by D. G. Hart 
Cornell University Press 
280 pp., $29.95
“What the hell is an encyclical?” is probably the most honest and articulate response ever uttered by a Catholic politician in the United States. It was mouthed by New York’s first Catholic governor, Al Smith, in response to the challenge of a Protestant American establishment referencing, among other papal documents, Pope Leo XIII’s Testem benevolentiae. The Protestant group had asked Smith whether a Catholic could be the chief executive of a nation that specifically disallowed the establishment of religion at the federal level.
Al Smith was no saint, and he most certainly was no intellect; but New York’s Catholic governor—like Catholic politicians ever since—sought to justify the faith of his baptism with the creed of the American Republic. Unlike today’s politicians, Smith didn’t always presume to know what he didn’t, and reconciling America’s political system with the Catholic magisterium was beyond his purview.
The tension between the City of God and the City of Man has been the source of reflection since Christ uttered the words “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” The tension of Catholics and the American political reality has been amply demonstrated in these pages (see “Catholics in America: An Uneasy Alliance,” by Gerald Russello, September 2020 Chronicles) and now comes the latest contribution to this discussion with American Catholic: The Politics of Faith During the Cold War by D. G. Hart of Hillsdale College.
The thesis of Hart’s study is the focus of mid-20th century politically conservative Roman Catholics who were paradoxically defenders and promoters of the American polity, while the official position of the Church demonstrated at best an unease with the American system of government. The flash point for this tension came at the close of the 19th century with Testem benevolentiae, in which Leo XIII condemned what he called “Americanism.” As the waves of European immigration came to the shores of these United States and an influx of Catholic Germans, Poles, Italians, and Central Europeans arrived to join the Irish, the American bishops—even prior to any appreciable numbers of Catholic politicians—were struggling to prove that they and their flocks could pledge true allegiance to their new country.
Towering figures such as James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore and Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul represented an accommodationist and “Americanizing” influence within the Church’s hierarchy, going so far (at least in the latter case) to promote public schools and downplay Catholic or parish schools. Other pivotal figures during this time such as Fr. Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulist Fathers, toed the same line of accommodation regarding America’s pluralistic society. There was never unanimity of approach and certainly there were nuanced views among these “Americanists,” but the misunderstandings and tendencies reached such a pitch that the pope felt compelled to address the matter.
image credit: LightField Studios Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo
Americanism seems to have been a particularized and localized variant of the theme that had preoccupied Leo’s predecessor, Pius IX, who similarly decried “that the Church should relax her ancient rigor and accommodate herself to the modern world.” Coming under the sway of this rather expansive rubric is the long-standing conviction of the Church’s magisterium that the secular state should recognize the universal and eternal kingship of Jesus Christ, and to make provision for, and accord special status to, the Church in its mission to promote true worship and the living of the Christian life. Obviously, the United States presented a new challenge to this conviction.
As America’s Catholic population increased and as the political influence of Catholics grew, the ruling American Protestant elite began to take notice. Hence, the challenge issued to Al Smith by Protestant leaders and nearly 40 years later to John F. Kennedy. Like Smith, JFK was no theologian. He sought assistance from the clergy to formulate a position that would calm the fears of American non-Catholics that the pope would not rule on their shores, and articulated it in his famous Houston Speech of 1960.
As theology, the Houston Speech was as incoherent for a thinking Catholic as it was coherent to the Americanists, whose shifting metaphysical convictions are formulated by the Supreme Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence.
It was roughly at the time of the Houston Speech that a host of conservative Catholic public intellectuals entered the scene and attempted to defend the American polity in the grand tradition of Western Christendom. This group of Catholic intellectuals is Hart’s primary object of consideration, which intersects with several global concerns, including the march of international Communism, the cultural revolution of the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council, and the effect of new technologies on the faith. These challenges to the American Catholic polity and way of life in the post-World War II era had to be answered, and they were, by public intellectuals who attempted to develop a coherent conservative political philosophy for Catholics. They hoped to both answer the questions of modernity and to stem the tide of Communism and relativism sweeping over the earth.
Most prominent among these conservative Catholic public intellectuals were William F. Buckley, Jr., Russell Kirk, Clarence Manion, Brent Bozell, and Gary Wills. Hart posits that these individuals embraced the Americanism that previously merited a papal admonition (though Bozell would ultimately reject it). This embrace brought Catholics more prominently into the national discussion of America’s identity, and contributions of these Catholic intellectuals in turn elevated the intellectual heft of the conservative movement.
Hart does a masterful job of analyzing the thought of these public intellectuals and placing them in the context of wider discussions of American public policy. He charts the influence of John Courtney Murray, S.J. and his attempt to reconcile the American political tradition with the Church’s traditional teaching on church-state relations. He also discloses the behind-the-scenes tug-of-war Murray engaged in with the Roman authorities.
Murray was always a darling of Catholic liberals who saw in his defense of American pluralism a development of doctrine that brought the Church into the modern world. Likewise, the aforementioned Catholic conservative intellectuals embraced Murray’s natural law arguments and found common cause in arguments for the higher law background of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Hart also considers the second-wave of Cold War Catholic neoconservatives in his treatment of Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak, and George Weigel. This triumvirate of neoconservatives readily embraced the thought of Murray and the Americanism that Leo XIII warned about. They were motivated by what some might call pragmatic realism, and what others might call philosophical and theological incoherence.
One might be tempted to ask who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy in Hart’s story. In complex discussions of public policy and philosophical and theological coherence, things are rarely so cut-and-dried. Catholic moral teaching has always acknowledged the freedom of individuals, especially the laity, in seeking to sanctify the temporal sphere. But there are certain nonnegotiables for the faithful. The words of the Lord to “render unto Caesar…” must also cohere with his admonition to “be in the world, but not of the world.”
Hart has provided excellent scholarship on the major journalistic figures and arguments that formed public Catholic thought in the United States during the Cold War. Cold Warriors and those interested in the history of conservative thought will enjoy this tome. It is also a timely and relevant read for thinking Catholics now observing a supposedly “devout Catholic president” in America and a rather slipshod and often incoherent supreme pontiff in Rome. It will also be interesting for those looking afresh at the Second Vatican Council and seeking to find the coherence of the Church’s two millennia of teaching on church-state relations.
On this church-state question, Hart also hints at the continuing controversies and polemics on the point between liberal Catholic scholars like Villanova’s Massimo Faggioli and tradition-minded academics such as Adrian Vermeule of Harvard Law School. In this it seems that there is no end in sight to the question of whether the American polity can cohere with traditional Catholic teaching on church and state. Hart, for the most part, is a fair-minded observer, but he is rather too conclusive in his assertion that “neo-Americanists endeavored to ground the eternal truths of their faith in the concrete realities of U.S. domestic and foreign policy…[which was] merely heeding Vatican II’s call for a modern faith.” A number of Catholics would take issue with Hart’s interpretation of Vatican II.
For Catholics in America, the ultimate issue continues to be: Is it the duty of the State to acknowledge reality—including the ultimate reality, that Jesus Christ is God? More succinctly: What takes precedence: the First Commandment or the First Amendment? The question Al Smith faced is still relevant today.