The Catholic diaspora and the tragedy of liberal Catholicism

In a Feb. 14 note to his people, Cardinal Francis George, O.M.I., the archbishop of Chicago, commented on the question of "who speaks for the Catholic Church," which had become a subject of public controversy thanks to the Obama administration's "contraceptive mandate" -- which is, of course, an abortifacient and sterilization mandate as well. The cardinal noted the administration's crude attempt to play divide-and-conquer with the Catholic Church in the United States, a ploy in which some nominally Catholic groups quickly acquiesced. Yet something important in all of this was being missed, the cardinal suggested: "...the bishops of the Church make no attempt to speak for all Catholics; they never have. The bishops speak for the Catholic and apostolic faith, and those that hold that faith gather around them. Others disperse."

The diaspora, in this case, was entirely predictable: columnists and politicians who had questioned the administration's mandate, and organizations and associations that had raised serious questions about it when it was first announced, quickly fell back into line when the administration, on Feb. 10, announced an "accommodation" that was an obvious shell game, a ruse that didn't change the moral issue involved one whit.

Others, however, continued to gather around the bishops, who rejected the "accommodation." And they will prevail.

The administration is on the shakiest of legal ground in attempting to impose contraception, sterilization and abortifacients as "preventive services" that must be provided, on demand and with no co-pay, in all health insurance programs. As my friends Edward Whelan and David Rivkin pointed out in the Wall Street Journal on Feb. 15, there is every reason to think that the administration's mandate, even as tweaked by the false-flag "accommodation," will fail two legal tests: the test of the First Amendment's protection of the free exercise of religion (recently upheld in a robust way by the Supreme Court in a 9-0 decision against the Obama administration), and the test of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. As this battle unfolds, there is every reason for the bishops and those gathered around them to be confident of success.

But what about the diaspora: those Catholics individuals and organizations that re-embraced the administration as soon as Caesar announced his "accommodation" (or, in the case of Sister Carol Keehan and the Catholic Health Association, helped Caesar trot out his ruse)? These individuals and associations typically think of themselves as "liberal Catholics," a self-description proudly trumpeted by one of their spokesmen, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. Therein, I suggest, lies a great reversal, and an even greater tragedy.

The most significant contribution to the universal Church of pre-conciliar liberal Catholicism in America was the development of a Catholic theory of religious freedom -- which led, in due course, to Vatican II's epic Declaration on Religious Freedom, to the post-conciliar Church's history-changing defense of human rights, and to the Church's crucial role in democratic transitions around the world. This achievement, in which the debates on religious freedom at Vatican II were pivotal, unfolded in close collaboration with the U.S. bishops. It was Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York, for instance, who brought Father John Courtney Murray, S.J., to the Council, where Murray became one of the intellectual architects of the Declaration on Religious Freedom. And it was Murray (now falsely enlisted post-mortem into the pro-Obama camp of the Catholic diaspora) who, with the U.S. bishops and others, worked the Council process so that it became clear to a critical mass of the world's bishops that religious freedom was indeed congruent with what Cardinal George called "the Catholic and apostolic faith."

That liberal Catholics of the 2012 diaspora refuse to concede the grave threat to religious freedom posed by the administration's mandate, and that they have given political cover to a gross infringement on religious freedom by a federal government that looks ever more like Hobbes' Leviathan, is a grave breach of ecclesial communion in itself. It also represents a tragic betrayal of the best in the liberal Catholic heritage in the U.S., even as it illustrates the utter incoherence into which post-conciliar liberal Catholicism in America has tragically fallen.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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