Catholicism and Americanism (II)

Portrait of John Locke, by Godfrey Kneller

3. Gratia tollit naturam?

Professor Frederick Wilhelmsen, an attentive and intelligent observer of his own country and open to the world, which we could call “European” (4), was able, at the end of the 1950s, to draw a portrait of the “American soul” through his singular experience of time, space and nature.

The American sense of time is structured as a project and, consequently, spatially symbolized horizontally, as a frontier to be crossed, within a non-sacramental vision of the world. This is in contrast to a present understood as a condensation of a tradition that must be lived vertically, within a world that is a sacrament that leads us to its Creator (5). In this disjunction lies the difference between the Protestant, especially the Calvinist, and the Catholic conception.

The United States, therefore, is closely dependent on the Protestant ethic, reinforced by the consequences of the technological revolution and pragmatism. However, it lives with the paradox of the failure of the Protestant faith while retaining its values (6).

Hence the tension, psychological and not necessarily doctrinal, suffered by Catholics in the United States. They must consciously affirm the primacy of a contemplation that they are forced to deny in their daily life. This also explains the lack of an observable relationship (with exceptions such as that of the Jesuit Murray) between Catholic theology in the United States and the American experience (7).


4. Omne regnum in se ipsum divisum…

According to a somewhat common narrative, the founders of the United States created a “limited government” according to the canons of the English Enlightenment. The inspirer, then, could be none other than John Locke, oracle of the forces that promoted the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 for the benefit of the Whig oligarchy and for the Protestant dynastic succession, against the Stuarts, who were considered too close to Catholicism and inclined to strengthen royal power at the expense of the freedom to manage their properties (8). The same John Locke who will decisively influence the institutionalization of the American Revolution through, for example, framers of the Constitution like Madison, who will adopt some of his main concepts such as religious tolerance and the separation of powers (9).

But from Locke they took something even more important, contractarianism, which, in turn, suited a situation in which a new political society had to be modeled, which could not arise from a concrete tradition (which was rejected as a principle, although it could not fail to function partially in practice), but from the minds of some of the founders. The Constitution, as an expression of this contract, thus mixed elements from Christian tradition (especially its Calvinist version) with others from the English Enlightenment, and forged an instrument to resolve fundamental problems “not by submitting them to a tribunal representing the natural law in its universal and ultimate character, but by keeping in tension the various interests of the people […] so that no faction claiming to represent the truth of the law, the very essence of the law, should be able to subject the nation to its own will and its particular ideology!”(10). In short, a mixture of constitutionalism and legal positivism.

Sociology comes here to confirm what both philosophy and history have taught us: the American republic was conceived in hatred of “monarchical despotism” and according to the optimistic vision (very typical of the eighteenth century) that, once political ambition was deprived of the means to influence the rights of citizens, it would only be necessary to multiply interest groups so that their natural concurrence would hinder the ambitions of any one of them. It is worth noting the preference for “sectionalism” (or fragmentation in equality) that precedes the implementations of the American mentality: the separation of powers, federalism, the equality of churches that are also separated from the State, and the promotion of pressure groups. From a political point of view, the balance of powers, the presidential regime, its “control” by bicameralism, the independence of the judiciary and the ingenious role reserved for the Supreme Court (a kind of collegial monarch) were the basis of a system elaborated by the founders. Today it has been significantly modified by the increase in the powers of the President (with a corresponding decrease in the importance of Congress) and the vast bureaucracy with which he surrounds himself and which, with the help of the Supreme Court, crushes the liberties of the States. But not least because of factors such as the hollowing out of voluntary associations and even political parties by pressure groups (initiating a manifest process of feudalization), the homogenizing massification of cultural life, and the supremacy of the media dedicated to “reality-fiction” (11)

(To be continued)

(4) The caution is due to the discourse that opposes Christendom and Europe, understanding the latter as opposed to the former, which in the centuries following the Protestant pseudo-Reformation would have been reduced (mainly) to the Church of Rome and the Hispanic Monarchy. I have developed it on several occasions, citing the most representative authors (Francisco Elías de Tejada, Rafael Gambra, Álvaro d’Ors or Francisco Canals, among others). Cf. for example, “Hispanidad contra Europa o como Europa”, in Danilo Castellano (ed.), Europa: definizioni e confini, Naples, Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane, 2007, pp. 61 ff.

(5) Frederick D. WILHELMSEN, “Las raíces del protestantismo americano,” Nuestro Tiempo (Pamplona), No. 64 (1959), pp. 404 ff.

(6) Cf. id., “El alma norteamericana de hoy”, Madrid, O crece o muere, 1960.

(7) Id. “Las raíces del protestantismo americano”, loc. cit., pp. 413- 414.

(8) This enriched Whig property-owning oligarchy is the one that, having ruined the Tory gentry, would end up becoming Tory, according to a fatal law that has been fulfilled everywhere. England, strictly speaking, is an oligarchy presented as monarchical, and therefore, according to Donoso Cortés, “the decoy of all constitutional monarchies”. Cf. Francisco CANALS, Mundo histórico y reino de Dios, Barcelona, Scire, 2005, pp. 82-84.

(9) Cf. John C. RAO, “L’illusion américaniste,” Catholica (Paris), no. 116 (2012), pp. 23-24.

(10) Frederick D. WILHELMSEN, «El derecho natural en el mundo anglosajón del siglo XX», en AA.VV., El derecho natural hispánico. Actas de las I Jornadas Hispánicas de Derecho Natural, Madrid, Escelicer, 1973, p. 220.

(11) Cf. Thomas MOLNAR, “Le modèle défiguré. L’Amérique de Tocqueville à Carter” (1978), Spanish version by Óscar Barahona and Uxoa Doyhamboure, Mexico City, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1980, pp. 71-72 and 84-86.

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