Studying and reporting on America's role in the world

The Resiliency of the American Experiment:  Part 2, The Catholic Leadership


Catholics Can Advance in America

University of Notre Dame Professor of Law Amy Coney Barrett is qualified to be a justice on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.  Intelligent, personable, well-connected and nominated by President Donald Trump, she teaches law, and has for a number of years.  She has practiced law.  She has conducted research.  She has written.  And, perhaps most importantly, she is willing to check her faith (Catholic) at the door.

That became clear during an exchange with Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 6, 2017.  Senator Diane Feinstein correctly described perhaps the most fundamental organizing principle of America which is that “Dogma and law are two different things.  And I think whatever a religion is, it has its own dogma.  The law is totally different.”  The Senator also said to the nominee that “dogma lives loudly within you and that is a concern” because Professor Barrett has “a long history of believing your religious beliefs should prevail.”  In response, Professor Barrett stated that she would “follow all Supreme Court precedent without fail” if confirmed as a justice to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.  She also said “I would commit if confirmed to follow unflinchingly all Supreme Court precedent.”  Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois questioned Professor Barrett at which she said at one point that her “religious beliefs would not bear on [the] discharge of duties as a justice.”  The Democrats got Professor Barrett to reject her Catholicism in public office and therefore get the approval of the Establishment, or, in other words, the powerful private interests in America who hold the real power.

Checking Catholicism at the door of public policy is something of which the Catholic leadership (namely, the bishops) approve and even encourage.  Most notably, in a written statement dated September 8, 2017, two days after the grilling by Senators Feinstein and Durbin, Archbishop William E. Lori, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, avoided the most important points of the exchange between the Senators and the nominee.

Archbishop Lori made no mention of the requirement that Catholics are to follow the Catholic faith in all aspects of their lives and in all of their activities which, in the case of Professor Barrett, who may sit on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, means that she would be required to base her decisions on the Catholic faith as well as US law, but the former would trump the latter if there were a conflict.  And, no mention was made of the central point made by Senator Feinstein – that law and dogma (i.e., religious beliefs) – are separate and distinct in America with the latter having no claim on the former.  This is itself a clear violation of Catholic doctrine.

Instead, he wrote that “this week’s hearing before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee is deeply disappointing.  Rather than simply consider the professional achievements of a nominee for the federal judiciary, multiple senators challenged her fitness to serve due to her Catholic faith.”  Extolling America’s “strong and venerable tradition of pluralism,” the Archbishop condemned “latent bigotries” and endorsed the “ideals of a healthy, pluralistic society.”  He stressed that “People of faith – whatever faith they may hold – should not be disqualified because of that faith from serving the public good.”

The American system of church-state separation allows for the pluralism that the Archbishop extolled and it requires that civil officials not act on and that the law not be based on any set of religious beliefs. With that separation, we can “all get along” as the laws are based on a morality that does not consider any deity.  And that is itself a violation of the natural law which the Catholic leadership has touted from time to time.  This time, the same leadership endorsed without hesitation the ideology that underlies America, and that ideology is in at least one critical aspect a violation of the natural law.

Fr. John Jenkins, CSC, President of the University of Notre Dame that employs Professor Barrett was more direct than Archbishop Lori.  He wrote in a letter dated September 9 that he was troubled by Senator Feinstein’s mention that “dogma lives loudly” in Professor Barrett.  Then he made clear that Professor Barrett’s primary loyalty was to America, and to Senator Feinstein’s correct statement on the nature of America.  Fr. Jenkins wrote

“Professor Barrett has made it clear that she would `follow unflinchingly’ all legal precedent and, in rare cases in which her conscience would not allow her to do so, she would recuse herself.”

So, in essence, a Catholic is not to let the faith inform or shape public policy, and America got it right with its foundational ideology.

The Catholic leaderships’ actions in September, 2017 do several things.  First, they again endorse what has come to be known as the Mario Cuomo position which is that one can be personally opposed to abortion (or some other evil) but publicly allow it.  This itself, stated by the former New York Governor in 1984, was a re-iteration of the position set out by Fr. Gustave Weigel, SJ, in September, 1960.  Weigel was a fellow-traveler with Fr. John Courtney Murray, SJ, whose work was used to sanctify or approve in practice if not also in principle in the Catholic mind the moral legitimacy of the American system of societal organization.  That system is based perhaps most importantly on the principle of separation of church and state which means that religion is not to inform, or direct, how government officials are to act, and that there is no one established religion or church.

Second, if one is not allowed to act in public matters or to form public policy based on one’s religion, then that religion is effectively suppressed since part of practicing that religion is to extend its benefits, or perceived benefits, to all of society.  If that happens, how can Murray’s project possibly be justified?  Murray said that America is the ideal with its First Amendment that insures separation of church and state as well as religious liberty.  In other words, the Catholic leaders are undercutting their very own understanding of the practical if not principled acceptance of the American system of social organization that permits the pluralism lauded by Archbishop Lori.  Religious liberty becomes little more than being allowed to worship as you want while perhaps also the formal church organizations are protected in their own little sphere.  This means that people of faith can never change society but can only give their approval or disapproval to various movements or positions in the society (or secular world).  That will eventually lead to the alienation of portions of the society making more likely the rise of extremism or radicalism and hence violence.  And so in this situation, we see fundamental contradictions within the American ideology.

Third, the Catholic leadership – that is the clergy – approves wholeheartedly the American ideology and demonstrates yet once again that the Catholic Church is an arm of American soft power.  The endorsement of the American ideology is the endorsement of Liberalism and with it the Enlightenment.  While claiming that people of various faiths can act in “serving the public good,” Archbishop Lori never proffers a definition of the “public good.”  The Enlightenment idea is that man can determine what is right and good with reason, or, as stated by Catholic academics (e.g., the late, great Dr. Charles E. Rice) and prelates in the last fifty to seventy years, man can determine the natural law (with all the same tenets).  There are as many conceptions of the natural law and of the public good as there are religions and so the public good upon which everyone, or most everyone in a pluralistic society can agree, is something formed not by the religions, but is fashioned by the powerful private interests in society who have the means, ability and hence the opportunity to create something in their interests and devoid of any deity’s influence.

Fourth, the Catholic leadership reject their own doctrine so as to allow Catholics to advance socially and materially in America.  Most notably, the Catholic leadership fails to follow their own doctrine as stated by the Vatican II Council, and in particular the “Declaration of Religious Liberty” or Dignitatis Humanae.  Chapter 118 of my book discusses the meaning and significance of Dignitatis Humanae, and part of that significance was to condemn American Liberalism and Continental Liberalism, though in soft or positive terms.  Catholic doctrine comes through if one understands Catholic doctrine and the struggle that occurred between Catholics and Americans (with Americanists) in the years especially of 1945 to 1965.

In Chapter I, Section 3, Paragraph 3 of Dignitatis Humanae, it is stated that through conscience one “sees and recognizes the demands of the divine law” and is to follow it “in all his activity.”  In Chapter II, Section 10, the faithful must give the Christian faith “practical expression to every sphere of their lives.”    While human freedom is to be respected with all of the attendant rights, the “higher rights of God must be respected” as stated in Chapter II, Section 11, Paragraph 1.  And amongst those higher rights are that His law be followed as set out in Chapter I, Section 3, Paragraph 1:

“the highest norm of human life is the divine law itself – eternal, objective and universal, by which God orders, directs and governs the whole world and the ways of the human community according to a plan conceived in his wisdom and love.”

To borrow from friend and producer Peter Helland, God’s Law is the Supremacy Clause.

Finally, and perhaps in a more practical vein, the position taken by the Catholic leadership will breed cynicism.  The Catholic leadership in its handling of the Professor Barrett matter is endorsing a way for Catholics to get ahead in society.  Mouth a few Catholic or Christian or religious beliefs. Then, once noticed by the political powers because of these mouthings, one can conveniently discard them at the right time and place.  With their recent actions, the Catholic leadership continues its service to Liberalism and America as the ideal and as such serves to undercut their own legitimacy.  But, it appears to be a price the clergy is willing to pay.

David Wemhoff