Are Catholics Unreliable from a Democratic Point of View? Thoughts on the Occasion of the Sixtieth Anniversary of Paul Blanshard’s American Freedom and Catholic Power

24 Pages Posted: 20 Feb 2010

Date Written: February 18, 2010


From 1949 to 1950, Paul Blanshard’s American Freedom and Catholic Power dominated the New York Times best-seller list for eleven months, having captured the attention of American intelligentsia with its claim that “the Catholic problem is still with us” and its call for the formation of a “resistance movement.” Sixty years later, Blanshard’s bigotry is no longer defended in educated circles. Questions remain, though, concerning why Blanshard’s ideas made progress in some of the smartest American minds and throughout much of the culture. Was Blanshard onto something subversive about Catholics? Are Catholics’ commitments not compatible with the demands of American democratic philosophy and practice?

Today, some scholars try to solve the Blanshard problem by changing the topic. “Liberal Catholicism,” they intimate, is not the problem posed by the unmodified Catholicism Blanshard targeted more than half a century ago. If, however, we refuse to change the topic (on the ground that the Catholic religion has not changed in any relevant sense), the problem is of broader scope, as Pope John Paul II wrote in 1991: all those who are “convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it are considered unreliable from a democratic point of view.” Perhaps Blanshard was right to the extent he worried that Catholics have principled reservations about the scope of democratic legitimacy and the sweep of democratic authority. It is widely and justly celebrated that the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) declared the natural human right to liberty of conscience. What the same Council said about the liberty of the Church, the libertas ecclesiae, however, is little noticed, but of at least as much practical significance as what it declared about human conscience. Also little noticed, and also significant, is that the same Council said nothing directly about democracy.

In light of these and other facts, this paper argues that faithful Catholics are indeed unreliable from a democratic point of view in the respect that they, in and through their Church, insist that the (democratic) socio-political order must be conformed to higher law and true human rights (through means that are both prudent and otherwise in conformity with valid positive law). Faithful Catholics deny the ultimacy or sufficiency of democracy and what it happens to deliver.

This paper was originally delivered as the Yves R. Simon Lecture at the University of Chicago.

Keywords: democracy, religious liberty, freedom of the church, conscience, prejudice, monism, higher law, Catholic Church, Paul Blanshard, John Courtney Murray

Suggested Citation

Brennan, Patrick McKinley, Are Catholics Unreliable from a Democratic Point of View? Thoughts on the Occasion of the Sixtieth Anniversary of Paul Blanshard’s American Freedom and Catholic Power (February 18, 2010). Villanova Law Review, 2010; Villanova Law/Public Policy Research Paper No. 2010-07. Available at SSRN:

Patrick McKinley Brennan (Contact Author)

Villanova University School of Law ( email )

299 N. Spring Mill Road
Villanova, PA 19085
United States

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