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An answer to Catholic critics of the American Founding

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 21, 2020

We’re all reading quite a bit about epidemiology these days, aren’t we? Maybe our newfound interest in the field will spark the curiosity of a young scientific genius or two. Then in the long run, perhaps one happy result of this wretched pandemic will be the emergence of a new generation of brilliant researchers, and breakthroughs in our understanding of infectious diseases.

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That’s the way the world works, oftentimes. A crisis arises, forcing people to think seriously about a subject they may have neglected previously. With the resurgence of interest in that topics there is the prospect of some long-term gains in understanding.

If you are old enough, you may recall that the launch of the Sputnik satellite by the Soviet Union in 1957 prompted American leaders to say that our nation must give higher priority to science and engineering. As a society we hadn’t been giving much thought to space exploration during the 1950s, but when we set our best minds to the problem, we made progress in great strides. A dozen years later, the US put men on the moon.

In the field of political philosophy, many of the most important theorists lived during times of social upheaval. Plato reflected on the degradation of the once-proud Athenian city-state. Hobbes and Locke worried through England’s civil wars. And the best of American political thought was produced by men who had lived through the Revolution.

Since the Constitutional Convention, in fact, the US has been notably short on serious political theorists. We as a nation have been busy with other matters; we have not often reflected on the principles that undergird our system of government. Why not? Could it be because, at least since the Civil War, our country has not experienced any great crisis? We have faced foreign war and economic depression, but we have never truly worried about the survival of our Republic.

Until now. The iconoclastic attacks on our country’s history, the open questions about the justice of our legal system, the campaigns to invalidate elections: all these point to a grave crisis of political legitimacy. It’s time to start thinking seriously about political philosophy again: to ask whether our principles will bear the weight of the current discord.

If that is the case—if an unusual interest in political theory points toward a crisis for the regime—then it is disquieting to notice a groundswell of critical thinking about the American Founding in recent years, and particularly noteworthy that this intellectual movement has been led by Catholic thinkers. Scholars and writers such as Patrick Deneen, Adrian Vermeule, Michael Hanby, and Sohrab Ahmari have suggested that there is a fundamental problem with our Constitution: a crack in the foundation, allowing a moral erosion, growing worse over the decades, until now it threatens our nation’s future.

These writers approach the topic from different angles. Their arguments are not identical, and a quick summary will not do them justice. But they all conclude that the Founding Fathers did not provide the young nation with an adequate means of settling fundamental moral disputes. Although the Declaration of Independence cites “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” that document does not explain how those laws can be discerned. The authority of the US Constitution, they write, is supported not by a reference to the Decalogue, but only by an appeal to the self-interests of the American people. The Republic is established by a contract, to which the people assent, and if the people decide to change the terms of that contract, there is nothing to stop them.

As long as the American people hewed to a rough moral consensus, based on the Judeo-Christian tradition, this fatal flaw in the Founding was not evident. But when the religious consensus broke down, there was no longer any way to reach agreement on what the “laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” meant—in fact, not much interest in those laws at all. Instead our understanding of basic constitutional principles slid swiftly down a slippery slope until, in the Casey decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy issued his astonishing statement: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

The new Catholic critics of the Founding—known collectively as “integralists”—see Kennedy’s statement as the unfortunate but predictable result of errors made more than 200 years ago. The Founders, they argue, relied too heavily on the thinkers of the European Enlightenment, particularly John Locke, who had undermined the traditional understanding that the state must be answerable to the Church.

But is that critique based on an accurate reading of the American Founding? Thomas Jefferson was certainly influenced by Locke; phrases from the English philosopher’s work appear nearly verbatim in the Declaration. But other influential Founders—James Wilson and John Adams come to mind—were critical of Locke and of the philosophical school he represented. The Virginia colony was founded as a commercial enterprise, and even at the time of the Revolution its leaders (notably Jefferson and Madison) were wary of religious influence. But the Massachusetts colony, at least equally important in the development of the new nation, was an explicitly religious project, and retained that character for generations. (Tocqueville took note of the tension between these two strong American traditions.)

Now my friend Robert Reilly has pushed the debate further, with a provocative book entitled America on Trial, in which he argues that the “integralists” have not only exaggerated Locke’s influence on the Founders, but also misunderstood Locke’s intellectual project.

Locke, in his argument that government is established by a contract among the people, is often seen as breaking from the traditional view that political authority comes from God. That is inaccurate, Reilly argues. In fact, he explains that the Catholic political theorists of the medieval tradition said that political power comes from God through the people. That traditional understanding went into partial eclipse with the Reformation, when Protestant theorists invoked the “divine right” of kings. In fact Sir Robert Filmer, the chief target of Locke’s political treatises, explicitly charged that the belief in self-government and self-determination was a Catholic plot. He wrote in Patriarcha:

“’Mankind is naturally endowed and born with freedom from all subjection, and at liberty to choose what form of government it please…’ This tenet was first hatched in the Schools, and hath been fostered by all succeeding papists for good divinity.

In America on Trial Reilly draws a contrast between the older Catholic tradition and the deformation known as “voluntarism”—the notion that all reality is ultimately governed by will rather than by truth. That notion, Reilly reminds us, is foreign to Catholic thinking. It was also foreign to American thinkers at the time of the Founding.

Sadly, voluntarism made great inroads in America (and elsewhere) during the 20th century. But Reilly tells us that the resulting confusion should be attributed not to any flaw in the Founding, but to a deliberate subversion of the Founders’ work. The appropriate solution, then, is not to discard the Constitution but to restore the moral foundation on which it was built.

This is a very important discussion for American Catholics during a time of national crisis, and America on Trial is a very important book. It belongs on the syllabus for any course about the American Founding.

By the way, over the course of the past decade Reilly has now published serious and provocative books on the gay-rights movement, modern music, and Islamic thought, as well as this important work on the American Founding. He has shown a remarkable breadth of knowledge and versatility of intellect. What will he tackle next?

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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