Published January 29, 2021
Imagine yourself the op-ed page editor of a newspaper that prides itself on rigorous editorial standards. A column comes in, declaring Donald Trump the greatest president since Lincoln and citing as warrants for that claim Kellyanne Conway, Sidney Powell, Rep. Jim Jordan, and Steve Bannon. What do you do?
You toss the piece in the trash can or hit the delete button on your computer. Why? Because ill-informed encomia buttressed by cheers from partisans do not make for serious commentary.
Alas, that protocol seems not to have occurred to the op-ed editors at the Washington Post who, on January 28, ran an article in which E.J. Dionne, Jr., joined the progressive Catholic media chorus in its two obsessions of the moment: the denunciation of Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles for the Inauguration Day statement in which the USCCB president expressed concern about certain likely Biden administration policies, and the claim that President Biden’s election will accelerate the revival of liberal Catholicism in America.
Dionne’s celebrants of the anti-Gomez pile-on and his sources for that strange prediction? Four of the most voluble liberal Catholics in the country. Moreover, in the course of his op-ed Dionne misrepresented the teaching of Pope Francis on the Church’s public witness, portrayed Mr. Biden as some sort of authority on “the Catholicism of the Second Vatican Council,” misconstrued the dynamics within the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and endorsed a most un-liberal-Catholic resort to authoritarian Roman ultramontanism in order to marginalize U.S. bishops less enamored of the Biden administration.
Quite something for one 800-word column.
What Post editors deemed “the struggle for American Catholicism” in their headline on Dionne’s column does indeed, as the author suggested, encompass “more than a half-century of Catholic history.” But rather than trace the roots of the struggle back to the early Sixties and the era of the “two Johns” – John XXIII and John F. Kennedy – it would be more accurate to locate the flashpoint in 1968, the trigger being Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on the morally appropriate means of regulating fertility, Humanae Vitae. Activist U.S. Catholic progressives and many American theologians were key figures in lobbying the Vatican for a change in what was long taken to be settled Catholic teaching on the ethics of marital love – a campaign conducted behind the scenes in Rome and, tellingly, in the international media. Paul VI resisted those pressures, taught that family planning was a moral obligation, and reaffirmed the Church’s teaching that, in meeting that obligation, couples should make use of the natural rhythms of biology because that method of fertility regulation was most congruent with human dignity, especially the dignity of women. Progressive Catholics were stunned – or, in the British vernacular, gobsmacked – and they’ve never recovered their equilibrium since.
Pope Paul’s warnings in Humanae Vitae that a contraceptive mentality would do grave damage to relations between men and women, to family life, to the public moral culture, and to society as a whole were ignored, when not lampooned, by liberal Catholics. The link between a contraceptive mentality and abortion as a method of ex-post-facto “birth control” was denied. Schemes of “faithful dissent” were devised by progressive theologians, who thereby greased the skids on which Catholic politicians careened down the slippery slope from support for contraception to support for legalized abortion to support for taxpayer-funded contraception and abortion – the gravamen of the battle between the proponents of Obamacare and the Little Sisters of the Poor, which is about to recommence, thanks to the nation’s second baptized Catholic president.
The progressive Catholic attack on Archbishop Gomez, echoed in E.J. Dionne’s column, may strike some as puzzling. For in his measured and wholly respectful Inauguration Day statement, the USCCB president pledged to work with the new administration on a host of causes dear to liberal Catholics: immigration and criminal justice reform, climate change, economic development, and world peace. So why the anti-Gomez rancor, indeed fury, in portside Catholicism? Because throughout this half-century of “struggle,” progressive Catholics have, in the main, consistently surrendered to the cultural headwinds of the sexual revolution. And those headwinds now carry the message (which seems congenial to the Biden Administration) that contraception, abortion, the LGBT agenda, and gender ideology are a package deal that must be accepted in full.
In a perverse and disturbing sense that is, of course, true. For the package in question is built on the foundation of a false anthropology of expressive individualism, in which the human person is reduced to a bundle of morally commensurable desires, the satisfaction of which is the duty of the state under the rubric of protecting “human rights.” But if the idea of “human rights” is traduced into the law’s endorsement of virtually any form of personal willfulness, then democracy is gravely imperiled. For the past four years, the Washington Post’s masthead has warned that “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Well, democracy also dies in decadence. And Catholic progressives, who ought to have been among the carriers of a more authentic notion of “human rights,” have quailed at the thought of pushing back against the lifestyle libertinism that is eroding the foundations of democracy in the United States and throughout the world, paving the way to what Benedict XVI aptly, if sharply, described as the “dictatorship of relativism.”
Is that phrase, “the dictatorship of relativism,” hyperbolic? I’m rather sure that E.J. Dionne and the liberal Catholics he deems authorities on contemporary American Catholicism would dismiss it as such. Consider, however, what the Biden Administration did in its first eight days in office.
Within hours of the president’s inauguration, the administration issued an executive order that risks imposing gender ideology and its falsification of the human condition on state-run schools throughout the country through the use of federal education dollars – as the “Equality Act” the president has promised to sign would, by deeming them “public accommodations,” erode the religious freedom of any religious community that does not bow to LGBT ideology in arranging its facilities.
On the forty-eighth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the White House issued a statement celebrating its creation of one of the most radical abortion regimes in the world and promising to enshrine that license in federal law.
A few days later, the president reversed the “Mexico City Policy” that banned the use of U.S. foreign aid funds for abortions abroad.
Is this really what the once-noble liberal Catholic project wants to defend and promote: the use of coercive state power to impose a relativistic ethic on all of society in the name of what every serious Catholic must recognize as a terribly distorted and harmful concept of freedom?
It is a sad commentary on the state of Catholic progressivism that, having lost so many of the intellectual arguments over the past forty years while demonstrating its evangelical and pastoral sterility, it now looks to political power to resuscitate itself. This Esau-like sale of one’s birthright did not have to happen. The fevered conspiracy theories of some Catholic traditionalists and the false historical narratives of some Catholic progressives notwithstanding, there is no straight or necessary line from the reform Catholicism of the mid-twentieth century and the Second Vatican Council to today’s liberal Catholic surrender to the Zeitgeist. One emblematic figure from the Vatican II era may illustrate that point.
Fr. John Courtney Murray, SJ, editor of Theological Studies, religion editor of America, and one of the architects of Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, was dismissed by progressive Catholics, shortly after his death in 1967, as impossibly old hat and behind the times. Now, Fr. Murray is being posthumously recruited as the prophet of the progressive Catholic revival being led by President Biden: a ridiculous notion at which the sometimes acerbic Jesuit would have groaned – before asking for a restorative “Beefeater martini, desperately dry.”
As author of the phrase, “The Murray Project” – a shorthand description of a cautionary, critically affirmative Catholic analysis of the American democratic experiment – I will say with some confidence that Fr. Murray would have agreed with Justice Byron White’s description of Roe v. Wade as an act of “raw judicial power” with no serious constitutional foundation. And that Murray would have been appalled by the pro-abortion voting record in Congress of his fellow-Jesuit, Robert Drinan, SJ, who long provided cover for Catholic politicians tacking to the prevailing cultural winds. And that Murray would have found Mario Cuomo’s 1984 Notre Dame speech on Church-and-state – the Magna Carta for the progressive Catholic marginalization of the life issues in national politics – as intellectually anorexic as he found John F. Kennedy’s 1960 address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. And that Murray would have been saddened by the ignorance of such eminent Catholic public officials as Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi about the bedrock Catholic social justice principle of the dignity of every human life from conception until natural death – a principle, Murray would insist, that we can know from both reason and revelation.
Catholic progressives were not so craven in the face of legal segregation during the classic period of the civil rights movement; they were, in fact, bold and brave. So why the surrender to the Zeitgeist now? And why the indifference to what that surrender underwrites in terms of cultural, political, and legal pressures on fellow-Catholics who believe what the Church teaches, and will always teach? Is access to the halls of power really that important? Do many progressive Catholics actually think that the Church teaches falsely about human dignity and its implications in public life? Do progressive Catholics really believe that Pope Francis, who has consistently criticized gender ideology and the neo-colonialism embodied by western foreign aid’s subsidizing of contraception and abortion in the developing world, is cheered by what the Biden administration has done in its first week and a half in office?
In any event, the claim that President Biden, whose grip on basic Catholic social doctrine principles is as insecure as his piety is genuine, will revive the dying progressive Catholic project seems ill-founded: more like a trip to Fantasyland than a likely outcome of the challenging four years ahead.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.