Michael Baxter
The political divisions a theologian failed to foresee

‘It has been a greatly providential blessing,” John Courtney Murray, S.J., observed in We Hold These Truths, “that the American Republic never put to the Catholic conscience the questions raised, for instance, by the Third Republic. There has never been a schism within the American Catholic community, as there was among Catholics in France, over the right attitude to adopt toward the established polity.”

However much this statement was true in 1960, it is not true today. Now the politics of the American Republic does raise questions of conscience for Catholics. Now a schism has arisen within the Catholic community in the United States over the proper attitude toward the established polity. The schism is between those Catholics in the United States who identify with liberal politics and those who identify with conservative politics in the secular sphere. The division is pervasive and deep, and it is tearing the U.S. Catholic community apart.

The division between these groups of Catholics is a consequence of Catholics’ performing the role Father Murray assigned to them. He believed that the United States was exceptional among modern states. Unlike France, it was founded on principles inherited from Catholic political theory. This meant that Catholics could carry out the crucial task of transforming public discourse with the principles of natural law and returning the nation to the consensus on which it was founded. Father Murray, a long time editor at America, was aware that this “American consensus” was crumbling in the nation as a whole, but he was confident it would remain intact within the U.S. Catholic community. What he did not foresee, however, is how this consensus would fall apart even among American Catholics; how, in attempting to transform the nation, Catholics would become politically divided and therefore incapable of performing their pivotal role as, in his words, “guardians of the American consensus.” Without that role, his story of Catholicism and the United States falls apart.

A Providential Partnership

John Courtney Murray’s story begins with Catholicism, which has a tradition of thought “wider and deeper than any that America has elaborated” and a history “longer than the brief centuries that America has lived.” A Catholic understanding of politics, he held, is rooted in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, who established a spiritual order that transcends the temporal order. Accordingly, the church, in carrying out its mission in the spiritual order, requires space in the temporal order. This exigency challenged all political power by confining its authority to temporal affairs. The Incarnation was thus a divinely inaugurated interruption in history, whereby the state is limited by the church’s freedom. This newly established politics, Father Murray noted, entailed a dualistic rather than a monistic structure of legal power—articulated by Pope Gelasius I in the late fifth century, when he declared, referring to the powers of the church and emperor, “Two there are.”

Father Murray’s scholarship traced this dualistic political theory in the thought of St. Augustine, Pope Gregory VII, John of Salisbury, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Robert Bellarmine and Pope Leo XIII, to name a few. Taken together, these figures developed the intellectual tradition of what he called “Western constitutionalism.” Freedom of the church, separation of powers, consent of the governed, limited government—these principles were forged in the Middle Ages, refined by the Catholic scholastics and appropriated by the English Whigs, giving rise to the principles of modern democracy. This continuity between medieval and modern politics was captured by Father Murray in a quip—cribbed from Lord Acton—that the idea of a free people living under a limited government “would have satisfied the first Whig, St. Thomas Aquinas.”

From the Whigs it was a short step, in Father Murray’s mind, to the American colonists who forged a new secular order. The United States of America, he noted, was based on the principles that society and the state are subordinate to a moral law inherent in human nature and originating in eternal reason—that this nation is under God. This idea is the basis of his “American consensus,” which had at its heart the First Amendment, especially the articles on religion. These were “articles of peace,” not articles of faith, set forth as a practical agreement among people of different creeds to forge a government claiming no competence in matters of religion other than ensuring its free exercise. In Father Murray’s view, the First Amendment was a monumental achievement, marking the first time the ancient principle of the freedom of the church was codified, put into writing as the law of the land. Hence he described the founding of the United States as “providential.”

On the basis of this partnership of Catholic political thought and the ideas behind the nation’s founding, Father Murray insisted that “Catholic participation in the American consensus has been full and free, unreserved and unembarrassed.” The lynchpin to this claim was natural law: “the contents of this consensus—the ethical and political principles drawn from the tradition of the natural law—approve themselves to the Catholic intelligence and conscience,” he explained. “Where this kind of language is talked, the Catholic joins the conversation with complete ease. It is his language. The ideas expressed are native to his own universe of discourse. Even the accent, being American, suits his tongue.” For Father Murray, the Catholic and American idioms are based on the same language, the language of natural law.

But “another idiom now prevails,” Father Murray warned, one that is alien to the natural law tradition and thus alien to the American consensus. This alien idiom was not part of the American consensus; on the contrary, it threatened to subvert it, and still does, through a host of false philosophies: voluntarism, naturalism, positivism, pragmatism, materialism, individualism and (worst of all) atheism. Father Murray was confident, however, that Catholics in the United States could refute these erroneous ideas, for they speak the idiom inherited from their fathers—“both the Fathers of the Church and the Fathers of the American Republic.” If other Americans adopt this alien idiom, he speculated, then history would unfold with an ironic twist: “the guardianship of the original American consensus…would have passed to the Catholic community, within which the heritage was elaborated long before America was.”

This is where the role Father Murray assigns to American Catholicism comes into play. As guardians of the American consensus, Catholics must refute these false philosophies by injecting natural law reasoning into public debate. Father Murray himself took up this task, applying natural law principles to the issues of censorship, tax-tuition credit, foreign policy and war. In advancing these arguments, he conceded that natural law principles are under siege in American public discourse. For Father Murray, however, this only made it all the more urgent that Catholics take up the task of revitalizing the American consensus.

This task Father Murray left to his successors. But in performing it, they have become politically divided. He was confident that a schism over politics would never beset the Catholic community in the United States, but it is well underway.

Deepening Political Divisions

Father Murray was certainly aware of political divisions within American Catholicism. He knew that not every Catholic voted for John F. Kennedy in 1960 (Murray himself was a registered Republican). In 1961 William F. Buckley wrote in an editorial in the National Review that “Mater et Magistra” must strike many as a “venture in triviality.” In a later issue, in an unsigned section, appeared the famous quip, “Mater, si; Magistra, no,” which represented the view that John XXIII’s faulty economics carried no doctrinal authority for Catholics. A firestorm of controversy ensued, with some decrying Mr. Buckley’s lack of docility and others countering that economic policy is a matter of prudential judgment in which conscientious Catholics may differ. As the 1960s wore on, similar political divisions emerged concerning race relations and the Vietnam War. But none of these divisions dislodged Father Murray’s picture of the U.S. Catholic community united “over the right attitude to adopt toward the established polity.”

The same has been true of Father Murray’s followers—“Murrayites” as some call them. Regarding the harmonious relation of Catholicism and America, they have assumed Father Murray got the story right. All the while, the political divisions among American Catholics have gotten worse. The reason they do not see this problem is that they—the priests, prelates, political pundits and public intellectuals invoking Father Murray’s authority—have themselves divided along liberal and conservative lines in American politics. They propound conflicting views of America, conflicting views of natural law and, alas, conflicting views of Father Murray.

This ideological divide among Murrayites crystallized in the early 1980s as the U.S. Catholic bishops prepared their pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace” (1983). In the two-year debate over how to bring natural law principles of just war to bear on U.S. nuclear policy, liberal-leaning Murrayites like the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir and David Hollenbach, S.J., urged a more conciliatory posture toward the Soviet Union (no first strikes, no retaliatory strikes and no use of tactical nuclear weapons), while Murrayites of a more conservative political bent, led by Michael Novak, called for a hardline stance. The result was a compromise document that left both sides in deep disagreement.

A similar division emerged as the U.S. Catholic bishops prepared yet another pastoral, “Economic Justice for All” (1986). Here, too, some Murrayites called for economic policies directly supporting the poor and working classes, while other Murrayites called for greater freedom for markets to operate without governmental regulation. Both sides called upon Father Murray to show how they were carrying out his agenda. Ironically, both were right, inasmuch as both sought to infuse the national policy debate with natural law principles, differing only on how to apply them to specific issues. Their common allegiance to Father Murray, however, did not stop them from lobbying bishops for their competing sides, generating articles and books listing the errors of their opponents and in some instances crafting alternative pastoral letters. They held competing interpretations of natural law and competing prescriptions of what the nation needed.

These divisions continued in the ’90s and into the new century. The political battles among Catholics were fought in other arenas: in Catholic periodicals like Commonweal and First Things, both claiming Father Murray as mentor and guide; in Catholic-led organizations like Network, the “social justice lobby,” and the Ethics & Public Policy Center, both dedicated to carrying out Father Murray’s agenda of policy reform; and of course in Catholic or Catholic-inspired political action groups. The scenario is familiar. Catholics who identify with liberal secular politics call for a moderate foreign policy, an end to the death penalty, advancing the rights of women, minorities and the poor and protecting the environment. Catholics who identify with conservative secular politics call for an end to abortion, euthanasia, embryo-destructive research and other policies undermining “family values.” Thinkers on both sides of the partisan divide invoke the authority of Father Murray in support of their politics. As national election cycles have lengthened, as midterm elections have become more decisive and as Catholics (who comprise one fifth of the voting electorate) have become more crucial in the coveted swing states, these divisions have only worsened. It has become a rule of thumb that as the nation at large becomes more politically polarized, so do American Catholics.

This pattern has been insightfully analyzed by the sociologist Robert Wuthnow in The Restructuring of American Religion (1988), who observed that after World War II, Christians came to identify less with their own denomination and more with those of other denominations who share their political and cultural concerns. Baptists with liberal politics, for example, formed alliances with Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians who shared the same politics; and political conservatives made common cause with each other in the same way. In tracking these trends, Professor Wuthnow noted the rise of “special purpose groups,” religious groups organized to promote a particular cause or national agenda. The unintended consequence is that these groups, while seeking to reshape national politics, were reshaped by the mechanisms they employed, restructured by the political culture they tried to transform. As government bureaucracies expanded, religious bureaucracies grew accordingly, disengaging from their denominational bases. In the ’60s religious groups with liberal politics arose, like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Clergy and Laity Concerned About the War in Vietnam. In the ’70s and ’80s religious groups with conservative politics countered with their own organizations, most notably the Moral Majority. Each group set out to “Christianize America” in its own particular way, but this agenda divided them along politically partisan lines.

Catholics in the United States are not central to Wuthnow’s account (he discusses them only briefly), but Catholic journals, organizations and political-action efforts certainly fit his description. The moral, philosophical and theological differences between these groups are complex and important, and I do not mean to downplay them. But the overall pattern of conflict is also important and must be noted because it is getting deeper and shows no sign of abating. Just watch. With campaign planning for the national elections in 2016 already underway, we are surely in for another round of dramatic Catholic subplots: another distribution of the U.S. bishops’ “Faithful Citizenship,” more voting guides about “non-negotiable issues” for “serious Catholics,” more partisan-driven manifestos (the “Manhattan Declaration,” “On All Our Shoulders”), the ritual scrutiny of Catholic candidates (Mass attendance? pro-life record? social justice?) and probably another installment of Nuns on the Bus.

It would be unfair to lay these familiar spectacles at the feet of Father Murray. But it is fair to say that they are generated from the national policy agenda that he urged Catholics to pursue. The problem is that in setting out to transform politics in the United States, Catholics have been transformed by it. Like mainline Protestants, they have succumbed to the molding pressures of state-sponsored bureaucratic power—not the overt and direct power of Fascism and Communism or the militant secularism of European democracy (as in France), but the more subtle workings of indirect power, which domesticates any and all subordinate groups by dissolving their ability to resist the authority of the state and by co-opting the well-intentioned efforts of good people, good Catholics, into conforming to the polarized political culture of the nation.

The lesson to be learned is this: those who set out to manage the modern state get managed by the modern state. In heeding this lesson, Father Murray’s story of Catholicism and America will have to be revised.

Genuine Political Community

At the time of his death in 1967, John Courtney Murray was hailed as American Catholicism’s leading intellectual light—with good reason. At the outset of his career in the early 1940s, church teaching on politics held that the norm is the “confessional state,” which gives public support to “true religion” and reserves the right to prohibit false religion on the grounds that error has no rights. Church-state separation was regarded as an evil to be tolerated at best. For a quarter century, Father Murray chipped away, often in America, at this official teaching, historicizing it, pointing out its outmoded reasoning and positing scholastic distinctions to show how the church can embrace religious freedom without forfeiting its claim to teach the truths of revelation as the one, true church. At length, his efforts were vindicated. Called to Rome as an expert during the Second Vatican Council, he lobbied for revising the official teaching and helped write the “Declaration on Religious Freedom” (1965). By all accounts, he succeeded in dispelling from Catholic teaching the longstanding fantasy of resurrecting the confessional state.

At the same time, Father Murray cleared the way for Catholics in this country to make their mark on American politics by demonstrating—once and for all, it must have seemed—that there is no conflict between being American and being Catholic. This is the part of the story that must be revised, for Father Murray failed to foresee—perhaps his success prevented him from foreseeing—the onset of “a schism within the American Catholic community…over the right attitude to adopt toward the established polity.” His Catholic version of American exceptionalism blinded him to the danger of Catholics’ being absorbed into U.S. political culture, overtaken by its polarizing dynamics, divided into partisan camps, dissolved into just another religious denomination to be managed by political elites, whether liberal or conservative. In other words, Father Murray did not foresee the danger of the U.S. Catholic community ceasing to be a united ecclesial body, ceasing to be (as we used to say) “the church.”

Looking back almost a half century later, this danger should be more apparent to us. Father Murray got the story of American Catholics wrong. The United States is not unique among modern states. It is not providentially blessed in the way he supposed. But what of the natural law tradition? What does eternal reason enjoin the American Catholic community to undertake?

For several decades Alasdair MacIntyre has been arguing on Thomistic-Aristotelian grounds—the same grounds on which Father Murray argued—that the natural law does not serve the modern state but subverts it, that the modern state must be resisted because it is corrosive to the practices and virtues necessary for genuine political community. Only small-scale, practice-based communities, MacIntyre argues, can support the kind of practical reasoning aimed at achieving the common good. Only a polis, as envisioned by Aristotle and re-envisioned by Aquinas, can sustain the moral and intellectual life through these dark and difficult times.

Providentially, this task of constructing local forms of community has been taken up by increasing numbers of Catholics. Troubled by a sense of political homelessness in America, disaffected with both liberal and conservative ideologies, they have turned from state-centered, partisan politics and devoted themselves instead to the political life of local communities wherein the common good may be embodied: unions, worker co-ops and neighborhood organizations; agrarian projects and charter schools; ecclesial communities of prayer, friendship and works of mercy; houses of hospitality for the poor, unemployed, elderly, disabled, unwed mothers and immigrant families.

The significance of these efforts was acknowledged by the U.S. Catholic bishops when they unanimously endorsed the cause of the canonization of Dorothy Day. For almost five decades Day urged Catholics to turn aside from the impersonal, bureaucratic and often violent politics of the nation-state in favor of constructing genuine political communities where it is possible to take personal responsibility for the care of others. Perhaps now Catholics are ready to absorb Day’s antistatist, personalist politics, as when she proclaimed in an editorial in The Catholic Worker newspaper, denouncing the cold war and universal military conscription, “We Are Un-American: We Are Catholics.” Perhaps providence will bless us with a revolution inspired by another—doubtless very different—St. Francis.

Michael Baxter is a visiting associate professor of Catholic studies at DePaul University in Chicago.

Comments

Theresa Storch | 3/28/2014 - 9:43am

When this article appeared in America in September, I was struck by the harsh criticism leveled at the American Catholic community in its engagement with the larger community about the present issues and problems which are the concerns of our polity. By contrast, Bishop McElroy's article (10/21/13) "A Church For the Poor") seemed to be a positive, exhortatory response to Mr. Baxter's rather constraining admonitions. However, Mr. Baxter's article remained on my mind and today I re-read it, and spent some time looking up unfamiliar terms on wikipedia (like the word "polity"). My conclusion now is that, while it is possible that Father Murray recommended to American Catholics to engage conscientiously in the issues affecting all Americans, he might not have meant that the goal of all Catholics in America is to set out to manage the modern state, as mentioned in Mr. Baxter's lesson to be learned..

Anyway, I think a Catholic way to engage in the current issues affecting each of us is: Firstly, pray for guidance. Second, read about, and ask those who govern (fed,state, and local), appropriately, about the issues that are a bother. Third, based on the answers received and the representative responding, figure out if you have reached a conclusion, or, if not, to keep reading and asking questions of your elected representatives, as a goal towards helping to formulate American Catholic consensus. That's what I am now trying to do, after lo these many years of searching.

Thank you America magazine, staff and contributors. May God continue to guide your efforts.

Theresa Storch | 4/4/2014 - 10:07am

I have to say finally, after going over this article a few times since reading it last year, while I still find Mr. Baxter's premise questionable, I agree with his recommendations to "Americans" (pardon the pun), to be more involved in appropriate local venues in trying to make a difference, you know, in the evolving world around us, hopefully for the greater honor and glory of God.