Liberalism Is Not the Church’s First Problem

(Carlos Barria/Reuters)
In America, it may be a matter of looking instead to the decades-long problem of disaffection and apostasy among Catholics.

It would be stupid to deny that the liberty of the Catholic Church, at least as it was formerly understood, has come under renewed pressure in the United States. Fighting off contraceptive mandates, or ACLU lawsuits aimed at forcing Catholic hospitals to perform services they deem morally impermissible, can exhaust the legal coffers of Catholic institutions, public patience with bishops, and the energies of the Church’s public defenders. Catholic adoption agencies are threatened and closed for not conforming to acceptance of same-sex marriage. It is likely that the accreditation of Catholic schools will face challenges for health-care policies or dorm policies that reflect the Church’s moral teachings. Or that Catholic schools and homeschoolers will come under particular legal suspicion for the doctrines they advocate.

Why have we come to this point? Some Catholic political thinkers — Patrick Deneen comes to mind — have energetically argued that this is the inevitable outcome of liberalism itself. That political liberalism makes false promises, holding out the possibility of liberty and pluralism but ultimately demanding conformism. Predictably enough, a subset of younger Catholics are re-evaluating the work of their co-religionist elders who made various terms of peace with liberalism, men such as Michael Novak and George Weigel. Like the English thinkers G. K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc, the younger, more-radical thinkers turn to Catholic social teaching or to the popes for guidance on political and economic matters. Some, calling themselves integralists, say that it’s past time to give up arguing for our claims under the guise of natural law. Instead, we should make our claims unabashedly for the social kingship of Christ.

I happen to think all these claims should be taken seriously. Though I might note with a wink that Chesterton was an immense booster of America’s liberal creed, and Belloc a loud member of the Liberal party. But I would want to add one complicating thought to the mix. The Church’s challenge in the United States today may not entirely be the cause of the outworking of ideological liberalism. I would suggest that perhaps we should consider that the chief and pressing problem is coming from within.

Pope Leo XIII, writing in 1895, expressed himself on the position of the Catholic Church in America. He traced the history of the Church’s progress from the early missionaries who accompanied Columbus to the Providential assistance that Catholics provided in the American Revolution itself. He praised the appointment of America’s first bishop in 1789, “at the very time when the popular suffrage placed the great Washington at the helm of the Republic.” He marveled that the American republic was “progressing and developing by giant strides,” and so too was the Catholic Church within it. “All intelligent men are agreed,” Leo wrote, “that America seems destined for greater things.”

After taking stock, he wrote with evident gratitude “for the Church amongst you, unopposed by the Constitution and government of your nation, fettered by no hostile legislation, protected against violence by the common laws and the impartiality of the tribunals, is free to live and act without hindrance.” Here, one is tempted to say that the picture painted by Leo was almost too rosy. Blaine Amendments across many states prohibited public monies from being used to finance Catholic education, though public money did finance public schools that taught a form of what proponents of the amendments believed to be “non-sectarian” Protestantism. Despite the obvious legal residue of anti-Catholicism in American law, the pope whom integralists cite the most was disposed favorably enough toward the United States to appreciate the liberty of the Church here and to praise the greatness of one of the nation’s founders, Washington, a man who viewed Catholic priests as potential enemies of liberty.

Leo added that, even so, it would be wrong to say that the American model provided “the most desirable status of the Church.” He added that the Church’s success in America was due to “the fecundity with which God has endowed His Church, in virtue of which unless men or circumstances interfere, she spontaneously expands and propagates herself.” Leo went on to argue that the Church would bring forth more abundant fruit “if, in addition to liberty, she enjoyed the favor of the laws and the patronage of the public authority.”

His qualified praise for the liberty that the Church enjoys in America matches the qualified nature of the assurance given by “the great Washington” that liberty would be enjoyed by American citizens. In his letter to Roman Catholics, Washington expressed his view that “as mankind become more liberal they will be more apt to allow that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community are equally entitled to the protection of civil government.” All those, including Roman Catholics.

Integralist critics of the liberal order are certainly right that the 19th-century papacy ultimately sought a place of legal preferment or supremacy for the Catholic Church in every nation in which it existed. And they are right that the popes did so because the teaching of the Church held that all nations and societies, not only individuals, owed their ultimate allegiance to God — that society ought to be deliberately structured to facilitate not just the natural goods of man but also the supernatural goods, including his salvation.

I would gently suggest that the integralist critics of liberalism may be focusing too much on the theory of liberalism and not enough on the condition of their Church.

We can look at liberalism not just as an ideology of individual rights superintended over by a powerful central authority. It is also as a practical negotiation made among “those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community” within what used to be called Christendom. The Catholic Church in America may have lost the vigor and “fecundity” that Leo XIII observed in it over a century ago. And insofar as it has, it has lost some of its practical bargaining power.

See how the Reverend John I. Jenkins, the president of Notre Dame University, took several contradictory positions on the contraception mandate. His school became a plaintiff, arguing against it, as an infringement of religious liberty, in the highest courts in America. But, faced with dissension among professors, he reversed himself.

This level of dissension on matters of moral doctrine is everywhere in Catholic institutions, not just in universities but on the boards of Catholic health-care and charitable organizations and in diocesan secondary and primary schools. Such dissension characterizes the whole Church in America, a country where the second-largest reported religious affiliation is “ex-Catholic.”

The United States has been able to accommodate religious diversity, but historically it does test the convictions of adherents of minority faiths. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Quakers have had to prove that their commitment to pacifism is genuine. Under another kind of test, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints dispensed with its doctrines about plural marriage.

Catholics operate a massive portion of the U.S. health-care industry, a significant part of the nation’s university system, and a vital part of its charitable foundations. But Catholic citizens have socially conformed themselves to the American norms set by Protestant faiths. Catholic birth and divorce rates have, respectively, moved toward Protestant norms. In their catechisms, many Protestant denominations have accepted abortion and homosexuality as moral goods. And many prominent Catholic personalities — even those with imprimaturs of Catholic bishops — are urging Catholics to do likewise. This phenomenon practically invites the public authority to test the commitment of Catholics to their distinct set of doctrines.

And here then is another modest suggestion. The more urgent need for the Church’s liberty in the United States may not demand an attempt to transcend 500 years of a mistaken political philosophy. Instead it may be a matter of looking at a decades-long problem of disaffection and apostasy. The Church also suffers from a massive scandal of immorality and criminality among its prelates. These crimes, so long unaddressed by higher authorities in the Church, manifestly call into question not just the Church’s commitment to its doctrines but its fitness to lead so many civic institutions and to control so many resources. Are America’s Catholic bishops conducting themselves “as worthy members of the community?” And if not, can we expect their religious liberty to remain sacrosanct?

If the Church recovered its vigor and its authority internally, then the neighbors with whom it lives peaceably, and among whom we do so many good works, would be less inclined to test our commitments, or our patience. The social Kingship of Christ may proceed to impose duties upon all nations, but it begins with the words: Physician, heal thyself.

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