It is undeniable that American constitutionalism and the ordered liberty it provides have historical roots in England. Nevertheless, one might be excused for finding it somewhat ironic that American Catholics join other Americans in seeing themselves as inheritors of a distinctly and specifically English liberty. England itself historically has not been particularly friendly toward religious liberty or Catholics in particular. Why, then, look to England? Is England the only place where liberty flourished? Worse yet, from a Catholic perspective, does the very fact of England’s militant Protestantism during the early modern era explain the rise and maintenance of political freedom, meaning that there is something “unfree” about Catholic politics?
Were it true that only England provides a true history of liberty’s growth prior to the time of modern revolutions, that would be tragic from two points of view. It would show that there is in fact something “anti-liberty” about Catholicism, as Protestants often have claimed. Further, it would seem to excuse the sometimes quite oppressive and even violent treatment of Catholics by English authorities and by those who wish to follow in their footsteps today. Catholics should not need to be reminded that the English government going back to Henry VIII, and coming forward even into the twentieth-century, has been hostile toward Catholicism and Catholics. The martyrdom of numerous priests and bishops such as Thomas More, the sacking of the monasteries, and laws forbidding the saying of Catholic mass and even decreeing execution for priests lasted for centuries. Catholics were disenfranchised until the nineteenth-century and even in the twentieth-century social disabilities were common (e.g. J.R.R. Tolkien, being Catholic, was not allowed to dine with his Protestant colleagues at Oxford). A central justification of these injustices was that Catholics were “loyal to a foreign prince” who sought enslavement of both souls and bodies, imposing the tyrannous hierarchy of Catholicism. Even on the continent, the story often was repeated that Popes ruled their “estates” as tyrants and sought only to expand their temporal authority in order to force reconversions to their faith and re-establish a kind of absolute rule over the bodies and minds of the people. What is more, it has been this vision of Catholicism as intrinsically hostile to human liberty that has fed into an anti-Catholic sentiment in portions of the American public that has damaged religious liberty and constitutional government itself.
If true, the charges leveled at the Catholic Church and her people would be damning, indeed. Were it true that only the particular cultural institutions and developments of Protestant England, along with, perhaps, those of Protestant Holland, could produce political liberty then Catholicism would be riven by internal contradictions. Catholics recognize that, while salvation is the ultimate, highest good, liberty also is a real human good and freedom aids greatly in the development of the human person. If their religion were hostile to liberty, then, they would have to choose between salvation and freedom. Thankfully, ordered liberty is not a purely English phenomenon and Catholicism is entirely consistent with ordered liberty, not merely in theory, but also in historical practice. My purpose, here, is to examine some of the reasons for Americans’ focus on English liberty. Some of these reasons are accidental and some genuinely important. They are worth exploring for what they can tell American Catholics about ourselves and about the requirements for ordered liberty.