The Catholic Thing
Church and Sect Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 20 April 2009

Here’s a quick question: Are you Catholic first and American second, or the reverse?

Yes, sometimes this might be a false choice, but just off the top of your head, which is it?

Just to speak for myself, I’m Catholic first and American second. I don’t understand how any believer of any faith could think differently. If you are lucky, you spend eighty or so years in America. Dead, on the other hand, is a long time. An American passport or American attitudes may not be ideal for travel into the undiscovered country. Except for those simple souls who think that Americanism is Christianity, a reflective person knows there will be days – in certain periods a lot of them – when a real believer must take a different path than other Americans.

The Catholic Church occupies an odd position in the United States. We are a church that has survived the rise and fall not only of nations, but of whole civilizations. Along the way, we developed a complex sense of the Church’s social responsibilities. Catholicism is compatible with American-style democracy – and with many other forms of government – yet does not concede that the public arena is properly understood as purely neutral or secularist.

God is Lord of all, including a pluralistic order like our own. The Catholic Church, as other churches once did, teaches that the basic elements of His rule, including universal moral principles, must be acknowledged, even if only indirectly, for any regime to be legitimate. And therein lies the heart of the problem of the Church in America today.

The German sociologist of religion Ernst Troeltsch famously sorted faith groups into two large categories: churches and sects. Churches regard themselves as having responsibilities that are as wide as the world. Troeltsch’s church par excellence, of course, was the Catholic Church. Sects, by contrast, are for the most part content to live a private existence, removed to a greater or lesser degree from the world, which they regard as a temptation and the realm of the Prince of Darkness. Evangelicals mostly took that stance until the 1980s, and seem to be headed back into it again.

Still, for a long time, America operated underneath a kind of sacred canopy. It had strong sectarian Protestant elements, but also a general agreement of God’s importance to society, which included everything from deism to Anglicanism. Those of us who study religion and politics sometimes joke about a remark attributed to President Eisenhower: “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious belief – and I don’t care what it is.” Ike may never have said it and, if he did, meant something more defensible. In any event, well into the 1960s, lots of people would have agreed that religion means a great deal to the kind of democracy America once professed. President Obama’s remark in Turkey a few weeks ago that we just consider ourselves citizens – though not entirely true – shows the distance we have traveled in the interim.

In the process, most religious groups in America have been more and more squeezed into the sect model, others squeezed themselves into sectarian inconsequence and think the holdouts should follow their example. It seems to be the only viable way in a pluralistic nation, though it was not for most of our history. Faith groups played a crucial role in ending slavery, racial discrimination, and in the establishment of our democracy itself, among many other things.

Catholics have in recent decades been considered doubly sectarian: just one more private religious association with the added complication of being tied to leaders who wear funny clothes and speak odd languages in a foreign country.

Lots of Catholics today have themselves internalized this attitude. I notice many of our co-religionists are quoted now as saying they don’t pay much attention to the pope or even our own bishops. For them, the Church is, at most, whatever they happen to like that’s going on in the local parish.

Most of the problems we have seen over Catholics criticizing their own Church for getting involved in politics reflect this thoroughly un-Catholic view that churches are really supposed to have no large public role, that they are all supposed to be just sects (unless we are talking about vague aspirations like avoiding conflict, helping the poor, and feeling good about ourselves).

It’s not only non-Catholics now, but Catholics themselves who run through a familiar litany. Opposed to abortion? Don’t have one. Regard homosexual relationships as not the equivalent of marriage? Hate is not a family value. Think experimenting on human embryos cheapens human life? Sorry, religious dogmas can’t stand in the way of science.

These are clever rhetorical ripostes, too clever – and too superficial. But they reflect the deeper disconnect of lots of our own people now. It’s not just the treason of the clerks in events like the recent embarrassments of Notre Dame and Georgetown. It’s a growing number of Catholics who do not realize that, in their sojourn in America, they have not moved into a larger world, as they think, but shifted allegiances from a universal church to a North American sect.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His latest book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West.

(c) 2009 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights write to: info at thecatholicthing dot org

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Comments (13)Add Comment
Again, The Choice
written by William Dennis, April 20, 2009
Lately, I have been watching the the "Tudors" on Showtime on Sunday evenings. In the most recent episode, Charles Brandon, Lord Suffolk, was ordered by Henry VIII to punish rebels in York for wanting a return to their Catholic ways. No doubt he was a loyal fellow and had some qualms of conscience as he said to his wife, "I have no choice, he is my king." He killed men, women and children. Years earlier someone said while waiting for the ax to fall, "I die the king's good servant but God's first."
No sects
written by Josiah, April 20, 2009
"Traditionalism", improperly understood, can also lead to sectarian beliefs wholly inconsistent with Catholic tradition. Not only are issues of life (opposition to abortion, homosexuality, embryonic research life) part of orthodox Catholic belief, so are the alleviation of poverty, the elimination of racism, opposition to capital punishment, high standards for defining "just war", fighting institutional anti-Semitism, etc.
Catholic First!
written by debby, April 20, 2009
it's kind of funny, no sad, needing to even bring this up. i feel sorry for those people who equate being Catholic as Catholicism being their religion. to me, being Catholic is BEING. it is who i am. just like belonging to God, Father, Son & Holy Spirit--without Whom i can do or be nothing. Being Catholic makes me a better human being, American or otherwise. The Catholic Faith is air to my supernatural lungs; water it down by any means of dilution, politics, to be accepted, etc & i'll drown.
written by Dana, April 20, 2009
I'm sorry, Robert Royal, for responding first to a commentor rather than praising you for such a fine article. In many ways we are approaching a societal situation similar to one the early Christians faced. How do we act morally in a society that lauds (and even institutionalizes through law) immorality? What choices will we make when the government demands that we bow before the false god of tolerance--a tolerance that would have us abandon all moral standards?
written by Benjamin Harnwell, April 20, 2009
"I die the king's good servant but God's first"

St. Thomas More
Catholic priest
written by Fr. Kloster, April 20, 2009
I'm sorry to disagree with Josiah. I did my thesis on the traditional stance of the Church in favor of capital punishment. Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas agree. A man faced with death is far more likely to repent. I've seen it as a hospital chaplain for 14 years. Those faced with impending death are far more likely to make a good confession than those who think they have more time here on earth.
To Fr. Kostler
written by Josiah, April 21, 2009
Pope John Paul the Great wrote in his encylical, Evangelium Vitae, the capital punishment is defensible "in cases of absolute necessity, in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today, however, as a result of steady immprovement in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically nonexistent." This is the Magesterium's current teaching, through which history and tradition are appropriately interpreted.
written by Gary, April 21, 2009
Typical Catholic misunderstanding of Evangelicals. Jesus was not politically active because he knew that it would derail the the church. The Vatican has always been a political machine and not the Church that Christ built. So the article should say Catholicism a cult deceiving people for 2000 years.
A universal church
written by Jeannine, April 21, 2009
If I did not believe that the Catholic Church teaches what is true and real, I would not be a Catholic. Catholic first, American second! Departing from reality and truth can only bring harm. Therefore I must hope and pray that my country comes to know truth and reality.
written by Austin Ruse, April 21, 2009

The Church allows for the death penalty in certain circumstances. It never allows for abortion.

The reason the Church will never take the death penalty off the table is that there is no guarantee that even in our advanced society we will not be in a state of nature in 100 years just as She recognizes that many parts of the world are in a state of nature now. And the Church also recognizes that those in prison are also our brothers and need protection, too
The beginning of the end
written by God, Corps, and Country, April 27, 2009
Catholic comes before any other marker in your life. As Robert said - dead is a long time. We are currently seeing that the Church will easily outlive our country. We, as a country have begun the "slide" down the slippery slope of relativism. America suffers from having too much. Too much of everything good eventually creates an entitlement attitude, which is what we now suffer from. I have never worried about my childrens future in America....I do now.
written by angelo, June 03, 2009
One needs to obey the laws of the land and those of God. Period! GOD FIRST! The laws, as set by God, are forged in stone and there is no debating them, and when those laws are in conflict with those of the Nation, it is the Supreme Right of any Individual to express his dissention with the Law Makers. NO ONE must disobey any of the pre-set laws, but Everyone has the RIGHT to propose changes to any law with which one is in discord with, so that everyone will benefit from these changes....
written by Mike, June 06, 2013
There seems to be a couple of rather awkward pairings here that are not necessarily accurate. It's true that some Catholics in America have taken on a distinctly American identity that is readily distinguished from an old-school European one, and this may or may not entail liberalism, it may or may not entail heterodoxy. Also, it may or may not entail a lack of engagement in society at large. It may or may not entail a reluctance to go and share and grow the Church. There's a lot of that to go around for everyone, and it's not exclusive to a certain kind of Catholic nor is there a particular Catholic type that is free from it.

This American identity is a natural thing that happens. Italian Catholics have their own little identity, and so do Polish Catholics. Mexican Catholics, too, and Filipino. That doesn't equate to being like a sect, nor does it automatically equate to inauthenticity or heterodoxy, which is what I saw being implied here. It's just something that happens when certain people are around each other a lot. And low key, it can definitely be something that happens when Catholics engage America. Want to know how you retain a Catholic identity and barely acquire any sort of identity from the society and culture in which you live? Withdraw completely so it can't touch you, and definitely homeschool your kids unless you can get a good nun who teaches all the right things.

And yet somehow, it's Notre Dame and Georgetown that are- what, acting like they're sect-oriented? If anything, the relationships described herein are the inverse of how these things really work.

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