Editor’s note: The following address was given at a gathering of the St. Thomas More Sociey of the Diocese of Green Bay on October 24.
Let me begin by thanking my friend Judge Bill Griesbach for describing me here in Titletown U.S.A. as “the Aaron Rodgers of Catholic public intellectuals.” As a native of Baltimore with a long memory, I’ll be happy to accept that accolade if the good people of Green Bay will finally admit that Don Chandler shanked that field goal in the 1965 Colts/Packers playoff game.
Tonight, I want to violate the canons of after-dinner remarks, skip the requisite joke-every-two-paragraphs, and get right down to the business at hand: to drill beneath the surface of American public life in order to explore what’s going on down there; to examine how what’s going on down there shapes the controversies and arguments of the day; and to suggest how that bears on Catholics and other men and women whose consciences are formed by Great Tradition Christianity in these United States in the early 21st century.
But as an introduction to that heavy lifting, I’d like to begin on more familiar terrain, with the hymn we sang at the end of Mass this evening. Why? Because one of the less frequently sung verses of “America the Beautiful” strikes me with some force as an appropriate way to get into our topic:
O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!
A Catholic knowledgeable about Christian history has to be struck by the irony of Catholics singing this stanza with gusto. For those “pilgrim feet” in the wilderness of the New World were running as far from Rome as possible; indeed, as one embodiment of what scholars call the “Radical Reformation,” the Pilgrims were running as far and as fast as they could from what they regarded as “Romanizing” forms of Protestantism. And when those who trod the wilderness on “pilgrim feet” got political power, they and their heirs often used it in ways that made life difficult for Catholics — as they did in my native Maryland, where the English colonies’ first experiment in religious toleration was ended by an influx of belligerent Virginia Protestants of a Cromwellian cast of mind.
Yet here Catholics are, singing about and celebrating the accomplishments of those who trod on pilgrim feet across the New World wilderness — and rightly so. For the linkages drawn by America’s Pilgrim and Puritan forebears between liberty and law, freedom and moral self-possession, freedom and moral nobility, all commend themselves to an authentically Catholic sensibility.
The great Jesuit theorist of the American democratic experiment, Father John Courtney Murray, S.J., caught this in 1960 when, in We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition, he wrote that “Catholic participation in the American consensus has been full and free, unreserved and unembarrassed, because the contents of this consensus — the ethical and political principles drawn from the tradition of natural law — approve themselves to the Catholic intelligence and conscience. 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 universe of discourse. Even the accent, being American, suits his tongue.”
Today, though, Americans — or, at the very least, America’s cultural and political elites — seem to be speaking a different language.
The character of that change was brilliantly caught by the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in his seminal book, After Virtue, which begins with an arresting thought experiment.
Imagine, MacIntyre writes, that a series of natural catastrophes have been blamed on scientists, who are then persecuted, even executed, by followers of a Know-Nothing political movement that seeks to destroy, not only scientists, but also their books and instruments. Science teaching is banned in schools and a great forgetting takes place.