Maura Jane Farrelly thinks the difference between the way Roman Catholics and Protestants know God also explains support for political freedom:
What is curious about this unwillingness of non-specialists in American Catholic history to entertain the possibility that nineteenth-century anti-Catholicism might have been rooted in something real is that historians who focus on the American Catholic experience have acknowledged for many years now that there was (and to some extent still is) a fundamental tension between “American” and “Catholic” values. Granted, polemicists like George Weigel and Michael Novak would have us believe that there is a seamless philosophical and even theological line running from “Thomas Aquinas to [the Italian Jesuit] Robert Bellarmine to the Anglican divine, Richard Hooker; then from Hooker to John Locke to Thomas Jefferson.” In an essay kicking off the American Catholic bishops’ campaign against the Affordable Care Act in 2012, Weigel insisted that the United States owes more to Catholics for its tradition of religious liberty “than the Sage of Monticello likely ever knew.”
But among those writers on Catholicism who have been motivated by a desire to engage with a faithful rendering of the past (rather than a desire to use history to dismantle the signature legislative achievement of a Democratic president), the consensus is that American Catholics have been animated, in historian Jay Dolan’s words, by “two very diverse traditions,” one exemplified by “Thomas Aquinas and Ignatius of Loyola,” and the other exemplified by “Jefferson and Lincoln.”
Dolan has been joined by John McGreevy, Jim O’Toole, Mark Massa, and others in acknowledging that—to quote Massa —”in the history of Western Christianity, there have been two distinctive (and to some extent, opposing) conceptual languages that have shaped how Christians understand God and themselves.” The first language—which shapes the world of people who have been raised as Catholics, American or otherwise—”utilizes things we know to understand things we don’t know, including and especially God.” The Church, in this language, becomes an incarnation of Jesus—its community and the doctrines and hierarchies that govern that community and can be known and experienced by the community’s members become a tangible (dare we even say “fleshy”?) way for Catholics to comprehend God and the salvation that God promises. The mindset that emerges from a language such as this, according to Mark Massa, is one that exhibits a “fundamental trust and confidence in the goodness of … human institutions.”
The second language, utilized by Protestant theologians from Martin Luther and Jean Calvin to Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, emphasizes the “fact of human estrangement and distance from God.” In this language, it is the Word—the message of judgment and grace, embodied in Christ and found not in the institution of the Church, but in the sanctified lines of Scripture—that convicts the soul, convinces it of its sinfulness, and “prepares us for an internal conversion that makes us true children of God.” The mindset that emerges from language such as this is one that tends to be suspicious of institutions and sees them as distractions that stand between the individual and the Word. Doctrines and hierarchies are “potentially an idolatrous source of overweening pride,” Massa writes; the danger in them is that they are corruptible examples of human beings’ mistaken belief that they can save themselves.
(Parenthetically, if a difference does exist between American and Roman Catholic ideals, then Pope Francis’ encyclical may be another indication of such.)
Farrelly goes on to use this difference — between respect for institutions and hierarchy and promoting civil liberties — to conclude that the U.S. bishops Fortnight for Freedom is more American than Roman Catholic:
It is probably still true that the politicians and religious leaders who railed against Catholicism in the first half of the nineteenth century were motivated by a certain degree of status anxiety—some, perhaps, such as Lyman Beecher, more than others. But it is also true that these leaders were motivated by a real sense that the Catholic understanding of freedom was different from theirs, and they were right to see Catholics’ support of the institution of slavery as the embodiment of this difference. Freedom, for Catholics, was corporate; it was born of the “reciprocal duties” that one priest from colonial Maryland insisted all people had to one another. Freedom, for Catholics, was not “personal,” the way it was for Protestants like Theodore Parker.
It is no small irony, therefore, that modern-day Catholics like Bishop William Lori of Baltimore have been appealing to personal freedom in their attempt to protect the collective freedom of the Catholic Church from the mandates of a law that supporters say defines healthcare as a “requirement of a free life that the community has an obligation to provide.” In 2012, on the eve of the Church’s first “Fortnight for Freedom”—a now annual event that highlights “government coercions against conscience” such as the birth control provision in the Affordable Care Act—Lori made his reasons for opposing the healthcare overhaul clear: “If we fail to defend the rights of individuals,” he warned, “the freedom of institutions will be at risk.”
The problem with this analysis is — see what I’m doing here — two-fold.
Conceptually, a religious conviction need not — and here I duck because of the A2K blow back — require a political practice or ideal. At least for confessional Protestants who distinguish between the civil and spiritual realms, one can, for instance, advocate aristocracy (Presbyterianism) in the church while still supporting monarchy in the kingdom (most Scottish Presbyterians did this). And if Roman Catholics were 2k, you could conceivably support hierarchy and submission in the church (say hello to papal monarchy) and republicanism in society. Think Richard John Neuhaus.
Practically, Farrelly’s distinction also fails to make sense of American Protestants and the civil religion they have cultivated. If God is only known in Scripture, then why can his ways be discerned either in the “redeemer nation,” the United States, or in the God-and-country party, the GOP? If only Protestants were as wary of nation-states and political parties as Farrelly suggests they are.
The difference between Roman Catholics and Protestants is this. The former are conflicted about the United States. The options appear to be either a sloppy wet kiss of America and its ways, or an ultramontanist critique of the United States as a land of self-centered, imperialistic ambition (see Laudato Si). Protestants are also conflicted but not in the same way. Evangelical and liberal Protestants think of America as a Christian nation — either it is a beacon of truth and liberty and justice or it should be condemned for failing to be such. Confessional Protestants who reside in America think about the nation not redemptively but politically and so appear to be insufficiently patriotic.