Liberalism -- and -- Catholicism

By Wolfe, Alan | The American Prospect, January 31, 2000 | Go to article overview

Liberalism -- and -- Catholicism


Wolfe, Alan, The American Prospect


A HISTORY OF A SOMETIMES AMICABLE, SOMETIMES ANTAGONISTIC, ALWAYS COMPLICATED RELATIONSHIP.

In the years immediately after World War II, American liberals split apart over their attitudes toward communism. Those who called themselves progressives rallied around the presidential campaign of Henry Wallace in 1948, despite evidence aplenty that the Communist Party was disproportionately calling Wallace's shots. Others, including the founders of Americans for Democratic Action, fashioned themselves into anti-communists and lined up behind Harry Truman. For all the differences they demonstrated over communism, however, postwar liberals, as the Notre Dame historian John McGreevy has pointed out, were more unified in their hostility toward the Catholic Church. Three of the countries that had been fascist--Spain, Italy, and Vichy France--were Catholic. Pius XII, recently described as "Hitler's Pope" in Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII by John Cornwell, failed to help the Jews. Father Coughlin was a notorious anti-Semite and demagogue. Catholic colleges and universities were viewed as hostile to academic freedom and as hopelessly dogmatic and sectarian. Joe McCarthy was Catholic. So was Cardinal Spellman, who loved nothing more than supporting his co-religionists in the New York City Police Department. Film moguls in Hollywood were forced to submit their products to Catholic censors. No one talked about abortion back then, but that was the point: The Catholic Church was a crucial component of the consensus that made abortion illegal. In Texas and Connecticut, a Catholic oilman named Buckley was raising his children, many of whom would go on to revive American conservatism. John Dewey spoke for many liberals when he dismissed the Catholic Church as a reactionary world organization.

If liberals were hostile to the Catholic Church, the latter returned the favor. In 1864, Pius IX had issued Quanta Cura and its accompanying Syllabus of Errors, thereby launching a struggle against liberalism that would color papal politics at least until the 1960s. Arguing in favor of Catholicism as the true religion, the syllabus attacked the separation of church and state and the notion of freedom of: worship. But it was not just theological liberalism that the Church opposed. The entire liberal world view appeared to many leading nineteenth-century Catholic theologians to be premised on the notion of the person as a solitary individual lacking connectedness to any sense of meaning or purpose. Even when the Church intervened on social questions, it did not do so in the language of liberalism. The great late nineteenth-and twentieth-century encyclicals calling for capitalist reform and the recognition of unions were written in the language of solidarity, not rights. To this day, a number of prominent Catholic intellectuals identify with communitarianism as much as with liberalism. It was not until the 1960s--coterminous with the election of America's first Catholic president--that the Church responded to pressures from within and began to liberalize itself and to acknowledge the legitimacy of other religions.

Pronouncements made in Rome, Italy, however, always look somewhat different in Rome, New York. The Vatican opposed the separation of church and state based on the premise that the true religion would be the religion of the state, but in America, Catholicism, like Judaism, was a minority religion and thus likely to benefit from the principles of religious liberalism. The Catholics who came to America, moreover, were often peasants from Sicily or Poland, or displaced potato farmers from Ireland, all of whom knew the meaning of injustice. Catholics, even more than socialists, confirm the theory of American exceptionalism, which holds that ideologies fashioned in Europe, in adopting themselves to American conditions, moderate themselves in the process. Living in a liberal-democratic society, American Catholics eventually became open to liberal-democratic values. …

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