We have arrived at a unique moment, and just perhaps a critical moment, in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States. At the time of the American Revolution, Catholics accounted for less than 1 percent of the population of the 13 colonies — a tiny population clustered primarily in my native Maryland and a few counties of Pennsylvania. Yet within a few decades of the founding, the great tides of European immigration that began to wash onto the shores of the new nation — those “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” as they are memorialized on the Statue of Liberty — brought millions of Catholics to the New World: at first, Irish and Germans; later, Italians, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Ruthenians, and many others who wove their lives and aspirations into the rich ethnic tapestry of American democracy. Those 19th-century immigrants felt the sting of anti-Catholic prejudice, even anti-Catholic violence. But notwithstanding that bigotry — which historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. once described to the dean of U.S. Catholic historians, Fr. John Tracy Ellis, as the deepest prejudice in the history of the American people — Catholics have, I believe, almost always felt at home in these United States.
We have felt at home because we have thrived here; with the exception of immigrant Jews, no religious group has prospered more in America than has the Catholic community. Yet Catholic “at-homeness” in the United States has had a deeper philosophical and moral texture. One of the great Catholic students of American democracy, Fr. John Courtney Murray, described that side of the Catholic experience of America in these terms, in We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition, a book published just a half-century ago:
Catholic participation in the American consensus has been full and free, unreserved and unembarrassed, because the contents of this consensus — the ethical and political principles drawn from the tradition of natural law — approve themselves to the Catholic intelligence and conscience. Where this kind of language is talked, the Catholic joins the conversation with complete ease. It is his language. The ideas expressed are native to his universe of discourse. Even the accent, being American, suits his tongue.
There are many grave question of public policy to be debated in America today: the question of the legal protection of innocent human life from conception until natural death; the question of long-term strategy and morally sustainable tactics in the war against Islamist jihadism; the questions of how we attend to the sick and how we manage immigration; the question of fitting public-policy ends to fiscal means; the question of building an appropriate regulatory structure around the biotech revolution so that the new genetic knowledge leads to genuine human flourishing rather than to a stunted and manufactured humanity; the list goes on and on. Indeed, the very question of what should be on “the public-policy agenda,” and what ought to be left to the private and independent sectors, is being as vigorously contested in our country today as at any time since the Great Depression and the New Deal. Yet amid all this churning, the gravest question for our public culture is the question of whether what Father Murray called the “American consensus” — that ensemble of “ethical and political principles drawn from the tradition of natural law” — still holds.
There are reasons to be concerned.
This past October, in the heat of a political campaign, the nation’s political newspaper of record, the Washington Post, ran an editorial condemning what it termed the “extremist views” of a candidate for attorney general of Virginia who had suggested that the natural moral law was still a useful guide to public policy. The Post, determined to nail down the claim that homosexuality is the equivalent of race for purposes of U.S. civil-rights law, deplored this as “a retrofit [of] the old language of racism, bias, and intolerance in a new context.” The Post’s claim was, to adopt its language, “extremist,” suggesting as it did that the label “bigot” ought to be applied to notable historical personalities who had appealed to the natural moral law in causes the Post would presumably regard as admirable: figures such as Thomas Jefferson, staking America’s claim to independent nationhood on “self evident” moral truths derived from “the laws of nature”; or Martin Luther King Jr., arguing in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that “an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law”; or Pope John Paul II, who, at the United Nations in 1995, suggested that the truths of the natural moral law — “the moral logic which is built into human life,” as he put it — could serve as a universal “grammar” enabling cross-cultural dialogue.
Appeals to the natural moral law we can know by reason underwrote the American civil-rights revolution. Appeals to that same natural moral law underwrite the successor to the civil-rights movement, which is the pro-life movement. And appeals to the natural moral law have underwritten U.S. international human-rights policy for the past 30 years. Until, that is, December 2009, when the U.S. secretary of state, in a speech at Georgetown University, emptied the concept of religious freedom of everything save the “freedom to worship” while asserting, in a catalogue of what she claimed were fundamental international human rights, that people “must be free . . . to love in the way they choose” — which “choice” must, presumably, be protected by international human-rights covenants and national and local civil-rights laws.
And while these two dramas were unfolding — and getting far less public attention than they deserved — two related dramas were being played out. Catholic health-care professionals were coming under increasing state pressure to yield the rights of conscience, formed by the principles of the natural moral law, to those for whom abortion on demand is the rights claim that trumps all other rights claims. And Catholic social-service agencies and institutions were coming under severe pressure to recognize as “marriage” relationships that the natural moral law teaches us are not, and cannot be, marriages.