COMMENTARY: As it turns out, the French de Tocqueville had plenty to tell us Catholics about life in 1840 America, but he has much more to say to us about life in 2023.
In 1831, a French aristocrat named Alexis de Tocqueville was commissioned to travel to the United States of America and report back on its prison systems. Once he arrived, however, Tocqueville became broadly fascinated with the upstart nation. Spending nine months in the U.S., Tocqueville richly observed American people and America’s political system. His observations were published in two volumes, in 1835 and 1840, titled Democracy in America. Many things intrigued Tocqueville about America, and one of those was the practice of the Catholic faith in early America. Tocqueville’s insights ring true even today.
When John F. Kennedy ran for office, some people openly and angrily insisted that his Catholic faith would make it impossible to properly serve as president. (Strangely enough, no one seemed to make that objection during Joe Biden’s campaign, but that is a story for another time.) More recently, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., insinuated that Amy Coney Barrett’s practice of her faith would stand in the way of her functioning as a Supreme Court justice. At Barrett’s hearing, Feinstein addressed her: “When you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern.”
There is an anti-Catholic attitude that Catholicism somehow makes one unfit for either American citizenry or governance, but that stance was diametrically opposed to Tocqueville beliefs. He posits, “I think that the Catholic religion has erroneously been looked upon as the natural enemy of democracy.” And that was not only a philosophical stance, but one formed by observation of early America. Tocqueville writes, “At the present moment more than a million Christians professing the truths of the Church of Rome are to be met with in the Union. The Catholics are faithful to the observances of their religion; they are fervent and zealous in the support and belief of their doctrines. Nevertheless they constitute the most republican and the most democratic class of citizens which exists in the United States.”
Tocqueville, a Catholic himself, certainly realized that human law proceeds from eternal law; thus, all men are subject to it. From the Catholic perspective, no one is above the law or above justice. He writes, “On doctrinal points the Catholic faith places all human capacities upon the same level; it subjects the wise and ignorant, the man of genius and the vulgar crowd, to the details of the same creed; it imposes the same observances upon the rich and needy, it inflicts the same austerities upon the strong and the weak, it listens to no compromise with mortal man, but, reducing all the human race to the same standard, it confounds all the distinctions of society at the foot of the same altar, even as they are confounded in the sight of God.”
With his references to both “the rich and needy,” it is clear that Tocqueville is not arguing in favor of a revolutionary egalitarianism, but rather equality in law and justice. Moreover, Catholics’ belief in such political equality translates well to being citizens of the American republic. Tocqueville provides an answer to those who suggest a dichotomy between Catholicism and American citizenry: “Thus the Catholics of the United States are at the same time the most faithful believers and the most zealous citizens.” Toward the end of the second volume of Democracy in America, Tocqueville notes the condition of some European countries in 1840. It is worth quoting at length, because it almost perfectly describes many problems of church/state relations in America today. Tocqueville writes, “Almost all the charitable establishments of Europe were formerly in the hands of private persons or of corporations; they are now almost all dependent on the supreme government.”
He continues, “The State almost exclusively undertakes to supply bread to the hungry, assistance and shelter to the sick, work to the idle, and to act as the sole reliever of all kinds of misery.
Education, as well as charity, is become in most countries at the present day a national concern.”
“The State receives, and often takes, the child from the arms of the mother, to hand it over to official agents: the State undertakes to train the heart and to instruct the mind of each generation,” Tocqueville adds. “Uniformity prevails in the courses of public instruction as in everything else. … Nor do I hesitate to affirm, that … religion is in danger of falling into the hands of the government. Not that rulers are over-jealous of the right of settling points of doctrine, but they get more and more hold upon the will of those by whom doctrines are expounded … they divert to their own use the influence of the priesthood, they make them their own ministers — often their own servants — and by this alliance with religion they reach the inner depths of the soul of man.”
Today in America, feeding the hungry through various welfare programs has become a largely governmental function, removing many opportunities to practice and nourish the theological virtue of charity. Worse, many Catholic charitable organizations have directed funds toward activities that are antithetical to the official teachings of the Church. And this has happened largely with the approval of high-ranking prelates in America.
Today in America, education has also become a state function, with breathtaking uniformity in America’s public-school classrooms — in which any talk of a Creator is forbidden and any talk of “LGBTQ” is virtually mandated as early as kindergarten (outside the rather notable exception of Florida under Gov. Ron DeSantis). Many parents have opted for home-schooling programs in order to escape atheistic/agnostic/woke curriculum. But when was the last time a priest or bishop encouraged, or even acknowledged, home-school parents?
As for “religion falling into the hands of the government,” how better would one describe diocesan marriage tribunals that mandate civil divorce before a potential marriage annulment hearing can even be heard? How better to describe the closing of churches and confessionals in the spring and summer of 2020? How better to describe allowing a system whereby priests have been mandated to receive vaccines as a condition to ministry?
Being a good Catholic citizen does not entail surrendering the rights of the Church to the state — something that Tocqueville warned us about.
As it turns out, Tocqueville had plenty to tell us Catholics about life in 1840 America, but he has much more to say to us about life in 2023.
It’s time we listen.