[StBernard] American Catholicism's Pact With the Devil

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Mon Feb 13 23:10:07 EST 2012

American Catholicism's Pact With the Devil
Paul A. Rahe . Feb. 10 at 5:21pm

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

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

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

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

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 Bernadin, 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
Bernadin 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

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 Bernadin 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 Bernadin, 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

There is, I would suggest, a connection between the heretical doctrine
propagated by Cardinal Bernadin 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."

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