Catholicism and American Liberalism

Paul Harvey

An interesting factoid that I heard mentioned yesterday: If Judge Sotomayor is confirmed to the Supreme Court, she will be the 6th Catholic sitting on the bench. If Scalia and Alito represent one version of Catholic politics -- "natural law" and conservative politics -- Sotomayor could emerge as the bearer of the legacy of New Deal Catholicism.

We'll let the legal historians discuss the implications of Sotomayor's nomination, but a note here on its religious dimension. Religion and politics is most often discussed (in the popular realm) within the realm of Protestant evangelicalism, but scholars continue to excavate the deep history of Catholic thought and American politics. The Legal History blog calls attention to ongoing work in the realm of Catholicism and legal history, one that may set the current nomination in good perspective. Here are some notes on new pieces of interest, crossposted from Legal History Blog:

Zachary R. Calo, Valparaiso University School of Law, has just posted a number of manuscripts on SSRN. Just posted is an article, 'The Indispensable Basis of Democracy': American Catholicism, the Church-State Debate, and the Soul of American Liberalism, 1900-1920. It appeared in the Virginia Law Review (2005). Here's the abstract:

Several recent works of scholarship explore how Establishment Clause jurisprudence has been shaped by broader political debates over the role of religion in public life. This literature focuses on the politics of anti-Catholicism, particularly during the early years of Establishment Clause jurisprudence in the1940s and 1950s. While not questioning the centrality of this period to the historical narrative, this Note argues that the political contest over church and state took shape in an earlier debate over the compatibility of Catholicism and the Constitution during the 1920s. The Church’s response to the anti-Catholicism of this period was of particular importance. Catholic apologists actively challenged the widespread argument that Catholicism could not be reconciled with a democratic liberal political order. In fact, Catholics not only defended the doctrinal compatibility of Catholic social thought and the constitutional separation of church and state. They argued that Catholicism was ideally suited to preserving the moral foundations of the free society. Far from imperiling American democracy, Catholicism was, in the words of the Church’s leading social theorist, "The Indispensable Basis of Democracy." Thus, rather than aiming to depoliticize the church-state fracas of the 1920s, American Catholics drove the issue ever more fully into the realm of politics and culture. In the process, Catholics developed a worldview that now stands at the heart of Establishment Clause politics.

Calo's newest paper is Catholic Social Thought, Political Liberalism, and the Idea of Human Rights.

As the dominant moral vocabulary of modernity, the language of human rights establishes significant points of contact between the religious and the secular. Yet, the human rights movement increasingly finds itself in a contested relationship with religious ideas and communities. Even as the idea of human rights draws on the inherited moral resources of religion, the movement, at least in many of its dominant institutional and intellectual expressions, has established itself as an autonomous moral discourse. In this respect, the human rights movement, as an expression of western liberalism, presents itself as a totalizing moral theory that challenges countervailing theological accounts of human rights. This paper considers the distinctive account of human rights which has emerged out of Catholic social thought’s engagement with political and economic questions. Particular attention is given to the process by which Catholic thinking about human rights has embraced the possibilities of political liberalism while also bounding liberalism within a particularistic theologically-informed account of the human person. The distinctiveness of the Catholic account of human rights raises questions about the role of Catholicism, and religious communities more generally, in shaping the law of human rights. To what extent can secular and religious approaches to human rights law find common cause and overlapping consensus? How does a Catholic account of human rights rooted in theological anthropology relate to a regnant secular tradition which rests on theological categories shorn of religious content (and which has become its own intellectual and moral tradition that is, in important respects, acounter-theology)? While a Christian theological jurisprudence must maintain a concern with the common good, the fractured moral consensus of late modernity usually demands that the goods identified be described with reference to the internal resources of the tradition. Catholicism, in this respect, might both advance and challenge the universalistic impulses of the human rights movement.


'True Economic Liberalism' and the Development of American Catholic Social Thought, 1920-1940, which appeared in the Journal of Catholic Social Thought (2008), and a chapter from Calo's book manuscript, The Circumscribed Radicalism of New Deal Catholicism: Catholic Liberalism in the 1930s.


Interesting you bring up the religious dimension. Just as I saw this, I was wondering whether there is something in the legalism of Catholic tradition generally that makes Catholics so apparently successful in the legal profession. "The Catholic ethic and the spirit of legalism?"

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