By Paul A. Rahe · 11 February 2012
You have to hand it to Barack Obama. He has unmasked in the most thoroughgoing way the despotic propensities of the administrative entitlements state and of the Democratic Party. And now he has done something similar to the hierarchy of the American Catholic Church. At the prospect that institutions associated with the Catholic Church would be required to offer to their employees health insurance covering contraception and abortifacients, the bishops, priests, and nuns scream bloody murder. But they raise no objection at all to the fact that Catholic employers and corporations, large and small, owned wholly or partially by Roman Catholics will be required to do the same. The freedom of the church as an institution to distance itself from that which its doctrines decry as morally wrong is considered sacrosanct. The liberty of its members – not to mention the liberty belonging to the adherents of other Christian sects, to Jews, Muslims, and non-believers – to do the same they are perfectly willing to sacrifice.
This inattention to the liberties of others is doubly scandalous (and I use this poignant term in full knowledge of its meaning within the Catholic tradition) – for there was a time when the Catholic hierarchy knew better. There was a time when Roman Catholicism was the great defender not only of its own liberty but of that of others. There was a time when the prelates recognized that the liberty of the church to govern itself in light of its guiding principles was inseparable from the liberty of other corporate bodies and institutions to do the same.
I do not mean to say that the Roman Catholic Church was in the more distant past a staunch defender of religious liberty. That it was not. Within its sphere, the Church demanded full authority. It is only in recent years that Rome has come to be fully appreciative of the larger principle.
I mean that, in the course of defending its autonomy against the secular power, the Roman Catholic Church asserted the liberty of other corporate bodies and even, in some measure, the liberty of individuals. To see what I have in mind one need only examine Magna Carta, which begins with King John’s pledge that
the English Church shall be free, and shall have her rights entire, and her liberties inviolate; and we will that it be thus observed; which is apparent from this that the freedom of elections, which is reckoned most important and very essential to the English Church, we, of our pure and unconstrained will, did grant, and did by our charter confirm and did obtain the ratification of the same from our lord, Pope Innocent III, before the quarrel arose between us and our barons: and this we will observe, and our will is that it be observed in good faith by our heirs forever.
Only after making this promise, does the King go on to say, “We have also granted to all freemen of our kingdom, for us and our heirs forever, all the underwritten liberties, to be had and held by them and their heirs, of us and our heirs forever.” It is in this context that he affirms that “no scutage nor aid shall be imposed on our kingdom, unless by common counsel of our kingdom, except for ransoming our person, for making our eldest son a knight, and for once marrying our eldest daughter; and for these there shall not be levied more than a reasonable aid.” It is in this context that he pledges that “the city of London shall have all it ancient liberties and free customs, as well by land as by water; furthermore, we decree and grant that all other cities, boroughs, towns, and ports shall have all their liberties and free customs.” It is in this document that he promises that “no freemen shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him nor send upon him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land” and that “to no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice.”
One will not find such a document in eastern Christendom or in the sphere where Sunni Islam is prevalent. It is peculiar to Western Christendom – and it was made possible by the fact that, Christian West, church and state were not co-extensive and none of the various secular powers was able to exert its authority over the church. There was within each political community in the Christian West an imperium in imperio – a power independent of the state that had no desire to replace the state but was fiercely resistant to its own subordination and aware that it could not hope to retain its traditional liberties if it did not lend a hand in defending the traditional liberties of others.
I am not arguing that the Church fostered limited government in the Middle Ages and in the early modern period. In principle, the government that it fostered was unlimited in its scope. I am arguing, however, that the Church worked assiduously to hem in the authority of the Christian kings and that its success in this endeavor provided the foundation for the emergence of a parliamentary order. Indeed, I would go further. It was the Church that promoted the principles underpinning the emergence of parliaments. It did so by fostering the species of government that had emerged within the church itself. Given that the Church in the West made clerical celibacy one of its principal practices (whether it was honored in the breach or not), the hereditary principle could play no role in its governance. Inevitably, it resorted to elections. Monks elected abbots, the canons of cathedrals elected bishops, the college of cardinals elected the Pope.
The principle articulated in canon law — the only law common to all of Western Europe — to explain why these practices were proper was lifted from the Roman law dealing with the governance of waterways: “Quod omnes tangit,” it read, “ab omnibus tractari debeat: That which touches all should be dealt with by all.” In pagan antiquity, this meant that those upstream could not take all of the water and that those downstream had a say in its allocation. It was this principle that the clergymen who served as royal administrators insinuated into the laws of the kingdoms and petty republics of Europe. It was used to justify communal self-government. It was used to justify the calling of parliaments. And it was used to justify the provisions for self-governance contained within the corporate charters issued to cities, boroughs, and, in time, colonies. On the eve of the American Revolution, you will find it cited by John Dickinson in The Letters of a Pennsylvania Farmer.
The quod omnes tangit principle was not the foundation of modern liberty, but it was its antecedent. And had there been no such antecedent, had kings not been hemmed in by the Church and its allies in this fashion, I very much doubt that there ever would have been a regime of limited government. In fact, had there not been a distinction both in theory and in fact between the secular and the spiritual authority, limited government would have been inconceivable.
The Reformation weakened the Church. In Protestant lands, it tended to strengthen the secular power and to promote a monarchical absolutism unknown to the Middle Ages. Lutheranism and Anglicanism were, in effect, Caesaro-Papist. In Catholic lands, it caused the spiritual power to shelter itself behind the secular power and become, in many cases, an appendage of that power. But the Reformation and the religious strife to which it gave rise also posed to the secular power an almost insuperable problem – how to secure peace and domestic tranquility in a world marked by sectarian competition. Limited government – i. e., a government limited in its scope – was the solution ultimately found, and John Locke was its proponent.
In the nascent American republic, this principle was codified in its purest form in the First Amendment to the Constitution. But it had additional ramifications as well – for the government’s scope was limited also in other ways. There were other amendments that made up what we now call the Bill of Rights, and many of the states prefaced their constitutions with bills of rights or added them as appendices. These were all intended to limit the scope of the government. They were all designed to protect the right of individuals to life, liberty, the acquisition and possession of property, and the pursuit of happiness as these individuals understood happiness. Put simply, liberty of conscience was part of a larger package.
This is what the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church forgot. In the 1930s, the majority of the bishops, priests, and nuns sold their souls to the devil, and they did so with the best of intentions. In their concern for the suffering of those out of work and destitute, they wholeheartedly embraced the New Deal. They gloried in the fact that Franklin Delano Roosevelt made Frances Perkins – a devout Anglo-Catholic laywoman who belonged to the Episcopalian Church but retreated on occasion to a Catholic convent – Secretary of Labor and the first member of her sex to be awarded a cabinet post. And they welcomed Social Security – which was her handiwork. They did not stop to ponder whether public provision in this regard would subvert the moral principle that children are responsible for the well-being of their parents. They did not stop to consider whether this measure would reduce the incentives for procreation and nourish the temptation to think of sexual intercourse as an indoor sport. They did not stop to think.
In the process, the leaders of the American Catholic Church fell prey to a conceit that had long before ensnared a great many mainstream Protestants in the United States – the notion that public provision is somehow akin to charity – and so they fostered state paternalism and undermined what they professed to teach: that charity is an individual responsibility and that it is appropriate that the laity join together under the leadership of the Church to alleviate the suffering of the poor. In its place, they helped establish the Machiavellian principle that underpins modern liberalism – the notion that it is our Christian duty to confiscate other people’s money and redistribute it.
At every turn in American politics since that time, you will find the hierarchy assisting the Democratic Party and promoting the growth of the administrative entitlements state. At no point have its members evidenced any concern for sustaining limited government and protecting the rights of individuals. It did not cross the minds of these prelates that the liberty of conscience which they had grown to cherish is part of a larger package – that the paternalistic state, which recognizes no legitimate limits on its power and scope, that they had embraced would someday turn on the Church and seek to dictate whom it chose to teach its doctrines and how, more generally, it would conduct its affairs.
I would submit that the bishops, nuns, and priests now screaming bloody murder have gotten what they asked for. The weapon that Barack Obama has directed at the Church was fashioned to a considerable degree by Catholic churchmen. They welcomed Obamacare. They encouraged Senators and Congressmen who professed to be Catholics to vote for it.
I do not mean to say that I would prefer that the bishops, nuns, and priests sit down and shut up. Barack Obama has once again done the friends of liberty a favor by forcing the friends of the administrative entitlements state to contemplate what they have wrought. Whether those brought up on the heresy that public provision is akin to charity will prove capable of thinking through what they have done remains unclear. But there is now a chance that this will take place, and there was a time – long ago, to be sure, but for an institution with the longevity possessed by the Catholic Church long ago was just yesterday – when the Church played an honorable role in hemming in the authority of magistrates and in promoting not only its own liberty as an institution but that of others similarly intent on managing their own affairs as individuals and as members of subpolitical communities.
In my lifetime, to my increasing regret, the Roman Catholic Church in the United States has lost much of its moral authority. It has done so largely because it has subordinated its teaching of Catholic moral doctrine to its ambitions regarding an expansion of the administrative entitlements state. In 1973, when the Supreme Court made its decision in Roe v. Wade, had the bishops, priests, and nuns screamed bloody murder and declared war, as they have recently done, the decision would have been reversed. Instead, under the leadership of Joseph Bernardin, the Cardinal-Archbishop of Chicago, they asserted that the social teaching of the Church was a “seamless garment,” and they treated abortion as one concern among many. Here is what Cardinal Bernardin said in the Gannon Lecture at Fordham University that he delivered in 1983:
Those who defend the right to life of the weakest among us must be equally visible in support of the quality of life of the powerless among us: the old and the young, the hungry and the homeless, the undocumented immigrant and the unemployed worker...Consistency means that we cannot have it both ways. We cannot urge a compassionate society and vigorous public policy to protect the rights of the unborn and then argue that compassion and significant public programs on behalf of the needy undermine the moral fiber of the society or are beyond the proper scope of governmental responsibility.
This statement, which came to be taken as authoritative throughout the American Church, proved, as Joseph Sobran observed seven years ago, “to be nothing but a loophole for hypocritical Catholic politicians. If anything,” he added, "it has actually made it easier for them than for non-Catholics to give their effective support to legalized abortion – that is, it has allowed them to be inconsistent and unprincipled about the very issues that Cardinal Bernardin said demand consistency and principle.” In practice, this meant that, insofar as anyone pressed the case against Roe v. Wade, it was the laity.
I was reared a Catholic, wandered out of the Church, and stumbled back in more than thirteen years ago. I have been a regular attendee at mass since that time. I travel a great deal and frequently find myself in a diocese not my own. In these years, I have heard sermons articulating the case against abortion thrice – once in Louisiana at a mass said by the retired Archbishop there; once at the cathedral in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and two weeks ago in our parish in Hillsdale, Michigan. The truth is that the priests in the United States are far more likely to push the “social justice” agenda of the Church from the pulpit than to instruct the faithful in the evils of abortion.
And there is more. I have not once in those years heard the argument against contraception articulated from the pulpit, and I have not once heard the argument for chastity articulated. In the face of the sexual revolution, the bishops priests, and nuns of the American Church have by and large fallen silent. In effect, they have abandoned the moral teaching of the Roman Catholic Church in order to articulate a defense of the administrative entitlements state and its progressive expansion.
There is another dimension to the failure of the American Church in the face of the sexual revolution. As, by now, everyone knows, in the 1980s, when Cardinal Bernardin was the chief leader of the American Church and the man most closely consulted when the Vatican selected its bishops, it became evident to the American prelates that they had a problem – that, in many a diocese, there were priests of a homoerotic orientation who were sexual predators – pederasts inclined to take advantage of young boys. They could have faced up to the problem at that time; they could have turned in the malefactors to the secular authorities; they could have prevented their further contact with the young. Instead, almost certainly at the instigation of Cardinal Bernardin, they opted for another policy. They hushed everything up, sent the priests off for psychological counseling, and reassigned them to other parishes or even dioceses – where they continued to prey on young boys. In the same period, a number of the seminaries in which young men were trained for the priesthood became, in effect, brothels – and nothing was done about any of this until the newspapers broke the story and the lawsuits began.
There is, I would suggest, a connection between the heretical doctrine propagated by Cardinal Bernardin in the Gannon Lecture and the difficulties that the American Church now faces. Those who seek to create heaven on earth and who, to this end, subvert the liberty of others and embrace the administrative entitlements state will sooner or later become its victims.
Earlier today, Barack Obama offered the hierarchy “a compromise.” Under its terms, insurance companies offering healthcare coverage will be required to provide contraception and abortifacients, but this will not be mentioned in the contracts signed by those who run Catholic institutions. This “compromise” is, of course, a farce. It embodies a distinction where there is, in fact, no difference. It is a snare and a delusion, and I am confident that the Catholic Left, which is still dominant within the Church, will embrace it – for it would allow the bishops, priests, and nuns to save face while, in fact, paying for the contraception and abortifacients that the insurance companies will be required to provide. As if on cue, Sister Carol Keehan, a prominent Obamacare supporter who heads the Catholic Health Association, immediately issued a statement in which she announced that she is “pleased and grateful that the religious liberty and conscience protection needs of so many ministries that serve our country were appreciated enough that an early resolution of this issue was accomplished.”
Perhaps, however, Barack Obama has shaken some members of the hierarchy from their dogmatic slumber. Perhaps, a few of them – or among younger priests some of their likely successors – have begun to recognize the logic inherent in the development of the administrative entitlements state. The proponents of Obamacare, with some consistency, pointed to Canada and to France as models. As anyone who has attended mass in Montreal or Paris can testify, the Church in both of these places is filled with empty pews. There is, in fact, not a single country in the social democratic sphere where either the Catholic Church or a Protestant Church is anything but moribund. This is by no means fortuitous. When entitlements stand in for charity and the Social Gospel is preached in place of the Word of God, heaven on earth becomes the end, and Christianity goes by the boards.
It took a terrible scandal and a host of lawsuits to get the American Church to rid itself of the pederast priests and clean up its seminaries. Perhaps the tyrannical ambitions of Barack Obama will occasion a rethinking of the social-justice agenda. The ball is now in the court of Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, who has welcomed the President's gesture without indicating whether it is adequate. Upon reflection, he can accept the fig leaf that President Obama has offered him. Or he can put Sister Keehan and her supporters in their place and fight. If he wants to regain an iota of the moral authority that the Church possessed before 1973, he will do the latter. The hour is late. Next time, the masters of the administrative entitlements state won’t even bother to offer the hierarchy a fig leaf. They know servility when they see it.
UPDATE: Friday night, shortly after I posted this piece, as Anne Coletta pointed out in Comment 5 below, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a carefully worded statement critical of the fig leaf President Obama offered them. In the meantime, the Rev. John Jenkins, President of the University of Notre Dame, applauded "the willingness of the administration to work with religious organizations to find a solution acceptable to all parties."
FURTHER UPDATE: Since posting this, I have also written American Catholicism: A Call to Arms and More Than a Touch of Malice on related subjects.