Thursday, April 14, 2005

Seeking Another City: Beyond Liberal and Conservative Catholicism in the United States

The Center’s 2005 Myser Fellow, Prof. Michael J. Baxter of Notre Dame’s Department of Theology, delivered the spring semester Schmitt Lecture on April 13, 2005. His talk was entitled “Seeking Another City: Beyond Liberal and Conservative Catholicism in the United States.” Prof. Baxter began by reflecting briefly on the voting habits of U.S. Catholics in the 20th century. The Catholic vote, which the Democrats could once count on, has been split since 1968, when divisions arose among American Catholics over Humanae Vitae and the Vietnam War. Baxter went on to assert that “this division between liberal and conservative Catholicism is the result of absorption of the Church into the political culture of the United States.”

He then gave a narrative history of Americanism, that is, the belief that the American government and its principles were benign to and even supportive of the aims of the Catholic Church, and that the United States was a providential instrument to aid the Church in bringing salvation to the world. Though Americanism was condemned by Pope Leo XIII in his 1899 apostolic letter Testem Benevolentiae, it has continued to be propagated as a sort of civil theology. Baxter traced this belief through the 20th century to the present day, noting that “both liberal and conservative Catholics have different conceptions of Catholicism, and different conceptions of America, but they both believe there exists a fundamental harmony between the two.” Baxter warned that the danger of Americanism is not the threat of dividing the American Church into liberals and conservatives so much as it is the threat of dividing the American Church from the universal Church.

He concluded that American Catholics would do well to follow the admonition of Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae, in which he affirms the goodness of the democratic ideals of peace, freedom and justice, but cautions that democracies themselves must constantly be reassessed to ensure that they actually adhere to these ideals in practice.

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