Catholicism and American Freedom

The odd couple

There was a moment when American liberalism, our dominant intellectual culture, and Roman Catholicism embraced. John F. Kennedy had dispelled the long-lived fear that a Catholic president would take his ideas, his orders even, from Rome and never at heart be a pluralist. Young Catholic clergy and the graduates of Catholic colleges poured into the secular university graduate schools. Priests and nuns marched for Negro rights (and Southern Catholic bishops told recalcitrant parishes their choice was integration or excommunication). John XXIII, all benignity and charm, was our face. Vatican II. A philosophical defense, no less, of religious liberty coming from a Jesuit. Xavier Rynne’s astounding portrayal in the New Yorker of a Vatican that was not the austere, impenetrable Forbidden City of Pius XII, but a lively...democracy? Surely not. Yet didn’t the council have factions, and politics, and cloakrooms, and horse-trading, and climactic decisive votes on great questions? Came the war in Vietnam and there again were Catholic protesters, marching arm-in-arm with Jews, Unitarians, and Deweyans. Even the most suspicious old liberals-"I prefer my poison labeled," one had written of the Catholic democrat Jacques Maritain twenty years earlier-held their fire.

This moment of rapprochement had been a long time coming, and it did not last long. John McGreevy’s splendid book tells the story. Though Catholics had been present in what is now the United States since the seventeenth century, the tale begins, really, in the 1840s, when large numbers of German Catholic settlers and a torrent of Irish famine refugees arrived. The priests and other religious who came to serve them were the product of a Catholic revival that had begun in Europe earlier in the century. This revival was marked by a more intense popular piety, regularization of clergy training, a turn to Thomism, the centralization of power in the Vatican, subordination of distinctive national Catholic cultures and styles, and conflict with Protestant churches and, especially after 1848, with liberal and republican civil authorities. The new immigrants and these ultramontane clerics who came to serve them overwhelmed the small, relatively Americanized Catholic Church they found here.

One of the strongest impulses of the new Catholicism was to construct institutions that would buttress the faith of the immigrants. Whether it was de-Protestantizing the public schools where readings from the King James Bible marked the days, building separate Catholic school systems, organizing sodalities and their marches through the neighborhoods, or constructing cathedrals to tower over the old cities, this new, aggressive "foreign" Catholicism challenged the arrangement it found here, McGreevy writes. Nor was the American culture still the old Calvinism; a different strain in the Protestant impulse had taken hold, a notion of the individual as the autonomous maker of his own fate, improving self and society through inquiry, enterprise, and the critique of received ideas and institutions. The premises of the new Catholicism, on the other hand, particularly after the pummeling the European church took in 1848, were not individualism but the community, respect for received institutions, due subordination, and no illusions that humans are perfectible. It was more because of this mindset than racism, McGreevy shows, that American Catholicism participated minimally in the great moral crusade of the mid-century, abolitionism.

The Civil War was in large part a states-rights crisis; after its resolution, America’s Northern intelligentsia focused on the fruits of victory-unity and "the nation." Could this truculent immigrant Catholic Church really become "American"? they asked. Everywhere it was allying itself with the party of the late Rebellion, the Democrats. Antiliberal, antiscientific, a foreign absolutist authority dictating to its half-educated adherents, Rome was given to such grotesqueries as the 1864 Syllabus of Errors and the 1870 declaration of papal infallibility. Wasn’t the Catholic Church, perceived as the enemy of progress, everywhere the nemesis of the nation-state itself? Consider Italy; consider Bismarck’s struggle with the church as he tried to form a German nation. The twenty years after Appomattox were the age of the malicious cartoonist Thomas Nast.

For all of this, however, the new American Catholics were becoming...American. Less defensive and bellicose bishops began to emerge: Baltimore’s Cardinal James Gibbons warned Rome it dare not turn its back on the labor movement. And the 1880s and 1890s made it suddenly obvious that national unity was imperiled not by Catholic adherence to foreign spiritual authority but by the great disruptions of industrialization and urbanization and the potential for class war. Rome issued Rerum novarum (1891) at the very moment American intellectuals realized that the individualism they had been defending was not adequate for the new age. Social involvement and social theory would be needed. Suddenly, the characteristic Catholic emphasis not on the individual but on the community did not look so foreign and threatening-especially when anarchism and socialism were the alternatives.

"Catholics and liberals in the early twentieth century agreed that the classical liberal economic vision of a minimal state and an open economic playing field had proved unworkable," McGreevy writes. Many of the old intellectual antagonisms faded. Others were put aside in the pursuit of shared programs: a living wage, a regulatory function in government, social insurance programs, and moderate unionism as the antidote to a radicalized industrial working class. These goals carried liberals and American Catholics together in some practical harmony through the New Deal. But, as McGreevy brilliantly develops, a fundamental tension remained. The Catholic agenda was social justice; its preoccupation was always the good of the whole. As for individualism, Catholic thought deeply distrusted it, seeing selfishness and the disruption of the web of duties that create the good society. American liberalism, on the other hand, saw in it freedom and self-realization.

In the 1930s and 1940s there was skirmishing over sex education in the public schools, censorship of the movies, and, especially, birth control. McGreevy reminds us that in the first three decades of the twentieth century, birth control had come to prominence in America as part of a social engineering program that included eugenics and involuntary sterilization of criminals and the insane (legal in twenty-eight states by 1931). Birth control was disentangling itself from this provenance, however, and its practice was becoming widespread. The 1930 encyclical Casti connubii condemned artificial contraception (and forced sterilization), and American Catholic leadership resolved to deny the sanction of law to this iniquitous practice. It was hopeless, though. The Catholic arguments could not capture anyone else’s moral imagination. (And the faithful themselves?-"Ah, the priests," said my father, a 1930 immigrant, "what do they know?" By the 1940s, many American Catholics were using "artificial means" to limit the number of children in their families.)

The run-up in Europe to America’s involvement in the war-Franco, Mussolini, and then Vichy-prompted hard questions about affinity between fascism and Catholic corporatism and clericalism. After 1945, World War II was conceptualized here as a crusade against absolutism and intolerance. And the Catholic Church? Didn’t it still condemn "free inquiry" and freedom of religion? And didn’t it teach that error has no rights? McGreevy writes fine appreciations of Maritain and John Courtney Murray and their distinctively Catholic philosophical appreciations of democracy (Maritain: "the gospel works in history in a democratic direction") and pluralism.

In the 1950s, the post-World War II questions about the Catholic Church’s "Americanism" were not so much answered (that would happen during the Second Vatican Council) as pushed aside when America’s liberal intelligentsia turned to more pressing issues, the oppression of African Americans and, especially, the frightening spread of Communist political power and ideology. In these, the Catholic Church proved to be an ally. (McGreevy notes that it was Pius XII and the Vatican bureaucrats who purged American Catholicism’s official discourse of its last equivocations about racial discrimination and the moral necessity of integration.) And, underneath all the philosophy and disputation, there was the driving reality that Catholics were no longer strangers in the land. Most of them now were the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of immigrants. As they grew more prosperous and confident of their place, and as a Catholic nouvelle theologie, focused on the historical development of doctrine rather than deductions from first principles, seeped over from Europe, their leaders’ voices softened. A last fight or two against the legalization of contraception was fought in heavily Catholic states, but the bishops had already yielded the field when the United States Supreme Court put the issue to rest in 1965.

And so had arrived the 1960s and the Catholic-liberal mutual appreciation pre-figured in the New Deal and the war effort of the 1940s.

But then also came abortion. Until the 1960s respectable opinion had been reflexively anti-abortion. As late as 1959 Alan Guttmacher was writing, "I deplore the performance of abortion on demand." In 1960 Mary Calderone, medical director of Planned Parenthood, called abortion "the taking of a life." And in 1962 the National Council of Churches declared "Protestant Christianity" opposed to abortion except in rare circumstances. Until the end of the 1960s, abortion, except in unusual circumstances, was illegal in the United States, an underground thing.

Moral consensus, though, was being undermined. Situation ethics urged that right and wrong depend entirely on circumstances-there are no absolute rules. There were, in fact, many antiformalist voices in the postwar world, including the existentialists and even Catholic theologians such as Bernard Häring who were changing the focus of moral theology from "obeying the rules" to a more venturesome notion, "the calling of Christians." And, of course, there was "individual autonomy." In the rearranged and, eventually, materially richer postwar Western world, people had fewer prompts to see themselves as a part of an ordering and determining social structure and many more invitations to behave as free-ranging individuals creating and sensibly managing their own personal destinies.

The women’s liberation movement, once it focused on the issue in 1967, moved to change the abortion laws. Jews and the mainline Protestant churches quickly concluded that the humanity of the fetus, certainly the early fetus, is at root a matter of belief, and they endorsed "reform." A few Catholics suggested some reconsideration of church doctrine but most who spoke up saw no reason any fetus should be denied a place in the human community. As with the permanently ill, the intellectually handicapped, the aged, and all the other "others," the challenge is not how to be rid of them but to make a place at the table. "A rough consensus among Catholic intellectuals opposed to abortion law reform held."

Finding allies among other liberals was very difficult. We hadn’t the language to talk to each other. "In a culture where personal experience seemed crucial to the assessment of moral problems, prochoice women spoke of the terrors of unwanted pregnancy and the dangers of illegal abortion," while "on the other side, priests and [male] Catholic lawyers outlined in abstract terminology their opposition to the taking of innocent life." And it was deeper than language. There were, in fact, two liberalisms now at large, the relatively new one based on "perfect personal autonomy" (John Courtney Murray’s phrasing) with its legal corollary, "privacy," and the more communitarian liberalism that American Catholic thought had evolved into. On democracy, most social-welfare issues, internationalism, anticommunism, racial desegregation, and pluralism, the two had worked together. Abortion tore them apart.

And so it was the Catholic Church, unwilling to see abortion as simply a private matter not affecting the commonweal, led a state-by-state campaign against abortion law reform that "careened across the country between 1967 and 1973," suffering defeats (New York, Colorado, California, North Carolina) and winning some victories (notably, Michigan in 1972). In those same few years, the church’s historically, the Democratic Party, awkwardly, painfully transformed itself into the prochoice party.

But suddenly, in January 1973, the issue was decided not by electoral or legislative process but by an aggressive stroke of jurisprudence, Roe v. Wade, that defined abortion as a constitutionally protected privacy right. (McGreevy reminds us it was the contraception cases eight years earlier that had induced Justice William O. Douglas to conjure up "zones of privacy" to protect reproductive choices.) Within a year bishops were before Congress urging a constitutional amendment to nullify the decision. They got nowhere, and reverted to a struggle for legislation hither and yon in the states and nationally that would at least circumscribe or deter or delay abortion-on-demand. To date this has yielded little change in abortion practice, though it has gained the bishops Christian evangelical and conservative Republican allies who care little for unionism or progressive taxation or much of the rest of the classic American Catholic agenda. It may also have helped freeze leadership in the women’s movement in its siege mentality, unwilling to yield anything for fear of losing everything.

In the years after Roe v. Wade, the bishops also have broadened the anti-abortion agenda into "a consistent ethic of life," fighting for a widened governmental social safety net and international human rights, turning definitively against capital punishment, and reinvigorating just-war theory.

"And then," McGreevy glumly writes at the end of his book, "none of this mattered." More even than the rest of us, McGreevy has been sandbagged by the sex- and power-abuse scandal of the past year and the unholiness it has exposed. He has written the best intellectual history of the Catholic Church in America, learned, equable, utterly mature, only to confront at the end a devastating question: How much of what he studied is only a sea froth, revealing little about the frightening depths we sail? end

Published in the 2003-05-09 issue: 
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Neil Coughlan, author of Young John Dewey, is a lawyer in Connecticut.

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