The New Liberal Clericalism

Should the magisterium of the Church protect all the faithful, or just look out for itself? You would think that after more than a decade of the sex-abuse crisis, Catholics would have learned the answer to this question.

Thankfully the U.S. Bishops are now protecting the religious freedom of their flock. But some Catholics think those bishops are mistaken. After an impressive column on Tuesday where Michael Sean Winters decided to actually read one of the lawsuits against the HHS Mandate, yesterday Winters reverted back to attacking the idea that the Catholic lay faithful possess religious freedom.

Winters chastizes the bishops for seeking to protect anyone from immoral government mandates except for the heirarchy and its own operations. And he again emphasizes that his view is theological, not pragmatic: the religious liberty of the “Church” does not include the laity.

This is nothing more than neo-clericalism. Winters insists the bishops have no business shielding lay Catholics from governmental attacks. Under his view, shepherds are supposed to look out for themselves, not their flocks. This is like insisting that the Church should not really care about all the poor, just the poor who are served by Catholic Charities.

Winters rejects by name the Second Vatican Council’s teaching that religious freedom is a paramount concern that includes the laity. This teaching is a corrolary to the Council’s insistence that the Church is the People of God, including the laity and the magisterium both.

Presently, our national government seeks to purge faithful lay Catholics from massive portions of society by requiring them to provide inherently evil items. But Winters attacks the bishops for seeking to protect those faithful. And this is not just an attack on Catholic women and men who run businesses. Winters even ridicules the idea that lay apostolic efforts such as EWTN enjoy religious freedom.

Winters believes that protecting “individual” consciences will fuel libertarianism. But if subjectivist religion is the concern, one must at least protect people from a mandate that violates official Church teaching. Instead Winters essentially rejects the lay faithful’s status as members of the Church who therefore possess her own religious liberty. His view empties Christ from the life of the believer, even the objectively-taught Christ. To Winters, Catholics aren’t the Church unless they are direct agents of the bishops.

As a result Winters and HHS do not fundamentally disagree about defining religion narrowly. He claims to oppose HHS’ view that only churches who serve themselves are religious. But in exchange Winters maintains that religious freedom belongs only to bishops and their direct extensions, not to their flock faithfully living their vocations in society. They aren’t “churchy” enough.

Denying religious liberty to the lay faithful is completely incompatible with Catholic social teaching and the Second Vatican Council. Nothing justifies a Catholic’s attack on bishops who are trying to protect the laity from being driven out of business and the apostolate due to their faithfulness to Church teaching.



  • Gerald Donahue

    We do not get to decide what God wants us to do:”feed my sheep”. We believe and obey or we do not. There is no possible way to justify ignoring God’s Commands. ALL Life is precious, feed the hungry, share our excess with those in need, Love one another as Christ loves us!

    And as for rendering to caesar; “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or Prohibit the Free Exercise thereof.” No executive, legislative, nor judicial branch of government can issue an order, nor mandate, nor law, nor ruling that prohibits the free exercise of religion.

  • Paul

    To say nothing of being completely incompatible with the American constitutional ideal which, in repeated court cases up to and including the Supreme Court, have upheld the rights of individuals to exercise their first amendment rights which include the free exercise of their religious faith for individuals and private lay groups. The “Lemon Test” Established by Lemon v. Kurtzman has consistently upheld the individual right to pray while claiming that government does -not- have the right to force prayer or religious teaching on someone.

    If the individual person has the right to freely convert, say, from Catholicism to Atheism, or from Judaism to Protestantism, or from Atheism to Islam, then the individual has the right to freedom of religion.

    Mr. Winters’ opinion is simply an erroneous opinion both theologically, and legally in the light of precedent in America.

  • kar

    Off topic: Can you please make a post about the Holy See statement about universal health care.

  • Frank Alaniz

    The sad thing is I think many Catholic laity would agree with him. The Church in the medieval ages proved to be very hierarchical and centered on clergy as the Body, unfortunately this has bled over into our times. I would dare say that if today you ask many a Catholic who the Church is they’ll quickly point at to their priest, bishop, or the holy father.

    It seems like Winters is capitalizing on this and it makes perfect sense to those who wish to be of and live in the world while maintaining a Catholic heritage.



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