Is the American Founding Compatible With a Catholic Vision of the Human Person?

COMMENTARY: A new book on America’s founding highlights that the stakes are high, and, as the nightly news makes clear, America is up for grabs.

(photo: Register illustration using book cover)

What happened on July 4, 1776? 

The basic factual explanation is that the Continental Congress in Philadelphia approved what we call the Declaration of Independence.

What is the meaning of July 4, 1776?

Today, that question is up for grabs.

It has been called our nation’s birthday, when the Founders “brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Or did they?

Since last year, The New York Times has been pushing the “1619 Project,” a revisionist history that portrays “the birth of a nation” not in 1776 but some 157 years earlier, when the first African slaveswere brought to Virginia.  America was not “conceived in liberty” but in racist bondage, the “original sin” that warps America’s soul from Jamestown to Minneapolis.

Did the Founding Fathers let slavery persist because — as Ben Franklin puts it in the film 1776, they were “men, no more, no less, trying to get a nation started against greater odds than a more generous God would have allowed?” Or was it just because they were wealthy men, intent on keeping slaves for their prosperity?

These issues will, for sure, be litigated in the months and years ahead. So, too, however, will the compatibility of the Founding with Catholic foundations.

Was America the brilliant fruit of five dozen Founders, who declared “free and independent states” on just the basis of select Enlightenment thinkers like Locke? Or did their “truths” — the equality of man, the inalienability of certain rights, their identification to include “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” — have a more ancient provenance?

Is the American Founding compatible with a Catholic vision of the human person? 

This argument gained intensity in recent decades. Thinkers like George Weigel and Michael Novak so tended to stress the compatibility of the Catholic vision and the American Project that one almost thinks the Founders are — to bowdlerize Rahner — “anonymous Catholics.” Father Richard Neuhaus employed this compatibility to suggest that, as the “civic religion” of “mainline Protestantism” ran out of gas in the 1960s and ’70s, a “Catholic moment” might pick up the American Project’s ball. History reveals that, for various reasons, Catholics fumbled.

Other thinkers, like Patrick Deneen, Rod Dreher and Michael Hanby, are pushing back, arguing that the American Project (indeed, the whole idea of modern “liberal democracy”) is inherently incompatible with a Catholic vision of man. Today’s “rights” of unlimited autonomy, choice and libertarian freedom (or perhaps license) are simply the natural logic of foundations the Founders laid, inexorably working themselves out today as American society runs out of even the Judeo-Christian fumes on which it has coasted and which masked the implications of the American Founding.

Robert Reilly takes strong exception. His new book, America on Trial, argues the case for the harmony between the Founders’ and a Christian, even Catholic, vision.

Are America’s flaws mendable or are they so built in that reconstruction, not renovation, is their sole remedy? Can we “defend the Founding and show how deeply [it] was rooted in the Judeo-Christian and natural law tradition” — as Reilly claims? Or is “the Founding based on a lie about humanity, a false anthropology” — a view he attributes to Deneen and Hanby — a deadly fruit like a “poison pill with a time-release formula” whose victims we are?

How we answer is important for three reasons. First, can a Catholic really love the novus ordo seculorum that arose in 1776, or merely tolerate it? Second, are America’s flaws accidental (making them fixable) or built in, which “eliminates any hope of recovery?” The corollary is: Can we hope or must we despair? Third, our answers bring us back to questions of Catholic allegiance and moral integrity: “Can one concomitantly be a good person and a good American?”

The last question is a two-edged sword, for both Catholics in the U.S. and their opponents. Catholics in the United States must ask, as some of our “pro-choice” co-religionist politicians seem to think: Does being a good public servant mean being a bad Catholic? Nor is it just limited to politics: Must any “good American” affirm that same-sex “marriage” is an essential part of American liberty? If so, how does he square that with a faith that says homosexual activity is “intrinsically” wrong? And if that Catholic holds mental reservations even after our civil institutions “correct” him, should not his opponents expect the full weight of American law and culture to restrain his “un-American” opinions? 

These are the stakes.

Reilly argues that these dilemmas are not just false but unnecessary. He insists that the Founders did not cull their political insights — especially the Declaration’s central assertion about “unalienable rights” that come from a “Creator” and not man — just from contemporary Enlightenment thinkers but from a long philosophical tradition whose roots reach to Athens, Rome and Jerusalem.

If that’s true — and Reilly makes powerful arguments it is — it also forces us to reckon with modern biases, including the prejudice that a millennium of history, from the fall of Rome to the rise of the Renaissance, was one big “Dark Ages.” 

What the Founders took from antiquity, they carried through medieval England — Catholic medieval England. Their commitments to the rights of persons; to government by consent of the governed (with roots in medieval orders like the Franciscans and Dominicans); to law as rooted in reason; and against unbridled divine right of kings were all part of their English heritage that was ultimately … Catholic.

Reilly admits to problems, the greatest of which is the long-term mischief nominalism wrought in Western thought.  Largely the work of an Englishman, William of Ockham, it shifted law from an act of divine reason to an act of divine will and delinked it from objective reality, so that “the law is what God (or the judges) say it is” (Oliver Wendell Holmes, adapted). Reilly knows that nominalism was largely baked into Protestant DNA by its theology, but makes great efforts to say that Richard Hooker mitigated its baneful effects in Anglicanism and that the Founders were profoundly influenced by him.

Reilly concludes that America’s flaws are mendable. To envision the Founding à la Deneen et al. as utter depravity is a “suicidal blunder” that concedes America to its Founders’ opponents, “thereby accelerating the very decline they decry.” 

A provocative book that reads exceptionally well, it requires reading because, as Reilly insists, the stakes are high, and, as the nightly news makes clear, America is up for grabs.

Register correspondent John M. Grondelski writes from Falls Church, Virginia. 

All views herein are exclusively his.





A Defense of the Founding

By Robert R. Reilly

Ignatius, 2020

366 pages, $27.95 (online discounts available)

To order: or (800) 651-1531