R.R. Reno of First Things delivered a talk last month to St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers. The talk is “In the Service of the Word: The Catholic Media and the New Evangelization.” First Things is part of my daily media diet, and it’s got a rich history as an effort to connect the thinking of public intellectuals with a wider audience.

In their words they’re for cultivating a “religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society.” First Things matters to me because it’s a place that takes an appreciative thinking approach to Catholicism, meaning it respects Catholic theology and is content with advocating and reporting on the best means to live the faith in a manner that respects its surroundings. Firm in the essentials, flexible in the various particulars.

Reno’s talk is a good one for understanding how First Things approaches Catholicism and how First Things tends to view Catholic’s position in contemporary American society. I particularly liked Reno’s comments in the last few minutes drawing out some of the characteristics of American Catholicism that are super important. They’re super important because they involve precise distinctions that are not often grasped:

“I think the Catholic Church has a charism in America that’s distinctive, that doesn’t fit easily into various party categories. The Catholic Church never has, and it shouldn’t. We’re capable of affirming patriotism without nationalism, without nativism, because we’re a global church. We also didn’t fit in for a long, long time, and felt what it was like to be accused of being anti-American or un-American… We can affirm capitalism without individualism—with a sense of our responsibility to the common good. That’s distinctive. We can affirm modernity’s strong emphasis on freedom, while still emphasizing the important central, fundamental role of responsibility.”

As an American Catholic I benefit from a double foundation for constructing my life. As an American, the foundation of the received wisdom of a revolution that sought to conserve the best aspects of democratic life within a system of Republican self-governance. As a Catholic, the foundation of a theology that provides both the source to govern my own life and the distance necessary to understand and to work toward the maintenance of a just social order.

George Washington instructed the young nation that “religion and morality are the essential pillars of civil society.” Americans have always been somewhat uncomfortable with the role that religion and morality have played in appealing to the better angels of our nature. But a certain lingering discomfort is part of the nature of a sustaining a conscience.

I hope the distinctive aspects of Catholicism that Reno outlines can continue to serve the role that Washington outlined, and help Catholics themselves make better sense of their place in society as people in this world but not of it.