The Blinders on the Right

Conservative Catholic intellectuals have spent the last few weeks harshly accusing liberal Catholics for being so eager to curry favor with the Obama administration, that they have betrayed the Church, accepting a compromise on the issue of HHS mandates that is inadequate at best. But, I would submit, that conservative Catholics are just as responsible for the failure to find a resolution to this issue and have been frankly surprised at how weak their arguments have been. Indeed, it is not going too far to say that they have been as eager to turn over the precious concern for religious liberty into the partisan hands of their Republican friends as some liberals have been eager to get back into the good graces of the Obama White House.

I am not a fan of histrionics, no matter from whom they come. But, all this talk about a “war on Catholicism” like Bill Donohue’s annual rant about a “war on Christmas” is a bit much. Yes, there are some people in our culture who really hate the Catholic Church, but President Obama does not appear to be one of them, although after the brouhaha over FOCA and the vicious personal attacks over his appearance at Notre Dame and attempt to defeat the Affordable Care Act, he can be forgiven for thinking that we Catholics, or at least some bishops, have it in for him. His administration has increased funding to Catholic Charities and other church-run programs even though they made a regrettable decision, also made by HHS, regarding our human trafficking programs. At least, the verdict is not one of 100 percent hostility as you would think from some of the rantings from the right. Besides, there certainly were more people who hated the Church back in the 1950s, the days of Paul Blanshard and his ilk, to say nothing of earlier periods in our nation’s history.

It is true that the HHS mandates are “unprecedented” but, then again, the Affordable Care Act is unprecedented. Now, you may think that federal involvement in health care is a bad thing, or you may not, but it is undoubtedly well within the tradition of Catholic social thought to believe that if the market has failed to achieve universal health care, the government can and should step in to guarantee this basic human right. As for the mandated coverage and how that applies to Catholic institutions, I take a back seat to no one in the firmness with which I have defended the religious liberty of our Catholic institutions. But, the arguments from the right have been so narrow and so biased, it is difficult to see how they will advance the cause of religious liberty.

Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon has a post up at America that begins: “Until recently the status of religious liberty as one of the most fundamental rights of Americans has seldom been seriously challenged.” Really? Did Ms. Glendon sleep through the controversy over the building of a mosque in lower Manhattan near Ground Zero? Certainly, that raised issues of religious liberty, did it not? (Bishop Lori, in his congressional testimony, also failed to mention the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” incident.)

I invoke the Ground Zero example pointedly. Ms. Glendon is a constitutional scholar and a very fine and learned one. Surely, then, she knows that the tyranny that most worried the founders, and which the Constitution and especially the Bill of Rights was designed to frustrate, is a tyranny of the majority. It seems to me that the mosque incident was much more an example of the tyranny of the majority than the HHS mandates. This country has many Catholics, and both parties regularly appeal to the Catholic vote. Surely, our rights are not as endangered, even by an HHS mandate, as are the rights of Muslims who wished only to build a house of worship for themselves.

Later in her article, she writes, “Emboldened by recent developments, militant secularists are claiming that religious freedom is an unnecessary right.” Funny, in my daily activities, I do not run into too many militant secularists, do you? Ah, but I do not frequent law school campuses. I would agree that the legal culture, quite uniquely in our society, entertains ideas about the role of religion in society that are inimical to Catholic ideas, and that in that legal culture, drunk on Positivism and Rawls and all the nastiest detritus of the Enlightenment, many anti-Catholic champions emerge, whether they know it or not. And, I recognize that our government, and the various activist one-issue groups that populate Washington, are largely staffed by lawyers drawn from that culture. I will leave it to legal scholars to figure out how to fix their own profession and its culture of scholarship.

But, I will also point out that among the principal legal difficulties making it unlikely the Church would win redress on the issue of the HHS mandates is the Supreme Court decision in Employment Division v. Smith, a decision written by none other than that noted liberal, anti-Catholic zealot, Justice Antonin Scalia. It was Scalia, not President Obama, who wrote, “Although a State would be “prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]” in violation of the Clause if it sought to ban the performance of (or abstention from) physical acts solely because of their religious motivation, the Clause does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a law that incidentally forbids (or requires) the performance of an act that his religious belief requires (or forbids) if the law is not specifically directed to religious practice and is otherwise constitutional as applied to those who engage in the specified act for nonreligious reasons. See, e.g., Reynolds v. United States, 98 U. S. 145, 98 U. S. 166-167. The only decisions in which this Court has held that the First Amendment bars application of a neutral, generally applicable law to religiously motivated action are distinguished on the ground that they involved not the Free Exercise Clause alone, but that Clause in conjunction with other constitutional protections.” Hmmmm. Looks like a crimped view of religious liberty is not only found in the Obama administration.

Glendon goes on to argue that, “The ability of religious persons and groups to participate in public deliberation about the conditions under which they live, work and raise their children is also at risk.” Again, I have to ask, really? Have we been watching the same debate the last few months? It seems to me that the Church has never been more active in the public square. It is true that there has been political pushback: I may not like Planned Parenthood, but they, too, have a right to try and shape the public debate and if we are going to go after them, you can bet they are going to come after us. That is how politics works.

George Weigel, in the National Review, brings back John Courtney Murray to chastise liberal Catholics with betraying their own patrimony. As regular readers will recognize, I am not convinced that Murray was not more part of the problem than the solution. Certainly, one has a hard time imagining Pope Benedict uttering these words of Murray’s regarding the Declaration on Religious Liberty: “The real difficulty, however, is that the argument [for religious liberty] from man’s duty to search for the truth, whatever its value, does not deserve the fundamental place in the structure of a demonstration of the right to religious freedom.” I also have trouble thinking Benedict XVI would share Murray’s contention that one of the theological implication of the Decree on Religious Liberty was “the secularity of the secular,” which reflects Murray’s continued insistence on a dualism that Pope Benedict finds problematic to say the least.

Weigel also states that the current religious liberty debate reflects, among other things, “the failure of the Catholic Church to educate the faithful in its own social doctrine” and “the reluctance of the U.S. bishops’ conference to forcefully apply that social doctrine — especially its principle of subsidiarity — during the Obamacare debate.” What to say? George Weigel has decided to make a career out of misunderstanding subsidiarity and the entire social doctrine of the Church, so pleased with himself for sneaking a few nods towards capitalism into the text of Centesimus Annus. But, those sentences read today like Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History,” written in the afterglow of the fall of Communism. Certainly, they were not reflected in last year’s note on faith and finance from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, a note that Weigel dismissed as the work of non-experts who work in a “rather small office in the Vatican Curia.” And, I don’t think the few encomiums to capitalism Weigel cherishes were reflected in Pope Benedict’s more recent, and more trenchant, critique of capitalism, when he said, “The world of finance, while necessary, no longer represents an instrument that favors our well-being or the life of mankind, instead it has become an oppressive power, that almost demands our adoration, mammon, the false divinity that truly dominates the world.” Tell me, Mr. Weigel – Does Pope Benedict XVI represent a “rather small office in the Vatican curia”?

I have many, many difficulties with some of my Catholic friends who range themselves on the left politically and, especially, theologically. But, it is not they who are diminishing the important argument about religious liberty, but Glendon and Weigel, blinded as they are, and reducing the discussion to a partisan cause. They both see the world through thoroughly partisanized lenses; how else to explain their failure to mention, say, the religious liberty issues raised by anti-immigration laws? How else to explain their horror at a health care mandate without even a mention of the moral obligation that we all, as humans, have to provide health care for our fellow humans? Viewing the world through a partisan lens is their right, to be sure, but could they cut with the suggestion that anyone who disagrees with them must be motivated by ignorance of the faith or of American history?

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