Dawson and Americanism

by on May 18, 2015

The question at the heart of the Americanist Controversy was simple: is it possible for a person to be both a good American citizen and a faithful Catholic? Can someone living on the shores of the New World be a patriotic citizen who is obedient to the Constitution and loyal to the Pope in Rome? Americanism has been an incredibly divisive issue in the United States ever since the country was founded. Protestant England was certainly no friend to Catholicism and the colonies were, at best, merely tolerant of its practice (and its practitioners). Could American Catholics be good assets in the American Revolution? Which side would they support in the Spanish-American war? Can we elect a Catholic president? What will it do to the moral fiber of our nation if we allow the Catholics to freely build churches and spread their faith?

The Americanist controversy has never really gone away. In the 1928 presidential election, Al Smith and his campaign were torn to shreds by its weight. Anti-Catholic Americans tried, to no avail, to do the same thing to John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election and to countless other candidates, corporations, and organizations up and down American history. It seems, however, that as culture evolves so does this issue. Not only is there skepticism about a Catholic’s patriotism, but now about whether he is “one of us” at all. The “new Americanism” is spreading even outside of America and finds society asking itself whose side Catholics are on. Their outdated moral code makes it impossible for them contribute to and help bring about the progress every non-Catholic sees as inevitable. So the new question is posed, “Can a person be both a good Catholic and a good member of human society in general?”

But then, with even a brief survey of history and culture, we remember that this is not a new question at all and, if we really believe all that Jesus said about the way that he and his kingdom will be accepted on earth, the question is not all that surprising. The world has been wondering forever whether or not those Christians should be kept around or not. The Jewish leaders didn’t seem to think so when they handed Jesus over to death, and until Constantine the Romans tended to agree. With very few exceptions, wherever Christianity goes and has flourished it was at first rejected by those who represented what was good and decent and true; in other words, the “culture guards” were always the first to put a kabash on the preaching of Christ and his Church.

Catholic convert and historian Christopher Dawson made a career out of analyzing the connections between the Church and the cultures it finds itself in. The problems, of course, died down after Christianity was legalized by Constantine and the Edict of Milan, and Christianity flourished in Europe throughout the Middle Ages. The leaders of the Church, it’s true, got a little big for their britches and so the Reformation took place (yes, that’s pretty simplistic, I know. Maybe one day I’ll write about the Reformation but today is not that day). After about 1000 years of no one daring to question the Church’s authority, suddenly it became the thing to do. It’s no surprise that movements like Humanism and the Enlightenment were not far behind. Dawson argues that “Humanism, the Enlightenment and the modern conceptions of ‘the democratic way of life’ and the ‘one world’ all presuppose the same idea of a single universal ideal of civilization toward which all men and peoples must move.” I’m not in the business of writing about what the “one world” and “single…ideal” would have looked like to the humanists, but today we are engulfed in campaigns for “equal rights” and “justice for all” and “civil liberties” being carried on by people who, to my mind, aren’t really sure what terms like “liberty” and “justice” really mean. Is it their fault they have no idea what they’re fighting for? Or that justice, giving the other his due, is not actually achieved by stomping out the rights and the voice of the opposition? It seems to me that the fault falls on those humanist thinkers and “enlightened men” who fought to establish the “dictatorship of relativism”, that your justice is yours and my justice is mine, and yet somehow arrived at the conclusion that a world without objective truth, especially moral truths, could somehow ever achieve a “single universal ideal of civilization.”

Dawson argued that human cultures, at least Western cultures, are “essentially the children of time and history.” As human culture increases the volume on the beat of its own drum, ignoring moral compasses and nature, and thereby ignoring Christ, “they become confined to the human restrictions and laws of the artificial social world that they create.” He notes that it is “the great paradox of civilization that every victory over nature, every increase of social control, also increases the burden of humanity.” Every new social advance, every technological gadget, and every piece of anthropological progress benefits quite well the group or groups they were intended to benefit. The pyramids in Egypt still stand today as a testament to human power, but “while we marvel we are appalled at the suffering and the waste of human labor…For at the heart of the pyramid there is nothing but the corpse of a despot.” Egypt and Rome were great social powers in their respective heydays, but as each reached what was believed to be the height of their rule they each began to crumble. Says Dawson: “For whenever a culture reaches its culmination of power and social control…it breaks down under its own weight which has become too heavy for human nature to endure.” We can shirk nature in our formulation of social ideals, but we cannot shirk it from real life. The Incarnate Christ, and thus all of Christian thought, is rooted in nature.  Getting rid of human nature, including objective moral truth which is grounded in that nature, might seem to be of benefit for the sake of this or that sector of society but it is that very nature we tried to squash that will come and squash us.

Society will not be transformed for the better by the court’s approval of this or that program of social or political reform. It just won’t. That’s what Rome thought and that’s what Egypt thought, and both of these great empires are now merely the means by which we fill our museums. Society is transformed when Christ is present, indeed infused, into it. It is the job of the Church to reveal “the existence of a new spiritual dimension” by “bringing the light of hope to those who sat in darkness and in the shadow of death.” Christ is this hope! Culture is a child of time and history, and we have a God who became incarnate to walk among us in the context of time and history, not to burden us with social constructs and progressive rhetoric and pursuits of justice, but to give us hope. And that is our mission: go to the ends of the world to give hope to the nations and bring them the message of truth and prosperity which will only find its fulfillment in the world yet to come. “Everything depends on whether the Christians of the new age are equal to their mission.” Are we equal to this mission? Are we ready to face culture head on for the sake of the Name and the Church of Christ? I hope so.

Now this:
“The men who converted the warrior peoples of the North and laid the foundations of medieval culture had no conception of the new world that they were creating and no belief in the temporal future of civilization. But they were men of hope, as they were men of faith, and therefore their work endured for a thousand years and bore rich fruit in every field of cultural activity.”