The Push and Pull of Conciliarist Thought and Religious Liberty: A Reply to Daniel Mark

I am delighted that Professor Breidenbach has very kindly shared with us a response to my comment on this blog about his article. Here it is in full:

“I am grateful to my friend Daniel Mark for his analysis of my article, “Conciliarism and the American Founding,” published in the William and Mary Quarterly. In that article, I argued that leading early American Catholics like Charles and John Carroll adopted conciliarist ideas concerning church-state relations. In particular, they denied that the pope was infallible by himself on matters of faith and morals and that he had any power in the temporal affairs of nations. These Catholics thereby represented a Catholic tradition that advocated not only a republican view of temporal independence but also a juridical, nonhierarchical understanding of church and state. Their conciliarist idiom and support of the American republic answered long-held objections to granting Catholics religious liberty. This tradition, I concluded, should be an integral part of the history of American founding as well as a key to understanding American Catholicism.

In his review, Mark asks two perceptive questions concerning the theological and political implications of this historical argument. I am thankful to him and Dan Philpott for the opportunity to address them here.

Daniel Mark’s first question is whether “good Catholics” can be conciliarists. I am tempted to reply as he did—“someone else will have to answer that”—and hand it over to my colleagues in the Department of Theology. But I can venture some remarks.

I would first distinguish between “conciliar” and “conciliarist” traditions. The conciliar tradition holds that the Catholic Church, when confronted with a major dogmatic or doctrinal debate, can convene a general council of all the bishops to discuss a particular theological or moral question and then declare church teaching infallibly. Vatican I and II are the most recent manifestations of this tradition.

But the conciliarist tradition, or conciliarism, maintains (among other things) that only a general council can declare teachings on faith or morals infallibly. It denies that the pope can teach infallibly without a council’s concurrence. Since 1870, when the First Vatican Council affirmed papal infallibility, Catholics can no longer hold conciliarism to be true, at least with respect to the doctrine of infallibility. Ironically, conciliarism was censured through the conciliar process that conciliarists had championed.

These ecclesiological debates continue to have political implications, as Mark rightly notes. But early American Catholics did not think that their religious beliefs led to the dangerous political effects that non-Catholics had feared. By denying papal infallibility, these Catholics could resist the charge of being subjects of a “spiritual tyranny.” By repudiating the pope’s power to intervene in American political affairs, Catholics could likewise challenge the charge that they sought imperium in imperio—a state within a state.

After Vatican I, the rejection of papal infallibility has no longer been viable for Catholics. But can Catholics legitimately deny papal power in temporal affairs, as presidential candidate John F. Kennedy famously did in 1960? And, if not, then on what grounds, if any, can American Catholics affirm their dual allegiances? I offer some answers in the book that I’m writing, The Pope’s Republic: Liberties and Loyalties in America.

Daniel Mark’s second question concerns motivation: did early American Catholics hold conciliarist beliefs out of principle or convenience? Questions about motives are some of the most vexing for those in the humanities and social sciences. Human motivation and our inner thoughts are often elusive and complex. In the article, I argued that early American Catholics’ conciliarist commitments “were not the postures of mere political convenience,” since the Carrolls had expressed conciliarist beliefs during their education in Europe—well before they were involved in political and religious affairs in America. Nor did the Carrolls adopt a public conciliarist façade: their writings to personal confidants, even to those in the Holy See, revealed conciliarist catchphrases all the same. But it is also fair to say that the anti-papalist milieu in early America presented additional motivation for them to hold conciliarist beliefs. It simply would have been untenable for a Catholic to uphold papalism and sign the Declaration of Independence or become the first Catholic bishop in the United States. I think Mark approaches the truth when he adds “that the pull of conciliarism also benefited from some push.”

As Catholics feel a greater push—to recognize the sovereignty of the state and its laws over and against their religious authorities’ teachings—I wouldn’t be surprised if the conciliarist pull becomes stronger.

Michael D. Breidenbach is Assistant Professor of History at Ave Maria University. His work is available at michaelbreidenbach.com.

About the author

Daniel Mark

Daniel Mark is an assistant professor of political science at Villanova University and chairman of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. For the 2017-18 academic year, he is a visiting fellow at the University of Notre Dame. The views he expresses here are his own and not those of any of the institutions with which he is affiliated.

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.