John T. McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom: A History. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003.

Reviewed by Thomas W. Jodziewicz
University of Dallas

In Paul Revere’s Ride (1994), David Hackett Fischer suggests that a great difference between the America of Paul Revere and our own is that the earlier America featured a belief in individual responsibility and collective or communal rights while the latter is marked by a tenacious celebration of individual rights and communal responsibility. Revere’s world accented the common good and customary and prescriptive norms, then, while our own moment much prefers the expediency of individual autonomy and personal choice. Or, to put the distinction in more expansive terms: the history of America (and of Western civilization?) has trended toward a more radical individualism, and away from the recognition of, and ready acceptance of, objective and anterior and exterior values and truths. This understanding of American history and the development of human freedom is the context for John T. McGreevy’s extraordinary discussion of the consequent dialogue about freedom between Roman Catholicism, professed publicly by American Catholics (who in turn were also much influenced by European Catholic intellectuals) and non-Catholic American liberals. Two different conceptions of freedom emerge in this too-often unexplored story.

McGreevy begins in the 1840s, with Catholicism already viewed as anti-liberal and anti-human freedom by many Americans. Contemporaries such as the English philosopher, John Stuart Mill, were defining freedom as “an autonomous self, exempt from external restraint.” The Catholic definition of freedom was not only more communal—it was within the constraints and the shelter of family and church that one learned and practiced virtue and moral choice—but also more sensitive to norms external to the self, especially the universal natural law found in the human heart and soul. According to a Catholic writer in 1849: “They say that true liberty is a freedom from right as well as from wrong; we assert that it is freedom only from wrong” (36–37). As McGreevy works his way through significant issues in American life over the next century and a half—slavery and emancipation, education, social and labor questions, free market capitalism, the Spanish Civil War and Catholic support for authoritarian regimes, for example—he offers quite clear descriptions and analyses of the Catholic and emerging liberal positions, emphasizing the oftentimes dissimilar fundamental definitions of freedom.

These positions were not often similar regarding particular public issues until the 1930s, and then during the subsequent generation, as Catholics embraced the New Deal, came around to a support for civil rights for blacks, and enlisted in the anti-communist ranks during the Cold War. Fears of Catholic power and its alleged ongoing assault on American democratic ways were raised during this period by such as Paul Blanchard, but Catholics appeared finally to be acceptable to most of their fellow citizens. The defense of democracy, individual rights, and religious freedom mounted by John Courtney Murray, SJ, and others, seemed to indicate that the tension between Catholic and American was dissipating, if not disappearing entirely.

Perhaps not, however, given Catholic opposition to euthanasia and assisted suicide, contraception, and abortion which were percolating up as rights in the period after 1930, manifestations, according to their supporters, of the continuing development of individual autonomy and individual choice as the cornerstones of American, indeed, human freedom. The Catholic attachment to natural law, and the existence of objective truth and consequential restraints on the individual, stood in rather stark contrast to what Jacques Barzun commended in 1939, and what appears to be the contemporary understanding: he wrote in favor of a “’relativist-instrumentalist philosophy,’” and argued that such a non-dogmatic philosophy “is the philosophy of free democracy par excellence” (231). Most Catholics have seemed to oppose such a position, at least officially and philosophically.

Given the post-Vatican II exhortation to be more involved in the public conversation, an admonition surely taken seriously by American Catholics, laity, clergy, and religious, the fundamental difference regarding the two definitions of human freedom has perhaps sharpened. Indeed, at times ordinary Catholics seem often more in step with the mainstream American way of living, with its celebration of Barzun’s “relativist-instrumentalist philosophy,” while certain Catholic spokesmen appear to promote such a liberal or relativist understanding of this freedom. John T. McGreevy’s copiously documented and lucid presentation of the question of freedom in American history in terms of a dialogue between Catholic and American is a most welcome grounding not only for an appreciation of the history of this issue, but also for a charitable and truthful continuation of that necessarily perennial dialogue.

© 2008