Church, State, and American Democracy

  • 0/5 Stars
Course Level:
600 or above
Course Length:
14 weeks

"The first truth to which the American Proposition makes appeal is stated in...the Declaration of Independence. It is a truth that lies beyond politics; it imparts to politics a fundamental human meaning. I mean the sovereignty of God over nations as well as over individual men. This is the principle that radically distinguishes the conservative Christian tradition of America from the Jacobin laicist tradition of Continental Europe. The Jacobin tradition proclaimed the autonomous reason of man to be the first and the sole principle of political organization. In contrast, the first article of the American political faith is that the political community, as a form of free and ordered human life, looks to the sovereignty of God as to the first principle of its organization."

--John Courtney Murray, S.J., We Hold These Truths

Course Description

This course pursues the question of the correct relation between Church and state (the theologico-political problem) through a Catholic analysis of the American constitutional order, as well as of the crisis into which it has entered. This will primarily be an exercise in natural law realism grounded in the achievement of Saint Thomas Aquinas, especially as brought to bear on the dialectic of modernity by the First and Second Vatican Councils and extended by Pope John Paul II. Themes that must be taken up for the resolution of the theologico-political problem include the distinction between state and society; the distinction between, and interdependence of, faith and reason; religion as a natural human virtue; the nature of authority; the proper role of the laity; and the difference between the American and French revolutions.


The call to holiness can only be heeded in and through striving, within the rhythms of sacramental grace, to be an excellent human being. But human excellence is inseparable from being a virtuous citizen, for man is a social/political animal. The American Catholic bears a moral responsibility to seek to rejuvenate the American experiment in ordered liberty, especially given the urgency of saving massive numbers of innocent lives consumed daily by the culture of death.

The arc tracing the glory and the crisis of the American Republic can be plotted by the following two quotes, which indicate a Jacobinization of an original American founding order steeped in (natural law) realism. We have gone from intelligently attending to the claims of reality to nominalist/voluntarist relativism:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...."

--The Declaration of Independence

"At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life."

--Planned Parenthood v. Casey (in upholding a "right" to abortion)

Was this outcome inevitable? Only if one takes the French and American revolutions as basically the same. But Tocqueville showed that the deep religiosity of the American people gave, and continues to give, access to an older tradition of metaphysical and moral realism, one rejected outright by the anti-religious party of democracy found in France. So, understanding the current crisis of the American Republic requires a nuanced analysis. John Courtney Murray's thesis is important: the Founders and Framers were formed in a natural law milieu, but one attenuated by the Enlightenment contractarian thought that secularized natural law, limiting it to a natural right divorced from Christian wisdom. Natural law truths nevertheless underlie the American regime of constitutional supremacy and limited government. But the ambiguities of the beginning have been exploited by an elite that seeks to inject anti-religious ideology into the American bloodstream, as if the American Revolution were not different in kind from the French. (This has happened especially since the Progressive era, which was deeply conditioned by the brutality of the Civil War.) Murray notes,

"Another idiom [than natural law] now prevails. The possibility was inherent from the beginning. To the early American theorists and politicians the tradition of natural law was an inheritance. This was its strength; this was at the same time its weakness, especially since a subtle alteration of the tradition had already commenced. For a variety of reasons the intellectualist idea of law as reason had begun to cede to the voluntarist idea of law as will. ...Seeds of dissolution were already present in the ancient heritage as it reached the shores of America."

The future of the American Republic depends on a re-appropriation of the natural law principles of the Founding, but now consciously eliminating the attenuations stemming from contractarian voluntarism. The moral relativism that drives the culture of death can only be surmounted by the realism of attending to natures and their intrinsic dynamisms. This realism is still preserved in a popular form as a vital force in the American body politic in the Christian religiosity of the much-maligned "religious right."

The continued intellectual deepening of this vital force is a particular responsibility of the American Catholic. There is always a Catholic moment in America--but especially in this time of crisis--because Catholics have a well-articulated tradition of natural law analysis. Without this realism, democracy will be lost in the mists of ideology so deadly for the most powerless human life. Only the metaphysical and moral realism classically elaborated by Saint Thomas Aquinas can ground a critique of ideology fully adequate to the task of overcoming the culture of death. Only the Church's defense of both faith and reason can preserve and cultivate the immense promise of the United States of America, the most modern nation on earth--a nation still called to accomplish great things in history.

Christian wisdom is needed if America is to continue to advance the humanizing possibilities of modernity rather than succumb to the dark side of the dialectic of modernity: the pulverizing assault on the human person. Rather than the totalitarianisms of the East, this dark side in the West is driven by the elite-orchestrated consumerist desire underlying the culture of death, which bears an "egalitarianian" ressentiment against natural difference. In rejecting realism and clinging to relativism, this secularizing ideology denies the intrinsic dignity of those powerless human individuals who come up short according to the utilitarian calculus of the elite. This ideology denies the intrinsic meaningfulness of human dignity, of moral norms, of sexual difference, and of family life: the very bases of social life. In the face of the present crisis, as ever before, only Christian wisdom can unleash the greatness of the United States of America, "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth"

--President Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address.

Basic Coordinates

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

--The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States

"Fundamental to Christianity is the distinction between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God, in other words, the distinction between Church and State, or, as the Second Vatican Council puts it, the autonomy of the temporal sphere. The State may not impose religion, yet it must guarantee religious freedom and harmony between the followers of different religions. For her part, the Church, as the social expression of Christian faith, has a proper independence and is structured on the basis of her faith as a community which the State must recognize. The two spheres are distinct, yet always interrelated."

--Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas est

"This Vatican synod declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. Such freedom consists in this, that all should have such immunity from coercion by individuals, or by groups, or by any human power, that no one should be forced to act against his conscience in religious matters, nor prevented from acting according to his conscience, whether in private or in public, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits. The synod further declares that the right to religious freedom is firmly based on the dignity of the human person as this is known from the revealed word of God and from reason itself."

--Dignitatis humanae, the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on Religious Freedom

"The same holy mother Church holds and teaches that God, the principal and end of all things, can be known with certainty from the consideration of created things, by the natural power of human reason.... [T]here is a twofold order of knowledge, distinct not only as regards its source, but also as regards its object. With regard to the source, we know at the one level by natural reason, at the other level by divine faith. With regard to the object, besides those things to which natural reason can attain, there are proposed for our belief mysteries hidden in God which, unless they are divinely revealed, are incapable of being known. ...Even though faith is above reason, there can never be any real disagreement between faith and reason, since it is the same God who reveals the mysteries and infuses faith, and who has endowed the human mind with the light of reason. ... Not only can faith and reason never be at odds with one another but they mutually support each other, for on the one hand right reason demonstrates the foundations of the faith and, illuminated by its light, develops the science of divine things; on the other hand, faith delivers reason from errors and protects it and furnishes it with knowledge of many kinds."

--Dei Filius, the First Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith (1870)

"There are two, august Emperor, by which this world is governed, the sacred authority [auctoritas] of priests and the royal power [potestas] know, most clement Son, that though you have received the power to govern mankind, nonetheless, the religious sphere, in matters concerning the reception and correct administration of the sacraments, you must submit rather than rule, because in these matters you must follow their judgment and not try to bend them to your will."

--Pope Gelasius, "Letter Twelve to Emperor Anastasius," 494

"The spiritual power and the secular power both derive from the divine power; consequently, the secular power is subordinated to the spiritual power only to the extent that it has been subjected by God, which is to say, in what concerns the salvation of souls; in this realm it is better to obey the spiritual power than the secular. But in what concerns the political good (bonum civile), it is better to obey the secular power than the spiritual, as it is said in Matthew 22:21: 'Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's.'"

--Saint Thomas Aquinas, In II Sent. D. 44 expositio textus, ad 4

Course Texts

  • Centesimus annus, Pope John Paul II
  • Church and State in Early Christianity, Hugo Rahner
  • Democracy in America (trans. Mansfield and Winthrop), Alexis de Tocqueville
  • Evangelium vitae, Pope John Paul II
  • The Federalist (ed. Carey and McClellan)
  • Fides et ratio, Pope John Paul II
  • The Dialectics of Secularization, Joseph Ratzinger and J?rgen Habermas
  • The Laity and the Life of the Counsels, Hans Urs von Balthasar
  • Man and the State, Jacques Maritain
  • Natural Rights and the Right to Choose, Hadley Arkes
  • On Law, Morality, and Politics, Thomas Aquinas
  • Philosophy of Democratic Government, Yves Simon
  • Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, Pierre Manent
  • We Hold These Truths, John Courtney Murray


  • 10%: participation, attentiveness
  • 50%: weekly one-page writing assignments
  • 40%: final 10-page paper

Schedule of Classes

Introduction: Freedom, American Democracy, and the Ends of Political Life

Week 1
  • Pope John Paul II, "John Paul II on the American Experiment" and "Letter to the National Prayer Breakfast"

Thomistic Wisdom and Catholic Modernity

Week 2
  • Russell Hittinger, "Introduction to Modern Catholicism"
  • Aristotle, Book I, chapters 1 and 2, of The Politics
  • Saint Thomas Aquinas, On Law, Morality, and Politics: 10-105; 190-210
  • Jean-Pierre Torrell, "Without Friends, Who Would Want to Live?"
  • Mary Keys, "Aquinas's Two Pedagogies: Human Law and the Good of Moral Virtue"

Faith and Reason and the Theologico-Political Problem

Week 3
  • Vatican I, Dei Filius
  • Vatican II, Dignitatis humanae
  • Pope John Paul II, Fides et ratio
  • Ernest Fortin: "On the Presumed Medieval Origin of Individual Rights"; "The Regime of Separatism: Theoretical Considerations on the Separation of Church and State"; "From Rerum novarum to Centesimus annus: Continuity or Discontinuity?"; "The Trouble with Catholic Social Thought"
  • Pierre Manent: "Europe and the Theologico-Political Problem"; "Christianity and Democracy"
Week 4
  • Hugo Rahner, Church and State in Early Christianity, pp. xi-xviii; 1-21; 39-79; 133-160; 185-203; 225-245; 295-300

The American Constitutional Order

Week 5
  • John Locke, excerpts from chapters 2, 7, 8, and 9 of The Second Treatise of Government
  • Alexander Hamilton, "The Farmer Refuted"
  • The Declaration of Independence
  • The Constitution of the United States of America
  • The Federalist, nos. 1, 9, 10, 15-17, 37, 39, 47, 49, 51, 78
  • Paul Rahe, "Between Trust and Distrust: The Federalist and the Emergence of Modern Republican Constitutionalism"
Week 6
  • Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1: pp. 3-15; 53-55; 165-172; 220-265; 274-307
  • John Witherspoon, "The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men"
  • John Adams, excerpt from "Thoughts on Government"
  • Excerpt from the Massachusetts Constitution
  • President George Washington, Thanksgiving Day Proclamation (1789)and "Letter to the Hebrew Congregation"
  • Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and the Danbury Baptist Association
  • Michael Novak, "A Religious Theory of Rights"
Week 7
  • Pierre Manent, Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy
  • George Weigel, "Catholicism and Democracy: Parsing the Other Twentieth-Century Revolution"
Week 8
  • Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 2: pp. 399-428; 479-493; 496-524; 535-541; 544-545; 558-578; 639-676
  • Richard John Neuhaus, "A New Order of Religious Freedom"

The Course of the American Republic and the Struggle between Natural Law and Secularist Reason

Week 9
  • President Abraham Lincoln:
  • Fragment on the Dred Scott Case [1857]
  • Speech at Chicago, July 10, 1858 (excerpt)
  • First Debate with Stephen A. Douglas at Ottawa, Ill., August 21, 1858 (excerpt)
  • Seventh Debate with Stephen A. Douglas, at Alton, Ill., October 15, 1858 (excerpt)
  • Speech at Cincinnati, September 17, 1859 (excerpt)
  • Speech in Independence Hall, Philadelphia, February 22, 1861 (excerpt)
  • Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 1863
  • Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865
  • Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., "Natural Law"
  • Excerpt from Dickerson v. United States
  • Pope John Paul II, Centesimus annus 23-52
  • Christopher Wolfe, "Thomistic Natural Law and the American Natural Law Tradition"
  • J?rgen Habermas and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Dialectics of Secularization, pp. 21-80

The Abortion Regime: Mortal Threat to the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty

Week 10
  • Excerpt from Planned Parenthood v. Casey
  • Pope John Paul II, Evangelium vitae, introduction and chapter 1
  • Hadley Arkes, Natural Right and the Right to Choose, 1-86; 196-221

Thomistic Social Analysis, the Universal Call to Holiness, and the Renewal of American Democracy

Week 11
  • Pope Leo XIII, Testem benevolentiae
  • James Hitchcock, "Americanism: The 'Phantom Heresy' Revisited"
  • John Courtney Murray, We Hold These Truths: 1-86; 101-122; 267-300
Week 12


Week 13
  • Kenneth Craycraft Jr., "Religion as Moral Duty and Civic Right: Dignitatis Humanae on Religious Liberty"
  • John Hittinger, "Jacques Maritain and Yves R. Simon's Use of Thomas Aquinas in Their Defense of Liberal Democracy"
  • Yves Simon, Philosophy of Democratic Government, pp. 1-143
Week 14
  • Jacques Maritain, Man and the State, pp. 1-27; 54-187
Week 15
  • President George W. Bush, Second Inaugural Address
  • Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Laity and the Life of the Counsels, pp. 41-102; 162-243; 258-264
Week 16

Paper due

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