Illiberal Catholicism

Catholics used to be open to the lessons of freedom from the American experience. Are we forgetting those lessons?

31.12.2013 // PRINT
Dave 77459
Let me start with a few vignettes. I was an eyewitness, or heard a detailed firsthand account, of each of these events, or else will provide a link to document it.

- Just after the Chinese government crushed the demonstrations at Tiananmen Square, a seminarian explained to me that he wished he “could have driven one of the tanks” that ran over the demonstrators and their makeshift Statue of Liberty. “Americanism is a far greater threat to the Church than communism,” he explained.  He is now a priest — I saw him on the altar in October.

- It was a festive evening at the small Catholic college.  A hearty dinner followed Mass for the feast of its patron saint. Now the students were gathered with the school’s faculty and leaders for a bonfire and robust songs. The high point of the night was the piñata, which the school’s director of student life hung from a hook. It was full of candy and shaped like a pig.  Across it was written, “Americanism.”  The student life director held up a bat, and told the students, “Okay, everybody, let’s SMASH Americanism!” The students lined up behind their teachers, their dean, and their college president, to smash whatever it was they thought was Americanism. (They had never been taught what Leo XIII actually meant by that word.)

- At this same school, in an academic discussion, the college dean explained the greater economic success of Protestant countries that embraced capitalism (compared to agrarian Catholic nations) as the “effects of Freemasonry.”  The college president quickly corrected him, pointing out another critical factor: “diabolical intervention.”

- That same dean, in a conversation with me, waved off the possibility of democratic reform in America.  Moral reform, he explained to me, would only come in the form of a forcible coup d’état, by which “men of virtue” would impose their will “on the people, who will fall in line when they see that they have no choice.” That dean had previously criticized Franco’s Spain for being too lax.

- The historian at a large Catholic university gathered his friends and family on the day that the rest of us call “Thanksgiving.” But his clan called the holiday “Anathema Thursday,” and every year used it to mock the Protestant origins of America by hanging a Puritan in effigy.  This same historian teaches those he mentors to call the Statue of Liberty “that Masonic bitch-goddess.”

- At another small Catholic college, faculty and staff lead an annual pig roast, which they call an “auto-da-fe,” naming the pig each year after a prominent “heretic” before they immolate and eat it.

- At still another small Catholic college, one of the teachers whom I met at a conference spoke effusively of “loopholes” a scholar had purportedly found in Vatican II’s endorsement of religious freedom. It seems that Dignitatis Humanae only forbids the State from using physical force in matters of religion.  The Church, this young scholar explained, is not so constrained.  The Church may imprison any baptized person and punish him for heresy. “So that means the Pope has the right to throw any Lutheran in jail?”, I asked skeptically.  “I know, right?” he said, beaming a smile. “This is really exciting.”  In subsequent weeks he sent me “proof” that George W. Bush was behind the 9/11 attacks.

- Over at Ethika Politika, a Catholic writer followed his rejection of American liberalism and capitalism to a different logical endpoint, and attempted to rehabilitate Karl Marx, absolving him of all the evils historically perpetrated by communists, and urging his readers to find ways to be good Catholic Marxists.

- At America magazine, a commentator wrote dismissively, even patronizingly, of that magazine’s greatest contributor — Father John Courtney Murray, SJ — for his attempt to embrace American liberty and infuse it with an understanding of natural law.  It was clear that such attempts had already failed, and that Catholics should embrace political quietism, withdrawing to separatist communities and hoping for toleration, the commentator wrote.

I could multiply such anecdotes, but you get the idea. At first sight, all these events might seem to be unconnected. What do nostalgic, Renaissance Faire Catholics have in common with neo-Marxists?  What do would-be Catholic “Amish” separatists share with Inquisition re-enactors? What is the thread linking Cardinal Dolan, who wished that he could be the “biggest cheerleader” for Obamacare, and the right-wing Catholics who downplayed the bishops’ plea for religious liberty in the face of the HHS mandate — arguing that, instead, Catholics ought to be arguing whether contraception should even be legal?

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