Christians in America: are they Christians first, or Americans first? Dr. Patrick Powers, fellow of the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, provided his perspective on the question, one born out of a long and distinguished career studying and teaching politics in the United States and abroad, in the latest installment of the Center for Political and Economic Thought’s ongoing lecture series.
According to his biography, Powers attended Assumption College, Notre Dame and the Universite de Fribourg (in Fribourg, Switzerland). He has taught at Assumption, Notre Dame, Magdalen College, and now, at Thomas More, is the director of the “Fides et Ratio” summer seminar program.
In a wide-ranging, conversational lecture, Powers wove together his own experiences as a young man trying to decide between political philosophy and practical engagement with a historical account of the role of Catholics in American public life. Upon witnessing the political turmoil of the 1960s, Powers decided not to engage. Instead, he chose to take a step back to understand how it worked, he said. This, Powers thinks, meshes with what American Catholics did for much of the 19th century: because they faced severe barriers to holding elected office in the form of fierce anti-Catholic public sentiment, they were obliged to contribute in other ways, mostly as intellectuals, or, sometimes, through the courts. (Famous, or infamous, Chief Justice Roger Taney was a Catholic, Powers noted.) This reality changed in the 20th century as public sentiment shifted, leading to an influx of Catholics into Congress and even the presidency, and a new focus on the part of United States bishops on social justice and political engagement.
Powers prefers the earlier approach. He argued that Catholicism has a long tradition of intellectual learning, learning that gives Catholics a deep understanding of America’s founding principles. This understanding is best used in a deliberative sense, he suggested. When exposed to the pressures to conform to public expectations found in Congress, it becomes too easily warped and distorted, he argued, creating Catholics who are American before being Catholic.
Many students attending the lecture were confused by the title of the lecture. It was called, “Our Tale of Two Cities: What has Rome to do (and not to do) with the American Regime?”
“I thought it was going to be about how the ancient Roman Republic compared to modern American government,” said Claire Sirofchuck, freshman English and Studio Art major.
“I was actually excited to see how the two regimes would correlate,” stated freshman Political Philosophy major Christopher Maier. “Taking the route he did—talking about ‘Rome’ as in ‘the Vatican’— it was surprising.”
Paul Weisser, junior politics and philosophy major, wasn’t quite sold on Powers’s vision for American Catholicism.
“He definitely approached it from a very Catholic point of view, and I would like to see a bit more of the American point of view,” Weisser said.
Weisser also worried that Powers’ opinion on the seeming incompatibility between Catholic principles and responsiveness to the people implied incompatibility between Catholicism and democracy in general.
“Based on the way he seemed to be arguing, I’d then want to ask more about how democracy and Catholicism align in his point of view, if being in a body where there’s changing public opinion could be problematic,” Weisser said.
However, Weisser said he still enjoyed the lecture.
“I think it was great for getting a lot of people thinking. I think sometimes one of the best things [the CPET lectures] can do is just put a question out there and give us some viewpoints and then let us go think about them,” Weisser stated. “I think this one was fascinating.”