Politics

Illiberal Catholicism

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

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December 31, 2013


The best brief analysis of this paternalism, which classical pagan thinkers deeded to modern socialists, was offered by Frederic Bastiat:
 
"Present-day writers — especially those of the socialist school of thought — base their various theories upon one common hypothesis: they divide mankind into two parts. People in general — with the exception of the writer himself — form the first group. The writer, all alone, forms the second and most important group. Surely this is the weirdest and most conceited notion that ever entered a human brain!
 
"In fact, these writers on public affairs begin by supposing that people have within themselves no means of discernment, no motivation to action. The writers assume that people are inert matter, passive particles, motionless atoms — at best, a kind of vegetation indifferent to its own manner of existence. They assume that people are susceptible to being shaped by the will and hand of another person into an infinite variety of forms, more or less symmetrical, artistic, and perfected.

Moreover, not one of these writers on governmental affairs hesitates to imagine that he himself — under the title of organizer, discoverer, legislator, or founder — is this will and hand, this universal motivating force, this creative power whose sublime mission is to mold these scattered materials — persons — into a society. These socialist writers look upon people in the same manner that the gardener views his trees."

A personalist politics of liberty also arose from Christian sources, to match the exalted Christian idea of each human being, and was expressed in institutions like the English Common Law and Swiss democracy.  It co-existed with the older, pagan authoritarian strain, and in a few countries, such as England and Switzerland, the idea of liberty won out against its rival. In one of God’s little ironies, as Russell Kirk showed in The Roots of American Order, it was largely Protestants who championed the rights of Christians against the State, while Catholics endorsed old Roman, pagan conceptions of the State and its nearly limitless prerogatives.  After the Reformation destroyed the Church’s political independence, popes saw little choice but to baptize, and try to morally inform, the absolutism of monarchs. (The nadir was reached when Catholic kings — who already picked all the bishops in their countries — forced the pope to suppress the Jesuits, who had eluded their royal control.)  In the wake of the French Revolution, any talk of liberty seemed tainted by the blood of murdered priests, nuns, and Catholic peasants.  The fear of revolutionary violence was enough to make Pope Pius IX side with the tsar and his Cossacks against the freedom-loving Catholics of Poland, and with the British Crown against the Irish.

Keep reading on the next page



In the 20th century, the paternalist tumor metastasized.  It grew into full-blown totalitarianism, as leaders like Hitler and Stalin (who scoffed at Enlightenment liberties) engineered genocides, ruthless wars of conquest, and the violent persecution of various believers.  The clash of opposing paternalisms in World War II culminated in communist dictatorships controlling half the countries on earth. It took all these monstrous evils for the Church to get over the French Revolution and really assimilate the moral truth that liberty, especially religious liberty, is a non-negotiable demand for any decent politics. Those of us who consider ourselves “Tea Party Catholics” take this insight further, noting that without economic and political liberty, religious liberty is moot.  If the government can close your business or censor your speech, or tax away so much of your income that you can’t spend money or time building up civil society, you are hardly free in any meaningful sense. You are, as Bastiat warned, a potted plant awaiting the state and its pruning shears.  You are topiary.  You are toast.
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?

Keep reading on the next page 



You might be forgiven if your answer was simply, “They’re all BLEEPING crazy, that’s what.” But that won’t do. In fact, there is something very serious going on in Catholic intellectual and educational circles, which — if it goes on unchecked — will threaten the pro-life cause, the Church’s influence in society, and the safety and freedom of individual Catholics in America.  The growth of illiberal Catholicism will strengthen the power of the intolerant secular left, revive (and fully justify) the old anti-Catholicism that long pervaded America, and make Catholics in the United States as laughably marginal as they now are in countries like Spain and France — nations where the cause of the Church was linked for centuries to autocratic government and religious intolerance.

We are witnessing the collapse of a magnificent synthesis: the alliance of freedom and faith that American Catholics pioneered in the 19th century in the face of hostile Protestant neighbors and ill-considered, fallible papal statements that endorsed book burning, denounced religious liberty, and condemned the Catholics in Ireland and Poland for rising against their “legitimate” oppressors.

That synthesis reached its intellectual apex in the work of Rev. John Courtney Murray, S.J., and was reflected in the Vatican II constitution Dignitatis Humanae, which affirmed human liberty and denied that the State had the right to suppress even false religions. As the traditionalist scholar Michael Davies documented (disapprovingly), it was the influence of American bishops at Vatican II that assured the approval of this key constitution.  In this document, and in the subsequent Catechism of the Catholic Church, and in John Paul II’s acts of penance for the intolerance displayed by his predecessors, the Church showed a humility and a willingness to learn from her own prudential mistakes, as well as from the natural virtues displayed by non-believers. Just as the Church Fathers once hearkened to pagan Stoics, so the Fathers of Vatican II attended to the moderate Enlightenment, rejecting the paternalism and authoritarianism that earlier Catholic thinkers had promoted in favor of a politics of liberty that respected human dignity. As Pope John Paul II wrote in Memory and Identity, on certain key issues the Enlightenment represented the long-delayed implementation of Christian anthropology into politics.  Put more simply: the Church inherited from pagan thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle a top-down philosophy of government, which centered on the “rights” of lawgivers and rulers to enforce their vision of the Good in citizens’ lives instead of the rights of citizens against the powers of the State.  This authoritarian philosophy was expressed religiously in the form of the Inquisition.  It showed itself politically in feudalism and serfdom.  It worked economically through royal monopolies, price-fixing guilds, and the mercantilism that George III tried to impose on the American colonies, controlling their trade for the benefit of the government.  This paternalism would emerge once again in various forms of socialism, including but not limited to Marxism.  Such paternalism still prevails in most of the EU, as Samuel Gregg shows in Becoming Europe.


The best brief analysis of this paternalism, which classical pagan thinkers deeded to modern socialists, was offered by Frederic Bastiat:
 
"Present-day writers — especially those of the socialist school of thought — base their various theories upon one common hypothesis: they divide mankind into two parts. People in general — with the exception of the writer himself — form the first group. The writer, all alone, forms the second and most important group. Surely this is the weirdest and most conceited notion that ever entered a human brain!
 
"In fact, these writers on public affairs begin by supposing that people have within themselves no means of discernment, no motivation to action. The writers assume that people are inert matter, passive particles, motionless atoms — at best, a kind of vegetation indifferent to its own manner of existence. They assume that people are susceptible to being shaped by the will and hand of another person into an infinite variety of forms, more or less symmetrical, artistic, and perfected.

Moreover, not one of these writers on governmental affairs hesitates to imagine that he himself — under the title of organizer, discoverer, legislator, or founder — is this will and hand, this universal motivating force, this creative power whose sublime mission is to mold these scattered materials — persons — into a society. These socialist writers look upon people in the same manner that the gardener views his trees."

A personalist politics of liberty also arose from Christian sources, to match the exalted Christian idea of each human being, and was expressed in institutions like the English Common Law and Swiss democracy.  It co-existed with the older, pagan authoritarian strain, and in a few countries, such as England and Switzerland, the idea of liberty won out against its rival. In one of God’s little ironies, as Russell Kirk showed in The Roots of American Order, it was largely Protestants who championed the rights of Christians against the State, while Catholics endorsed old Roman, pagan conceptions of the State and its nearly limitless prerogatives.  After the Reformation destroyed the Church’s political independence, popes saw little choice but to baptize, and try to morally inform, the absolutism of monarchs. (The nadir was reached when Catholic kings — who already picked all the bishops in their countries — forced the pope to suppress the Jesuits, who had eluded their royal control.)  In the wake of the French Revolution, any talk of liberty seemed tainted by the blood of murdered priests, nuns, and Catholic peasants.  The fear of revolutionary violence was enough to make Pope Pius IX side with the tsar and his Cossacks against the freedom-loving Catholics of Poland, and with the British Crown against the Irish.

Keep reading on the next page



In the 20th century, the paternalist tumor metastasized.  It grew into full-blown totalitarianism, as leaders like Hitler and Stalin (who scoffed at Enlightenment liberties) engineered genocides, ruthless wars of conquest, and the violent persecution of various believers.  The clash of opposing paternalisms in World War II culminated in communist dictatorships controlling half the countries on earth. It took all these monstrous evils for the Church to get over the French Revolution and really assimilate the moral truth that liberty, especially religious liberty, is a non-negotiable demand for any decent politics. Those of us who consider ourselves “Tea Party Catholics” take this insight further, noting that without economic and political liberty, religious liberty is moot.  If the government can close your business or censor your speech, or tax away so much of your income that you can’t spend money or time building up civil society, you are hardly free in any meaningful sense. You are, as Bastiat warned, a potted plant awaiting the state and its pruning shears.  You are topiary.  You are toast.


Of course, it is possible for liberty to degenerate into license. Catholics advocates of liberty are fully aware that the Enlightenment concept of freedom is partial and incomplete, which is precisely why men like John Courtney Murray, Michael Novak, Robert George, and others have tried to supplement and perfect it.  The “pursuit of happiness” of which Thomas Jefferson spoke could be read as empty hedonism, the utilitarian quest for the greatest number of happy moments for the greatest number of people.  (And I’ve written here before, the Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood v. Casey made a travesty out of both “life” and “liberty.”)

But most of the Founders who signed the Declaration of Independence, and the vast majority of Americans over the centuries, did not embrace Hugh Hefner’s understanding of freedom. It is possible to understand the “happiness” of which Jefferson spoke in Aristotle’s sense — as the happiness proper to a human being whose virtuous life allows him to flourish.  That is the argument Catholics ought to be making to our non-Catholic neighbors, while making it clear that we reject utterly the paternalism of the past and treasure their religious, political, and economic freedom as much as we treasure our own. We must also reject the paternalism of the future, the omnicompetent secular state that crushes civil society and replaces everything from the family to the private school with some agency of the government.  Whether such a regime is openly dictatorial like Cuba or Venezuela, or an oligarchy that holds empty elections, like most of the European Union, matters little in the end.  When the state controls 70 or 80 percent of a nation’s wealth, it dominates most of your life.  You’re an ant riding an elephant, with one of your tiny feelers clutching the reins.

We ought to be deeply thankful for the heritage of the Enlightenment — because the American anti-Catholics of the 19th and 20th century were dead right about one thing: Catholicism minus the Enlightenment equals the Inquisition.  Do I exaggerate?  Consider the fact that during the Spanish occupation of New Orleans, before the Louisiana Purchase, an officer of the Inquisition was interrogating heretics and collecting torture equipment — which he never got the chance to use, thank God. (The Inquisition did take root in Florida, and continued in Cuba until 1818.)  Protestants in Spain were subject to legal restrictions as late as the 1970s. The great defender of Pius IX and Vatican I, Louis Veuillot, summed up what was for centuries the dominant Catholic view of religious liberty:
 
"When you are the stronger I ask you for my freedom, for that is your principle; when I am the stronger I take away your freedom, for that is my principle."

As Americans, too, we must be self-critical, and acknowledge that in their reaction against the paternalism of the past, men like John Locke made grave philosophical errors — and unwittingly poisoned the ground of human dignity where the roots of freedom must rest.  Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker do an excellent job of explaining Enlightened errors in Politicizing the Bible, as does Edward Feser in his classic The Last Superstition.  In Tea Party Catholic, Samuel Gregg shows in detail how freedom-loving Catholics can reintroduce the critical truths about human nature that our Founding Fathers overlooked.  Such constructive criticism of the Enlightenment project, which we might call “reparative patriotism,” is essential to preserving the lives of the unborn and the integrity of marriage, among many other things.  

It is one thing to say that John Locke and Thomas Jefferson had flawed views of human flourishing.  It is quite another for Catholics — given our long, unhappy heritage of paternalism and intolerance — to reject the Enlightenment wholesale; to pretend that religious, political, and economic freedom are the natural state of man, which we can take for granted like the sea, the sun, and the sky.  These freedoms are the hard-won fruit of centuries of struggle, and many of our ancestors were fighting on the wrong side.  If we expect to preserve our own tenuous freedom in an increasingly intolerant secular society, we must make it absolutely clear to our non-Catholic neighbors that we treasure their freedom too.  Denouncing the Enlightenment a mere fifty years after our Church belatedly renounced intolerance, at the very moment when men as level-headed as Archbishop Chaput and Cardinal Burke are warning that Catholics face the risk of persecution, and we desperately need allies among our Protestant neighbors… can anyone really be this reckless?


John Zmirak is the author of The Bad Catholics Guide to the Catechism. His columns are archived at The Bad Catholics Bingo Hall.
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