Catholics Reject Freedom at Their Own Peril

By John Zmirak Published on August 5, 2017

Ross Douthat has penned a lengthy piece in The New York Times about the now-infamous attack on Catholic/Evangelical alliance in the US. You know, the unhinged piece written by Jesuit Antonio Spadaro and Rev. Figueroa? In his critique, Douthat also calmly surveys the growing ideological discontent among Catholics to modern “liberalism.” 

But some of that discontent is truly frightening stuff. Scratch below the surface and you find ideas like: “Hey, why don’t we socialize private property, eliminate the investor class, open all the borders, give everyone a lifetime guaranteed income without working, suppress ‘homophobia,’ establish a world government and outlaw Protestantism?” No, I’m not making that up. Nor exaggerating for effect. That is the program proposed by the Tradinista collective, a defunct group of anonymous bloggers.

These thinkers advance ideas inimical to much of what The Stream advances. They strike at the core of what it means to be a Catholic, a Christian, and an American. Even at what it means to be human.

Is Freedom “So 1989”?

In his current piece, Douthat addresses the Vatican’s attitude toward Anglo-American freedom — the vision of man as endowed with dignity and inborn rights. Heirs of what Daniel Hannan calls the Anglosphere draw very clear conclusions from that vision. We claim as our birthright specific liberties, including the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We also affirm protection of property rights and our freedom to work as we choose — within due limits that protect the rights of others. Read The Stream’s 10 Principles for an eloquent explanation and defense. 

This political program used to be called “liberalism,” before that word was tainted. Douthat uses liberalism in that sense, which is, sadly, confusing. Much better to say “classical liberalism” or “Anglo-Americanism.” I’ll use the latter here, because it highlights the origin of this distinctive and noble tradition.

Douthat doesn’t examine whether this tradition is true or not. That would seem to me the critical question. Instead, he squints at “liberalism” through the lens of Vatican Realpolitik. The Church, he said, began to flirt with Anglo-Americanism in the 19th century. At Vatican II, the Council Fathers endorsed it. Now, Douthat suggests, that tradition may passing away, and the Church might adopt something else. You know, the way we changed the rules about nun’s habits.

Let’s leave aside economic and political freedom for now. They’re crucial, of course, but they play a distant second to the critical moral question, religious liberty. It’s the only major issue on which Vatican II made any real developments to what the Catholic Church says about the world.

Sorry, No Vatican Oracle

Before Vatican II, multiple popes and councils allowed for governments to persecute “heretical” Christians. That is to say, every baptized person who’s not an orthodox Roman Catholic. In fact, Catholic kings used to promise to do just that as part of their coronation oaths. At Vatican II, the Church denounced this policy, and said that it violates natural law.

A certain set of Catholics since Vatican II has rejected this embrace of religious freedom. Some do because they think that a change on this issue undermines Church authority. It certainly narrows and focuses the scope of that authority. As I explained in an article provocatively titled “The Myth of Catholic Social Teaching,” the changes in papal statements on these and other issues show us one thing clearly. The Vatican is not an oracle on details of economics or politics. The Church’s ordinary teaching authority on those areas of life does not extend to policy specifics. If it did, Church statements on economics and politics would be consistent, just as they are on dogma.

But they aren’t. The old allowances made for slavery and torture weren’t infallible dogma. Neither are the new condemnations. We’ll just have to use core principles of natural law to figure those questions out, using reason and not arguments from authority. That’s the task of laymen, anyway.

Time for Catholic Thought Police and Catholic Prisons?

However, some Catholics seem desperate to prove that old Vatican statements affirming that it is good to persecute “heretics” still are binding. That Vatican II did not in fact forbid Catholics from using violence against non-Catholic Christians.

Scholar Thomas Pink argued in First Things that the Church’s declaration at Vatican II only said that the state must not use force against Protestants, Orthodox Christians, and others. But the Church may coerce them, using not just spiritual but temporal weapons. That presumably means police and prisons. Run by the Church, with every person baptized as a Christian (even as an infant) subject to its authority. (Pink doesn’t address whether the church may take up the old state practice of actually executing heretics.) You might have thought using force to punish wrongdoers was reserved to the state. But Pink argues that this is a modern, secularist error.

No, I’m not making this up. Here it is in Pink’s own words, published in Father Neuhaus’s old magazine:

People have a right not to have their religious practice coerced by the state. They do not have the same right not to be coerced by the Church, especially if they are baptized and fall within the Church’s jurisdiction. Where the baptized are concerned, the Church possesses a right to punish that can extend even to individual belief and practice.

Thomas Pink’s argument informs the contents of three separate sites Douthat refers to: The Josias, Sancruencis, and The Tradinista Manifesto (now sadly offline). 

Douthat suggests that the future of Catholic political thinking might lie in this direction. If it does, God help us all.


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