Lent and American Catholic Exceptionalism
Written by Robert Royal
Monday, February 15, 2021
Students of International Affairs sometimes debate American Exceptionalism: the idea that, by the unique nature of its founding, America is a special product of history. You can reach different conclusions about what that means – both positive and negative. People do, and the debate goes on.
Personally, I doubt we’re much above – as people – the general human level. But we’ve been called to play a special role in modern times. We’re an “almost chosen people” as Lincoln put it, tentatively but accurately. And we see in China’s rise and Russia’s machinations – among other actors – what it means for the world if America recedes.
It’s not only Americans who have been fascinated with American Exceptionalism. The great Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain lamented in his Reflections on America: “You are advancing in the night, bearing torches toward which mankind would be glad to turn; but you leave them enveloped in the fog of a merely experiential approach and mere practical conceptualization, with no universal ideas to communicate. For lack of adequate ideology, your lights cannot be seen. I think it is too much modesty.”
That was another age (1956) and decades later we need to re-teach Americans themselves what once made this country great. But not that long ago Maritain could speak like that at the University of Chicago, when even our secular academies were willing to give a hearing to authentic Catholic thought – and a positive view of America. Today, there are over 200 Catholic colleges and universities in America, a large proportion of the Catholic institutions of higher learning in the whole world. Few of them would entertain the kind of arguments Maritain put forward.