Joe Biden is Isaac Hecker’s fault?

U.S. Catholics generally know little about the Church’s history in our country. But whether you’re trying to fill gaps in your knowledge or just looking for a good read, let me recommend a new book by Russell Shaw: Catholics in America – Religious Identity and Cultural Assimilation from John Carroll to Flannery O’Connor (Ignatius Press).

Its formidable subtitle notwithstanding, Russell Shaw’s new book is an easy-to-digest smorgasbord, a portrait gallery of fifteen important characters in the American Catholic story. Three of the heroes of my Baltimore boyhood get their just deserts: Archbishop John Carroll, first and arguably greatest of U.S. bishops; Cardinal James Gibbons, America’s most prominent Catholic for four decades; and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, “Wild Betty” as she once called herself, foundress of the Catholic school system that’s still the Church’s best anti-poverty program.

The politicos (Al Smith and JFK) and the intellectuals (combustible, cantankerous Orestes Brownson and the scholarly old-school Jesuit, John Courtney Murray) are neatly sketched, as are three women of consequence: St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, Dorothy Day, and Flannery O’Connor. A trio of New Yorkers (one born in Ireland, another in Massachusetts, and another in Peoria) take their turns on stage in the persons of Archbishop “Dagger John” Hughes, Cardinal Francis Spellman, and Spelly’s rival, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. Then there’s the remarkable Father Michael McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus and, I hope, America’s next beatus.

For contemporary purposes and debates, one of the most suggestive of Shaw’s portraits is that of Father Isaac Hecker, another candidate for beatification. Shortly after his death in 1888, Hecker became the subject of contention in Rome, when an ill-translated biography of the founder of the Paulists, and some intra-Catholic brawling among U.S. hierarchs, led to a papal warning against “Americanism” – a way-of-being-Catholic that Pope Leo XIII deemed excessively privatized, insufficiently contemplative, and dismissive of the Church’s magisterium. Ever since, U.S. Catholic historians have been arguing about whether “Americanism” was a phantom heresy.

There seem to be three contending parties in that debate. The canonical view of classic U.S. Catholic historians like John Tracy Ellis was that “Americanism” was indeed a phantasm of fevered Roman minds. Then, in the 1970s, came the revisionist view that Hecker, and bishops like John Ireland of St. Paul-Minneapolis, John Keane of Catholic University, and Cardinal Gibbons, were in fact exploring a new ecclesiology, a new way of thinking about the Church, that Vatican II would vindicate in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church and Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.

Now comes Russell Shaw, who, in his portrait of Hecker, continues to press an argument he first raised in 2013 in American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America (the man does have a way with subtitles). Reduced to essentials, Shaw’s contention is that Hecker and those of his “Americanist” cast of mind did represent an assimilationist current in U.S. Catholic thought – a tendency to bend over backwards to “fit into” American culture – that eventually made possible Ted Kennedy, Barbara Mikulski, Nancy Pelosi, and Joe Biden: cradle-Catholic politicians who support public policies that flatly contradict basic moral truths taught by the Church on the basis of reason and revelation, justify their votes in the name of “democracy” and “pluralism,” and are supported by a lot of fellow-Catholics in doing so.

To be sure, Shaw acknowledges that Hecker’s great goal was to convert America to Catholicism, not retrofit Catholicism to the dominant American culture of his day (which I think my friend misstates as “secular” rather than “Protestant”). Hecker’s failure, as I read Shaw, is that he didn’t grasp that there were corrosives built into American public culture that would eventually eat away at core Catholic convictions. And if that’s what Russ Shaw is arguing, then he’s implicitly adopting the “ill-founded Republic” optic on U.S. history advanced by such scholars as Patrick Deneen and David Schindler.

My own view is that the failure of Catholics to infuse American politics with Catholic social doctrine has had a lot more to do with creating Joe Biden & Co. than Isaac Hecker and the 19th-century “Americanists.” In any case, Shaw’s new book and its predecessor are good places to begin thinking about what went wrong here and why.

COMING UP: God and Brexit

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Ever since the United Kingdom decided in June to leave the European Union, contending (and sometimes overlapping) explanations have been offered for a vote that stunned the world’s opinion-makers: a perceived loss of national sovereignty to a transnational organization; concerns over current EU immigration policy and the effect of open EU borders on jobs and the rule of law; aggravations with petty bureaucratic regulation by EU mandarins in Brussels. Together, these amount to what’s often called the EU’s “democracy deficit,” which seems to me real enough.

I’d like to suggest another, perhaps deeper, answer to the question of the EU’s current distress, though: to put it bluntly, the “democracy deficit” is a reflection of Europe’s “God-deficit.” Let me connect the dots.

The founding fathers of today’s European Union – which began with the European Coal and Steel Community before morphing into the European Common Market and then the EU – were, in the main, Catholics: Italy’s Alcide de Gasperi, West Germany’s Konrad Adenauer, France’s Robert Schumann. Appalled by the self-destruction that Europe had wrought in two world wars, they sought an answer to aggressive nationalism in economic partnerships that would bind the West Franks (the French) to the East Franks (the Germans) so that war between them would be inconceivable. It was a practical idea, it worked, and it was understood to be the first step toward forms of political partnership and integration.

The wager underlying this project, as these men conceived it, was that there was enough of Christian or biblical culture left in Europe to sustain democratic pluralism in a “union” of sovereign states that would respect national and regional distinctiveness. And that Christian or biblical “remainder” involved the Catholic social-ethical principle of “subsidiarity:” the idea that decision-making should be left at the lowest possible local level (as in classic American federalism, where local governments do some things, state governments do other things, and the national government does things that local and state governments can’t do).

“Subsidiarity” is a check against the tendency of all modern states to concentrate power at the center: which explains why the principle was first articulated by Pope Pius XI in 1931, as the shadow of totalitarianism lengthened across Europe. Respect for the social-ethical principle of “subsidiarity” also implies respect for cultural difference. And that, in turn, assumes that human beings get to universal commitments – like respect for basic human rights – through particular experiences, not through generalized abstractions. Or as Polish editor Jerzy Turowicz said to me twenty-five years ago, John Paul II was a “European” because he was a Cracovian, the heir of a particular experience of pluralism and tolerance, not despite the fact that he came from a unique cultural milieu.

When biblical religion collapsed, as it manifestly has in most of Old Europe and too much of New Europe after 1989, commitments to subsidiarity and its respect for difference imploded as well. The vacuum was then filled by a monochromatic, anti-pluralist notion of “democracy”. Embodied in EU law and enforced by unaccountable bureaucrats and EU courts, the results of this decayed democratic idea went far beyond idiotic regulations on the shape of tomatoes and bananas to include a concerted attempt to impose a single political culture in Europe, best described as the culture of personal autonomy – the Culture of the Self. That pseudo-culture is the hollowed-out shell of the Christian personalism that once inspired de Gasperi, Adenauer, Schumann, and the mid-20th-century Christian Democratic parties of Europe. And its political by-product is the EU’s “democracy deficit.”

Forty years ago, German constitutional scholar Ernst-Friedrich Boeckenfoerde argued that the modern, liberal-democratic state faced a dilemma: it rested on the foundation of moral-cultural premises – social capital – it could not itself generate. Put another way, it takes a certain kind of people, formed by a certain kind of culture to live certain virtues, to keep liberal democracy from decaying into new forms of authoritarianism – more pungently described in 2005 by a distinguished European intellectual, Joseph Ratzinger, as a “dictatorship of relativism.” The Boeckenfoerde Dilemma is on full display in the European Union, which is in deep trouble because of a democracy deficit that is, at bottom, a subsidiarity-deficit caused by a God-deficit.

Americans would be very foolish to think ourselves immune to a similar crisis of political culture.