U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Irritating Genius of Reinhold Niebuhr: The Question of Anti-Catholicism

[Updated 2:15 pm CST, 9/29]

At the end of the summer I finally picked up Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. I say finally because the book had been on my shelf for years. I am not 100 percent sure when I bought my copy (almost exactly like the one pictured to the right); I may have purchased it before moving to Chicago in 1997. The point is that I’ve been carrying it around for years—through five moves, a marriage, more than a few jobs, and three cities—based on the fact that it was written by a prominent, famous author. And I kept it even though I am Catholic and I knew the author was Protestant. I had suspected that Niebuhr had the potential to transcend sectarian differences—to be ecumenical. I bought the book even before I decided to study intellectual history, and was therefore not aware that David Hollinger and Charles Capper’s The American Intellectual Tradition source book includes a selection from Children.

Upon reading I learned, in short order, that the book is a treatise on Protestant Christian political philosophy. How I had missed the quintessentially Niebuhrian subtitle—“A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense”—after all these years is beyond me. Thanks to my dissertation work I had known, before scrutinizing the table of contents, that Niebuhr was involved, for a time, in the late 1940s effort called “The Committee to Frame a World Constitution” (which produced a book–a preliminary draft of a world constitution). Niebuhr had dropped out, however, due to philosophical differences. Even so, I was still surprised to see that Children would cover “The World Community” in its final chapter.

I’m not here, however, to simply relay to you my personal story of delay and surprise in relation to Niebuhr and the book’s contents. I’m here, in fact, writing about the book because it raised my expectations, dramatically, after getting only ten pages or so into it. Niebuhr is deceptively easy reading; he slowly unfolds his philosophical points with a sense of caution and humility, as well as an acumen for the problematic areas of practice (i.e. he’s always on the watch for how humans corrupt good things, especially reason). His one-hand/other-hand thinking appeals to minds who imagine counterpoints quickly after formulating an argument. Niebuhr’s self-dialogue is paradoxically both intellectually comforting and disquieting; you feel like he’s leaving no stone unturned.

I was disappointed, then, to perceive some not-so-latent anti-Catholicism in Children. Because I am Catholic, you might argue that I am predisposed to seeing anti-Catholicism, and there may be some truth to that. By reputation, however, I came into the book thinking of Niebuhr as one of the most important theologians of the twentieth-century English-speaking world; I had understood his Protestantism to be a lower-case. I expected ecumenism, and was surprised to find otherwise.

Indeed, the potential for anti-Catholic thought arose as early as page 8 (of my 1972 Scribner’s paperback edition). Here Niebuhr generalizes that Catholics engage in a “polemic against the modern world.” Although I know that to be true in some conservative Catholic circles (think Hilaire Belloc and other fascist sympathizers), I also know it to be false in others (think Frederic Ozanam, Fr. Hans Reinhold, Fr. John A. Ryan, Dorothy Day, etc.)—others covered well in Jay Corrin’s Catholic Intellectuals and the Challenge of Democracy (Notre Dame, 2002). Back to Niebuhr, one instance does not of course create a curve. So I read over this early instance as Niebuhr challenging conservative Catholic thought.

There can be no doubt, furthermore, that Catholic intellectual life, as of the 1940s (Children was published in 1944) and 1950s, was not at a high point in American history. This was documented by John Tracy Ellis (right) in his American Catholics and the Intellectual Life (1956). Here’s a nice reflection on that book, its truths, and its reception.

As I kept reading Children, however, I found other examples of Niebuhr over-generalizing about Catholic thought. He wrote that Catholicism (not just conservative, undemocratic Catholics) are fearful “that questions of ‘right and wrong’ [in a democracy] may be subjected to the caprice of majority decisions. For [all of] Catholicism believes that the principles of natural law are fixed and immutable” (pp. 68-69). Niebuhr briefly gives the Catholic tradition respect for its insistence on “freedom of conscience beyond all laws and requirements of the human community” (p. 80). He returns, however, to big generalizations about Catholic thought or slanted points of view. On the latter, for instance, Niebuhr cites Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) not for its defense of labor unions, but for its insistence on “property…as a necessity” (p. 92).

Suffice it to say, by the end of the second third of the book it’s getting irritating. Niebuhr writes, apparently ignorant of the 1920s liberal American Catholics documented by Corrin, that “Catholics” (not just a corner, but all) are “fond of defining the Renaissance and Reformation as forces of decadence because they initiated the destruction of the unity of Christendom” (p. 121). This absolutist reduction of Catholic thought continues in Niebuhr’s discussion of the “three primary approaches to the problem of religious and cultural diversity in the western world” (p. 126). Here Niebuhr generalizes that “Catholicism” (all of it) has only one approach: “overcome religious diversity and restore the original unity of culture. …Catholicism frankly accepts religious diversity in a national community only under the compulsion of history. …It insists on official status” (p. 126).

It may be true that a significant, vocal portion of Catholics (thinkers and otherwise) in the 1920s and 1930s voiced traditionalist positions; they could only look back at a civilization they felt was more amenable to Catholic theology. The mostly careful Niebuhr, however, chooses at this point to write of Catholicism as if it is homogeneous on this belief throughout time and space—admitting of no possibility of change, progress, or internal diversity.

Even as one sees those passages, however, you are impressed by the quotable, on-target Niebuhr. For instance, his useful pessimism is evident early in the text: “There is no level of human moral or social achievement in which there is not some corruption of inordinate self-love. This sober and true view of the human situation was neatly rejected by modern culture” (p. 17). And then there is Niebuhr pointing out the error of the “ideal of self-sufficiency” as being a “primal sin” in Christian thought (p. 55). He even writes, somewhat presciently, of “embodied rationality,” saying that reason is “organically related to a particular center of vitality, individual and collective. …Reason is never dissociated from the vitalities of life…[and therefore] cannot be a pure instrument of…justice” (pp. 66-67, 72-73). Great stuff. Rich.

What do others say about Niebuhr’s relationship with Catholicism? It seems to be mostly praise. Citing Richard Fox’s biography of Niebuhr and, interestingly, Kenneth Jackson’s 1992 book, The Ku Klux Klan in the City, everyone’s quick and dirty reference, Wikipedia, actually underscores Niebuhr’s fight against anti-Catholicism in Detroit. Niebuhr could be seen as a hero for justice in the fight against anti-Catholicism—at least in Detroit in the 1920s.

However, in Alan Wolfe’s review of John Patrick Diggins’s last book, Why Niebuhr Now?, Wolfe dissents a bit. Here’s the relevant passage (bolds mine):

Niebuhr has become so lionized that we often fail to recognize his faults. Diggins is aware of them, but pays them insufficient attention. Although Niebuhr warned against American exceptionalism, he was not above a bit of Protestant triumphalism. In his Gifford lectures, published as The Nature and Destiny of Man between 1941 and 1943, Niebuhr dismissed Catholicism (along with liberal Protestantism) as “semi-Pelagian,” meaning that it allowed too much space for free will. That position was, and is, inaccurate; try telling it to anyone reading Fr. Arnall’s hellfire and damnation sermon in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It was also slightly obtuse and offensive: the United States had more than its fair share of anti-Catholicism in the 1930s and 1940s, and while Niebuhr was no bigot, he was not especially ecumenical.

It is true, of course, that “Christian triumphalism” is not anti-Catholicism. It is also true that over-generalizing about Catholic theology and politics is not strictly anti-Catholicism. And perhaps Niebuhr was just in a bad mood in the 1940s. But if you put these circles together, they overlap enough to lessen those distinctions: there is a strain of anti-Catholicism in Niebuhr’s 1940s writings.

Wolfe’s review makes it clear that my expectation of theological ecumenism from Niebuhr was, well, unfounded—based on a perception of his reputation. If Niebuhr had been willing to look, it would not have been that hard, despite Ellis’s tract, to find and cite Catholics who believed in democracy, in all its beauty and diversity. – TL

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Update (2:15 pm CST, 9/29): Maybe one of the things I’m wanted to know, or to ferret out, with this post is whether by declaring Niebuhrian anti-Catholicism I’m being presentist? I feel that Wolfe’s review absolves me of this somewhat, but Wolfe is a a political scientist and sociologist. In other words, I might be importing, or seconding, his presentism. – TL

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Tim, I think you are, in part at least, mistaking criticism of Roman Catholicism for anti-Catholicism. There was much in mid-20th century American Catholicism to be critical of. Niebuhr had positive intellectual engagements with major Roman Catholic intellectuals of the period. As for his “Protestant triumphalism,” my own teacher, Will Herberg, deeply admired Niebuhr and, when he became disenthralled with Marxism, Herberg went to Niebuhr and told him that he was interested in becoming a Christian. Niebuhr replied that before he pursued that Herberg should study his own Jewish tradition more fully. Herberg and his wife essentially locked themselves in their apartment and read voraciously in Judaism. When they emerged from their study, the Herbergs were conservative Jews. I’m not sure that’s the kind of advice a Protestant triumphalist would give.

  2. @ Ralph: Thanks for the comment. Before proceeding, I want you to know that I just updated the post to add a question about presentism to my statement about perceived anti-Catholicism.

    On your comment, that’s an awesome anecdote. But I still wonder how much criticism it takes, or how continuous the criticism must be, for it to rise to anti-Catholicism? In other words, if you’re critical of Catholic hierarchy, social thought, history ,and theology, but are a respecter of individuals (per your Herberg anecdote), does that not leave you in the anti-Catholic camp? – TL

  3. Tim: How is it possible, in your terms, to not be Catholic but innocent of anti-Catholicism? I am currently critical of the Catholic hierarchy for its tolerance of priestly abuse of the holy innocents. Does that make me anti-Catholic? I admire Roman Catholicism’s pro-life ethic, but I lament its unbalanced application of it in terms of abortion and capital punishment. Does that make me anti-Catholic? I identify with a Christian tradition that has been separated from Rome for nearly 500 years. Does that make me anti-Catholic? I have very specific reservations about Roman Catholic dogma. In order to avoid being labeled anti-Catholic, must I affirm its theology in every jot and tittle, when most Roman Catholics do not.

  4. Ralph: I never said, in absolute terms (i.e. “every jot and tittle”), that one who is critical of the Church is anti-Catholic. That would be a ridiculous statement. What I expressed, to repeat, in a question form in my comment just above yours was this: “How much criticism [does it] take, or how continuous [must] the criticism…be, for it [i.e. criticism] to rise to anti-Catholicism?” It seems clear to me that I did not designate a line. But, in relation to Niebuhr, his “criticism” is continuous and wide-ranging in Children. What follows is a judgment call, of course, but it felt to me that it—because of its general nature (i.e. expressed without caveat)—ended up sounding anti-Catholic. Is anti-Catholicism only a bodily act of verbal or physical abuse, or can it be a sentiment, expressed in a wide-ranging and generalized fashion in print, against a large number of church tenets and dogmas? Is one only anti-Catholic when he/she uses the term self-referentially? – TL

  5. The question about anti-Catholicism isn’t going to be answered in this blog post or comment section, but it’s fair to say that, as far as Niebuhr is concerned, he was critical of the Catholic Church but was much less “anti-Catholic” than many other liberal Protestants of the era. For the more extreme anti-Catholicism among liberals, be sure to check out Paul Blanshard’s two books _American Freedom and Catholic Power_ (1949; this originally appeared as a series of articles in _The Nation_) and _Communism, Democracy, and Catholic Power_ (1951). You might also look into the organization Protestants and Other Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which was founded in 1947, I believe. Niebuhr criticized both Blanshard and POAUS as counterproductive and intolerant, even as he criticized the Catholic hierarchy.

    Also, you should consider that _Commonweal_, a lay Catholic journal whose editors were liberal, had a good working relationship with Niebuhr and a couple of other liberal Protestants at Union Theological Seminary where Niebuhr taught, most notably John Coleman Bennett and Robert McAfee Brown. Niebuhr and Bennett were also pretty close to Fr. John Courtney Murray, the greatest Catholic protagonist of religious liberty whom the Catholic hierarchy actually forbade to continue writing on the subject in the 1950s.

    I’ll admit that some of Niebuhr’s comments, when isolated, look pretty anti-Catholic. But in the grand scheme of things, he was far more tolerant than most liberal Protestants and many secular liberals as well.

    Niebuhr was never “mostly careful”; rather, he made a name for himself with broad and sweeping generalizations: half of his titles make claims about “Man” or “Society” or “Civilization.” But his always quotable aphorisms were never trite. The were always insightful, even when not wholly fair.

    You could just as easily argue that Niebuhr was “anti-liberal” as you could “anti-Catholic”–he certainly devoted far more energy to criticizing liberals than he did Catholics. Indeed, Michael Novak has been making that argument for decades now, but it still seems pretty absurd to me.

  6. Bo,

    Thanks for chiming in. Agreed on the parameters of anti-Catholicism not being answered here.

    And of course I agree on Blanshard. He was the worst of his kind in his era.

    You observation about Niebuhr not really being a careful writer, in terms of generalizations, is course something I would miss as the reader of only one significant book by him. I guess I expected more careful writing and nuance from Niebuhr based on his reputation—both historically and now (among historians and others). There has been a certain amount of silence on Niebuhr’s negatives in recent discussions of his real and perceived contributions, or relevance, to late twentieth-century political thought. Perhaps Diggins’ book will go some way toward correcting that. Have you read it, or do you have plans for reading it?

    Children does convey a noteworthy amount of anti-liberalism—both the 19th-century variety as well as the mid-20th-century American variety.

    – TL

  7. Just one thought to add: Niebuhr by this time was particularly concerned with international events and his views of Catholicism in the US were linked to his views on the Spanish Civil War and on Latin American nations. His journal /Christianity and Crisis/ is full of his musings on the relationship between Latin American dictatorships and Catholicism, and this created a lens through which he viewed Catholic thought in America. He was someone who rarely distinguished between the different national varieties of Catholicism, let alone between conservative and progressive Catholics. But then again, he was someone who was prone to generalizations, so I am not sure if this is Catholic-specific.

  8. Gene: One of the things made clear in Jay Corrin’s book is that Catholic thought, especially in the United States, was not monolithic in relation to the Spanish Civil War. In other words, plenty of Catholics opposed fascism. I’m not saying that a majority did, but that Niebuhr wouldn’t have had to look hard to see that “Catholic thought” is something of a misnomer when the laity is considered in conjunction with the hierarchy. – TL

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