Catholicism and the American Founding


Spirit of ’76 by Archibald MacNeal Willard, 1875.
Spirit of ’76 by Archibald MacNeal Willard, 1875. (photo: Wikipedia)

There are two ways to look at Catholicism and the founding of the United States of America. The first, and most obvious, would be to inquire about the actual participation of Catholics in the founding. The second, which is the focus of this article, is to view the gifts the Catholic Church gave to the American founding long before there was a U.S.A.

A word about the first before going on to the second: It surely is worth knowing about Catholics who participated in the founding, precisely because nearly all historical treatments of our country’s origins give short shrift to Catholics. You may — or may not — have heard of Charles Carroll, the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence (and, incidentally, the signer who outlived all the rest); or Constitutional Convention delegates Thomas FitzSimmons and Daniel Carroll (Charles’ cousin), the only two Catholics who signed the Constitution; or Commodore John Barry, who distinguished himself in the Revolution’s sea battles and was picked in 1794 by George Washington himself to head the newly created U.S. Navy. That Catholics could rise so high is more amazing if one takes into account the rather severe anti-Catholic bias in the colonies at the time.

The first gift is the separation of church and state. Americans, I think, are sometimes under the impression that we invented this distinction with the writing of our First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …” The truth is, however, that it was the Church herself who invented it — and did it many centuries before the American founding.

In the pagan Roman Empire, as in all pagan states, religious and political power were fused, with the priests serving the aims of emperors. In fact, the emperor was the chief priest. Against this, the Church asserted that, for the good of both the church and the state, religious and political power must be kept distinct — and it did so not just while the emperors were pagan, but after they became Christian.

Read the words of Pope Gelasius, written in 496:

For Christ, mindful of human frailty … distinguished between the offices of both powers [i.e., the church and the state] according to their own proper activities and separate dignities, wanting his people to be saved by healthful humility and not carried away again by human pride, so that Christian emperors would need priests for attaining eternal life and priests would avail themselves of imperial regulations in the conduct of temporal affairs. In this fashion, spiritual activity would be set apart from worldly encroachments, and the “soldier of God” (2 Timothy 2:4) would not be involved in secular affairs; while on the other hand he who was involved in secular affairs would not seem to preside over Divine matters. Thus the humility of each order would be preserved, neither being exalted by the subservience of the other, and each profession would be especially fitted for its appropriate functions.

The church and state each has its proper sphere, its own governing structure, its own distinct tasks. Mix up the temporal and spiritual realms and the result is that either the church becomes corrupt by acting like any other worldly political power or the state corrupts the church by trying to use it as a political instrument.

The latter kind of corruption occurred when King Henry VIII declared himself to be “the only Supreme Head on earth of the Church of England, called Anglicana Ecclesia.” The established Church of England was — so complained both Puritans and Catholics in England — merely the national church, the church serving the English nation. It was not the Church charged with making “disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).

In great part, our First Amendment was written with the Church of England in mind: The church must not be a political instrument; it must remain free of political manipulation. (And Catholics like Charles Carroll were even more adamant supporters of the First Amendment’s charge against allowing an established religion, because Catholics were a rather severely persecuted minority in the Protestant-dominated colonies.)

A final, very important word on the gift of church and state: The Church’s understanding of the division of political and religious power was not defined in terms of antagonism. That is, our current view of separation, where the state is an active agent of secularization, driving the church from the public square, is a later aberration of the original distinction between church and state. How that happened is a long story, one too long for us to tell here, but which I treat in detail in my Worshipping the State.

Let’s move on to a second, related gift the Church has given the United States long before its founding — the natural law. To understand the full importance of this gift, and its relationship to the previous one, consider sharia (Islamic law). In Islam, there is no separation of mosque and state, but, rather, there is a fusion of religious and political power. Sharia law is the law, both political and religious at once.

But the Catholic Church distinguished between civil law and canon law, the laws that govern the political realm and the laws that govern the ecclesiastical realm. The laws that govern the political realm were, properly understood, rooted in the natural law, i.e., the law grounded in human nature as such, and hence available to human reason, even aside from Christian Revelation. For this reason, the state can be governed by natural law rather than by ecclesiastical law.

Therefore, both Christians and non-Christians can have a common political foundation. The result is that political life is not grounded in the Bible in the same way that, e.g., Islamic political life is grounded in the Quran. (We must add, however, that neither is political life set up as antagonistic to biblical truths, as it is for today’s radical secularists.)

It is true that the earliest Puritans did, in fact, want to use the Bible as the foundation for political life in America, but the Founders did not choose to follow them. In famously speaking of the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson was displaying the Founders’ choice to build the nation’s political structure on the basis of natural law rather than directly upon Revelation.

Here, there is some significant ambiguity which cannot be ignored. Many among the Founders — such as Charles Carroll — did understand the natural law to be the foundation of civil law for the newly minted American regime. But some held to a confused mixture of ancient natural law and modern natural rights (a confusion that resulted from following the ambiguous English political philosopher John Locke).

Sadly, Jefferson himself was a devotee of Locke. But whatever Jefferson’s own muddled views in this regard, most Founders understood his words to be referring to the natural law.

Natural law, modern natural rights — what’s the difference? While a more detailed account would be necessary to grasp this important distinction — again, see Worshipping the State — one might boil it down to this: Natural law assumes that our created human nature defines our moral good; modern natural right believes that we have a right to whatever we want as long as we don’t physically harm someone else.

Thus, for example, the natural law assumes that marriage is defined heterosexually by the natural fact that male and female are sexually complementary and that no one (either the state or an individual) has an alleged right to redefine it. But for the modern natural right, the desire for homosexuals to marry is a sufficient reason to allow them to redefine marriage and for the state to protect "gay marriage" as a right.

I am not saying that Thomas Jefferson would have approved of "gay marriage," and, in fact, we have every reason to believe he would be appalled by it. But I do think it’s clear that Jefferson didn’t understand the full ramifications of his confusion of ancient natural law with modern natural rights.

But Catholicism does. Indeed, among all the churches that call themselves Christian, the Catholic Church offers the most thoroughly thought-out account of the natural law. It is, therefore, the Catholic Church that, today, can provide the most cogent critique of the deeply entrenched and deeply destructive contemporary notion that we each have a right to define morality in whatever way we prefer. And in providing this critique today, the Catholic Church will prove itself to be a gift that keeps on giving.

Has the Catholic Church been a giver of even more gifts to our founding? Yes, so many that it would take a book to set them out — not a bad future project.

Benjamin Wiker, Ph.D., is a visiting associate professor of theology

at Franciscan University of Steubenville.

He is the author of 11 books, the most recent of which are:

Worshipping the State: How Liberalism Became Our State Religion and

Politicizing the Bible: The Roots of Historical Criticism and the Secularization of Scripture 1300-1700 (with Scott Hahn). His website is

President Donald Trump during his speech at a "Thank You" Tour rally held at the Giant Center in Hershey, Pa.

President Trump: ‘Faith in God’ Helps Unite Nation

In an apparent reference to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and months of demonstrations and civil unrest across several U.S. cities over racial justice issues, Trump said that faith was an important support for civil and national unity.

President Donald Trump during his speech at a "Thank You" Tour rally held at the Giant Center in Hershey, Pa.

President Trump: ‘Faith in God’ Helps Unite Nation

In an apparent reference to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and months of demonstrations and civil unrest across several U.S. cities over racial justice issues, Trump said that faith was an important support for civil and national unity.