The Trouble with “Americanism”

I. Why Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a Bad Standard
You may remember that Kathleen Kennedy Townsend wrote a singularly foolish piece for Newsweek claiming that Obama is more Catholic than the pope, because his views better represent American Catholics.  In a particularly confused phrasing, she writes:

When Obama meets the pope tomorrow, they’ll politely disagree about reproductive freedoms and homosexuality, but Catholics back home won’t care, because they know Obama’s on their side.

Let’s leave aside the blatant elitism of conflating the views of liberal American Catholics with the views of lay Catholics globally (in fact, Catholics in the Global South tend to be much more orthodox). Kennedy Townsend’s premise is that of a lot of misinformed liberal Catholics in the US: that the Church is a “democracy,” which should govern by majority rule.  So if 51% of Catholics think that abortion’s okay, then it’s ok.  Of course, this raises a series of confusing questions: if Catholicism is simply what the majority of Catholics believe, who’s a Catholic?  Under this sort of majority-rule system, heresy may just be the next big orthodoxy.

This heresy is nothing new.  In 798 A.D., Alcuin of York wrote to Charlemagne in 798, in a letter which reads, in part:

Those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness.”

But given America’s distinctive political contributions, it’s not surprising that people who have benefited so much from political democracy would seek Church democracy as well.  It’s particularly appealing to dissidents on the political left because of an unstated premise: legalized abortion and gay rights, because they’re newer, are “progressive”; that is, that society is moving in that direction.  The recalcitrance of the Catholic Church  continues to defy this Myth of Progress, but devout progressives still fantasize about the day when the “hierarchical Church” (as they term the Magisterium, as well as the actual hierarchy) will do a 180 and declare “abortions for some, miniature American flags for others.” 

These dissidents don’t just support Church democracy because they like democracy per se; they like the idea of Church democracy, because they think a democratic Church will be a Democratic Church.  But there are ominous signs on the horizon for anyone with the sense to see them.  Take the death penalty, for example.  The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) compares Latino with non-Latino Catholic views on a variety of political issues (pg. 29 here).  Long-story short, over 60% of both Latino and non-Latino Catholics support the death penalty, contrary to traditional Catholic teaching.  Significantly, the death penalty is not an intrinsic evil, the way that torture and abortion are, meaning Catholics can, under certain circumstances, support it.  Still, the Church’s general view is much more “liberal” on this issue than the view of lay Catholics.  In a signal that I find much more disturbing than the Catholic views on the death penalty, a recent US News poll found that fewer than 25% of white non-Hispanic Catholics said torture was “never right” (I was unable to find anything which examined Catholics, in toto).  In other words, if Obama is more Catholic than the pope for being pro-choice, Bush is more Catholic than the pope for being pro-torture.

II. Playing Both Sides of the Magisterial Fence
So surely, dissident Catholics who love Church democracy have to say, contra their political views, that the Church should cast off her old-fashioned opposition to the death penalty and torture… right?  I mean, surely, it would be brazenly hypocritical to suddenly side with the Magisterium (no longer “institutional Church,” of course) when it supports one’s personal or political views?

Enter Anthony Stevens-Arroyo, who we see here shamelessly attempting to use Magisterial teaching to simultaneously permit Obama to speak, and bar Rick Santorum:

That means that no Catholic institution — university, study group or Knights of Columbus Council, etc. — can invite Newt Gingrich, Sean Hannity or Rick Santorum to speak. Each of these Catholics supports Cheney and thus endorses torture.

 With no apparent sense of irony, he claims it’s his opponents (political, of course, not religious), “who would defy Catholicism for political gain.”  Right.  Lots of others could join his ranks, and plenty of non-Catholics have even picked up the ball, clumsily arguing, for example, that Scalia can’t be Supreme Court justice because of his support for the death penalty.  This has all of the credibility of an anarchist taking you to court for trespassing on his property.  Although (like the anti-torture camp), they’re right on the issue, winning the battle costs them the war.  It undermines the entire position, and shows the necessity of having a central set of rules to appeal to. 

A “democracy Church,” which governed by the whims of American Catholics, would be a pro-death penalty, pro-torture, pro-choice, pro-women’s ordination Church which represented only the least religious.  On all of these stances, American Catholics have taken the “American view” over the Catholic one.  This is a heresy known, fittingly, as Americanism.


  1. I discovered Americanism very early on in my reconversion, dangerous, dangerous business. And that’s a great find, that quote from Alcuin, I haven’t seen it before. Thanks for this post.

  2. It’s the first known usage of “vox populi,” and it’s against the notion. It’s one of those phrases like, “Eat, drink, and be merry,” where if you know the history, it’s just baffling that it caught ont.

  3. Cardinal Francis George told us at the seminary that he used to like to mix it up with people who came at him with anger over some Church teaching. Now, he says that he prefers to just ask them when was the last time they went to confession. Some hearts need more than solid reason to reach.

  4. Isn’t Arroyo just saying that to be consistent those against Obama speaking at ND should also be against Santorum etc. speaking at ND because Santorum as much as Obama supports a policy at odds with Church teaching?

    That seems like a solid reductio to me. What is wrong with it?

  5. And even if he wasn’t making that argument, it would be a solid one. Is it not hypocritical for the right wing ND people to get all sanctimonious about Obama and not bat an eye when pro torture republicans (I.e. virtually all republicans) are invited to speak.

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