Developing the Case for Being a Tea Party Catholic

Dr. Samuel Gregg Discusses His Latest Book That Explains How Catholics Can Save the ‘American Experiment’

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In his latest book Tea Party Catholic, Dr. Samuel Gregg develops a Catholic case for the values and institutions associated with the free economy, limited government, and America’s experiment in ordered liberty.

He underscores the moral and economic benefits of business and markets, addresses the welfare state’s problems, and deals with related issues that divide Catholics in America such as the demands of social justice, the role of unions, immigration, poverty, and the relationship between secularism and big government.

Gregg concludes that as a creative minority, limited government Catholics can help transform the wider movement to reground the United States upon the best insights of the American Experiment—and thereby save that Experiment itself.

Director of research at the Acton Institute, Gregg spoke recently with Giovanni Patriarca about the book.

PATRIARCA: Reading Tea Party Catholic, it seems that America is losing its historical memory with the risk of deconstruction of its own identity. This aspect can be seen in all the Western world. What are the most alarming and peculiar aspects in the USA?

GREGG: Throughout the United States, it is very evident that many people either know very little about the American Founding, or seem very hostile to it. And that is worrying because America is founded much more upon an identity of particular ideas rather than a particular linguistic or ethnic patrimony.

The American Founding was certainly influenced by certain streams of Enlightenment thought, not all of which (such as social contract theory) are compatible with Catholic faith. Yet as figures ranging from Alexis de Tocqueville to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI have observed, the same Founding was also shaped by a broadly Christian (mainly Protestant) culture and various versions of natural law thinking with which it is possible for Catholicism to converse. Was the American Founding perfect? Of course not! It was as much a creation of fallible human beings as any other political society. But as both Tocqueville and Benedict observed, the American Experiment has provided ways of reconciling, among other things, religious faith and liberty in a manner that many European countries simply failed – and in some cases – still fail to do. If, however, Americans lose sight of this inheritance of ideas and institutions, it is hard to see how the American Experiment, which represents a distillation of the broader tradition of what I unapologetically call the civilization of the West, can survive.

As Michael Novak remarked in Tea Party Catholic’s foreword, one of the merits of the book is to propose, in a simple way, the magnificent contributions of John Finnis, German Grisez, Joseph Boyle, and Robert George. What are, briefly, the main points of these outstanding thinkers for contemporary philosophical debate?

Around the world, understanding of natural law among Catholics (including intellectuals) is, I would argue, unfortunately rather weak. With a few notable exceptions, it is especially frail in continental Western European Catholic circles. In, what might be called the “Anglosphere,” however, it has undergone a significant revival over the past 35 years, thanks to what is often called the “new natural law” theory developed by the scholars you just mentioned. The influence of some of their ideas upon key sections of Blessed John Paul II’s great encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, is very evident, especially that encyclical’s demolition of consequentialist and proportionalist theories of morality as well as false conceptions of the fundamental option for Christ.

I especially think that the new natural lawyers’ presentation of how human beings flourish and the role played by the workings of free choice in that regard has been very influential in shaping many young Catholic clergy, intellectuals, and laypeople, but also a good number of people outside the Church, including some non-Christians. It’s true, of course, that new natural law theory has its critics, including some perfectly orthodox Catholics who also work in the natural law tradition. But this has at least facilitated some very good and constructive debates about natural law inside and outside the Church that are much harder to find in continental Western Europe.

The echo of the words and actions of Charles Carroll of Carrollton accompanies all the pages of Tea Party Catholic. What can be said to better understand his figure?

When researching Tea Party Catholic, I was astonished to discover how little many Catholic Americans knew about the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, and his unique philosophical, economic, and political contributions to the American Revolution and the subsequent development of the American Experiment in ordered liberty. I would encourage Catholic Americans to learn more about him, because they would soon see how he and his family (his cousin Father John Carroll was the first bishop of the United States and another cousin, Daniel Carroll, was one of only five men to sign both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution of the United States) helped make a place for all subsequent generations of Catholics who have or will live in America. Keep in mind that in 1790 there was only about 35,000 Catholics in a total United States population of approximately 4 million people.

Apart from being one of the best educated of America’s Founders, Charles Carroll is especially important because he combined deep attachment to the truth of the Catholic Faith, with a profound commitment the movement for liberty and constitutionally limited government that was so central to the American Revolution. This was despite the enormous prejudice that existed against Catholics in the overwhelmingly Protestant American colonies—so much so that Carroll and his family were subject to many penal laws in the colony of Maryland (which, ironically, had been founded by English Catholics!) because of their Catholicism.

Yet despite all this Carroll was an immensely successful businessman and entrepreneur. Indeed he was the wealthiest man in the colonies and stood to lose the most, materially speaking, if the Revolution had failed. Carroll was also a member of several legislatures, a profound political and constitutional commentator, an influential member of the Continental Congress’s Board of War, and a fearless defender of his friend General Washington during the darkest days of the Revolutionary War. Additionally, Carroll was a genuine specialist in the realm of economics and finance, and an outspoken advocate of economic freedom. During the Revolutionary War, for example, he had to explain to his friend Benjamin Franklin why price controls are economically disastrous and morally suspect. Carroll was also a fierce critic of inflation and predicted, correctly, that printing money would severely damage the economies of the American colonies.

Interestingly, Carroll made a point of underscoring how infringements of economic liberty often undermine religious freedom, and vice-versa. That is something that not just Catholic Americans, but Catholics around the world today need to pay more attention to. Big government, it turns out, isn’t very interested in protecting religious freedom—especially when that government seems driven by highly secularist philosophical and political priorities or, on the other hand, by religions that appear to have very little appreciation of any robust conception of religious liberty.

Catholic Social Teaching considers creativity, responsibility and a respectful freedom as milestones of a flourishing society. How can they be developed in a contest apparently indifferent to any call of conscience?

Tea Party
Catholic argues that it is hard, if not impossible, to develop coherent conceptions of freedom, responsibility, and economic creativity (not to mention social justice, the common good, and the option for the poor) without a robust conception of what Benedict XVI calls in Caritas in Veritate “integral human development”: in other words, human flourishing. And this in turn depends upon a correct understanding of the nature of reason and free will, which themselves heavily reliant upon a coherent anthropology of the human person.

This isn’t of course a revolutionary insight. These ideas are central to the entire Catholic tradition of moral reasoning. This soon becomes apparent to anyone who has read the Gospels and who has some familiarity with the Doctors and Fathers of the Church, papal magisterial teaching, and the teachings of all the ecumenical councils, including all the documents promulgated by Vatican II. Moreover, it’s only in light of the truths revealed by all these teachings and natural reason that a Catholic can form their conscience. Once Catholics understand this as the correct understanding of conscience, then the falsity of the emotivist, relativist and frankly incoherent conceptions of conscience articulated by most secularists and, alas, some Catholics, becomes glaringly apparent.

And this matters for free societies, because unless we believe that (1) all people can know the truth about good and evil, (2) that the truth is not whatever we “feel” it to be, and (3) that conscience’s force arises from its grounding in knowledge of the truth about God and Man, then it becomes very difficult to sustain freedom. Instead we experience what Pope Francis called very early in his pontificate the profound spiritual poverty of relativism, and what his predecessor called the dictatorship of relativism. In these situations, freedom simply degenerates into license, governments consider themselves free to pass laws that are subversive of a healthy moral ecology, and justice becomes whatever the strongest person or group wants it to be.

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Giovanni Patriarca

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