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Dear visitors: This website from Catholic Answers, with all its many resources, is the world's largest source of explanations for Catholic beliefs and practices. A fully independent, lay-run, 501(c)(3) ministry that receives no funding from the institutional Church, we rely entirely on the generosity of everyday people like you to keep this website going with trustworthy , fresh, and relevant content. If everyone visiting this month gave just $1, would be fully funded for an entire year. Do you find helpful? Please make a gift today. SPECIAL PROMOTION FOR NEW MONTHLY DONATIONS! Thank you and God bless.

Catholicism and the American Experiment

This article aims to bring to you a snapshot of what may be the most important academic debate taking place within orthodox American Catholicism—at least within orthodox Catholicism. This means a few things.

In the first place, it means all parties involved in this debate are faithful sons of the Church, good scholars with worthwhile books and important things to say. Secondly, it means both sides get at least a couple aspects of this debate right, making possible concessions on either side. Thirdly, the Church has not ruled on this particular matter in a definitive way (even though the question involves faith and morals): in other words, this issue is a prudential matter, meaning we are looking for the most reasonable rather than the perfect solution. Nevertheless, the question is vitally important:

How should we characterize the relation between the American founding and framing on one hand and Catholicism on the other: are they compatible or not?

Non-compatibilists such as Notre Dame political scientist Patrick Deneen argue it is by necessity a dysfunctional, impossible relationship—Catholicism is inherently right and American foundational principles are inherently wrong. Compatibilists such as American Foreign Policy Council senior fellow Robert R. Reilly argue (most recently in an article called “For God and Country” in the Claremont Review of Books) that Catholic principles are highly similar or similar enough to count on the same general side of American politics and culture.

Lest anyone jump to hyper-patriotic conclusions in favor of the compatibilists—who raise many strong reasons for their belief that Catholicism fits well with American philosophy—the other side has germane reservations that must be answered. This article examines three of their most prominent disagreements and concludes that portions of both sides’ arguments are valid, necessitating a third position I called requisitionalism.

Now, let’s look at the three non-compatibilist arguments.

Argument #1:

Radical moral individualism was present in early America.

Non-compatibilists such as Deneen connect the dots, rather convincingly, between today’s anything-goes sexual libertinism and the moral individualism that dates back to the Reformation and Enlightenment. From the Enlightenment came the purest ilk of relativism—radical individualism per se—whereas the Reformation’s doctrine of sola scriptura engendered a “living, breathing” interpretation of the Bible as noxious as the constitutional jurisprudence using the same moniker. The “living, breathing” biblical interpretation created an unintentional Protestant moral individualism and relativism.

The non-compatibilists argue that if radical moral individualism was a problem that predated its most recent appearance in American culture—as it indeed was—then it proves essential rather than accidental to the anti-Catholicism in the American spirit. This list of early critics includes conservative heroes such as Alexis de Tocqueville, who held that too much American individualism would corrupt the morals and energize a tyrannical government of the young nation. Pointing to that radical moral individualism, which existed even at the very start, proves that something fundamental in the young, Protestant-Enlightenment nation needed amendment. (Non-compatibilists would argue that the problem is so fundamental as to be unamendable; this is where I disagree with them.)

Compatibilists such as Robert Reilly tend to dismiss any signs of American hyper-individualism prior to the 1960s. All of us tend to discuss the eruption of the passions as a new phenomenon that began a half century ago, but the evidence shows otherwise. As a matter of fact, such symptoms were commonly referred to by name, licentiousness, and were well documented in America’s early years.

Even before de Tocqueville, read the Antifederalist Papers if you have doubts as to this matter: radical individualism was a long-dormant germ in early America that would yet rip the republic asunder, they warned. Arguably, this comes from the founding era’s Protestant-Enlightenment theology and cosmology, which mixed impossibly with a highly modified, low-fidelity form of the natural law (discussed below). Whatever partial good was wired into the system held the bad in check until the latter became aggressive in the mid twentieth century.

So, the non-compatibilists seem to be correct that something fundamental to the Protestant-Enlightenment understanding of early America’s moral theology conduced to radical individualism; the compatibilists seem to be correct that the problem—although perhaps they view it too trivially—can be remedied. One should say, combining the two positions, that America requires the moral theology of the Catholic Church—and the understanding of itself as Catholic—in order to be remediated.

Argument #2:

The Declaration of Independence is ambivalent about natural law.

The authors of the Declaration of Independence employed natural-law language (such as the language of natural rights), which was arrogated from the world’s only true exponent of the natural law, Catholicism. The employment of such language was crypto-Catholic rather than Catholic. This means that the founding informed a healthy, solid foundation for America; but because the founding was effectuated on the basis of a Protestant plagiarism of Catholic concepts mostly unavailable to Protestantism, the ideas of the Declaration turned out low-fidelity, too easy to subvert.

Non-compatibilists rightly point out that the preeminent philosopher of the American founding, John Locke, cited the natural law in his political writings—which were transcribed practically word for word into the Declaration—even though in his more important philosophical writings Locke aggressively denied the possibility of discernible moral laws in nature. Deneen and the non-compatibilists understand that this is the biggest sort of problem.

Locke and other sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestant political thinkers (Sidney, Grotius, Pufendorf, etc.) cherry-picked the natural law from Catholic philosophy such as Thomas Aquinas’s in order to establish a rights regime such as America’s. But Locke and other Protestant thinkers of the Enlightenment rejected everything theological, epistemological, and ontological about the natural law. In other words, they couldn’t justify how they got the right solution to the freedom equation.

Compatibilists such as Reilly seem to acknowledge as much, saying, “When one sets aside Locke’s epistemology and focuses on [his concept of] ‘public right,’ [this] problem goes away.”

Not quite. Neither Locke nor his defenders can fairly cherry-pick ideas. One must remember, philosophy has branches that are arranged hierarchically, from the more fundamental examinations of existence, like epistemology, to the less. Teachings of political philosophy—the natural law, for instance—should proceed from philosophy’s more fundamental branches, not the other way around. A proposition cannot appear in a lower, less fundamental branch that was not already demonstrated in a higher, more fundamental branch.

Moreover, compatibilists rush to point out that Locke’s self-contradiction—embracing the natural law politically but denying it philosophically—wasn’t necessarily shared by the founders such as Jefferson, Madison, et al. The trouble with this defense is that Jefferson and Madison, as committed men of the Enlightenment and/or the Reformation, did indeed share Locke’s precise schizophrenia regarding the natural law.

All of Protestant and Enlightenment thinking reflects this schizophrenia. They correctly understood that natural law was 100 percent necessary to govern a republic, which they stated loudly, but they knew their Protestant and/or Enlightenment deist God (as they understood him) didn’t allow morals to be knowable to man through nature—which, as you can imagine, they kept pretty darn quiet. Remember, most of the founders were a distinct sort of Protestant-Enlightenment mixture: they believed that knowledge of the moral law came from the Bible but was otherwise unknowable.

To be clear, the Protestant Synod of Dort stated back in 1619: “So far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring man to a saving knowledge of God and to true conversion that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil.” Again, you can’t cherry-pick a politically convenient rally cry like “Natural law!” when your theology and cosmology reject such a thing.

So again, the non-compatibilists are correct in their assertions that something fundamental to the American founders’ understanding of the natural rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence ran sharply averse to a proper understanding of the natural law. But again, the compatibilists are correct that these problems can be ameliorated. Neither side has yet articulated clearly that America needs to understand its Declaration and its natural rights regime as Catholic. One should say, combining elements of both positions, not that America is compatible or incompatible with but needs the natural rights regime, which cannot be catholic without being Catholic.

Argument #3:

The Constitution is ambivalent about natural law.

Non-compatibilists argue that the Constitution is ambivalent, at best, about the natural law, tainting the extent to which a republic may be based upon limited government. Talk of limited government without talk of subsidiarity is a fool’s errand. The non-compatibilists point out that in the most famous of the Federalist Papers—namely, numbers 10, 39, and 51—James Madison got off the track of the classical natural law republics by trying to innovate a kind of “modern republic” whose anti-subsidiarian nature would have been undesirable or unavailable to thinkers such as Aristotle, Cicero, St. Augustine, Aquinas, and Montesquieu.

The natural law tradition as espoused by these thinkers held that republics must be small, moral, and of a single religion rather than the Madisonian American republic, which was designed to be large, pluralistic, and governed by competing commercial factions. Always, on the natural-law view, republics had been small countries with people of only one faith and moral background. Madison wanted otherwise, but only to limited effect.

Reilly successfully defends against some of Deneen’s less focused charges but the problem is, again, that during the great ratification debates of the 1780s, the Antifederalists had made many of the exact same critiques of and predictions about the shortcomings of Madison’s proposed Constitution. Madison spurned all of natural-law philosopher Montesqueieu’s natural law requirements for a republic, which amounted to a rejection of what we would call constitutional subsidiarity.

The non-compatibilists get it right that true subsidiarity—called “federalism” in secularized American parlance—cannot be achieved under the Protestant-Enlightenment misapprehensions of human liberty, human intellect, and geography. Subsidiarity is only for a free people in a limited geography, not for minions of sweeping empires. But the compatibilists, as always, understand that things can be turned around. One should say, combining elements of both positions, not that America is compatible or incompatible with but needs the Catholic understanding of liberty and intellect, without which one secularizes a religious concept such as subsidiarity.

Requisitionalism: a third way

So, what is going on? How can both sides be partly correct on such a matter? Aren’t America and Catholicism either compatible or incompatible, one or the other?

Well, no, as a matter of fact. There’s a third way, a stronger claim than compatibilism. Call it requisitionalism. It’s not halfway between them but on the other side of compatibilism. If compatibilism claims that Catholicism can also work with the principles of the American founding, alongside the founders’ Protestant and Enlightenment principles, then requisitionalism claims that the founding principles of the American republic—or any republic—require Catholicism and are utterly impossible with Protestant or Enlightenment principles. America is, as I put it in my forthcoming book, a country wired Catholic, labeled Protestant, and presently functioning secular.

Only Catholicism today carries forward the ideas of the natural law. Remember, fifty-five out of the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence were anti-Catholic men of the Reformation and/or Enlightenment; only the sole Catholic, Charles Carroll, could truly—without functioning like a schizophrenic—avail himself of the natural law of the Declaration.

So although both Reilly and Deneen are correct, they overlook that the healthy portions of American philosophy in the Declaration and Constitution—the portions that actually get the natural law right—should be called “crypto-Catholic.” “Crypto” because they secretly trickled down to Locke and the British Whigs in the 1600s—and Jefferson and the American neo-Whigs in the 1700s—from some earlier Protestant political thinkers who plagiarized from the real natural-law thinkers of the Middle Ages. All of the true natural-law thinkers were Catholics—men such as Thomas Aquinas, Robert Bellarmine, and Francisco Suarez.

Here’s the bright line in American history: hiding the Catholic pedigree of the natural law caused American political and cultural principles to disintegrate prematurely. As St. Augustine teaches, all manmade cities disintegrate; America, however, has faded far too fast, considering that many of its principles were mostly correct.


Because the six derivatives of the natural law enumerated in the sidebar (see p. xx) are indispensable elements of life in a republic, you could say America requires—rather than merely is compatible with—the Catholic point of view. The compatibilists get it at least half wrong when they imply that worldviews other than Catholicism are “also” compatible with America. Catholicism alone is compatible with it—which is the claim of requisitionalism.

What seems to have confused both the compatibilists and the non-compatibilists is their acceptance of what is called a “Straussian” view of history: that it divides fundamentally “ancient” from “modern” modes of thought, instead of predominantly “Catholic” versus “anti-Catholic” modes of thought. Saying it correctly clarifies the confusion. Both Reilly and Deneen, both compatibilists and non-compatibilists, call what’s good in America its “ancient” components instead of its “Catholic” components.

All these are, together, reasons why America will perish without Rome (the name of my forthcoming book). Catholic compatibilists have long famously held that the founders “built better than they knew.” A more accurate way of describing the founders’ plagiarism of Catholic cultural and political principles is that they “plagiarized better than most Americans knew.” The structure of the American house is a crypto-Catholic one, but it is time to announce loudly and clearly that American natural law principles do not work outside of the Catholic worldview that, unbeknown to most, undergirds them.

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