When Murray began to work on the church–state problem in the mid-1940s, the regnant Roman theory — which many simply identified with Catholic tradition tout court — was that the preferred arrangement was state recognition of the prerogatives of the Catholic Church, and state support of the Church’s work. In the Roman theological parlance of the time, this was the “thesis,” and any other arrangement, like that in the United States, was a mere “hypothesis.” This thesis/hypothesis schema was underwritten by another claim that many in Roman theological circles simply identified with Catholic “tradition”: the claim that “error has no rights.”
Unraveling this thick knot of seemingly settled “tradition” was no easy business, either intellectually or politically, in terms of stepping on ecclesiastical and theological toes. Murray’s careful analysis of Leo XIII’s texts suggested that the thesis/hypothesis business might not be as settled as it seemed. And, in a brilliant move, Murray reached beneath the thesis/hypothesis schema into a much older stratum of Catholic tradition, where he found, in the fifth-century writings of Pope Saint Gelasius I, a clear distinction between priestly authority and political authority — which suggested that the conflation of those two authorities in the “thesis” was, in fact, not the Catholic tradition (a suggestion buttressed, of course, by reference to Christ’s own distinction between what is Caesar’s and what is God’s in Matthew 22:21). Here was a true “liberal Catholicism” at work: a Catholicism that reached back into history to retrieve a long-forgotten element of the authentic tradition that, recovered, could be the engine of future development.
To make a long story short, Murray’s work on religious freedom was vindicated at the Second Vatican Council. There, two compelling arguments came together in a powerful synthesis: Murray’s historical work and his exegesis of Leo XIII, which put paid to the thesis/hypothesis schema, and European personalist philosophy, which showed the Council that, while “error” might have no rights (whatever that meant), persons had rights, whether their opinions were erroneous or not. That settled the question intellectually for most of the Council fathers. The politics of defining religious freedom as a basic human right were managed by another interesting coalition: Bishops from the Communist world, who wanted the Church to defend religious freedom so that they might use it as a new weapon in their own struggles, joined with U.S. bishops, who wanted the American constitutional arrangement vindicated, and Western European bishops, who were tired of ancien régime politics, formed a critical mass of support, resulting in Pope Paul VI’s promulgation of Vatican II’s landmark Declaration on Religious Freedom on December 7, 1965.
Thus began the Catholic human-rights revolution, which would play a major role in the collapse of European Communism and in democratic transitions in Latin America and East Asia. At the heart of the Catholic human-rights revolution was religious freedom, and the Church’s embrace of religious freedom owed no small debt to liberal Catholicism in America.
Thus “liberal Catholics” who refuse to grasp the threats to religious freedom posed by the Obama administration on so many fronts — the HHS mandate, the EEOC’s recently rejected attempt to strip the “ministerial exemption” from employment law, the State Department’s dumbing-down of religious freedom to a mere “freedom of worship” — are betraying the best of their own heritage. And some are doing it in a particularly nasty way, trying to recruit the memory of John Courtney Murray as an ally in their attempts to cover for the Obama administration’s turning its de facto secularist bias into de jure policy, regulations, and mandates. More than 50 years ago, Murray warned of the dangers deracinated secularism posed to the American democratic experiment: a warning that seems quite prescient in the light of the Leviathan-like politics of this administration, aided and abetted by baptized secularists who insist that they are “liberal Catholics.” I daresay Murray, who did not suffer fools gladly, would not be amused by those who now try to use his work to shore up their own hollow arguments on behalf of the establishment of secularism.
The HHS-mandate battle is bringing to the surface of our public life many problems that were long hidden: the real and present danger to civil society of certain forms of Enlightenment thinking; the determination of the promoters of the sexual revolution to use state coercion to impose their agenda on society; the failure of the Catholic Church to educate the faithful in its own social doctrine; the reluctance of the U.S. bishops’ conference to forcefully apply that social doctrine — especially its principle of subsidiarity — during the Obamacare debate. To that list can now be added one more sad reality, long suspected but now unmistakably clear: the utter incoherence of 21st-century liberal Catholicism, revealed by its failure to defend its own intellectual patrimony: the truth of religious freedom as the first of human rights. That liberal Catholics have done so in order to play court chaplain to overweening and harshly secularist state power compounds that tragedy, with deep historical irony.
— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.