The Corner

A Fever Swamp — But Not a Large One

In a fascinating article over at Aleteia, conservative Catholic John Zmirak describes the subculture, within Traditionalist Catholicism, of those who reject religious liberty and wish America were a confessional state dominated by the Catholic Church. Anyone interested in the thought-and-behavior dynamic of small religious minorities will enjoy the piece.

I share Zmirak’s basic principle, that “liberty, especially religious liberty, is a non-negotiable demand for any decent politics.” I also agree with him that “we ought to be deeply thankful for the heritage of the Enlightenment.” His justification for this last principle is “Catholicism minus the Enlightenment equals the Inquisition” — which sounds rather shocking on a first reading, but less so on careful consideration. Because after all, how many Catholics today defend the Inquisition, in a non-joking context? For the most part, it’s those who reject liberty and the Enlightenment, which is to say, only a very small coterie of fringe Catholic intellectuals.

The vast majority of Catholics, and even of conservative Catholics, prize religious liberty and reject the idea of papal (or any other) theocracy. They debate which aspects of the Enlightenment are helpful, which ones are harmful, and how to cultivate virtue within a system of liberty — but to them, rejection of the Enlightenment tout court is, to borrow a British phrase, “simply not on.”

So the subject of Zmirak’s essay is of interest to those of us who follow religious matters, but it is not something to be especially worried about as a practical political matter. Zmirak is correct that if American Catholicism comes to be dominated by Catholics who oppose religious liberty, that would undermine the religious-liberty claims of those Catholics who, for example, oppose the HHS mandate. But it’s simply not going to happen. As a practical matter, on issues like the HHS mandate, the fact that most Catholics actually vote for the party that is said to be oppressing them is a much more serious problem than a couple of faculty-lounge rebels with a pipe dream of an American Torquemada.

(It should go without saying that I defend the right of those who want a theocracy to advocate for their view. But I also defend my own right to mock them: I recently saw on cable TV a lecture by an American Catholic intellectual who railed against the situation of “hyperpluralism” that resulted from the Protestant Reformation. He repeated that word “hyperpluralism,” and I started thinking of how one would define it. I came up with an entry for my own version of Bierce’s Dictionary: “Hyperpluralism, n. The intolerable state of affairs in which my opinions are not accepted as absolute truth by everyone.”)