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Roman Catholics have long quoted Cardinal Newman and his view of the errancy of Protestant history.  But Newman lived in a different age, an age where truth was a commodity whose usefulness was not universal.  And the pendulum of history has now swung back to where the certainty of history has been shown to be well, more Protestant.  And so it was with some great interest that I noted the estimable Archbishop of Philadelphia has written a piece in the May issue of First Things making the case for civic involvement.[i]    But he does so on an entirely Protestant foundation!  It’s almost as if Chaput either doesn’t know American history or he hopes his readers don’t. (In fact, I’ve written about Archbishop Chaput’s mistreatment of history in a previous post, The Death of Roman Catholic Tradition.)

Chaput begins, “As a nation, the United States is built on a religious anthropology.  It presumes a moral architecture shaped deeply by biblical thought and belief.”  Well that is certainly true as far as it goes.  But what he leaves unsaid is that that “anthropology” was exclusive of his denomination.  In other words to appeal to the “architecture” of the American founding is necessarily to exclude Roman Catholicism and appeal to a tradition that worked against his denomination.  (It must be admitted that the Catholics from Spain actually arrived on the North American continent before the European Protestants.  But as I show in the previous post – and what the archbishop continues in his recent offering – is his focus only on the Protestant Founders citing many of them by name.  When he refers to “the Founders” he obviously means the Protestants of New England.)

The Archbishop continues:

What we believe – or don’t’ believe – about God profoundly shapes what we believe about the nature of the human person and the purpose of human society.

So what did the Founders believe about God and the nature of the human person?   And does that bear any resemblance to what Chaput’s denomination holds?

If the average American citizen were asked, who was the founder of America, the true author of our great Republic, he might be puzzled to answer. We can imagine his amazement at hearing the answer given to this question by the famous German historian, Ranke, one of the profoundest scholars of modem times.  Says Ranke, `John Calvin was the virtual founder of America’.[ii] (emphasis added)

In fact, so profound was Calvin’s influence on the Founders that fully “80 percent of American Christians in the colonial period… were significantly influenced by John Calvin’s teachings.”[iii]  That number is simply astounding!  But it explains why 77% of the universities in America at the time of the adoption of the Constitution were “based on Calvinistic principles.”  So we may rightly assume that Founders’ idea of God, “the nature of the human person and the purpose of human society” were Calvinistic and antithetical to Roman Catholicism.

How so, you might ask?

The chief characteristic of the Calvinistic churches was their belief in the sovereignty of God.  And because God’s will guides and directs all of His creation there was no need of a “Magisterium” to do God’s work.  (This incidentally, is the foundation of Calvin’s doctrine of predestination which the Roman Catholic Church declared anathema at the Council of Trent.)  So the early Christian churches had no hierarchy. (And Christian churches today maintain that tradition!)

The Calvinist churches in early America divided labor between pastors, elders and deacons with presbyteries over geographical areas; but none was superior to the others.  This is precisely the arrangement that was built into the American government – a President, Senate and House of Representatives with a judiciary over geographical areas.  All performed their own function but none was superior to the others.  That structure, by the way, was specifically condemned by Pope Leo XII in 1895, more than one hundred years after the adoption of the U.S. Constitution![iv]    You see to the Pope at Rome, the proper form of government was to give to Rome the “favor of the laws and the patronage of the public authority.”  In other words, the state should bow to the Pope.

(Apparently Archbishop Chaput is not even aware of his own sect’s history when he makes this further faux pas: “For Catholics, the civil order has its own sphere of responsibility and its own autonomy apart from the Church.”)

The lack of ecclesiastical hierarchy was based on the Calvinistic principle of the priesthood of all believers.  That is to say, that all of God’s children take part in the work of His kingdom equally.   The impact that this had on early America was that everyone – from a very early age – had to read and understand the Bible.  After all, how could one exercise his priestly office without knowledge?  And that had the further effect of causing Calvinists to build universities wherever they went.  God required that all of His people be educated in order to better serve him.  The Roman Catholic Church as is shown by Archbishop Chaput’s title is the antithesis of this.   Rome has always selected just a few to be “priests”.  And those priest act as an “alter Christus” which was anathema to America’s Founders.

The fact that Roman Catholicism was so far outside the purview of early American Christianity is made clear by Dr. Mark Noll’s description of the country nearly seventy years after the Founders had completed their work:

They (Protestant Christians of British descent) regarded Roman Catholicism not as an alternative Christian religion but as the world’s most perverse threat to genuine faith.  To most American Protestants, Catholicism seemed as alien to treasured political values as it was antithetical to true Christianity.[v]

How a modern Roman Catholic prelate can opine about a “religious anthropology” that would have excluded his denomination as though it hadn’t is really quite perplexing.

The Archbishop continues:

Our history as a nation is steeped in religious imagery, convictions, and language.  The idea that we can pull those religious roots out of our political life without hurting our identity as a nation is both imprudent and dangerous.

But it is equally dangerous to graft Catholic doctrine onto “those religious roots” where they never existed to begin with especially when the Catholic ideals were nowhere to be found in our “identity”.

Four paragraphs before the end apparently the Archbishop had a twinge of conscience:

It’s worth recalling that the roots of the American experience are deeply Protestant, and that these roots go back a very long way, to well before the nation’s founding.  Catholics have little reason to remember the Puritans fondly.

And apparently Catholics have little reason to remember any other of America’s founding groups either.

In the end, I suppose a couple of questions weigh on me:

  1. Is it legitimate for a Roman Catholic Archbishop to lay claim to ideas and principles that his denomination has rejected?  And then to use same as a basis for a call to action?
  2. Should we allow the Archbishop to so cavalierly dismiss his own church’s history while at the same time appropriating Protestant history as though it were his own?
  3. Can we as American Christians allow such God honoring doctrines as His Sovereignty and man’s depravity to be commingled with an institution that has historically stood against them?
  4. Is it prudent or even “American” to support this man when the goal of his denomination, as stated by the Pope at Rome, is to subject the state to the church?

If we are going to heed the Archbishop’s call to action we must surely get our history right first.  Or insist that he does.


[i] Chaput, Charles J. (2014, May 1) “We Can’t Be Silent”.  First Things.

[ii] Eidsmoe, John, “Christianity and the Constitution: The Faith of Our Founding Fathers” (Grand Rapids: Baker Books. Kindle book loc. 68-70

[iii] Holmes, David L.  “The Faiths of the Founding Fathers” (New York: Oxford University Press. 2006)  Kindle book loc. 225-227

[iv] http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/leo_xiii/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_06011895_longinqua_en.html   Specifically, Leo said: “it would be very erroneous to draw the conclusion that in America is to be sought the type of the most desirable status of the Church, or that it would be universally lawful or expedient for State and Church to be, as in America, dissevered and divorced… but she would bring forth more abundant fruits if, in addition to liberty, she enjoyed the favor of the laws and the patronage of the public authority.”  In other words the state should bow to Rome.

[v] Noll, Mark A.  “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.”  (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.  2006.  P. 18)