Monday, February 27, 2006

Catholic Influence on America's Founding

My uncle sent me the following link and asked for comments.

I had either not heard of Bellarmine or had seen reference to him only in passing. Brief research suggests that he is, in fact, the real deal – a respected thinker in his day and not an obscure crank.

The defensive tone surprized me at first. The essay reminded me of those proofs that the Scots discovered America, or the Egyptians anticipated our understanding of electricity. Written, mirabile dictu, by a Scot or an Egyptian. (Which always reminds me of the National Lampoon question “Did you know that Benjamin Franklin was a white man?) It had the atmosphere of “People say Catholics aren’t really Americans. Actually, they’re more American than you are.” I wondered who it was that was claiming Catholicism wasn’t compatible with Americanism. Not until I got to the bottom, and saw the copyright date of 1930, did the penny drop. Just after Al Smith was defeated, and heading into a strongly isolationist period of American history. Well no wonder the guy was feeling a little defensive.

That aside, let’s look at the claim itself. Does our democratic ideal descend more from Roman Catholic thought than from Protestant or Enlightenment thought? The author’s contention is that all those new ideas in the 1770’s were actually old ideas from Aquinas and Bellarmine. Through the founding fathers, and particularly through Jefferson, these ideas became the basis of our constitutional republic. Far from being opposed to democratic forms of government, the story goes, Catholics actually called the original meetings.

It’s always problematic to say claim that Writer A influenced Thinker B. I think Werner Erhard, founder of est, one of the great charlatans of the 20th C. But one line of his I have kept for years: “Your children will grow up to be exactly what they want, but will blame it on you.” I stole the line from him directly. Does that mean that my thought is influenced by Erhard? Of the influences on my thought I can identify, I would point to JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis. But I was already in young adulthood when I encountered them. A more thorough examination root and branch might reveal that I was more influenced by Selma Nordstrom, or Clair Bee. In 8th grade, I read two books by Orwell which influenced me greatly, but I read nothing else of his for years. Is Orwell an influence?

At the simplest level, yes, Cardinal Bellarmine is an influence on Jefferson because Jefferson read him and quotes him. At a slightly deeper level, Jefferson’s overall thought seems more compatible with selected sections of Bellarmine than with selected sections on Patriarcha, the work most contrasted with his own. Beyond that I don’t think we can go. Aquinas and Bellarmine may have gotten there first and thought things out, but nothing actually happens from it. The huge difference between the American Experiment and everything else to that point is that Here, the thing actually happens. Good ideas hang around for centuries with dozens of attempts to effect them. So do bad ideas, actually. Bellarmine notes that government is for the people. Historically, that obvious idea turns out to be er, less than obvious.

Did the depths of Roman Catholic understanding produce better ideas of government than its competitors in the 18th-19th C’s? Millions of Catholics didn’t think so, moving from Ireland, Italy, Poland, and parts of a half-dozen other European nations to come here. Wherever we locate the centers of Protestantism or Enlightenment, millions of people moved out of those places to come to America also. Something about the wrestling match among those three strains of thought produced something people actually liked living in. Each of the three had its own utopian communities that flared across the sky and burned out. Each had its own dark strains of bigotry which erupt into the 20th C horrors on a grand scale – everywhere but here (and the rest of the Anglosphere, for identical reasons). Greek, Roman, Norse, and Jewish thought add in some influence, mostly indirect. African and Native thought settle in under the radar. Islamic thought doesn’t seem to contribute anything except slavery – we import their grim version instead of the milder Greek and Roman kinds. The Orientals don’t have much influence until the late 19th C.

We probably have given the Catholics short shrift in meting out credit for the American idea. Those who consider themselves the true children of the Renaissance try to take credit for the Catholics DaVinci, Michaelangelo, or Galileo; Catholics try to keep credit for Roger Bacon and Descartes, Protestants for Newton and Copernicus, and everyone takes credit for Shakespeare. OK fine. Everyone should get a ribbon, just like the Special Olympics. I’m sorry already. It won’t happen again.

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