Catholics used to be open to the lessons of freedom from the American experience. Are we forgetting those lessons?
I could multiply such anecdotes, but you get the idea. At first sight, all these events might seem to be unconnected. What do nostalgic, Renaissance Faire Catholics have in common with neo-Marxists? What do would-be Catholic “Amish” separatists share with Inquisition re-enactors? What is the thread linking Cardinal Dolan, who wished that he could be the “biggest cheerleader” for Obamacare, and the right-wing Catholics who downplayed the bishops’ plea for religious liberty in the face of the HHS mandate — arguing that, instead, Catholics ought to be arguing whether contraception should even be legal?
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You might be forgiven if your answer was simply, “They’re all BLEEPING crazy, that’s what.” But that won’t do. In fact, there is something very serious going on in Catholic intellectual and educational circles, which — if it goes on unchecked — will threaten the pro-life cause, the Church’s influence in society, and the safety and freedom of individual Catholics in America. The growth of illiberal Catholicism will strengthen the power of the intolerant secular left, revive (and fully justify) the old anti-Catholicism that long pervaded America, and make Catholics in the United States as laughably marginal as they now are in countries like Spain and France — nations where the cause of the Church was linked for centuries to autocratic government and religious intolerance.
We are witnessing the collapse of a magnificent synthesis: the alliance of freedom and faith that American Catholics pioneered in the 19th century in the face of hostile Protestant neighbors and ill-considered, fallible papal statements that endorsed book burning, denounced religious liberty, and condemned the Catholics in Ireland and Poland for rising against their “legitimate” oppressors.
That synthesis reached its intellectual apex in the work of Rev. John Courtney Murray, S.J., and was reflected in the Vatican II constitution Dignitatis Humanae, which affirmed human liberty and denied that the State had the right to suppress even false religions. As the traditionalist scholar Michael Davies documented (disapprovingly), it was the influence of American bishops at Vatican II that assured the approval of this key constitution. In this document, and in the subsequent Catechism of the Catholic Church, and in John Paul II’s acts of penance for the intolerance displayed by his predecessors, the Church showed a humility and a willingness to learn from her own prudential mistakes, as well as from the natural virtues displayed by non-believers. Just as the Church Fathers once hearkened to pagan Stoics, so the Fathers of Vatican II attended to the moderate Enlightenment, rejecting the paternalism and authoritarianism that earlier Catholic thinkers had promoted in favor of a politics of liberty that respected human dignity. As Pope John Paul II wrote in Memory and Identity, on certain key issues the Enlightenment represented the long-delayed implementation of Christian anthropology into politics. Put more simply: the Church inherited from pagan thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle a top-down philosophy of government, which centered on the “rights” of lawgivers and rulers to enforce their vision of the Good in citizens’ lives instead of the rights of citizens against the powers of the State. This authoritarian philosophy was expressed religiously in the form of the Inquisition. It showed itself politically in feudalism and serfdom. It worked economically through royal monopolies, price-fixing guilds, and the mercantilism that George III tried to impose on the American colonies, controlling their trade for the benefit of the government. This paternalism would emerge once again in various forms of socialism, including but not limited to Marxism. Such paternalism still prevails in most of the EU, as Samuel Gregg shows in Becoming Europe.
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