The Catholic Betrayal of Religious Freedom
Liberal Catholics abandon their crown jewel.

Patty Murray, Nancy Pelosi, Rose DeLauro, and Kathleen Sebelius


George Weigel

It was not surprising that ill-educated Catholics in Congress rushed to embrace President Obama’s “accommodation” on the HHS mandate on sterilization and contraception (including possible abortifacients), or that the faux accommodation was defended, if risibly, by another embodiment of Catholic Lite, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. One does not look to Senator Patty Murray, or to Representative Rose DeLauro or Nancy Pelosi, or to Secretary Sebelius, to learn anything about Catholic doctrine or the history of the Church’s teaching on moral issues. Nemo dat quod non habet, as the scholastic philosophers used to say: No one gives what (s)he does not have.

The willingness of the Catholic Health Association and its president, Sister Carol Keehan, to embrace the Obama shell game was also unsurprising; CHA is a trade association far more concerned about a friendly relationship with HHS and access to federal largesse than about Catholic solidarity on a question of first principles. CHA’s role in helping to pass Obamacare clarified for all with eyes to see what the association understands to be its primary interests. These interests define its true loyalties, which were on full display when Sister Carol helped the White House roll out the Obama “accommodation” ruse and sell it to an eager-to-be-sold press.

But what about the intellectuals? What about the insistence of self-identified “liberal Catholic” commentators, op-ed columnists, and journals that the HHS mandate had nothing to do with religious freedom, or, later, that the “accommodation” met any legitimate religious-freedom concerns? What is going on when these Catholics provide intellectual and political cover for the Sebeliuses, DeLauros, Murrays, and Pelosis in their insistence that this is all about “preventive services” necessary for “women’s health”? Many of these liberal Catholics had, of course, provided similar cover for Obama during the 2008 campaign, so in that sense it was less than startling that their partisanship trumped once again. Still, there was something different, something tragic, about this particular trahison des clercs. In throwing a robust concept of religious freedom over the side, liberal Catholics were betraying their own noblest heritage.

It took the Catholic Church the better part of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to develop a robust Catholic concept of religious freedom. In that process of doctrinal development, the key experience was that of the Church in the United States, and the key intellectual figure was an American Jesuit, Father John Courtney Murray. Murray embodied an older form of liberal Catholicism, and he deployed it with intellectual virtuosity to midwife a new Catholic understanding of the modern state and of the democratic project, which eventually reshaped the thinking and practices of the entire Church. At the intellectual center of that development was Murray’s work on religious freedom. And at the empirical center of this evolution of Catholic self-understanding was the Catholic experience in the United States.

The American arrangement on church-and-state relations was a novelty for the Catholic Church. When it was deemed appropriate to appoint a bishop for the new republic after its founding, the Holy See sent a representative to learn the U.S. government’s wishes through the American minister in Paris, Benjamin Franklin. Franklin replied that this was none of the government’s business, and that the Church could appoint whomever it liked — a response that caused astonishment along the Tiber, where the pope, in those days, had a free right of appointing bishops in, at best, 20 percent of the world’s dioceses.

Beyond this freedom of appointment, however, was the undeniable fact that the institutional separation of church and state, and the Constitution’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion, was good for Catholicism in America: an empirical refutation of the then-regnant assumption that religious freedom (meaning disentangling the church from “establishment” by the state or from some other form of state preference) would inevitably lead to religious indifferentism, and perhaps even to hostility to religious conviction. Yet here was this novus ordo seclorum, as America proclaimed itself, and unlike the Catholic Church in Europe, the Church in America was holding the loyalty of the working class and growing by leaps and bounds throughout the 19th century — by the time a Catholic girl born in Detroit in 1880 became an adult, the number of parishes around her had quintupled. Clearly, there was something here worth exploring.

Impressed by the American experience and tired of the ancient church–state quarrels of Europe, Pope Leo XIII began that exploration in the late 19th century. In a series of encyclicals on political modernity, Leo gingerly began to ease the Church away from its entanglement with the old regimes, and just as gingerly began to explore the foundations of a Catholic theory of religious freedom. Some 40 years after Leo’s death, John Courtney Murray began to analyze Leo’s writings with an eye to articulating a fully embodied Catholic theory of religious freedom.