Catholic Power vs. American Freedom
by George La Piana & John W. Swomley. edited by Herbert F. Vetter. Published by: Prometheus Books.
The role of Catholicism in American society has long been a matter of some debate. Catholicism developed in a Europe controlled by monarchial, aristocratic, and even dictatorial political systems, and the Roman Catholic Church adopted many of the principles underlying those systems. America, on the other hand, was conceived as a new political experiment where republican and democratic principles would hold sway. How readily can the two vasty different conceptions of power and organization interact?
Sadly, Catholics have experienced a great deal of bigotry in America in connection with the arguable conflict of interest Catholics have been thought to experience – allegiance to the essentially dictatorial power of the pope in Rome vs. allegiance to the democratic system in America. Much of that bigotry was actually fueled by fears of immigration, especially that of Irish and Italian minorities. However, even if the prejudice against Catholicism simply used concerns about the power of the Vatican over Catholic citizens as an excuse for other fears and hatred, those concerns do raise interesting and relevant issues which have been debated by Catholics and non-Catholics alike for many decades.
One of those engaged in these discussions was George La Piana (1878-1971), at one time the John H. Morison Professor of Church History at Harvard Divinity School. Dr. La Piana served as a consultant to Paul Blanshard, authored numerous books on the relations between church and state, and consluted with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter on church-state issues.
In 1949, Dr. La Piana delivered a series of four lectures titled “A Totalitarian Church in a Democratic Society,” designed to address the question: To what extent is Roman Catholic authoritarianism a threat to democracy in the United States? Those four lectures, along with nine new chapters by John Swomley (professor emeritus of Christian social ethics at the St. Paul School of Theology) on more recent developments, are collected together in the book “Catholic Power vs. American Freedom,” edited by Herbert F. Vetter.
This book is not an attack on theism, on religion, on Christianity, or even on Catholicismper se (and certainly not on individual Catholics). Rather, it is a historical and cultural commentary on the ways in which certain aspects of the power structure and dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church have difficulty being compatible with the power structure and ideals of American republican democracy. This doesn’t mean that Catholics cannot be good Americans or that they cannot support democracy. Rather, it means that there is a necessary tension between the two which each person must find ways to resolve in order to remain as true to both as possible.
This shouldn’t really be surprising to anyone. The Roman Catholic Church is not a democratic institution nor does it pretend to be. The Church does not readily accept dissent and disagreement on a wide variety of important issues – fundamental questions of morals and dogma simply are not open to debate. The ideals of American democracy, however, value exactly those principles. Perhaps they are not always honored in reality as well as they should be, but no one gets very far if they try to argue that they should be abandoned.
Unfortunately, the conflict between these antagonistic positions extends beyond the hearts and minds of individual believers. The traditional position of of the Roman Catholic Church, as articulated by Pope Leo XIII before the Second Vatican Council, has been that governments should not only have care for religion, but should also “recognize the true religion professed by the Catholic Church.” What this means, in practice, is that legitimate government must specifically endorse Catholicism and must put Catholic principles and morals into practice through the laws.
Many Catholics accept this call to action and work to have American laws reflect Catholic morals on a wide variety of issues: abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, and more. Quite a few non-Catholics have had their healthcare decisions restricted by Catholic doctrines because they had the misfortune to be treated in a Catholic-run hospital, even though it was supported extensively by public money and even when the treatment itself has been paid by the government. Such actions threaten to undermine the principles of a secular, democratic government.
Fortunately, not all Catholics feel this way – as John Swomley writes:
[M]any members… want it to be a servant church rather than a power church seeking control not only over its own members but also nonmembers by seeking control of the government in nations where they reside.
Individual Catholics, particularly those in America, are finding themselves forced to choose between authoritarian Church doctrines and the principles of democracy, choice, and self-rule. They are resisting the imposition of Catholic doctrines by the state. and over time, they may succeed in having democratic ideas further incorporated into Church dogmas. Only time will tell.
- Germans lukewarm over Pope’s visit (freethinker.co.uk)
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