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Why the Bishops Oppose Religious Liberty:

The Fundamental Problem With Catholics Who (Don’t Quite) Understand the Fundamental Problem

Jon Merrill POSTED: 3/28/12

( The Witherspoon Institute here does a decent job of identifying the fundamental problem with the HHS mandate:

The fundamental problem with the contraception mandate is not that complying with it involves objecting employers in moral wrongdoing. At least for some employers, it may well do that, and this certainly makes the mandate morally objectionable, but this is not the fundamental problem. The fundamental problem with the mandate is that it coerces some people into doing what they think is wrong, and this problem remains regardless of whether the coercion excuses the actions of the people being coerced.

The Catholic bishops – and their Catholic “big-government-conservative” fellow travelers – seem to understand very well that the “fundamental problem” with the HHS mandate is that it “coerces some people into doing what they think is wrong.”  But they seem to understand it only when those “some people” are…them!

What about when a different but equally mandatory kind of mandate – i.e., coercive big-government taxation, in violation of Catholic teaching on subsidiarity – “coerces OTHER people – including other Catholics – into doing what they think is wrong”?  When, for example, it forces those other people into supporting Planned Parenthood or the World Wildlife Fund or Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the missions or the particular tactics or particular ways and means of which those other people, those other Catholics, find morally objectionable?  Isn’t that type of coercion, that type of “mandate,” also part of the fundamental problem?

No, say the bishops.  And the reason they say no is as absolutely simple as this:  They, the bishops, do not think that what Catholic Relief Services, for example, is doing is wrong.  And it doesn’t matter what you think.  So shut up.  And pay up.  (As if we had a choice.)

In fact, the very suggestion that what CRS is doing, or the way in which it does it, could be wrong, is, to them, so utterly, so fantastically, absurd as to merit not even a moment’s consideration.  (The suggestion also constitutes, of course, “an attack on the Church”).  “Why, CRS exists to promote ‘human flourishing’!” they cry, employing the current obnoxiously overused pious trope of the professional Catholics.  “And it’s an all-American kind of human flourishing:  nothing sectarian or Catholic about it at all.  CRS provides aid regardless of creed, race, ethnicity, shoe size, or sexual orientation!  What reasonable American person could possibly object to that, or think that it could be ‘wrong’!?”

Well, OK, Cardinal Dolan…but what if “some people” nevertheless do.  Not you-some people; but other-some people.  Let’s grant that they are absurd and unreasonable…but don’t the absurd and the unreasonable also have the right to religious liberty under that non-Catholic Constitution whose protections you are so pleased to claim for yourselves?

In response, the bishops and their big-government-conservative-Catholic supporters would first vehemently deny that any coercion – at least any “illegitimate” coercion – was involved in the case of the “mandate” imposed through big-government taxation.  (According to the new CRS director, two-thirds of that organization’s “charitable” support is derived by means of that particular mandate.)

 “This is a representative democracy and we voted with the American people, with the moral majority, in favor of ‘foreign aid,’ a lot of which rightly goes, in an entirely fair, nondenominational, and secular way, to Catholic Relief Services!  (The Protestants and Jews and Neo-Pagans are getting their cut of the ‘foreign aid,’ so why shouldn’t we?!)  Majority rules, says the U.S. Constitution.  Render unto Caesar, says the Catholic Catechism.

 “Well, so OK, just maybe…for a very small minority of Americans who are preposterously and selfishly opposed to ‘foreign aid,’ or for an even more insignificant minority who are even more ridiculously, and bigotedly, opposed to having an entirely and transparently secularized CRS administer some of that aid, this could theoretically constitute ‘coercion’.  But for Pete’s sake:  It’s good coercion!  It’s for human flourishing!  Opposition to human flourishing is almost by definition absurd.  And no!  The ridiculous and absurd among us do not, under either the American Constitution or the Catholic Catechism, have a right to unfettered religious liberty!  Both of those equally fine compendia of wisdom teach us that religious liberty, like any liberty, has its limits.  Specifically, where the ‘common good’ – or is it the ‘public order’? – is threatened, the religiously absurd can legitimately be coerced into submission.  Are you too dense to understand that opposition to governmental foreign aid (and thus to CRS) equals opposition to human flourishing, which in turn equals opposition to the common good, and that such ‘religious’ opposition is thus absurd, and so must be coercively squelched, or ignored?!  Case closed.  Shut up.”

We have been reductio-ed back around to the absurdum argument.

The bishops know it by heart…for it’s the same argument the Obama administration is using to squelch the religious liberty of their own institutions!

 “We believe in religious liberty as strongly as you do,” say Sebelius, and Obama, and Pelosi and that whole moral-majoritarian gang.  “It is indeed in the Constitution…but there are recognized limits.  (‘Due limits’ as one of your own recent ‘magisterial’ documents puts it.)  ‘Human flourishing,’ or the ‘pursuit of happiness,’ is also in the Constitution.  (Or maybe it’s the Declaration.  One of those things.)  The ‘common good,’ as defined by a moral majority, is also in the Constitution.  (Or maybe that’s an emanation or penumbra of the Constitution?  One of those things.)  An overwhelming majority of Americans (80%) – and of Catholics! (77%) – believe that contraception is a positive good and necessary to their human flourishing.  What you bishops are insisting on is preposterously, ridiculously, absurdly opposed to the common good and to human flourishing, and thus it is perfectly legitimate for us to circumscribe your religious freedom in this instance… just as you yourselves circumscribe the liberty of the zanier members – or more Republican members, to the extent that the two can be distinguished – of your own flock.”

The bishops and their fellow-traveling “government-charity” conservative Catholics countenance the coercive suppression of other people’s legitimate religious liberty when a particular expression of that liberty threatens their perceived institutional interests, or damages what they (very left-“politically,” not very right-Catholically) interpret to be the common good, or, simply, appears to them absurd.  The Obama administration looks at the religious-liberty thing pretty much the same way.  If the two sides, then, can just get past this unfortunate, and really unnecessary, contraception contretemps, there is really no reason why their beautiful friendship should not resume in earnest, based as it is on a shared understanding – with only a few minor exceptions – of how the religious liberty of troublesome third parties must be “managed” by the masters to serve a common ruling-class vision of human flourishing.


Informed Remnant readers will understand from the foregoing that the bishops have actually been espousing, all along, and contrary to the fears of many of the worrywarts who appear in these pages, a very orthodox and traditional understanding of libertas religionum (freedom of religions) and libertas ecclesiae (freedom of the Church).  (See article by Brian McCall, 31 January 2012).  That is, just like the 19th and 20th century Pope Piuses, they are very much against indiscriminate religious liberty, while, thanks to a fine Catholic instinct which half a century of internally-generated confusion has not been able to expunge, they jealously defend the liberty of the Church.

But which “Church”?  There is your real modern problem, the one created, or at least exacerbated, when a novel, ambiguous concept of “collegiality” led to the development of de-facto mini-churches, in the form of national(istic) bishops’ conferences.

In days prior to the Great Confusion, it was clear, when we spoke of the freedom of the Church, that we were talking about the One headquartered in Rome.  But now it is more likely – it is almost certain when the “we” is the American bishops – that we are referring to the lower-case one based in Washington, D.C.; to that “Church” whose “official” “charitable” agencies, both domestic and overseas, receive two-thirds of their financial support from involuntary, coerced, non-Catholic sources, that is, from that same leviathan secularist state with which the “Church” – i.e., the USCCB – has chosen to be in operational league.  One might even say, with some justice, in religious league.

In the days before the Great Ambiguity, defending the Church’s liberty, in either a Catholic or non-Catholic state, meant defending the universal Church’s right to its own internal governance and the right of its individual members to adhere to and practice the Church’s doctrinal teachings on faith and morals.  But it is now apparent that, in the USA, the rights and liberties that our bishops are primarily defending are those of the national church, the USCCB, chief among which “rights” is that to the massive financial support of the secularist state.  It is equally clear that the bishops are now primarily concerned, not with defending the right of individual Catholics to adhere to the universal Church’s doctrinal teaching on faith and morals, but with defending their right – indeed, their implied obligation – to adhere to the purely prudential (i.e., crassly political) “doctrines” – shall  we say “mandates”? – of the USCCB church.

Among those important USCCB doctrines, those “church”-imposed mandates our “liberty” to adhere to which our bishops so jealously guard, are, for example:  universal secular-state-provided health care; a de-facto open-borders “immigration” policy (at least for Spanish speakers); and secular-governmental “foreign aid.”

Through our national church’s “partnership” with the secularist federal government, the bishops have cleverly devised a religious mandate-within-a-mandate for that last-mentioned item:  foreign aid.  Not only do the bishops defend our liberty to be obligated, through federal-government taxation, to provide foreign aid to the Third World “poor,” they also protect our right to be coerced into channeling that “aid” through a single “Catholic” agency, Catholic Relief Services…which, not coincidentally, is “owned” and has been secularized by…the USCCB.  The bishops understand very well that if they, in partnership with the secular-humanitarian federal government, did not jealously protect our legitimate religious freedom to give, through coercive taxation, only to the government-sponsored and –directed CRS, we might abuse our religious liberty by giving freely and in greater amounts, and without government guidance or coercion – and thus illegitimately – to such unprofessional outfits as the Missionaries of Charity.  And then all hell would break loose.

Yes; it’s about recovering a clear Catholic understanding of libertas religionum vs. libertas ecclesiae but, maybe more importantly, it’s about identifying clearly which ecclesia we’re talking about.


Jon Merrill is the founder and director of Militia Caritatis Dei, a traditionally orthodox, catholically Catholic international charity which conspicuously rejects government funding.










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