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Is Catholicism incompatible with the United States' values?

Separation of church and state. Freedom of thought. Legal divorce. Democracy. Is Roman Catholicism incompatible with the USA?

Not a silly question. In the 1930’s, the Pope endorsed heirarchy as the best form of government. I suspect he meant fascism.

I say Catholicism and the USA are barely compatible, if at all. (not to say Catholics haven’t served honorably in the US armed forces, etc.)



The question Lori/Randy raises is well worth discussing. A lot of American Protestants and tradition-minded Catholics have said that the answer is “no.” I don’t really agree. To my mind the question is whether Catholicism can support the specific good qualities of American life, or whether something else would do better.

I think what’s best about America politically are its traditions of limited government, federalism, local control, private initiative and emphasis on family life. Catholicism seems to me consistent with all that, especially when the American traditions are contrasted to the modern tendency to favor centralized bureaucratic control of all social relations, because it treats subsidiarity (placing responsibility at the lowest level possible) as an absolutely fundamental principle of good social order.

It does seem to me that American rhetoric has tended to be more radically individualist and libertarian than is consistent with Catholicism. I don’t think that rhetoric stands up to reality though because radical individualism and radical freedom don’t work. If you push them too far you get their opposites. I think that’s what we’re getting now with PC, for example. In order to give absolute protection to everyone’s freedom and individuality it turns out the government has to control all social attitudes and in fact everything that happens. And even in the past foreigners have more often been struck by American conformism than American individuality.

To discuss a couple of Lori/Randy’s examples:

Democracy: Catholicism has nothing against participation of the people in government. Aquinas said it was a good idea. It doesn’t view the voice of the people as the voice of God, but then nobody else does these days either. Think of what happens to ballot initiatives (e.g., on immigration) that our ruling elites don’t like.

Separation of church and state: Catholicism distinguishes Christ and Caesar and so separates Church and state. Theocracy — direct clerical control of government — has been exceptional although it has existed in special situations (the Papal States, certain German principalities that were run by the local bishop, and Paraguay at one point in its history would be examples).

The issue is the degree of separation. I think American rhetoric has exaggerated what’s possible, as if government could be carried on without reference to the nature of man, the world, moral obligation etc. It seems to me the rhetoric no longer works and actually works against freedom.

Originally, of course, most states had established churches (the First Amendment applied only to the federal government, which had strictly limited functions). Those died out by around 1840, but thereafter America still had an informal Protestant establishment that was reflected for example in public political rhetoric, school prayer, Sunday closing laws and other blue laws.

That establishment was finally swept away in the 60s, and recent polls show Protestant identification plummeting. The result has not been greater religious freedom though. Instead, the “no establishment” rhetoric has come to mean that an increasingly intrusive government has to eliminate all religion from the aspects of social life it regulates. So the “no establishment” rhetoric has in fact come to mean religious suppression and the establishment of practical atheism — belief in the irrelevance of God to serious human concerns. What’s so great — or so much in line with the best American traditions — about that? To me it seems that some sort of formal recognition of religion would bring things more in line with what America has been than the current ideologically secular situation.

Legal divorce: Why is that a central American tradition? Tocqueville thought it was the strength and strictness of the marital tie in America that helped make America what it was.

A final point: it seems to me extremely unlikely that Pius XI would have considered fascism the best form of government. “Everything for the state, nothing outside the state, nothing above the state” is simply not a Catholic principle.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Whether we like it or not, Roman Catholicism is simply incompatible with American Constitutionalism. Whether we like it or not, the Pope wants Church and State union. For him, it is only in Church and State union where the Church’s interest are best protected and ENFORCED. If indeed “pure” Roman Catholic doctrine is compatible with American Constitutionalism and Democracy, why then is the Vatican (a State) a dictatorship: where executive, legislative and judicial powers are vested in one person, the Pope. Why then doesn’t it establish a government similar to that of the United States where governmental power is distributed among three equal and separate branches so that there could be checks and balance? The answer to these questions is simple: Roman Catholicism believes in an ‘infallible’ pope. It simply cannot embrace the concept of a government of checks and balances. A government of checks and balances is simply contradictory to the concept of a government with an ‘infallible’ leader.

Until and unless the Vatican Government ceases to be what it is right now and establish a three-branched government similar to that of the United States, I would not believe Roman Catholicism is compatible with American Constitutionalism.

The greatest champion of democracy and American traditions today is a Catholic—Justice Antonin Scalia. While Justices Breyer, Ginsberg and O’Connell look as far as Zimbabwe for inspiration, Scalia sticks to American law and traditions. He has made it clear over and over he does not want to decide moral issues, he believes they should be hashed out democratically. Another Catholic, Justice Thomas, agrees with Scalia on most issu es.

Regarding hierarchies: they are neither good nor bad—they can be either. Government is hierarchial. Human families, dog packs, baboon troupes, chicken flocks and society itself are based on hierarchies Injustices often arise when radical equalitarians seek to tear down natural heirarchies.


Actually, what he meant by hierarchy is that the best form of government was a theocracy, or rather that a group of ranked clergy should be in power. After all, a hierarchy is defined as exactly that(religious rule by a group of ranked clergy.)

Given I’m not Catholic, it may not fit our American values, but I think that it should. The sort of seperation of church and state that we have, I’m sure, is not what the founding fathers were exactly hoping for. They merely meant you shouldn’t be punished for worshiping or not worshiping whatever god/idol. Not that you couldn’t express opinions or symbols publicly.

Freedom of thought is reasonable, but not always a good thing. Hitler was a free-thinker.

Legal divorce and democracy are both highly debatable.


The Church tries to work with any civil government but I think you are right that Catholicism is contrary to the Freemasonary values imbedded in the US Constitution. There is a good full treatment of that questions here Variations on a Theme or from the older archives here at Mr. Kalb’s site Is American democracy Safe for Catholicism.

You are way off on Fascism tho. When Pius XII spoke of hiearchy I believe he was speaking more of monarchy - the traditional government of Christendom.

Kevin V.
(God asks for our obedience, not our opinion)

The answer to the question as to whether or not Catholicism is compatible to American values is ‘NO’. For one, the Pope hates separation of church and state which is a product of protestant dissent against church and state union. In a theocracy, which is suggested by the pope, sovereignty resides in the hands of rulers whereas in a democracy, sovereignty resides in the governed. Thus, looking at these concepts alone, the two are already incompatible.