Church and Nation: America’s Original Sin

Scott P. RichertCan a faithful Catholic be a good American? Can a good American be a faithful Catholic? While these questions may seem relics of the era of the Know-Nothings and “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion,” they are still around today. And, as some comments on recent posts on this website have shown, an increasing number of people—both non-Catholic and Catholic—are beginning to have doubts that either question can be answered with a Yes.

To open a reasonable debate on these questions, I’ve decided to take up Dr. Fleming’s call to discuss ecclesiastical issues by inaugurating an occasional series on “Church and Nation.” I have chosen the series title carefully, because it is not my intent to discuss questions of religious freedom or establishment of religion. While certain (indeed, perhaps all) installments of this series will touch on matters of policy and the role of Catholics in the public square, the point is not to begin, as Rousseau would, by setting the facts aside, but to take as a given the American constitutional system, both historically and in its attenuated condition today.

To that end, this first post will not dive directly into such current political matters as immigration, the Church’s opposition to the war in Iraq, abortion, and embryonic stem-cell research, but address a fundamental matter at the heart of many debates between Catholics and Protestants in the United States: namely (to state it from the Catholic side), whether the Protestant nature of the American founding represents a fundamental flaw at the heart of the American nation—one which prevents Catholics from being true Americans.

Catholic writers such as David Schindler and John Rao have been discussing this notion for years, and I would encourage both Catholic and Protestant readers to take a look at their works. Ultimately, the question they raise is one that we have addressed here at Chronicles in recent years (albeit from a different, more historical and philosophical angle): not whether the United States is fundamentally flawed, but whether the entire modern world has gone wrong in rejecting tradition, hierarchy, and religion and embracing abstraction, egalitarian individualism, and skepticism.

It’s an interesting and important question, and coming to grips with it can help us figure out how to begin to return to life the way it was meant to be lived. But bringing the question up every time someone addresses, say, immigration policy is, at best, not particularly useful—and may be downright destructive. In the context of policy discussions or questions involving American national sovereignty, the mention of what some Catholic traditionalists and even conservative Novus Ordo Catholics call “America’s Original Sin” becomes simply a convenient way of not discussing the issue at hand.

Some Catholics who favor massive Mexican immigration use this idea to dismiss any concerns over national sovereignty: The United States was illegitimate from the beginning; Catholic Mexicans are just righting that wrong. The Constitution, too, is blithely dismissed: It doesn’t matter that abortion was historically a matter for the states; if the Constitution stands in the way of imposing a national ban on abortion, then to hell with the Constitution.

The response of some Protestants is hardly better. Starting from the fact that the United States was overwhelmingly Protestant at its founding, the more extreme among them declare that the Founding Fathers would have been horrified by the participation of Catholics in public debates. (Apparently, the papists somehow managed to destroy that section of Madison’s notes on the Philadelphia convention in which Daniel Carroll of Catholic Maryland was summarily ejected.)

The problem for extremists on both sides is that the Catholic Church does not declare a government illegitimate simply because it is not Catholic, nor condemn a nation for not converting en masse to the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Faith. In fact, as Catholics, we are to find truth wherever it resides, and that includes especially the history and traditions of our nation and native land. As Pope John Paul II wrote in his final book, Memory and Identity:

The term “nation” designates a community based in a given territory and distinguished by its culture. Catholic social doctrine holds that the family and the nation are both natural societies, not the product of mere convention.

The mention of doctrine is important here. We cannot simply say, “Well, the nation into which I was born is overwhelmingly Protestant, with traditions that are alien to me as a Catholic. Therefore, in the name of Catholic doctrine, I simply do not regard myself as an American—at least not until America becomes a Catholic nation, by hook or by crook.” To do so is to reject the natural society into which we were born, and thus to undermine the very doctrine that we claim to be upholding.

Patriotism, writes Pope John Paul II in the same book,

is a love for everything to do with our native land: its history, its traditions, its language, its natural features. It is a love which extends also to the works of our compatriots and the fruits of their genius.

Here in the United States, simply by the facts of demographics, that history, those traditions, our compatriots, and the fruits of their genius are primarily Protestant. As faithful Catholics, we have to embrace what is good and true in all of those–and, as we know, the Church does teach that truth, even if sometimes only partial, can be found outside of Rome.

Of course, as faithful Catholics, we are also called to provide witness to the fullness of the truth, but that’s a discussion for another post (or posts). What we are not allowed to do, however, is to reject out of hand that which is good because it is not, somehow, fully ours.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.