American Catholic Parochialism: Some Preliminary Remarks

Tribalism has been a major point of discussion during this election season in the United States, so I thought I might make some remarks on the topic of American Catholic parochialism. I define this as the tendency of some self-identifying Catholics in the United States to interpret American history in light of the specific experience of American Catholics.

I’ll very briefly give two examples: 1.) the entire complex of historical interpretations propagated by E. Michael Jones et al. in “Culture Wars,” Fidelity Press, etc., and 2.) the “Catholic Confederate” meme. That’s the apparently persistent tendency of self-identifying Catholics (often chest-thumping trads) on the Internet who pledge their allegiance to the heritage of the Southern Confederacy on the grounds that the Confederacy was somehow more congenial to Catholic principles.*

Having given those examples, let me ask a question that has been around since America’s Founding, possibly since the foundation of Jamestown: can a Catholic be a good American? By “good American,” I mean an American citizen fulfilling his proper duties under natural, divine, and human law to the commonwealth of the state where he lives and to the federal republic as a whole. I give two answers:

1.) Yes, if by “Catholic” you mean someone who acts in accordance with the precepts of the Holy Catholic Faith. Such an American will be the best American, just as St. Paul might well have been the best Roman citizen. He will bring the public life of his nation into accordance with the Kingdom of God, to the extent that the Kingdom can be realized before the Second Coming.

2.) No, if by “Catholic” you mean someone whose first loyalty is to the interests of a specific tribe within the United States, that tribe consisting of Catholics. This is in a certain sense a misuse of the word “Catholic,” which means “Universal.” Just because a segment of a population adheres to the Universal Church does not mean that segment is “universal” within a given state and that state should be run in such a way to benefit primarily that segment. If your concern for the Catholic tribe is supreme over your concern for the good of the commonwealth as a whole**, then no, you’re not a good American.

There’s the crux — for many of us, one of the crosses we bear in life. Because we live as a minority within a predominantly non-Catholic country, the Catholic Church isn’t seen as “catholic” with a small-c, “universal,” but one sect among many. Sociologically, that’s true. The problem is how to reconcile, if possible, the Catholic’s supernatural commitments (the Catholic Church is supreme over the state) with a natural contingency (in the here and now, the Catholic citizens of the United States are a minority of the people the government must serve).

I realize that my claims are contentious. I am a Catholic first and an American second. My first identity and loyalty is as a Catholic Christian. I regard the Gospel as normative. However, when considering politics and history, “What’s in it for us Catholics?” isn’t always a relevant or interesting question. It strikes me that, at several points in American history, certain self-identifying Catholics chose the parochial interests of their specific subsection of the American populace — their Catholic “tribe” — over the best interests of the country as a whole. As a result, one would not be justified in simply looking back at the U.S. Civil War, say, and interpreting the entire conflict through the lens of, “How did Catholicism factor in?” That seems like a contingency at best, and not a particularly major one for understanding what most people were most concerned about in the conflict. But I leave that for another post.

*Been there, done that, no longer find it amusing.

**I realize that some people would refuse to allow daylight between the two. For example, when it comes to the First Amendment, we should look out for the Church as our Number One priority. Agreed. But if the question is about whether the Civil War draft hit Catholics harder than Protestants, that’s not really a question about the Church as such. Or so I shall argue.

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