What it means to be Catholic in America: A reading list

These books offer a refresher course about the relationship between Church and state, what constitutes the common good, and other political tensions that vex and confuse American Catholics, particularly this election year.

This election season has been trying for many, many reasons. It has been tough no matter your party affiliation or religion. But it has been particularly frustrating for Catholics, who have been subjected to endless gigabytes of half-baked articles and blog posts about how the Catholic should or should not vote.

What has become abundantly clear is that Catholics have virtually no clue what the distinction between ethics and politics is, how the virtue of prudence functions, what constitutes the political common good, how the ecclesial and political orders are related, or what the relationship is between the Catholic social doctrine neologisms of social justice, subsidiarity, and solidarity and older, more concrete and familiar terms like justice and citizenship. That is true whether you’re liberal or conservative, libertarian or democratic socialist.

These are vexed questions, of course, and there’s no shame in being unsure. I have frequently found myself this year going back to a few of my well-worn books that talk in intelligent ways about the various tensions American Catholics feel.  If you’re like me and have been looking for refreshers on what it means to be a Catholic in America, let me share a list of books that you may find illuminating. Needless to say, this is not an exhaustive list.

Church, State, and Society: An Introduction to Catholic Social Doctrine by J. Brian Benestad. Benestad’s book is a substantial treatment of Catholic social doctrine: its content, its history, and its situation in America. In addition to being the best, most comprehensive, most intelligent discussion of Catholic social doctrine available, the most crucial contribution it makes is to point out what you need to know in order to be able to (a) understand CSD and (b) apply it in our concrete historical and political circumstances.

Human Rights, Virtue, and the Common Good: Untimely Meditations on Religion and Politics by Ernest L. Fortin, AA. Father Fortin was the indomitable Boston College theologian who is perhaps the greatest American student of the relationship between theology and political philosophy in last 50 years. The title gives a good overview of the book’s contents, but there is one especially relevant section in the book, called “The American Catholic Church and Politics.” To a large degree, the current controversies about the compatibility of Catholicism and various policy positions put forward by the Republican and Democratic parties are reruns of conversations about the arms race, abortion, immigration, and welfare that happened in the late ’70s and throughout the ’80s. Through piercing reflections on the various discussions of Catholicism and politics in that time period, Father Fortin’s book moves to discuss the perennial principles that guide Catholic engagement with citizenship and governance. Because the theoretical quality of our conversations about Catholicism and politics have not advanced much past the state they were in 30-40 years ago, that section of Father Fortin’s book is as fresh and as relevant as ever. The rest of the book is pure gold, too, for anyone who wants to move past partisan debates and recriminations about whether Catholics can support candidates who take x, y, or z positions toward a grasp of the underlying principles of Catholic political reflection.

The American Republic: Its Constitution, Tendencies, and Destiny by Orestes Brownson, with an introduction by Peter Augustine Lawler. This is the first book of serious political philosophy by an American Catholic political thinker who deserves a place in pantheon of great American political thinkers. It is a model for Catholic reflection on the American regime by a man who shows deep gratitude for the wisdom of the American political order while also refusing to identify the American city of man with the City of God. The introduction is by eminent Catholic political theorist Peter Augustine Lawler, whose substantial introduction is worth reading in its own right.

We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition by John Courtney Murray. Another classic of American Catholic political reflection, Murray’s book has become such a touchstone in contemporary debates that opinions have more or less calcified about it. Some think Murray is a shameless sell-out, offering the things of God to the liberal, American Caesar; others think he made a prudent case for a friendly but still standoffish relationship between Catholicism and America; others think he basically nailed it, articulating once and for all their unproblematic harmony. But Murray’s penetrating writing still has the capacity to surprise readers who take the effort to approach the book without predetermined judgments.

Catholicism in America: Challenges and Prospects edited by Matthew L. Lamb. This book brings together some of best thinkers writing today on the topic of Catholicism and America. It uses Murray’s thought as a jumping-off point for discussions that touch on the essentials of American identity and the intellectual and spiritual currents that shaped and continue to nourish it and its compatibility with Catholicism. The contributors take into account the various developments and changes throughout American political and intellectual history that may or may not (depending on the particular position of the contributor in question) have altered the relationship over time and, as it says in the subtitle, what the challenges and prospects for Catholics in America might be going forward.

An Intellectual History of Liberalism by Pierre Manent. Because Catholics have the teachings of the Church, we sometimes forget that politics tend to have a decisive role in shaping our opinions and the way we think. But ignoring the effect politics—and especially our own political regime—have on our thinking risks not only making us prone to becoming bad citizens, but also to deforming the faith by twisting it according to the demands of the ruling political opinions embodied in our own regime. Manent’s book reveals in clear writing what sort of thing democratic liberalism is and what kinds of effects it has on people who live in political orders shaped by it. He is a Catholic and is quite concerned with the relationship liberalism has always had with Catholicism. His chapter entitled “Tocqueville: Liberalism Confronts Democracy” is especially interesting for American Catholics.

Christians as Political Animals: Taking the Measure of Modernity and Modern Democracy by Marc D. Guerra. Guerra’s aim is to reveal the degree to which Catholics should affirm modern democracy and also the degree to which they should maintain a critical distance. He seeks to revive an Augustinian appreciation for political regime as an imperfect good, which is to say that the political regime is both a good and is imperfect. Against anti-political or apolitical Catholics who do not see how Catholics can ever be American citizens in good conscience, and against Catholics who argue that liberal democracy is fully compatible with, or maybe even an outgrowth of, Catholicism, Guerra argues for a middle course wherein the Catholic can be ambiguously comfortable as an American citizen, as befitting a pilgrim whose true home is not in this life.

Roman Catholic Political Philosophy by James V. Schall, SJ. Father Schall has always been fascinated by the borderline between political philosophy and the Catholic faith, arguing that the limits (especially) classical political philosophy discloses to human thought and action actually point us toward our supernatural completion through the gift of God. But what this argument entails is that Catholics should take politics and political philosophy far more seriously than they customarily do. When done properly, Roman Catholic political philosophy can therefore help its practitioner be both a better student of politics and better aware of his creaturely position as a rational animal who is open to being elevated toward beatitude through grace.

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About Thomas P. Harmon 19 Articles
Thomas P. Harmon is Associate Professor and Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, TX. He lives in Sugar Land with his wife and five children.