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New Horizons

Roman Catholicism and Liberty

D. G. Hart

A funny thing happened on the way to the twenty-first century. Roman Catholics went from being the most un-American Christians in the United States to one of the nation's most supportive religious groups.

Only four decades ago, John F. Kennedy, while running for President, had to explain to Protestants that he would not put his allegiance to the Pope above his vow to uphold and defend the U.S. Constitution. Today, conservative Protestants not only see nothing wrong with, but take encouragement from, Roman Catholics providing the most conservative interpretations of the Constitution as justices on the Supreme Court. The reversal of American Protestant attitudes toward Roman Catholics during the second half of the twentieth century was truly remarkable.

For most of the nation's history, Roman Catholics were the religious group most feared by American Protestants. Anti-Catholicism in America rested on a constellation of ideas that linked the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and American democracy. According to this view, Protestantism was chiefly responsible for the advancement of political liberty and cultural progress. It stood for freedom, open inquiry, learning, and impartiality, while Roman Catholicism symbolized the opposite: tyranny, ignorance, superstition, and bigotry.

Protestant Attacks and the Catholic Response

An early example of American Protestant prejudice against Roman Catholicism was Lyman Beecher's A Plea for the West (1835). When this New England Congregationalist moved to Ohio to preside over Lane Seminary, he became alarmed by the large number of Catholics who were streaming into the American heartland. One of his main objections to Roman Catholicism was the papacy's refusal to acknowledge the separation of church and state. In his view, Catholicism could not sustain a free and democratic society. He wrote:

The Sabbath, and the preaching of the gospel, are Heaven's consecrated instrumentality for the efficacious administration of the government of mind in a happy social state. By these only does the Sun of Righteousness arise with healing in his beams; and ignorance, and vice, and superstition encamp around evangelical institutions, to run in wherever their light and power is extinct. (pp. 41-42)

Beecher never spelled out the precise relationship between Protestantism and American politics. For most American Protestants, the connections between Protestant faith and American liberty were so intimate as to be obvious. Consequently, Beecher believed that Roman Catholics, simply by living in the United States, would recognize the authoritarianism of their own faith. Here is the way he put this hope:

If [Roman Catholics] associated with republicans, the power of caste would wear away. If they mingled in our schools, the republican atmosphere would impregnate their minds. If they scattered, unassociated, the attrition of circumstances would wear off their predilections and aversions. If they could read the Bible, and might and did, their darkened intellect would brighten, and their bowed down mind would rise. If they dared to think for themselves, the contrast of protestant independence with their thraldom, would awaken the desire of equal privileges, and put an end to an arbitrary clerical dominion over trembling superstitious minds. (p. 118)

Fifty years later, Josiah Strong, another Congregationalist minister, likewise asserted the dependence of American liberty on the right kind of faith in his popular book Our Country: Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis (1885). In fact, the ties between Protestantism and political liberty informed the most aggressive anti-Catholic books of the twentieth century, such as Paul Blanshard's American Freedom and Catholic Power (1949).

Conservative Presbyterians were not immune from this fear of and hostility to Rome. In his popular book, Roman Catholicism (1962), Lorraine Boettner identified Roman Catholicism as one of the two "totalitarian systems" threatening the United States. For Boettner, Rome's teaching was even more dangerous than Communism because "it covers its real nature with the cloak of religion" (p. 3).

This form of anti-Catholicism, however, proved to be no match for a Roman Catholic hierarchy that after 1960 signaled a different attitude to American forms of government. The Second Vatican Council, for instance, mandated that the church engage the modern world, dropped Rome's inveterate hostility to democracy, and recognized the fundamental right of freedom of conscience. Even more noticeably, John Paul II was an ally in the defeat of Communism and the defense of Christianity in a world teaming with immorality and secularism. Consequently, the last fifty years of Roman Catholic history have proved the traditional American Protestant critique of Rome to be woefully off target.

Protestant Confusion about Liberty

American Presbyterians should have known better than to identify Protestantism with American political ideals, if only through reading the Westminster Confession of Faith. Chapter 20 on Christian liberty is straightforward in distinguishing liberty in Christ (spiritual) from political freedom (civil):

The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and, in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin; from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation; as also, in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a childlike love and willing mind. (20.1)

Liberty in Christ has nothing to do with the sort of political freedom that the American War for Independence granted to American citizens. The Confession adds:

And because the powers which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another, they who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God. (20.4)

As much as this statement may have raised questions about the propriety of the events of 1776, it was just as strong in declaring that political and religious freedom are distinct matters. The Christian suffering under the greatest form of political tyranny is still the beneficiary of the greatest expression of freedom ever known to the human race.

The mistake that American Protestants made in opposing Rome was not to worry about Roman Catholic teaching about liberty. The liberties that believers enjoy in Christ are substantial and lead them to appreciate all the benefits of redemption. The problem was to confuse liberty in Christ with political freedom. American Protestants compounded this mistake by attacking Roman Catholicism for resisting the forms of liberal democracy that arose from the revolutions in America (1776) and France (1789). Ultimately, this confusion has led many American Protestants to lessen their opposition to Rome, now that the Vatican appears to be a valuable partner in the defense of the West and its Christian heritage. Why be anti-Catholic when Catholics are defending the social standards and political institutions that American Protestants consider to be under attack from liberal secularists?

Despite the recent thaw in relations between American Protestants and Roman Catholics, Protestants still need to be anti-Catholic for reasons having very much to do with liberty. The liberty that Protestants should defend, however, has little to do with the United States or its political ideals. Instead, the liberty for which Protestants must fight is the freedom that believers enjoy through the once-for-all redeeming work of Christ. As the Heidelberg Catechism so eloquently puts it, our sole comfort is that Christ has "fully paid for all [our] sins with his precious blood and has set [us] free from the tyranny of the devil" (Q. 1).

Rome tries to offer a version of Christian liberty, but in its teaching about merit, the Virgin Mary, purgatory, and the accomplishments of saints, it yields a version of freedom that is ultimately spiritual bondage. This is so because Rome's understanding of salvation still does not acknowledge the complete sufficiency of Christ for freedom from sin, guilt, death, and the devil. Thus, American Protestants should continue to oppose Roman Catholicism, not because of American conceptions of political freedom, but because of the Reformation's notion of spiritual liberty.

The author, an OP elder, is director of fellowship programs and scholar in residence at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in Wilmington, Del. Reprinted from New Horizons, October 2006.

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