Patrick Deneen’s powerful critique of American liberal democracy has moved several Catholic writers to reconsider their church’s relation to it. Among the best of these efforts since Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed came out earlier this year was a provocative essay published by American Affairs entitled, “The Eclipse of Catholic Fusionism.” Author Kevin Gallagher declared therein that the prominent Catholics who had worked with political conservatives during the 1980s and 1990s to defend free-market principles were “adulterating the faith” with alien ideas and ignoring the “American Church’s long-standing skepticism of free-market economics.”
In Gallagher’s telling, American Catholics who helped shape the Republican Party’s politics from the Reagan presidency through those of George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush had to make ideological compromises that sapped Catholicism of its mission and shrouded the truth of its spiritual and moral claims. Supposedly what is needed to restore that mission is “a Catholicism more critical of the mainstream of American thought.” But the fact is that previous generations of Catholic Americans, well before the likes of Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak, George Weigel, or Robert George came on the scene, had shaped the mainstream of American thought.
To that tradition Gallagher pays scant attention, so great is his zeal to criticize the above-mentioned group. While a brief essay cannot cover the entire history of American Catholicism before the 1980s, it will attempt to show how misunderstood the relationship between liberal democracy and Catholicism has become recently. What follow are glimpses of history that will reveal that the “integralism” at work in Gallagher’s piece is just as foreign to the Catholic faith in America as Lockean liberalism is.
Starting before the time of the Revolutionary War, American Catholics began to offer a republican interpretation of Catholicism that, though devoted to representative government, nonetheless opposed classical liberalism, whether grounded in Protestant or in purportedly secular foundations. The originators of this interpretation were the most prominent Catholic Founders, the cousins Charles Carroll of Carrollton (the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence) and John Carroll, a Jesuit priest who became the first American Catholic bishop.
The republican interpretation was developed across generations of Catholic leaders, including Archbishop “Dagger” John Hughes of New York, Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, Venerable Fulton J. Sheen, and Father John Courtney Murray. These figures had no patience for Lockean liberalism, but neither did they have any patience for the declining throne-and-altar politics that were slowly failing Europe and the Catholic Church in its seat in Rome.
Charles and John Carroll had undergone an English and French Jesuit education at a time when the Jesuits were partially suppressed in Europe, and much of what they learned from their teachers was a republican reinterpretation of Catholic political theology. As Michael Breidenbach has argued, conciliarists insisted, first, that infallible statements of doctrine came with the assent of councils of bishops in conjunction with papal authority, thus linking the Pope’s executive authority to the legislative collective authority of the bishops. Second, conciliarists denied that the Pope had any claim to temporal governance of a state. Papal authority was purely spiritual and moral, and his influence could only come in the form of counsel or indirectly through the instruction of the faithful. While the first tenet of conciliarism faded in America, the second remained a critical component for integrating the Church as a minority faith into the republic.
The Carrolls deployed conciliarism to ground their defense of the rights of conscience and the cause of American independence from Britain. Defense of these rights was the best that Catholics, a small minority in America, could hope for in a new nation whose constituent states, such as New Hampsh