When Did Catholicism Become Compatible With The American Experiment


The author believes the answer to the question posed in the headline, “Is Catholicism compatible with the American experiment?” is yes. I also suspect he and most people would say the answer to the question, “Was Catholicism compatible with British colonial America?” is no, since it was officially suppressed in most colonies.

So: When did this country become ‘compatible’ with Catholicism? 1776? 1783, when the yoke of a protestant empire that had used anti-catholicism as a political glue was thrown off? Or was it 1868, when the last protestant test oath for public office was revoked? The United States have nothing comparable to, say, the baptism of Clovis.

Brendan McConville, among others, has supposed that the three defining qualities of British colonial identity were attachments to a capitalist economy, protestantism, and the monarchy. Our revolution only got rid of one of them.

The appeal to religious toleration as a Catholic (or Catholic-‘compatible’) principle rooted in the Enlightenment is the least convincing thing in Gregg’s piece, because religious liberty was not embraced by a pope until 1965. And with good reason, because programs of “toleration” often went hand in hand with efforts to check the power of the church. In British North America, toleration was never understood to extend to Catholics, that was a later thing — right up until the revolution the pope was burned in effigy yearly. This was a key civic ritual that helped cement their identity as citizens of the British Empire, and anti-catholicism was one of the few things dissenters and Anglicans had in common.

The Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom reflects the same compromise between the state church and dissenters. “[T]he impetus provided by this Enlightenment concern,” for religious liberty is really rather vague, and there’s a strong case that the Statute is only remotely a philosophical document. Religious toleration in Virginia was necessary because an embattled Anglican oligarchy needed the support of religious dissenters, reconciling the secular-minded ruling class and the anarchic revivalism taking root at the time. The concept of religious liberty prior to the revolution, in both Massachusetts and Virginia, meant hostility to Catholics and bishops of any kind.

Jefferson’s new law arose from an earlier debate during which he and James Madison conspired to quash religious education, something, again, dissenting protestants and a mostly secular-minded gentry could agree on. It also led directly to the only instance in American history of church land being systematically confiscated by the state in the Glebe Acts. The Statute on Religious Freedom is not a victory for religion, it’s close to the opposite.

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Since conservatives are out of power, today they are the ones begging for “toleration” where it once was baptists, congregationalists, and so on, the leftists of their day. Gregg seems convinced that a lefty could be persuaded to support religious liberty with a pitch along the lines of, “see, as a person whose intellectual genealogy goes back to the Enlightenment, you should believe in religious toleration too.”

I also don’t get his coldness to David Hume, he extols the Scottish Enlightenment but seems to strongly dislike the most interesting part of it. He finds Hume too “irreligious” but won’t say an ill word of the man who cut up a Bible, wrote the anti-religious Statute, and banned Hume’s History of England from UVA on account of its alleged Tory bias.

Edit: Justin Logan points out that Conor Cruise O’Brien thought it was McCarthy and Kennedy:

McCarthyism was an engine for the social promotion of the Catholics in America and the promotion of Irish Catholics in particular. McCarthy backed Spellman, conveyed to millions of non-Catholic anti-Communist Americans the novel idea that Catholics were a specially reliable and especially tough breed of anti-Communists … Before the McCarthy-Kennedy breakthrough of 1950-60 American Catholics had their tents pitched in the temple of the holy nation. After that breakthrough there is a Catholic altar in the temple itself.

(For far more erudite criticism of Actonians, I refer you to Opus Publicum)

Updated: October 9, 2020 — 7:57 am

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