Catholics & Patriotism
To the Editor:
In her article, “Reclaiming the Catholic Heritage” [September], Anne Roche Muggeridge raises many points worthy of comment. The one I would like to address is her statement: “Indeed, the more orthodox a Catholic is, the more patriotic he is, and the more supportive of traditional American political and moral principles.” If what is meant by patriotism is a proper regard for the common good of the country, then indeed all Catholics are duty bound to be patriotic wherever they reside. But if what is meant by patriotic is enthusiasm for the U.S. constitutional regime (or indeed any regime), then it would seem to me salutary for the Catholic “patriot” to be sobered by reflection upon the words of the Psalmist, “Put not your trust in princes,” and also upon Jesus’s wary indifference to politics.
Furthermore, while some orthodox Catholics are patriots in the second sense of the term, so are some non-orthodox Catholics like Michael Novak and George Weigel who, Mrs. Muggeridge informs us, dissent from Catholic moral teaching on birth control. Similarly, some orthodox Catholics, like myself, are indisposed to applaud Fourth-of-July oratory. In my case, it is not due to any antipathy toward democracy; I am neither pronor anti-democratic. To my mind, it is quite unreal to consider and judge the United States solely, or primarily, in political terms. Culture is at least as important as politics, and American culture is pandemically consumerist. It is American consumerism more than American democracy which is the country’s legacy to the world, the thing that is truly influential, truly seductive. And the justification for the release of the acquisitive passions is not some recent deformation foisted upon a pure people by a left-wing cabal. It goes as far back as James Madison. For a Catholic to be enthusiastic about the American way is, I am convinced, unspeakably unwise.
Anne Roche Muggeridge writes:
Catholics should not put their trust in princes, but they should, surely, put their trust in principles. American Catholics have consistently supported the founding constitutional consensus of the United States because the “catholic,” that is, the universal, self-evident ethical and political principles enunciated therein, “approve themselves,” as John Courtney Murray wrote, “to the Catholic intelligence and conscience. Where this kind of language is talked, the Catholic joins the conversation with complete ease. It is his language. The ideas expressed are native to his universe of discourse.”
Until very recently, patriotism for the American Catholic has meant support both for the principles underlying the American experiment in democracy and for the civil and political institutions which incarnated those principles. In our time, the breakdown of the original moral and political consensus has caused many Catholics to abandon the “American Proposition” for hostile, extra-political activism. Nevertheless, very many orthodox (morally conservative) Catholics continue to support the Proposition, and to work through the political system to restore it, because they believe that even in its weakened state it expresses the principles of the natural moral law better than any existing political alternative does. That is why such Catholics massively switched political allegiance for the first time in their American experience during the 1972 presidential campaign. They disliked Nixon and the traditionally anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Republican party, but they disliked even more George McGovern’s moral and social program. It never occurred to them not to vote at all. Even in the face of what they consider the greatest moral evil America has committed, the legalization of abortion, they remain true to their Catholic and American principles, choosing the democratic way of persuasion over that of violence. Likewise, it is their perception that the “peace movement” is in large part a coalition of moral and political revolutionaries that keeps them out of it, not their susceptibility to “Fourth-of-July oratory.”
Orthodox Catholics do not absolutize the American experiment in religious freedom and pluralism in a non-confessional state. They are aware, as were Pope Leo XIII, Tocqueville, and Cardinal Newman, as am I, of the relationship of political democracy to liberalism in religion. Yet American Catholic history appears to have proven that there is no necessary incompatibility between being Catholic and being American.
Stuart Gudowitz’s charge that American democracy invented and exports “consumerism” (by which he means, I assume, the desire to own lots of things) seems to me an example of reverse chauvinism. It is vainglorious to credit the United States in general, or James Madison in particular, with the invention of greed. Greed is indeed not a “recent deformation”; it is as old as Genesis, a deformity of every human heart by original sin. “The love of money is the root of all evil.” Americans are not unique in needing to fight the temptation to covetousness.