Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Religious Liberty? A Secular Answer to a Secular Problem

All across the nation this year, rallies have been popping up in protest of the Obama Administration's HHS mandate, which would require Catholic employers to pay for insurance plans that would cover abortions and contraception, thus forcing Catholics to sin by contributing to the sin of others who will use these plans to get abortions or obtain contraception.

The United States bishops have made an admirable stand against the mandate. The level of organization and the vehemence of many of their statements of opposition have been impressive. The rallying cry the bishops have settled on is the principle of "Religious Liberty" - that the mandate forces Catholics to violate their conscience by compelling them to act against their religion and hence violates the First Amendment, which guarantees every citizen the right to practice their religion freely without hindrance from the government.
This approach of the bishops was largely strategic. By choosing "religious liberty" as their rallying cry, the United States bishops were attempting to ground the protests within the framework and vocabulary of the First Amendment, part of a secular Constitution written by pseudo-Protestant deists. Presumably the point of grounding the argument on religious liberty in general rather than on the specific teachings of the Catholic Church in particular is that it universalizes and Americanizes the debate, allowing for other parties besides Catholics to join in the protest. By making this about religious liberty, the message is sent that this is not just a Catholic problem.

This is actually part of the modern Church's larger Grand Alliance of All "Moral" People Against Secularism, by which Catholics are supposed to ally with Protestants, Jews, Muslims and all religious people against the onslaught of atheist secularism, which threatens all religions alike. I do not think this is a biblical approach to our modern problems, and I have written against it here.

But the real problem with the "religious liberty" rallying cry is this: the behavior the HHS mandate compels is sinful and contrary to the teaching of the Church. That is the issue - not religious liberty. Religious liberty is certainly involved, but we can't stand on the pillar of religious liberty and be consistent.

Why not? Well, suppose we expend all this time and effort arguing that this is "not just a Catholic problem" and that this is ultimately about "religious liberty." Now suppose the government decides to attack or proscribe the practices of another religious group, but a practice which is, in fact, contrary to Catholic teaching. If this is really about religious liberty, then the Church would be in the awkward position of having to defend practices that are contrary to the truth revealed in Christ on the principle of religious liberty. In other words, arguing against the HHS mandate on the grounds of religious liberty is ultimately arguing that every religious practice is worthy of state support and protection.

This time, the issue is the HHS mandate. But if we argue against this based on the grounds of religious liberty, what about when the government tells the Native American tribes of the west that they cannot use Paiute in their private, religious rituals? If the issue with HHS was religious liberty, then we have to affirm the duty of the state to sanction and protect the "right" of these folks to use illegal controlled substances for their religious worship. We have to allow for protection of Santeria practitioners to sacrifice small animals. We have to stand shoulder to shoulder with orthodox Jews in Germany who are arguing against a ban on religious circumcision (even though the Council of Florence taught that circumcision for religious purposes is a grave sin).

But, if we argue against HHS on grounds of liberty, what grounds do we leave ourselves to argue against the legitimacy of any other practice? Seventh Day Adventist gatherings on Saturdays where the Catholic Church is attacked and blasphemed as the Harlot of Revelation and Jehovah's Witness mock "communions" and everything in between all becomes equally licit and permissible and worthy of state protection because, according to the Bishops, we all have the liberty to persevere in whatever religious error we happen to be enmeshed in. The religious liberty objection really says nothing about the objective truth or falsity of the religious practice in question; it simply appeals to the fact that the practitioner believes their opinions to be true and that this should be respected. Is entirely subjective.

Thus, when the Jews or the Jehovah's Witnesses or the Voodoo folks come complaining about religious liberty being violated in any of their cases, how can the Catholic Church respond? Will we not have boxed ourselves into a corner where we are compelled to advocate religious liberty for these practices as well once we advocated it for our own?

Don't we see that defending one religious practice in the name of "religious liberty" means defending all religious practices absolutely?

This objection to the HHS mandate on the grounds of "religious liberty" is ultimately a weak, secular objection to a very strong secular challenge. As they used to say in sales training, we need to "find the real objection"; if we do not object to HHS on the grounds of religious liberty, upon what grounds do we object to it that will not lead us into the inconsistencies I described above?

The objection should be this:

We will not comply with the HHS Mandate because we are Catholics loyal to the Magisterium and the Traditions of our Faith. Our Faith teaches us that abortion and contraception are grave sins. Not only are they grave sins, but supporting them or enabling others to partake in them are sins as well. We will not comply with a mandate that forces us to betray God by sinning against Him, even to uphold the law. Catholics are good citizens and see no dichotomy between choosing between Caesar and Christ, each with their own proper sphere of authority; but in this mandate you have compelled us to choose between the two, and we shall choose Christ over Caesar.

This response does not make the problem about the First Amendment. It does not force us into an awkward alliance with every religious group out there. It makes this about the world versus the Catholic Church, and choosing between Caesar and Christ, because what Caesar commands is sin. This response does take into account the objective evil of what Caesar commands and makes the issue a religious question, not a political question about what religious "liberties" we have under the Constitution. It does not force us into a position where consistency requires Catholics to uphold the "rights" of non-Catholics to participate in or promote practices or doctrines that are contrary to Catholicism and damaging to people's souls.

The "religious liberty" objection is a profoundly secular objection to a secular problem. We cannot fight secularism with more secularity. We cannot use the enemy's weapons against him; we cannot ourselves use the Ring to defeat Sauron. The religious liberty rallies are a uniquely American solution to an American problem; but it is not an ideal Catholic solution.


Josemaria Paulo Jeromino Martin Carvalho-Von Verster said...

Boniface,Somebody wrote a Similar Entry as a Letter to a Secular Columnist: http://acatholiclife.blogspot.com/2012/02/hhs-mandate-not-about-religious-liberty.html

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Spot on, Boniface although I think there might be another reason behind the decision to go with Religious Liberty and that reason has to do with Americanism - that heresy that was deeply held and promoted by Bishop Gibbons and Ireland (see "Puritans Empire," by Charles Coulombe) - Religious Liberty is the American way and it is defended publicly even by Our Sweet Jesus on earth.


Boniface said...

Sure, the fact that the Bishops believe this defense is a credible one is a symptom of Americanism. That's why "Americanism" is one of the tags for the post. :)

Steve "scotju" Dalton said...

The Protestants have always been or enemies in this country. They have always villified, smeared, and slandered us. Yet we now think they're going to be our allies? The only reason why they're with us now is they know that we are the only group that has a fighting chance of beating Obama. But if things go bad for us, they won't hesitate to sell us out in a minute.
They're also dying out and getting smaller in membership because they're constanly splitting into smaller groups or becoming more and more liberal as time rocks along. They are a broken reed that can't support us.

John said...

"[...] we cannot ourselves use the Ring to defeat Sauron."
Just when I thought this article couldn't get any better.

Quovadis7 said...


Great post!

But, the heresy of Americanism is boldly emblazoned within the Vatican II document Dignitatis Humanae - and is considered by the vast majority of orthodox Bishops, Priests, and lay Catholics as the "premier" or definitive teaching of the Church on the topic of Religious Liberty (which, in all truth, it definitely is not).

Compare and contrast the Vatican's official English translation of section 2 of Dignitatus Humanae vs. the original Latin text, and it'll be plain to see that there has been either a bold incompetence or a nefarious agenda at work within the Curia toward English speaking Catholics on the topic of Religious Liberty.

The original Latin text of DH clearly "teaches" (quite in contrast to the traditional Catholic teaching) that our dignity as persons dictates that we have the moral right in private AND in public (it is this "public" aspect which is contrary to traditional teaching) to promote/spread our religious beliefs, even if they are erroneous. The horrible English translation completely leaves out this aspect of the Latin text.

@ I Am Not Spartacus - you hit the nail on the head wrt the article by David Wemhoff, when Mr. Wemhoff said: "For error leads to sin, and the wages of sin is death." No one has the moral right to spread error. Error, just as sin, leads to nothing but to the darkening of the mind, the hardening of the heart, and the weakening of the will.

So, the "religious liberty" tactic taken by the American Bishops in challenging the nefarious HHS mandate ultimately champions the heresy of Americanism, so boldly denounced by Pope Leo XIII in TESTEM BENEVOLENTIAE NOSTRAE back in 1899, but equally boldly championed as truth by the Council Fathers in Dignitatis Humanae.

I believe there are only two solutions to rooting out the heresy of Americanism which is alive and well within the Catholic Church (and not just here in America):

a) either a calamitous persecution of the Church, which will ultimately drive out the heretics by force (i.e. they won't be willing to suffer for the truth), or

b) traditional Catholicism will retake positions of authority within the Church and begin to reinforce traditional teaching/belief, which was driven out via revolution by the modernist liberals during and after Vatican II.

I'm hoping, praying, and leading my family, as I'm sure you and your readers are, Boniface, toward embracing and promoting option b).

Pax et bendictiones tibi, per Christum Dominum nostrum,

Steve B
Plano, TX

Anonymous said...

Good post! I've been less than enthusiastic about the religious liberty argument employed by the bishops for the reasons you give. However, the fact that religious liberty is enshrined in DH does appear to make this argument a "Catholic" argument.
Re Steve B's solution b): do you think it is possible for traditional Catholics to retake positions of authority in the Church? I've often wondered what the Church would look like with Athanasius Schneider as Pope!