I began writing about current Catholic news when I was still studying theology in graduate school. That means I approached the controversies of the day through an academic lens. One day in class I’d be looking at the Pelagian heresy and St. Augustine’s efforts to eradicate it, and later that day I’d be blogging about a controversy over a Catholic hospital performing sterilizations, violating a USCCB mandate.
I continue to favor using an academic lens in my writing about Catholic controversies. The question I search for, in other words, is which side is right, which perspective is true, instead of asking which side’s viewpoint (right or wrong) will prevail in establishing itself as the dominant one shaping culture now and in the future.
This means I usually didn’t mind all that much when a liberal Catholic would spout some theological nonsense in a TV interview — they were wrong, the Church was right, and that’s the end of it.
… or so I thought.
I now realize that looking at the current Catholic controversies through a purely academic lens is totally insufficient to the gravity of the moment.
Here’s why, to put it simply: because liberal and orthodox Catholics aren’t actually debating theology per se anymore. We’re debating the very identity of the Church vis-a-vis the State, and our competing views of loyalty to the State and the Church — to God and Caesar.
For orthodox Catholics, the Church (founded on Christ) is the ultimate moral and personal authority, it supersedes the State in every area where the Church has primacy, namely, faith and morals.
For liberal Catholics, however, I see only increasing evidence that the State and the liberal view of the State are their ultimate authority. Liberal consensus on issues such as abortion, contraception, homosexuality, gay marriage, religious liberty, climate change (and I could name others) are more foundational, more paramount for them than what the Church teaches.
This trend should come as no great surprise to those who are students of history. As Cardinal George recently wrote in his weekly column (entitled simply “Conscience“):
What history teaches clearly [...] is that when the dominant culture and its laws eliminate religious freedom, the state becomes sacred. No appeal to God or to a morality based on religious faith is allowed to break into the closed circle of civil legalism. The state’s coercive power is not limited to keeping external order; it invades the internal realm of one’s relation to God. The state becomes a church.
Even if you are prone to dismiss this warning that “the state threatens to become a church” as mere hyperbole, pause for a moment and consider some evidence: how else are we to understand the constant habit of liberal Catholics to choose progressive government policies over the warnings and objections of our bishops? Aren’t they in fact choosing the “Magisterium of Washington” over the Magisterium of Rome?
Consider this excerpt from a recent editorial by the National Catholic Reporter:
The church is bound to increasingly find itself in disputes with the wider society as it takes unyielding stands on such issues as homosexuality, contraception and abortion. In these cases, of course, one church’s argument for upholding its civil rights is another group’s perception of a rationale for denying its civil rights.”
Break-down the logic: these “Catholic” editors presume that the Church’s “civil rights” are in conflict with the progressive understanding of “civil rights” for gays and lesbians which demand the redefinition of marriage and “civil rights” for women which demand that government pay for abortions and contraception. This is, after all, what the Church currently objects to the State doing.
The solution, boiled-down, of the editors of NCR is for the Church to compromise. It will require, in their words “a bit of give-and-take.” The Church can only hope to work with the State on issues where the State agrees with the Church, not the other way around. The olive branch the State offers to the Church is this: “We hold to our beliefs, you compromise.”
You find echoes of this coercive thinking in other liberal Catholic writers and thinkers, such as Bryan Cones the editor of U.S. Catholic who writes this about the Church’s teaching on homosexuality:
While the church may restrict sexual expression to marriage between a man and a woman, it must find a way to affirm the created value of sexuality that does not fit the heterosexual model, even if it cannot find a way to permit its physical expression.
Notice the same pattern: this editor of a Catholic newspaper indulges the Church by permitting her to hold to her own beliefs, but also requires that the Church leave her own beliefs and find common ground with those who dissent from her teaching on the ground of the dissenters. Does Cones consider how the Church is to consistently affirm non-heterosexual sexuality while holding to a tradition about the human person as old as Genesis? Of course not, because the main goal Cones has is for the Church to meet him only within the narrow boundaries his ideological commitments allow.
Imagine the disastrous consequences for the religious liberty of Catholic individuals and as an institution this poses. The brilliant Jesuit scholar Fr. James Schall already has glimpsed the future now taking shape:
Catholics have little legal future in this country except as a narrow, strictly defined sect. Catholic law schools, lawyers, and politicians have proved mostly ineffective or indeed abettors in the process by which “human rights” are used, step by seemingly logical step, to eliminate Catholics from the public order. Much has already occurred. The “Catholics” who are the prime target are those who hold and live the central teachings of reason and faith. Those who do not, matter little.
Let’s connect this to what we’ve already seen: Fr. Schall points out that false “human rights” (called “civil rights” in legal terms) are the wedge by which progressives have successfully pushed –and continue to push– Catholic witness out of the public square. Fr. Schall writes:
Almost everything is now in place for a full-scale legal persecution of the Church, all concocted under the aegis of government protection of “human rights.” The meaning of “rights” the government itself defines in the name of “freedom” and “equality.” It is noble-sounding, but as Plato said: “Entreaties of sovereigns are mixed with compulsion.” This admonition includes democratic sovereigns.
This leads into the real point of this post. It’s what Fr. Schall calls the “abettors” of this process by which the State pushes the Church out of the public square entirely. The most effective abettors of this process are liberal Catholics, who put the State and their liberal ideology ahead of their commitment to the Catholic faith and Catholic moral witness. As Fr. Schall chillingly concludes “Our ‘invasion’ does not come from the outside.” How do we spot the invaders from within?
The litmus test for what defines a liberal Catholic who has switched their primary allegiance to the State is their willingness to see the State coercively constrict the Church’s institutional footprint and deny the faith-formed conscience of individual Catholics.
The examples are manifold: Those in favor of forcing Catholic adoption and foster care agencies to close down. Those in favor of forcing Catholic hospitals to perform sterilizations and abortions, and to dispense contraception. Those in favor of denying Catholic charities federal grants in helping the victims of sex trafficking. Those who oppose the Church’s right to fight to protect the definition of marriage in state and federal law. Those who want Catholic universities under the thumb of the EEOC. Those who want to see the Church stripped of her tax-exempt status. The list could go on and on, but the rational is clear and the valid parameters are obvious once someone has been shown the pattern.
For instance, I’m not talking about the sometimes necessary contraction of the Church’s institutional footprint due to demographics — because it’s unreasonable to presume the Catholic Church of 2011 will have the same relative size as the Catholic Church of 1965. I’m talking about the intentional efforts to shrink the Church where if she were allowed to exercise her rights freely she would remain and even increase.
Some Catholics are eager for a “smaller, more faithful Church.” I’m not. Lessening the Church does not increase her mission. And, as Archbishop Timothy Dolan said in his recent book-length interview with John Allen:
“We are an incarnational, sacramental Church. We’re on city blocks. That’s where we’re enfleshed. That incarnational persona of the Church is gradually melting away, isn’t it? That’s something we have to be worried about.”
And as Dr. Robert Moynihan recently wrote, speaking about the consequences of a diminished role and presence of the Catholic Church internationally: “Inevitably, the Church’s positions on social and moral issues [will] receive less attention.” Whenever the Church shrinks, her unique ability to uphold the dignity of mankind is diminished as well.
I want to end on a hopeful note, because there is one. George Weigel expresses it well:
In the United States, the progressives have also been steadily losing their grip at the national, diocesan, and local-parish levels. Various lay-renewal movements have become vital and self-consciously orthodox factors in Catholic life, and a new generation of priests and bishops, many of whom look explicitly to John Paul II as their model of ecclesiastical leadership, have come to the fore. For the past half-decade or more, the Catholic bishops of the United States, following the pope’s lead, have increasingly stressed the importance of Catholic identity, by which they understand fidelity to Catholic teaching, in confronting an increasingly hostile cultural and legal/political environment. That problem has been considerably exacerbated by the Obama administration, which many Catholic progressives welcomed with loud hosannas, and for whose regulatory assault on Catholic health-care and social-service agencies progressives have provided cover, often by implausible appeals to Catholic social doctrine.
I hope it’s clear how my exposition above helps explain the individual parts and components of the bigger picture Weigel is illustrating here. He goes on to explain the coming renewal in the Church, a renewal from within vivified by those who love the Church:
They have lost inside the Church: The men and women in the growing religious orders, the men in the growing seminaries, the active younger laity, all look on progressive Catholicism as a kind of weird phenomenon of their parents’ generation. And now they are losing publicly.
Here’s my only word of caution to add to what Weigel writes: yes, liberal Catholics have largely lost the fight to win over the next generation within the Church and this loss is beginning to become apparent publicly but they have one last card to play and they are playing it: the State. It will take a generation for my generation of Catholics to work our way up into the halls of power now occupied by the institutionalized Catholic left.
But in the meantime, what damage may be done by liberal Catholics helping the State to systematically dismantle the Church’s institutional footprint and heavily coerce her religious freedom.
But what damage may yet (may yet!) be prevented if we understand the war being waged against the Church from within.