Truly one of the great books—that readers continue to mine for insight about our American way of life, is Democracy in America—by a very perceptive French nobleman, and devout Catholic, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) and here is what he had to say about Catholicism in America, in three parts; part two tomorrow:
“The greatest part of English America has been peopled by men who, after having escaped the authority of the pope, did not submit to any religious supremacy; they therefore brought to the New World a Christianity that I cannot depict better than to call it democratic and republican: this singularity favors the establishment of a republic and of democracy in affairs. From the beginning, politics and religion were in accord, and they have not ceased to be so since.
“Around fifty years ago [he was writing in 1830], Ireland began to pour a Catholic population into the United States. For its part, American Catholicism made proselytes: today one encounters more than a million Christians in the Union who profess the truths of the Roman Church.
“These Catholics show great fidelity in their practices of worship and are full of ardor and zeal for their beliefs; nevertheless they form the most republican and democratic class there is in the United States. This fact surprises one at first approach, but reflection easily uncovers its hidden causes.
“I think that it is wrong to regard the Catholic religion as a natural enemy of democracy. Among the different Christian doctrines, Catholicism appears to me, on the contrary, one of the most favorable to equality of conditions. Among Catholics, religious society is composed of only two elements: the priest and the people. The priest alone is raised above the faithful: everything is equal below him.
“In the matter of dogma, Catholicism places the same standard on all intellects; it forces the details of the same beliefs on the learned as well as the ignorant, the man of genius as well as the vulgar; it imposes the same practices on the rich as on the poor, inflicts the same austerities on the powerful as the weak; it compromises with no mortal, and applying the same measure to each human, it likes to intermingle all classes of society at the foot of the same altar, as they are intermingled in the eyes of God.” (Democracy in America, Mansfield/Winthrop translation, pp. 275-276)