors, thereby launching a struggle against liberalism that would color papal politics at least until the 1960s. Arguing in favor of Catholicism as the true religion, the syllabus attacked the separation of church and state and the notion of freedom of worship. But it was not just theological liberalism that the Church opposed. The entire liberal world view appeared to many leading nineteenth-century Catholic theologians to be premised on the notion of the person as a solitary individual lacking connectedness to any sense of meaning or purpose. Even when the Church intervened on social questions, it did not do so in the language of liberalism. The great late nineteenth- and twentieth-century encyclicals calling for capitalist reform and the recognition of unions were written in the language of solidarity, not rights. To this day, a number of prominent Catholic intellectuals identify with communitarianism as much as with liberalism. It was not until the 1960s--coterminous with the election of America's first Catholic president--that the Church responded to pressures from within and began to liberalize itself and to acknowledge the legitimacy of other religions.

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Pronouncements made in Rome, Italy, however, always look somewhat different in Rome, New York. The Vatican opposed the separation of church and state based on the premise that the true religion would be the religion of the state, but in America, Catholicism, like Judaism, was a minority religion and thus likely to benefit from the principles of religious liberalism. The Catholics who came to America, moreover, were often peasants from Sicily or Poland, or displaced potato farmers from Ireland, all of whom knew the meaning of injustice. Catholics, even more than socialists, confirm the theory of American exceptionalism, which holds that ideologies fashioned in Europe, in adopting themselves to American conditions, moderate themselves in the process. Living in a liberal-democratic society, American Catholics eventually became open to liberal-democratic values. And because they did, an increasingly significant gap opened up between the world of the Catholic Church--especially with the influence of its most reactionary officials--and the world of everyday American Catholics. The picture of the former drawn by postwar liberals, however accurate in many respects, was, as far as the latter was concerned, fuzzy.

Despite conservative aspects of Church doctrine, American Catholics were an important component of liberal success in the years after World War II. Many union members were Catholic, and they offered an effective liberal counterbalance to southern conservatives, nearly all of whom were Protestant, in the Democratic Party. A disproportionate share of union leaders were Catholic, too, not only in the AFL-CIO, but even in more radical unions, such as the Transport Workers Union, that had close ties to the communists. Father Coughlin's foil during the 1930s was Monsignor John A. Ryan, the "Right Reverend New Dealer," as his opponents called him, whose arguments in favor of economic justice Americanized and brought up to date the social teachings embodied in papal encyclicals. Dorothy Day kept alive a Catholic pacifist tradition that would bloom in the 1960s among activists like Michael Harrington, the Berrigan brothers, and (from time to time) Tom Hayden. Still, postwar liberal intellectuals often wrote as if there were no such thing as a Catholic left wing--or even a Catholic center. They knew the Church from its spokesmen, and that was all they needed to know.

No American liberal symbolized this hostility toward the Church more than Paul Blanshard, whose American Freedom and Catholic Power became a best-seller in 1949. Blanshard defined what he called "the Catholic problem" this way: "What is to be done with a hierarchy that operates in twentiethcentury America under medieval European controls?" To drive his point home, he asked his readers to imagine what might happen if and when Catholics became a majority in the United States--a real possibility, he believed, since Catholics were "outbreeding the non-Catholic elements in our population." Blanshard envisioned the passage of a constitutional amendment declaring America a Catholic republic, the "capture" of public schools by the hierarchy, and the subjection of the entire American people to Catholic strictures on marriage and divorce. Was his picture fanciful?, Blanshard asked his readers. Anything but, he answered, for the Catholic Church did not even require a majority of Catholics to impose its plan. "In our individualistic nation," he wrote, the Catholic Church "may operate on the balance-of-power principle, which has been so useful in giving Catholic political parties in Europe a dominating position." The attitudes of such liberals constituted one of the sorrier chapters in the history of American liberalism, revealing strains of intolerance and misunderstanding despite liberalism's language of openness. At various points, such liberals as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Lewis Mumford, McGeorge Bundy, and Reinhold Niebuhr all expressed concerns about the absolutist, hierarchical, or corporatist aspects of Catholicism as a threat to American liberalism.

A Liberal Church?

It is worth recalling this history because so much of it is anachronistic in the 1990s. True, the Catholic Church, a firm opponent of abortion, stands against the important liberal principle that women have a right to control their own bodies. There is little doubt that for many liberals--especially for many liberal Catholics--the Church's hierarchical character and its refusal to admit women into the priesthood indicate a reluctance to recognize such fundamentally liberal ideals as equality, democracy, and freedom. Church spokesmen can disconcertingly be counted on to fight the wrong battles in the wrong way, such as the fall 1999 suggestion of Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law that Margaret Marshall, a distinguished lawyer chosen to be the chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, was anti-Catholic. And no issue seemed to show Catholicism's worst side more than the attempt of the Vatican to clamp down on the Reverend Robert Nugent and Sister Jeannine Gramick, founders of the New Ways Ministry in Mount Ranier, Maryland, who for two decades had reached out to gay and lesbian Catholics and their parents.

Yet for all the hostility expressed by the Catholic Church and its officials to liberal principles, Catholics as people can also be found in the forefront of important struggles for social justice. Sister Helen Prejean is rightly celebrated by liberals for her opposition to capital punishment. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops published the 1986 pastoral letter "Economic Justice for All," a stinging rebuke against untrammeled capitalism, when much of the rest of the country was celebrating the Reagan Revolution. Those same bishops were among the most vigorous critics of welfare reform during the first Clinton administration. One does not have to support the use of school vouchers to appreciate the work done by Catholic educators, often for little or no pay, in educating at-risk inner-city children. Even in the contentious area of abortion politics, Catholic leaders like Bishop John May of St. Louis were determined opponents of the violent tactics promoted by Protestant fundamentalists. With the left on the defensive and unions in decline, the Catholic Church has emerged as one of the most powerful forces promoting economic equality in the United States. Recognizing this, liberals are less likely to attack Catholicism as antagonistic to their views in quite the same tones as those uttered in the years after World War II.

Catholics are--and have been for some time--the largest religious denomination in the United States. At a time when single-interest groups can have disproportionate influence due to low voting turnout and citizen apathy, any party or ideological tendency that can win what used to be called "the Catholic vote" is on its way to majority status. At the same time, however, there is no such thing as a Catholic vote. Sociologically speaking, the nature of Catholic life in America has changed dramatically since the years after World War II. Those changes make it both easier and harder for liberals and Catholics to find common ground. How these relationships work themselves out will go a long way toward determining the shape of American politics in the future.

Undergirding the discomfort of many liberals with the Catholic Church was a theory about modernity. As formulated by sociologists such as Max Weber, Talcott Parsons, and Robert K. Merton, the theory began with the proposition that capitalist economic growth was facilitated by theological doctrines launched by the Protestant Reformation. Catholicism, with its taste for luxury and its eye-winking approach to sin, was, according to this way of thinking, incapable of creating a mind-set appreciative of the need to forgo immediate pleasure for the sake of future reward. The result was not only economic stagnation, but a failure of the intellectual imagination. No one could doubt Catholic accomplishments in art, music, and literature, but the scientific revolution, like the capitalist one, seemed to have a special affinity with Protestant--and, given Judaism's long scholastic tradition, Jewish--virtues. So did the social scientific revolution. Not only did Max Weber borrow some of his most important sociological concepts, such as the ideal of a vocation, from Lutheranism, but American sociology was founded by the sons of midwestern Protestant ministers and promoted by second-generation Jewish immigrants. For both, a rational science that sought to understand rational creatures was far superior to deductive normative reasoning based on natural law premises inherited from Saint Thomas Aquinas.

Although the idea originated in Europe, this identification of Catholics with backwardness and Protestants and Jews with modernity was easily imported to the United States. Those who were strong in their commitments to Enlightenment universalism saw in Catholicism the embodiment of particularism. Catholics appeared to them as "urban villagers," struggling to maintain gemeinschaft in an overwhelmingly gesellschaft nation. (Herbert Gans, the sociologist who coined the term "urban villagers," was one of the rare writers of the time who was sympathetic to them.) They ran corrupt political machines, the targets of reform candidates who were inevitably Protestant or Jewish. They would rather give jobs to relatives than to the most qualified applicants, reflecting their general hostility toward the liberal capitalist ideals of individual merit and upward mobility. One found in places like South Boston and Canarsie explicit racists in their midst. Rather than go to college, they were likely to become what Seymour Martin Lipset called working-class authoritarians. The battles in the streets of Chicago between Mayor Daley and the New Left or antiwar demonstrators on Wall Street seemed to many to be a fight between Catholics on the side of law and order--"hard hats," as they were called in those days--and Jews and Protestants on the side of dissent.

Out of these sets of assumptions and stereotypes was fashioned an informal alliance that cut across traditional religious distinctions. As a minority religion in an overwhelmingly Christian country, Jews had no particular reason to take sides in the ongoing wars between Protestants and Catholics; if anything, the anti-Semitism of leading American universities and business corporations was more harmful to them than the anti-Semitism of Irish bullies living a few blocks away. But a powerful Jewish identification with liberalism led them toward affiliation with those New England and midwestern Protestant denominations that had opposed slavery, supported women's rights, and eventually opened their institutions to qualified Jews. Protestants felt much the same way. Liberal Protestants came to think of themselves as having more in common with cosmopolitan Jews, who were not Christians, than they did with Catholics, who were. Indeed many of them clearly preferred the company of Jews to any fellow white Protestants who happened to be evangelicals. Upwardly mobile Jews and downwardly mobile Unitarians could find in their mutual distrust of Catholicism a common ground.

Catholics as Capitalists

The assumptions that lay behind this informal alliance once had some basis in truth: Catholics could be found in all social classes and lived in all regions of the United States, but a large proportion of them did populate urban villages held together by ties of kinship and ethnic solidarity. But those assumptions are no longer true. The conditions of religious life in America have become far too fractured to equate one religion, Catholicism, with backwardness, and others, Judaism and Protestantism, with modernity.

Secular Jews may once have thought of the Irish as too pious for their tastes, but these days one finds more old-fashioned devotion in Borough Park than in South Boston. The growth of a large and visible Orthodox Jewish community in the United States undermines the argument that Judaism has some sort of special affinity with modernity. The Orthodox remind us that Judaism is, of all things, a religion first and foremost, not a synonym for enlightenment. And one cannot plausibly assert that Protestantism is a force for modernity when the fastest growing Protestant sects are evangelical. It is not, after all, Catholics who oppose the teaching of evolution in American schools in favor of something called creationism. In a 1996 symposium co-sponsored by the Vatican Observatory, John Paul II reiterated the theme of an earlier encyclical from 1950 acknowledging that, from the Church's point of view, the theory of evolution does not conflict with the way Catholics understand their faith.

The notion that Jews and Protestants have some kind of special relationship to capitalism also turns out to be specious. It may have been true when Max Weber wrote that economic dynamism was linked to Protestant beliefs, but these days capitalism seems to be available for any society willing to leap into its way of life, irrespective of religion. Those countries whose poverty and backwardness once sent their peasants fleeing to America are now the most rapidly growing countries in Europe. Ireland's economic success has been spurred by its eagerness, in contrast to British reluctance, to join the European Union, while portions of Italy are among the most innovative sectors of capitalist growth found anywhere in the world.

In America, moreover, poverty, at least among whites, is more likely to be associated with rural Protestants, who tend to be evangelical in their faith, than it is with urban Catholics. To the consternation of a number of inner-city parishes, Catholic suburbanization has reached its own "takeoff" point in the United States; it surprised only non-Catholics that Alfonse D'Amato was able to build a kind of classic urban political machine in suburban Long Island. Even the poorest Catholics--immigrants from Latin America and the Philippines--have seen substantial economic upward mobility, although large numbers of Mexican Americans in California remain among the poorest of Americans. The smiling face we associate with the stock market boom of recent years is the face of Peter Lynch, a man who has become a symbol of Irish-American economic success.

Economic success is usually associated with increased cosmopolitanism. Of all the stereotypes about Catholics held by liberals, none was more powerful than the view that Catholic education was second-rate. That stereotype was never quite true; in rebuilding the University of Chicago, for example, Robert Maynard Hutchins turned to an intellectually powerful tradition of Thomistic inquiry. Nevertheless, as late as the 1960s and 1970s, Catholic colleges and universities tended to be insular institutions unwilling to compete in the academic marketplace. No longer. While insularity still characterizes many evangelical colleges and universities and at least one Jewish school, Notre Dame, Georgetown, and Boston College, all ranking in the top 40 of American research universities, have questioned the Vatican's recent efforts to reimpose orthodoxy on Catholic colleges and universities. The most interesting thing to say about all those Catholic intellectuals who are such highly visible participants in America's political and moral debates is that one no longer pays much attention to the fact that they are Catholic. Modernity no longer divides Catholics from Protestants and Jews. Rather, there are modernists and traditionalists in all three religions.

The fact that economic growth and cosmopolitan values cannot be assumed to be the property of any one religion--or absent from any other--opens up new possibilities for Catholics and liberals to fashion common interests. For that to happen, each will have to give. The questions are how much and over what.

It would be unrealistic to expect that the Catholic Church--in the official, Vatican-centered sense of the term--will be bending all that much over the next decades. This is not because the Church cannot bend, for it did in the days of Vatican II. But there has clearly been a conservative consolidation in the Vatican since then. Guided by an absolutist conception of truth that pays little or no attention to whether its messages will be pleasing to those to whom they are directed, the Vatican has, in the past two decades, hardened its positions on abortion, women's equality, academic freedom, and gay rights. Pope John Paul II, for all his heroic opposition to communism, is one who harkens back to the Church's nineteenth-century crusade against liberalism.

The more reactionary the policies of the Catholic Church, the more liberal suspicions of Catholicism are fulfilled. Were one looking for reasons for liberals not to find common ground with Catholics, an insistence that cooperation cannot be had until the Vatican changes its tune is a way of saying that cooperation can never be had, at least in the foreseeable future. And such liberals will consistently find Catholics who agree with them. For every prominent liberal Catholic like Father Robert Drinan, there remain large numbers of Catholic intellectuals who deduce from natural law teachings the impossibility of respecting gay and lesbian life-styles, the necessity of returning to 1950s family values, or the importance of insisting on unquestioned moral authority.

Rigid Theory, Flexible Practice

Yet if one focuses on the realities of Catholic life in America rather than the pronouncements of an aloof religious hierarchy, the prospects for greater accommodation between liberals and Catholics look brighter. Most American Catholics prefer to hold onto modernity. And that constitutes a change with dramatic implications for the way Catholics live in the United States.

If that elusive concept called modernity means anything, it means that the individual is free to make up his or her own mind as to the best way to live. The most important consequence of the modernization of Catholicism is that those authorities and institutions that once instructed Catholics in the nature of morality and politics--from the parish priest to the local ward healer--have lost a considerable degree of their authority. Catholics marry, divorce, plan their family size, and vote like everyone else in America. So American liberals no longer need worry that American Catholics, taking their marching orders from Rome, will stand as one against liberal principles. Vast majorities of American Catholics believe that one can use birth control (93 percent), be divorced (85 percent), have an abortion (69 percent), or even be gay (51 percent), and still be considered a "good Catholic." Over 60 percent of American Catholics believe in women's ordination, despite the Church's insistence on an all-male priesthood. Younger priests are less likely to believe in the requirement of celibacy than their elders. Although they remain a minority outside the mainstream of Catholic life, organizations of gay Catholics and pro-choice Catholics, speaking as Catholics, do exist. If anything, liberal individualism--the ideology that seemed so morally impoverished to many Catholic theologians in the nineteenth century--has become a way of life for many, if not most, Catholics. The modernization of Catholicism, moreover, suggests that whatever individual Catholics think about the hierarchical character of the Church, they are going to organize their own institutions-- families, schools, and workplaces--in a fashion more committed to the egalitarian values of modern society.

To say that American Catholics have become modernized is not to conclude that their religion is irrelevant to them. It instead suggests that, for many, religion plays the same role as it does for Jews and Protestants. Anti-Catholicism in America was historically fueled by a sense of Catholic exceptionalism: America's other religions could accept the principles of liberalism, this way of thinking held, but Catholics could not. Catholicism still has problems with liberalism, but most Catholics do not. The transformation of Catholic life in America means that liberals need not face the unhappy thought of writing off some 20 percent of the American population as hopeless antagonists to their causes.

But liberals will have to change, too. One of the glories of the liberal tradition is its insistence on freedom of conscience. By forbidding the establishment of a state religion, and by insisting on the importance of the free exercise of religious belief, the men who wrote the American Constitution took steps to protect two radical ideas. One is that people should be able to make up their own minds about how to live, and not be the subjects of an orthodoxy imposed upon them. And the other is that religious pluralism would flourish because no one religion could use government to drive out the others. So hostile were most religious establishments to the ideals of individual liberty and diversity that the strictest adherence to the principles of separation of church and state made considerable sense.

If we lived at a time when religious fanatics still posed a real danger to individual liberty, maintaining that strict separation would be in order. No doubt such fanatics do exist: Kansas wants to remain neutral between creationism and evolution, an Alabama judge insists on displaying the Ten Commandments in his courtroom, and the religious right does finance and organize "stealth candidates" for local school boards. The problem for them is not only their marginality, but the fact that when their designs are exposed, they are generally subject to so much ridicule that any harm they pose is effectively counterbalanced. The proper response to them is to organize against them politically.

Instead, some liberals--groups such as Barry Lynn's Americans United for Separation of Church and State or the Council for Secular Humanism--hold out for the strongest possible interpretation of what the First Amendment requires. In so doing, they tend to conflate religious fanatics, who often are a threat to liberal values, with most religious believers, many of whom embrace liberal values. Among those values is the very recognition that America should not establish any religion, including Christianity, as its official religion. There is no moral majority in America, as even the inventor of that term, Paul Weyrich, has conceded. It is precisely because Americans think highly of God that they do not want him to play much of a role in politics. Religion for them plays a supplemental, not a defining, role in public life. We need faith, many Americans believe, to become better people, just as we need the family and a strong country. Practical in most things, Americans tend to be practical about religion as well.

But this is also why, for all their sympathy to the idea of separation of church and state, most Americans believe too that religious values have a place in our public life. It does not bother them that organizations like Catholic charities or the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services receive the bulk of their income from government. And they don't think that the republic is in crisis when crèches or menorahs are displayed in public. In the right measure, and applied in the right way, religion, they believe, can even help us solve some of our deepest social problems.

An example is the promotion of racial and economic equality. This is not simply because African Americans and Hispanic Americans are among the most devout of all Americans, although they are. It is also because so many of those who work for social justice do so out of a sense of altruism inspired by their faith. It is no doubt true that inner-city African-American children whose parents rely on school vouchers to send them to parochial schools will learn about Jesus Christ. Yet they will also be exposed to dedicated teachers willing to undergo personal economic sacrifice to make the world a better place. Whether courts should rule such efforts unconstitutional is a complex issue, involving such legal thickets as whether tax monies directed to parents, which the courts have allowed, ought to be viewed in the same way as tax monies that go to religious institutions, which the courts have not allowed. But it is worth stressing that what for some liberals is a violation of the principle of separation of church and state is for many religious Americans an effective fulfillment of the liberal goals of social justice, equality, and diversity.

In the years after World War II, many liberals were suspicious of the Catholic Church because they believed that people willing to adhere to such an undemocratic organization would inevitably be hostile to liberal principles. It would be a step in the wrong direction if liberals were now to conclude that people of any faith constitute an obstacle to the fulfillment of liberal ideals. Fortunately there are not that many liberals who think this way. Yet if being liberal means being open to a diversity of views and a willingness to recognize that those who are different are not necessarily enemies, liberals could do more to recognize that strict interpretations of separation of church and state often leave religious believers, especially liberal religious believers, feeling alienated from liberalism. This, of course, is true of Catholics but applies to Jews and Protestants as well. And such a recognition does not imply that liberals ought to support prayer in school, the use of vouchers for religious education, or any other specific legal or policy issue. But it does seem fair to suggest that if a religion as traditional and conservative as Catholicism can change--at least in the lives of its practitioners if not in the doctrines of its institution