Catholics and Postmodernity
How do you speak the language of morality in an age of militant secularism?


George Weigel

Americans once understood that, as Father Murray put it, “only a virtuous people can be free.” Today, freedom is too often reduced to a mantra of “choice,” and the urgent moral question “Choose what?” is rarely engaged; in fact, it is assiduously avoided by the pro-choice lobby in the aftermath of the Gosnell trial, and it was simply ignored by the president of the United States in a 2013 speech to Planned Parenthood.

All of this, and more, makes for an unfamiliar America for Catholics. It also makes for a great about-face in the consideration of Catholic history, and of the Catholic present and future, in the United States.

For decades, the classic historians of American Catholicism — John Gilmary Shea, Peter Guilday, Thomas McAvoy, John Tracy Ellis — framed the story of Catholicism in America around the issues of assimilation and acceptance — the question posed by those who, striding on “pilgrim feet” across the new republic, often made things difficult for Catholics. And, to be sure, reading the history of the Catholic Church in the United States as a centuries-long struggle for assimilation and acceptance sheds light on one dynamic in the development of the Church in America. Yet holding too tight a focus on the question “Is it possible to be a good Catholic and a good American?” is to play on the other guy’s turf. Once, the “other guy” challenging Catholics’ patriotic credentials was militant Protestantism; now, the “other guy” is militant secularism. But in either case, to play on the other guy’s turf is to concede at the outset that he sets the terms of debate: “We [militant Protestants/militant secularists] know what it means to be a good American; you [Catholics] have to prove yourselves to us.”

That’s not the game, however. It wasn’t even really the game from 1776 through the 1960 presidential campaign — when militant Protestantism was the aggressor — and it certainly isn’t the game today, when militant secularism is the aggressor. The real game involves different, deeper questions: “Who best understands the nature of the American experiment in ordered liberty? Who can best give a persuasive defense of the first freedom, which is religious freedom?”

The 19th-century U.S. bishops and Catholic intellectuals — whose enthusiasm for American democracy went over the top on occasion — did get one crucial point right: The American Founders “built better than they knew”; i.e., the Founders designed a democratic republic for which they couldn’t provide a durable moral and philosophical defense. But the long-despised (and now-despised-again) Catholics could: Catholics could (and can) give a robust, compelling account of American democracy and its commitments to human dignity, human rights, and ordered liberty.

Mid-20th-century Catholic scholars like John Courtney Murray and the historian Theodore Maynard picked up this theme and made it central to their reading of U.S. Catholic history. Murray presciently warned that, if Catholicism didn’t fill the cultural vacuum being created by a dying mainline Protestantism, the “noble, many-storeyed mansion of democracy [may] be dismantled, leveled to the dimensions of a flat majoritarianism, which is no mansion but a barn, perhaps even a tool shed in which the weapons of tyranny may be forged.” 

That is the argument the U.S. bishops have mounted in their challenge to the Obama administration’s deconstruction of civil society through the HHS mandate on contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilization: What is the nature of American democracy and the fundamental freedoms government exists to protect? Who are the true patriots, the men and women who can give an account of freedom’s moral character, an account capable of sustaining a genuine democracy against a rising dictatorship of relativism “in which the weapons of tyranny may be forged”?

The argument today isn’t about assimilation. The argument today is about who “gets” America: who understands the true character of America and the nature of freedom. And that puts Catholics — and those allies in the Evangelical Protestant, Mormon, and traditional Jewish worlds who, with serious Catholics, still hold to Murray’s four foundational truths of American democracy — in a challenging position. For the challenge now is to give America a new birth of freedom rightly understood as built upon those four truths; a new birth of freedom re-cemented to a foundation of transcendent moral truths about the human person, to the principle of government-by-consent, to a recognition of the priority of civil society over the state, and to an existential affirmation of the linkage between personal and civic virtue and liberty lived nobly.

This challenge will not be met by Catholic Lite. Indeed, one of the most powerful indicators that the Catholic Lite project is finished has been the uselessness of “progressive” Catholicism in the battle for religious freedom this past year and a half, a battle the stakes in which most Catholic “progressives” manifestly have not grasped.

The challenge also won’t be met by Catholic traditionalists retreating into auto-constructed catacombs.

The challenge can be met only by a robustly evangelical Catholicism that can boldly proclaim Jesus Christ as the answer to the question that is every human life, and can do so because conversion has been deepened by effective preaching, catechesis, and formation. That challenge can be met only by a demanding, full-time, and evangelically passionate Catholicism that models communities of compassion and nobility, communities whose lives pose a sharp contrast to the radical individualism and loneliness of postmodernity, so poignantly described in recent months by Pope Francis. That challenge can be met only by a public Catholicism that articulates in a compelling way the truths on which any civilized society rests, such as the truth of the inalienable right to life from conception until natural death, the truth about marriage, the truth that religious freedom is the first freedom, and the truth that each of us is bound to live our freedom in ways that serve the common good and the least of the Lord’s brethren.

That kind of evangelical Catholicism can help revivify civil society in America. That kind of evangelical Catholicism can help 21st-century America give a positive answer to Francis Scott Key’s 1814 question, as to whether the star-spangled banner still waves over a land of freedom and a home of bravery. Or to return to where we began:

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears! . . .

America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness,
And ev’ry gain divine!

— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of more than 20 books including, most recently, Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church (Basic Books) and Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches (due out next week from Basic Books).