America is a nation wired Catholic, labeled Protestant, and functioning secular. People don’t believe this when they first hear it, but it’s demonstrably true. And the cryptic interaction between Catholicism and both the young nation’s native Protestantism and post-Enlightenment secularism has wrought a land of deep and possibly fatal contradiction.
The impasse between the American republic’s wiring, labeling, and functioning has also turned it into a republic in name only that, without change, will soon perish.
Our national infirmity is betrayed by six symptoms indicating that America misses muster as a true republic. The stubbornly incredulous American anti-Catholicism on the religious right (today’s grandkids of the Reformation) and on the secular left (today’s grandkids of the Enlightenment) must evaporate before the existential threat can be nullified.
There is only one solution to American decadence in 2016—and, like it or lump it, that solution is Catholic.
Here is the paradox: through shameless plagiarism of the Catholic natural law tradition, the Reformation-Enlightenment–inspired founders of this nation created a new regime centered upon the very thing that the Reformation and the Enlightenment had rejected throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: the Catholic natural law.
Let that irony sink in. As Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of the Protestant preacher Arthur Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter: “The pale clergyman piled up his library, rich with parchment-bound folios of the Fathers . . . and monkish erudition, of which the Protestant divines, even while they vilified and decried that class of writers, were yet constrained often to avail themselves.”
History is stranger even than Hawthorne’s fiction. This secret plagiarism features in American history as a sort of intellectual schizophrenia by the religious right and the secular left. Each camp’s sixteenth-century “grandparent”—respectively, the Reformation and the Enlightenment—has for five centuries sermonized against the Catholic natural law. Stranger still is the irony that the two “rivals” have far more in common—a potent allergy to natural law—than either side wishes to recall. They are false rivals, fake opposites.
Think of both “Protestant natural law” and “Enlightenment natural law” as contradictions in terms. One could argue that Catholic natural law (Thomas Aquinas’s brand of Aristotelianism) is the only genuine brand of it. But a luminary or two from either camp occasionally referred to something they called “natural law,” however misguided their criteria might have been. It proves to be a sufficiently argumentative task just showing Americans that the ideas they’ve long embraced about politics and culture are uniquely Catholic. So let’s just stick with that.
The three prongs of Catholic natural law
Distilled over the course of about 2,400 years, what became the Catholic natural law has three simple prongs, each one rejected but required by the Reformation-Enlightenment–inspired framers in putting together the new American republic. Catholic natural law embraces three plain aspects of nature:
- Nature as moral and free
- Nature as understandable
- Nature as purpose-oriented
Prong #1: Both the Reformation and the Enlightenment rejected the Catholic view of nature as a forum where mankind possesses free will oriented at moral goodness. While mankind remains a concupiscent race after the fall of Adam and Eve, the Catholic natural law nevertheless motivates a viewpoint of “moral theology [as] the science of imitating God,” as Msgr. Garrigou-Lagrange once wrote. Such imitation is actually possible, for Catholics. It remains natural for mankind, even in his imperfect and often misspent freedom, to recognize and desire the moral good.
But for Protestants during and after the Reformation, man can achieve neither genuine morality nor authentic freedom within nature. His will is “in bondage,” as Luther wrote, to “total depravity,” as Calvinists believe. For Protestants of almost all stripes, man’s natural will is unfree, predestined to the dominion of sin. He cannot control himself.
On the other hand, according to the secular thinkers during and after the Enlightenment, anything made of matter—including man—is randomly assembled, amoral (whereas the Protestants would say hopelessly immoral), and rotely mechanistic. For these deterministic thinkers, if your stomach growls, you eat, by whatever amoral or immoral means you please.
But how can a republic, requiring self-ruling and self-determining citizens, work out if man is fundamentally immoral (Protestantism) or amoral (Enlightenment), and therefore unfree? It cannot.
Prong #2: Both the Reformation and the Enlightenment rejected Catholicism’s view of nature as an understandable place. “Being is intelligible,” Aristotle held, and Thomas Aquinas took this claim seriously. Accordingly, the Catholic natural law holds nature as a sort of signpost toward more important invisible principles: the supernatural truths are somehow knowable through our natural reason and experience. Things are what they seem, after all.
But for Protestants, ultimate sense can be made out of nothing besides Scripture (sola scriptura). For them, nature cannot be “read” like a book, as St. Augustine once said it could. At the 1618 Synod of Dort, the closest thing imaginable to a Protestant ecumenical council, it was decided: “Man is incapable of using [knowledge of nature] aright even in things civil and natural.”
In a disparate but coextensive way, the Enlightenment secularists agreed with the Protestants that being is unknowable, thus reinvigorating Ancient Greek materialism. Only what we can sense with the five senses counts as “real.” Nothing else. This precludes God, metaphysics, ethics, mathematical principles—any of the precepts that make republics work.
But how can a republic, requiring vigilant citizens who guard against their own and others’ trespasses—on the basis of these invisible principles—thrive if existence is unknowable? It cannot.
Prong #3: Both the Reformation and the Enlightenment rejected the Catholic view of nature as goal-oriented. From the perspective of the Catholic natural law, nature is meaningful (prong #2) in order that man can learn from and about his surroundings in order to meet the purpose of uniting with God. The Reformation rejected this on the same basis it rejected the above prong: sola scriptura. (The Reformation did not reject the universe’s purpose—Christ—but the connection between the universe and its purpose.)
The Enlightenment, on the other hand, had been founded upon the outright notion of the purposelessness of the universe. At the birth of the Enlightenment, Francis Bacon intentionally removed purpose from the study of the “new science.”
But how can a republic—requiring goal-driven ideas like liberty, justice, and unity—thrive if nature discloses no ultimate goal whatsoever? It cannot.
To recap: the fundamental problem with America’s founding and framing was that the three prongs rejected by its constituent philosophies (Reformation and Enlightenment) turned out to be indispensable to the republican form of government. If nature is unfree, unknowable, and not goal-driven, then the beating heart of all republics— Catholic natural law —gets excluded, and the resultant “republic” becomes a stalking horse: a “republic” of rule from afar, bacchanalia, eugenics, and collectivism. Such a place is merely a copacetic illusion, a republic in name only. So what happens in that bizarro world?
Six symptoms of rejecting natural law
Well . . . America happens: a country built upon not Catholicism but crypto-Catholicism. Only a single Catholic signed the Declaration of Independence. All the other fifty-six signers were staunch adherents of the Reformation and/or the Enlightenment. Only that single Catholic—Charles Carroll, first cousin of the first archbishop of the U.S.—could truly, fully, without contradiction affirm the Declaration’s natural law, which yields a republic in the true senses:
- A natural-rights regime
- Headed by limited government and
- Peopled by a moral citizenry
- Whose members are able to properly conceive of personhood,
- Able to properly conceive of the family and the economy,
- And able to properly conceive of technological advance.
When a republic devolves into a republic in name only, those six elements become symptoms of the problem.
From Aristotle to Augustine, Cicero to Suarez, Aquinas to Montesquieu, virtually all true natural-law political thinkers have squinted at the above definition of a republic. But for the American founders and framers, the hereditary rejection of the three prongs of the Catholic natural law brought about the breakdown, from the beginning, of America’s status as a republic, yielding to shrewd observers today six unmistakable symptoms of decay.
Symptom #1: The American “natural rights regime” is false.
Most political conservatives today bemoan—without understanding—that the American government at some point snatched our natural rights. Spoiler alert: natural rights outside the context of the Catholic natural law were impossible from the very beginning. Reformation-Enlightenment–inspired Americans tried to embrace natural rights as catholic, not as Catholic—impossible after the Reformation-Enlightenment rejection of the three above prongs. Essentially, we now have only “anti-rights,” because the Catholic pedigree of natural rights was lost.
In 2016, the natural right to life cannot be considered “affirmed” in Roe v. Wade America where all fifty of its states must keep abortion legal. Not a single American is conceived, carried, or born as a beneficiary of the laws of the land. What was once the “right to life” is now more like an anti-right to death.
The natural “right of liberty” in 2016, similarly, stands much closer to being its own opposite: an anti-right of license. American freedom is popularly thought of as existing for its own sake (i.e., license) instead of being directed at morality, as is true liberty. Think of the bountiful sexual “liberties” even many conservative Americans falsely think they have in the form of legally innovated “rights” to contraception, fornication, pornography, masturbation, homosexuality, and adultery.
Completing the overthrow of natural right, the American right of private property—real and financial—has also been inverted into an anti-right. The American government takes from its citizens whatever private property it wants—a far higher portion of individuals’ income and real estate than ever did tyrant King George III. Thomas Aquinas holds that “it is lawful for a man to hold private property and it is also necessary for the carrying on of human existence,” and that “if possessions were equalized among families [by government] . . . it would lead to the corruption of the polity.” But this has been largely forgotten.
As one scrutinizes American natural rights, the nation’s founding and framing, Thomas Jefferson’s anti-Catholicism (via John Locke), and the Declaration, one recognizes as a half-truth today’s typical conservative view of the American natural rights regime’s descent from “perfect” (1776) to “awful” (2016). The reader should now know which half is true!
Symptom #2: The American regime is not headed by a limited government.
As one analyzes limited government in America, the 1780s (framing), James Madison’s philosophical influences, and the U.S. Constitution, one sees that the Constitution has the opposite problem of the Declaration. Whereas the Declaration turned out a pseudo natural-law document on account of Jefferson’s importing phony natural-law philosophy like that of Locke, the Constitution turned out a pseudo natural-law document because James Madison did not incorporate true natural-law thinkers like Montesquieu (although he claimed to).
During the great American ratification debate of the late 1780s, the Antifederalists (the party that opposed Madison’s proposed Constitution) claimed that the French natural-law philosopher Montesquieu was the primary motivation for their anti-ratification stance. History adjudges them correct. It turns out that Madison and his fellow Federalists (those who wanted and got the new Constitution ratified) made only superficial reference to Montesquieu—just as the thinker’s true disciples, the Antifederalists, bemoaned.
Madison actually advocated a Constitution that violated rather than followed three cardinal rules for republics laid out by Montesquieu: republics must be geographically small, religiously unified, and their three branches of government must not share powers.
All three of Montesquieu’s cardinal rules aimed to establish what Catholics today call subsidiarity. Although the term had not yet been coined, the well-developed concept was ancient: authority of government should be as local as possible. But James Madison, of typical Reformation-Enlightenment pedigree, believed in something far closer to license than liberty. As such, he centered the Constitution on an incomplete, de-moralized copy of subsidiarity called federalism. Constitutional federalism was good, but not good enough to maintain local rule and limited government in America. Without true subsidiarity, limited government gave way to big government.
Symptom #3: The American regime is not peopled by a moral citizenry.
Moral relativism is a primeval phenomenon, but today’s American rendition of it is potent enough to affect the average reader. It has been gaining steam ever since the Enlightenment, spreading like a virus and infecting popular thought. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI noted, this “tyranny” leaves no room for liberty when it pops up in republics or anywhere else.
Every time you hear someone say, “Hey, I don’t judge” or “Let’s agree to disagree” or “You have your truth, I have mine,” you’re being assaulted by university-styled moral relativism. Your brainwashed interlocutor will confidently assure you that morality is not “objective.” Follow up by asking, “So, slavery was not objectively wrong?” Hilarity ensues.
Only a return to the Catholic virtue ethics of Aristotle and Aquinas can reverse America’s moral relativism.
Symptom #4: The American citizenry is not able to properly conceive of personhood.
To its everlasting shame, America has from its founding struggled with the definition of “person.” From slavery to infanticide, the Reformation-Enlightenment mis-definition of personhood has caused unspeakable moral catastrophe in America. A government seeking to strip the rights of a certain group—e.g. fetuses—can simply redefine that group as “non-persons.” Sound familiar?
Reformation-Enlightenment America operates on a faulty brand—biblicist and/or secularist—of humanism. (For Catholicism, it means body and soul, intellect and will, following Aristotle and Boethius.) Furthermore, each camp famously sought in the sixteenth century to “demystify” Catholicism’s Church-based humanism.
The effect of such Church de-mystification was surprisingly literal: in places like America where Reformation or Enlightenment philosophy preponderated, the seven most fundamental aspects of being human, the sacraments (or in Greek, musterion), were robbed of their import in day-to-day life. De-sacralization, de-mustification: whether in English or Greek, the forfeiture of the seven keys to daily life “teed up” a view of humanity that was drastically less humane. It turns out the Catholic concept of Church is as necessary to republican rights as is the concept of persons.
Symptom #5: The American citizenry is not able to properly conceive of the family and the economy.
Just as the Reformation-Enlightenment culture in America erased the popular participation in the sacraments and the natural community of Church, the same sacramental erasure harmed the other natural community: family. If matrimony is not a sacrament, then it is just a “worldly thing,” as Martin Luther held.
In Catholic culture, vocation puts the individual to a choice: either become a Father or a father, become a Mother or a mother. If one chooses the sacrament of matrimony and family, then his conception of labor and wealth is merely that of a means to an end.
But in Reformation-Enlightenment America, where the concept of matrimonial vocation no longer exists in the mainstream, the worldly means seems to have replaced the otherworldly end. One’s job, not one’s family, is his “vocation” in the desacralized suburbs. Max Weber claimed precisely this: the American Puritans attempted to channel daily grace through labor instead of through the proper (sacramental) seven conduits.
And this misunderstanding of sacramental theology has led to widespread mischaracterizations of capitalism by both its fans on the religious right and its critics on the secular left. Americans expect capitalism to do things it is simply incapable of doing. When capitalism inevitably comes up short spiritually, and Americans tire of their supply-side careerism and their demand-side consumerism—the two halves of materialism—they turn on capitalism as if careerism and consumerism were its necessary conditions.
A non-materialist appreciation of capitalism stems only from Catholicism, which puts the worldly and the otherworldly, means and end, in their proper priority.
Symptom #6: The American citizenry is not able to properly conceive of technological advance.
Whenever the secular left and religious right in America occasionally take time out from yelling at one another over issues like evolutionism versus creationism, both parties oddly seem to agree about the near-salvific uses of Bacon’s “formless,” “purposeless” science: technology. American technology is roundly lauded as the greatest sign of progress today. Even in our nation of militant, neo-pagan “separation of Church and state,” smart phone commercials invoke a worshipful, quasi-liturgical sense of religion in the public sphere. Folks these days believe in their iPhones.
But technology outside the context of the Catholic natural law increasingly alienates Americans one from another. Go into any restaurant: over half the families there won’t even be speaking to one another. Instead their necks will be bent and their eyes lit with the faint glow from smartphones below the table. American technology seems fast to be restoring paganism to our culture whereby family members grow increasingly isolated, speechless, hopeless, and alienated. The Catholic natural law alone can reverse such alienation.
Neither America nor the Catholic Church can afford further reticence about the need of the former for the latter. Recent decades have been spent not articulating drastic-sounding but true propositions such as “why America will perish without Rome”—simply because they are drastic sounding. It’s not working.
Here’s the catch: the more that difficult truths become necessary to express, the more difficult it becomes to express them. We don’t live in the “right” time for mincing words, as the previous generation or two claimed. As Dr. Peter Kreeft says, anything—even harsh cultural critique—should be welcomed now over further dishonest “happy talk.”
While America’s Declaration and Constitution are probably the best documents they possibly could have been, given their hidden Catholic pedigree, the time has come for America to elect not a pseudo, combo, or crypto philosophy but an outright one: either unabashed Reformation-Enlightenment philosophy or unabashed Catholic natural law.
Sadly—or perhaps happily—history operates such as to force this choice upon hesitant or recalcitrant cultures. Even at this late hour, all six symptoms of the malady will probably still dissipate if the proper remedy is soon applied. All paths still lead to Rome, either the way of the Roman Republic or the way of the Roman Church. We must pray—and work within our own sphere to bring it about—that Americans choose wisely.