Is Catholicism Compatible with the American Experiment?

Before criticizing the Enlightenment’s influences on the American Founding, Catholics should take care to explore its nuances.

Edinburgh, United Kingdom - July 28, 2012: The monument of Adam Smith and the apse of the St Giles cathedral on the Royal Mile

By Samuel Gregg Published on August 31, 2015

In a much-cited 2014 article in the American Conservative, the political philosopher Patrick Deneen argued that the real debate unfolding among American Catholics was not one of “conservative” versus “liberal” Catholics. That discussion, Deneen suggested, is passé. This is partly because (as Cardinal John Henry Newman observed) liberalism in religion is ultimately self-immolating. But it’s also because post-Vatican II “liberal Catholicism” is fast collapsing into plain-old secular liberalism.

According to Deneen, the main argument among American Catholics will concern the relationship of modern liberal democracies — and, at a deeper level, the American Founding — with Catholicism. On one side, he suggested, are those such as Alasdair MacIntyre and David L. Schindler who seem skeptical that the American experiment is compatible with the Catholic vision of community. In the other camp are those such as the late John Courtney Murray SJ and Michael Novak who are much more optimistic.

Deneen’s summary of the state-of-play remains correct. But the debate he underscores has implications that go beyond Catholicism’s relationship to the American Founding. It reaches further back to the early modern period often called the Enlightenment.

Science, Reason and Irrationality

A glance at the writings of Schindler and MacIntyre — in the camp skeptical of the American founding — reveal generally negative views of Enlightenment thinking. For American Catholics, this matters because there’s no question that Enlightenment ideas influenced many of the American founders. Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, for instance, sharply disagreed on many subjects, but all their serious biographers concur that both were profoundly shaped by Enlightenment writers.

The intellectual developments associated with the Enlightenment shared an emphasis on (1) asking every belief and institution to justify itself rationally, and (2) applying the tools associated with the scientific method to as many spheres of life as possible. This focus on natural philosophy and the natural sciences was especially influenced by Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia (1687) and Newton’s successful integration of the mechanics of physical observation with the mathematics of axiomatic proof, and his development of a system of scientifically verifiable predictions.

Another Enlightenment hallmark was an emphasis on utility, including the usefulness of particular habits and institutions. A related hallmark was an emphasis on “progress” in the sense of deepening man’s understanding of the natural world and continually enhancing the usefulness of particular objects and ideas. Given the subsequent success in expanding humanity’s knowledge and control of the natural world, similar approaches were eagerly applied to politics and economics.

There’s much about the Enlightenment to criticize. The tendency to absolutize empirical reason, for instance, has surely narrowed Western conceptions of human reason. Likewise David Hume’s skepticism and emotivist explanation of human action effectively denies free will. Politically speaking, there’s a straight line running from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s concept of the General Will — which arguably deifies mass opinion and the spirit of the age — to the French Revolution’s reign of terror.

Nor were all Enlightenment thinkers committed to reasoned discussion. In his Catholics and Unbelievers in Eighteenth Century France (1939/1966), the historian R.R. Palmer illustrated that Voltaire not only regularly deployed ad hominem polemics against his critics but often successfully invoked the courts to silence them. Indeed, many of the French public intellectuals known as philosophes had little interest in fostering wider political participation. They often preferred to support “enlightened despots” such as Russia’s Catherine the Great, regarding them as better positioned to modernize their societies.

Religious Toleration and Economic Freedom

One could list many other negative Enlightenment traits. That said, some in the “MacIntyre-Schindler” camp don’t do justice to either the Enlightenment’s complexities or its achievements.

In the first place, to speak of “the Enlightenment” as a monolith is misleading. Chronologically speaking, there were early and late Enlightenments. National expressions also significantly differed from each other. The late-French Enlightenment associated with figures like Rousseau, for example, departed in important ways from its Scottish counterpart.

Even within particular Enlightenment settings, there was plenty of diversity. Hume was an outlier in his irreligion compared to other Scots such as the immensely influential Francis Hutcheson, who was (like many Scottish Enlightenment thinkers) a believing Christian clergyman. Another Scottish luminary and clergyman-professor, Thomas Reid, spent much of his life vindicating self-evident moral principles and demolishing Hume’s claim that morality resulted from the codification of socially useful habits.

It’s also hard to deny the benefits from the various Enlightenments. Take, for instance, religious toleration. With rare exceptions, religious minorities in the pre-Enlightenment European world were subject to debilitating legal restrictions. Jews invariably suffered the most as a result of such oppression.

Many eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers were deeply critical of these arrangements. Hence, as James Hitchcock notes in his comprehensive History of the Catholic Church (2012), “Enlightenment reform programs usually included some degree of religious freedom.” Though he disdained Catholicism, for example, the Moderator of the Church of Scotland and leading Scottish Enlightenment thinker William Robertson defended government efforts to diminish Britain’s anti-Catholic penal laws, a stance that earned him death threats.

Moreover, some of the Enlightenment’s political patrons took bold steps in support of toleration. Yes, Emperor Joseph II interfered with the Catholic Church’s liberty throughout the Habsburg lands, but he also emancipated Jews and Protestants living under his jurisdiction. More generally, without the impetus provided by this Enlightenment concern, the First Amendment and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (not to mention religious toleration’s subsequent spread throughout the West) may not have seen the light of day.

Another bright spot is the economy. Before the impact of the Enlightenment, from the early sixteenth century until the late eighteenth century, the West was economically dominated by what Adam Smith called “the mercantile system.” Mercantilism viewed economic life as a zero-sum game. It consequently viewed imports negatively, discouraged free trade between nations, and encouraged collusion between governments, powerful merchants and monopolistic guilds. Mercantilist economic assumptions encouraged war as countries jostled to control trade routes and colonies. The losers from mercantilism included consumers, entrepreneurs and innovators stifled by the guilds’ hostility to competition and technological change, and anyone without connections to government officials — that is, most people.

All this was directly challenged by Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Mercantilism, he stressed, tended to legally privilege some elites while denying economic liberty to others. In short, mercantilism wasn’t just inimical to peace between nations and the economic growth that’s indispensable for wide-scale poverty reduction. It was also unjust. That some of these criticisms worked their way into texts as important for America’s self-understanding as George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address underscores their importance to the American experiment.

There were other positive Enlightenment contributions to the American Founding, such as Montesquieu’s reflections on constitutional order in his De l’Esprit des Lois (1748). No less than Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) once wrote that there are practical consequences resulting from the various Enlightenments that Christians today wouldn’t want to do without.

Are there tensions between Catholicism and particular Enlightenment ideas? Of course. Is Catholicism’s compatibility with the ideas that shaped the American Founding a legitimate subject for debate? Absolutely. But as American Catholics engage this discussion — one whose significance embraces Evangelical and Eastern Orthodox Christians as well as orthodox Jews — they would do well to avoid sweeping generalizations and acknowledge and explore the nuances of the Enlightenment more carefully.

Reason itself, given to us by God, surely requires nothing less.


Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute.

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  • Ch Hoffman

    Every creed and faith which doesn’t claim that it is the sole path and that all others should be subservient is compatible with the American experiment.

    • Mainman12

      The only path to salvation and being in heaven is through Jesus Christ and him only. Islam is most certainly NOT compatible with our Constitution for they have no means by the teaching of their own religion to give an oath to support their allegiance to our government over there own laws of sharia except as the Koran authorizes them to baldly lie in order to gain their own end.

  • mikehorn

    My frustration is that today many Catholics attempt to enshrine Catholicism into American law at the expense of everyone else’s religious freedom, essentially reserving freedom only for Catholics. The irony is that American religious freedom is the only reason Catholics were able to grow in America at all. Minus the Virginia statute and amendment 1, many laws establishing Protestant sects might yet be on the books, limiting or banning Catholicism.

    • Mainman12

      Perhaps I should remind you of Charles Carroll. He was the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence and he lived longer after signing this paper than did any of the other founding fathers. Not only that but it was his father who established the Charter of the colony of Maryland which name honors the mother of our Lord. AND the chart for the colony of Maryland was from the beginning the first one to explicitly establish Freedom of Religion to all. However, when more and more Protestants populated Maryland, these Protestants removed, yes REMOVED, Freedom of Religion from the Maryland Charter.

  • Charles Carter

    The influence of the Reformed church was at least as great, if not greater, than the Enlightenment. In economics (Max Weber), science and technology (Robert Merton), education, politics, and religion, are all examples of the influence of Calvinism. Yes, many American patriots were Deists, but many were from the Calvinist tradition. As just one example of this influence, compare the Act of Abjuration (1581) with the Declaration of Independence.

  • DLink

    It appears that it is the American Experiment that has gone off track, not Catholicism. The establishment of America was informed by parts of many philosophies. The founders took what they thought was the best of the lot and formed a country. Unfortunately, what they formed has been twisted like a pretzel by courts and legislatures. The Church, on the other hand, has attempted to evolve, granted with fits and starts, into an institution to properly serve God and humanity. More than one can say for the secularists with their fanciful ideas of behavioral license and increasing government control over life and property.

  • Suriani

    The Scottish thread is interesting as the so-called Scottish Enlightenment was a phenomenon of ‘unionism’. Catholicism had been a bulwark of Scottish independence against English political ambition. Its overthrow in 1560 and the establishment of a centralising and authoritarian protestant state breached the wall allowing free access to calvinistic anglo-saxon attitudes which took root in the blasted ground. Extirpating the folk memory of all things Catholic was an agenda that set the scene for later thinkers. Modern Scottish thinking on the impact of the stolid and dour Scottish Enlightenment its selective worldview, its negative cultural impact on the national psyche and its contribution to the rise of British imperialism, is in the light of a movement to end the anglo-scottish union, subject to certain revision.

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