Catholics and Freedom

Published November 28, 2011

National Review Online

Fifty-one years ago, John Courtney Murray, whose scholarly work on the history and political theory of religious liberty shaped the Second Vatican Council's 1965 Declaration on Religious Freedom, published We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition–one of the best books ever written on what makes America America. In addition to limning the foundational truths that constituted the “proposition” on which the United States stood or fell, Murray (who borrowed the notion of an “American proposition” from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address) also asked a searching question: Who holds these founding and constituting truths in modern America? Who will carry them into the future and work them into the texture of our institutions of self-governance?

The Jesuit theologian wasn't terribly sanguine about the future carrying capacity of the mainline Protestant churches, which had borne the truths of the American proposition since colonial times. At a midcentury moment when the National Council of Churches held the same seemingly secure position in American society as the American Bar Association and the American Medical Association, Murray sensed the theological confusion that would, over the next few decades, reduce the mainline to the oldline and eventually to the sideline (as Richard John Neuhaus, channeling his inner Jesse Jackson, once put it). Nor did Murray repose much confidence in the American academy, then in thrall to utilitarianism, pragmatism, and the kind of technical reason extolled by JFK in his 1962 Yale commencement address. American academic life, Murray wrote, had long since bidden a quiet farewell to the idea that there are deep truths embedded in the world and in us, that we can know these truths through the arts of reason, and that, in knowing them, we can discover how to build free and virtuous societies.

So where, then? Where was the American community–intellectually sophisticated, willing and able to defend the truths of the American proposition, and with sufficient purchase throughout the multilayered texture of American society–that could carry the cultural torch once held up by the churches of the liberal Protestant mainline and the American academy? That was the question of the hour, Murray suggested, and his answer was a provocation. At a moment in American history when powerful forces were insisting that the United States was and must be a Protestant nation–and were doing so with a passion as great as that of any Falangist convinced of the essential Catholicity of Spain–Murray argued that it was the Catholic community, long suspected of divided loyalties, that could pick up the torch lit by the truths of the American proposition and carry those truths into the future, infusing all society with their glow.

Murray, I suggest, was entirely right about the incapacities of liberal Protestantism and the American academy to sustain and nurture the nation. In the second decade of the 21st century, the former is an irrelevant chaplaincy to Occupy Whatever. And since Murray's day, too much of the latter has deteriorated into deeper and more toxic self-absorption, riding the slippery slope down from John Dewey's pragmatism to the culturally corrosive post-modernism of Richard Rorty and the Modern Language Association.

It took some time, though, for Murray's claim that the Catholics were the new torchbearers of the constituting truths of the American proposition to prove itself. For within a decade after Murray published We Hold These Truths, the Catholic Church in America entered its own silly season; Catholic intellectuals (whose heirs are much among us today) began to deconstruct the intellectual architecture from which Murray and others had built a classic case, expressed in distinctive Catholic accents, for the truths on which the American experience in ordered liberty was founded, and was sustained over time. When the silly season was at its height 30 years ago, however, that classic structure of foundational ideas–the sovereignty of truth, which stands in judgment on politics; the intimate relationship of rights, which are not mere “choices,” to duties; the priority of civil society over the state; the imperative of freedom lived virtuously–was recovered, renovated, and put into play in American public life, thanks to the labors of a group that formed around the aforementioned Father Neuhaus and the parallel labors of Blessed John Paul II. Moreover, that restatement of the American proposition has, over the past two decades, engaged the interest of evangelical Protestants whose grandparents were among the fiercest anti-Catholics of Murray's day, thus making new cultural and political coalitions possible in what had manifestly become a national culture war.

This recovery and development of a great intellectual patrimony has had an impact not only on American public life. It has had a profound effect on ecclesiastical life in these United States, as the Catholic bishops of America have taken up the cudgels, first in defense of the primordial right to life (one of the first truths in Murray's architectonic scheme), and now in defense of religious freedom. For the bishops today sense that this first of American liberties–first both conceptually and in constitutional pride of place–is being threatened by those who attempt to impose relativism as the official national creed, and who are trying to do so through coercive state power.

Murray was right, then: Catholics would continue to make a serious intellectual contribution to the country's cultural and political life by defending the first principles of American democracy. But he was only half right, because more than a few Catholics, including many in prominent positions in government and the commentariat, haven't gotten the message. Indeed, these Catholic politicians and commentators exemplify, in a way that Norman Vincent Peale (who helped lead the charge for “Protestant America” in 1960) couldn't have imagined, a truly divided Catholic loyalty: But in this instance, the tension is not between fidelity to the Creed and to the Pledge of Allegiance, but between claims of loyalty to Catholicism, on the one hand, and, on the other, what always seem to be the trumping claims of progressivist politics, especially as the latter is articulated by the Obama administration.

Thus House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, whose capacity for rational thought (never overdeveloped) is fast waning, recently challenged the U.S. bishops' protest of a proposed Obama administration regulatory scheme that would compel insurance providers (and Catholic institutions that buy the insurance) to provide abortifacient drugs to their clients. The bishops, Mrs. Pelosi complained, have “this conscience thing” that “insists on [putting] women at physical risk.” Pelosi, in this instance and others, is the running-mate of HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who, like the former House speaker, is terribly confused both about Catholic teaching and about the first principles of democracy; it was Sebelius's department that issued the draft regulations on implementing Omabacare, and it is Sebelius who has vociferously defended both the abortion license and the dictatorship of relativism involved in imposing that license on the country through Obamacare.

While the pro-life cause has been a staple of the U.S. bishops' public commentary for decades, it's the religious-freedom issues engaged by the proposed implementation of Obamacare (issues that find a parallel in the attempt to coerce the Catholic Church and other Christian communities into tacit or explicit endorsement of “gay marriage”) that have drawn the bishops' recent counter-battery fire. And their robust defense of religious freedom was in turn given solid support by Pope Benedict XVI in his recent discussion with American bishops visiting Rome. The president of the U.S. bishops' conference, Archbisho
p Timothy Dolan of New York, stressed the religious-freedom theme in his presidential address to his confreres and in his homily at a Mass they celebrated together during their November national meeting. Dolan has also appointed an all-star special bishops' committee on religious freedom, which includes many of the most intellectually hefty members of the U.S. episcopate and is backed up by an equally notable list of lay consultants, including some of the country's finest First Amendment scholars.

Archbishop Dolan's initiatives have paralleled those of other individual bishops and groups of bishops. Thus the Maryland Catholic Conference recently issued a strong statement in defense of religious freedom, signed by the cardinal-archbishop of Washington, Donald Wuerl; the apostolic administrator of the archdiocese of Baltimore, Edwin O'Brien; and the bishop of Wilmington, W. Francis Malooly. The Maryland statement, while reminding its readers that one root of the national commitment to religious freedom was the 1649 Maryland Act of Religious Toleration, noted the multiple (and multiplying) threats to religious freedom today: the attempt to reduce “religious freedom” to a private freedom of worship, thus driving religiously informed moral argument out of public life; the attempt in at least one state to have public authorities take control of the internal affairs of the Catholic Church; the legal requirement that crisis-pregnancy centers provide abortion referrals; and the proposed regulations by which Catholic health-care providers and insurers would be legally obligated to provide abortifacient drugs in the guise of “emergency contraception” and other abortion “services.”

It is perhaps to be expected that the New York Times's principal religion correspondent, Laurie Goodstein, prefers to describe Dolan's efforts and those of other bishops as a “recasting” of the bishops' “fight against abortion and same-sex marriage”–as if these things were matters of focus-group-driven rebranding rather than questions of the first principles of democracy. But what are we to make of cradle Catholic E. J. Dionne Jr., who in his November 23 op-ed column in the Washington Post tried to drive a wedge between Archbishop Dolan and the religious-freedom committee he appointed, while concurrently arguing that “right-wing bishops aren't helping the cause of compromise with their incessant charges that the Obama team harbors an anti-Catholic bias”?

Perhaps in some future column, Dr. Dionne will produce evidence of the widespread public use by bishops or groups of bishops of the term “anti-Catholic bias” in referring to the Obama administration. I doubt he'll be able to find it, any more than he'll find a millimeter's worth of difference between Archbishop Dolan and the bishops' committee on religious freedom in their views of the dangers posed by the Obama administration to the first of American liberties–a threat that is not to Catholics only. And it would be instructive if Dionne and the allies he describes as “progressive Catholics” and “social-justice Catholics” would let us know just what they find progressive, and what they find just, in regulatory schemes that coerce consciences across the complex health-care system; in efforts by the state to dictate the meaning of “reproductive health” in Orwellian terms; in the fierce resistance of the administration to helping poor children attend inner-city Catholic schools through modest tuition vouchers; and in the State Department's redefinition of “religious freedom” as “freedom of worship,” period.

“Progressive Catholics” and “social-justice Catholics” do both the Church and American democracy a disservice by suggesting that the bishops' recent alarms about threats to religious freedom are self-serving, as if the bishops were simply playing institutional defense and battling for the right to indulge the Catholic Church's idiosyncrasies. That is false. The bishops are raising issues of first principles–precisely the kind of issues that Murray hoped the Catholic Church would help keep alive in American democracy. Those Catholics who don't understand that, and who misrepresent the public service the bishops are doing on behalf of all Americans, invite the impression that they are partisans in a profound state of denial, in which “progressive” politics trumps the Church's faith, and the moral truths to which faith bears witness, at every turn.

– George Weigel, biographer of Pope John Paul II, is a distinguished senior fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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