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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  • Hmmm…

    Being Christian and sticking with that old book is the straight way that leads to life. Knowing and relating to God, including hearing him, is the most critical affiliation, to which all others must be subject. They can and do change, but God does not change and his word is forever settled in heaven. Agree with it and have it settled for you here on earth. It’s our only real security. Thank God, he’s real and you can have him.

    • Mensa Member

      I like and agree with your comment but one thing troubles me:

      >> “God does not change and his word is forever settled in heaven”:

      This could be construed as a God who stopped interacting with the world 2000 years ago.

      The canon is closed but God still has a word for a very changed world.

      • Hmmm…

        Those statements are direct from scripture. The reference is prompted by the article’s speaking of shifting within a church organization. The character and truth of God is intact. His dealings with man are ongoing. Jesus sent the Holy Spirit when he left, who personalizes God’s word and will to us as we open to it.

        • Mensa Member

          I think you and I fundamentally agree on this subject. I think an unchanging God qualifies as a point of orthodoxy.

          But, God’s interaction with the world changes. (you said as much)

          This is the point where we Christians often disagree. A big one is how normative the pastoral epistles are. Do women still wear head coverings? Can men have long hair? Can women be pastors? Or speak at all?

          While those are mostly settled issues in the church, now we are debating the role of divorced people, slaves, sexual minorities, etc in the church.

          Since the institution of divorce is radically different now than it was 2000 years ago how can the scriptures be applied without some adjustment? Or a whole lot of adjustment! (I’d make the same argument for homosexuality.)

          So, yes. God and his word do not change. But how that apply that to the world changes just as the world changes. And that is a very tricky and debatable thing, even among sincere Christians.

          • Hmmm…

            I feel we must be careful to anchor with the word of God, studying it out. It tells us along the way that if any man lacks wisdom, ask of God, in James, and in Proverbs, that wisdom is the principal thing. We need to expect to hear by the Holy Spirit when we seek the Lord on specific matters of application. I like what I heard one teacher say, that we don’t water down the word to fit our lack of experience of it (his context at the time), but embrace it and allow it to bring our experience up to the level of the word. Having committed Christian friends and a strong church connection are essential to this.

            In the same way, I am very wary of moving the word in our estimation to agree with current culture, rather than comprehending what the word is saying to us and making a stand there. If we earnestly seek to obey God and adopt his ways, he certainly will help us in that effort and what consequences may come from our decisions based on it. It is very possible that Christians today may have to take a stand for God and his word against the current culture, as many have done in the past or in other places, and be prepared to leave our outcome in God’s hands, either to be delivered out or go through. We are in the world, not of it. I know and know of many pastors who are reckoning with these things, making their stands now to follow the Lord regardless of what conflicting secular laws may dictate.

          • Patmos

            It’s truly frightening how dumb you are, that anyone could come to the conclusions you come to.

          • Hmmm…

            such were some of you maybe …

      • Patmos

        “This could be construed…”

        Your problem in a nut shell. There is no personal interpretation of scripture. It’s pretty straightforward and easy to understand, unless of course a person is totally self centered like you.

        God’s word is not philosophy class. It’s not some neato thing you get to play around with and think about.

        And stop calling yourself a Christian. You don’t follow Christ, and show no signs of having any idea what the Holy Spirit is. You are absolutely clueless to the word of God.

  • Mensa Member

    >>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.

    … you found a bunch of fringy nuts and are giving it importance it doesn’t merit.

    • Zmirak

      I didn’t cite them repeatedly in the NY Times. How do you think I found out about them? From Douthat.

  • Dean Bruckner

    The Pinkians and the Tradinistas better have guns, lots of them, and plenty of ammunition. They had better have resolve and a willingness to die in large numbers. Because they are going to need all of those if they try this stupidity.

    Who would have thought that First Things would entertain these doctrines of demons?!

  • tz1

    The true evil is we abandon subsidarity and simple freedom – to be left alone because we want huge government.
    We want government to rob people to pay for welfare and health care. No, taxation IS by definition theft. Government puts a gun to my head and says pay up or we will imprison you or if you resist, kill you.
    Even in Aquinas’ Summa, on law, he said it should be minimal and concern breaches of the peace.
    The church is free to excommunicate people who sin, and to ostracize them.
    Ostracism isn’t a threat to use violence.
    Instead of reason and persuasion and ostracism, co-opting the state to use their guns as your proxy (and you are as guilty for sins by proxy) has become the preferred policy.

    Where were the Bishiops in Venezuela when socialism was imposed, property confiscated, and oil fields and farm land given to incompentent cronies? Now they are shocked that theft has failed and the wages of that national sin is literally death?

    • Zmirak

      To be fair, the bishops of Venezuela have been principled and courageous. The Vatican has undermined the opposition, however, meddling to help the regime.

  • Ineverleavecomments

    Eye opening and unsettling.

    I think I first met a “tradinista” over ten years ago and I thought they would outgrow it (this fella happened to look like Pasha Andipov in Dr Zhivago). I never would have imagined that whatever this “movement” is, it would grow or that there would be books explaining the differences between liberation and “peoples” theology and which one the Pope prefers. I think these two things (tradinistas and our leftist Pope) are far more closely related than perhaps I had realized.

    I think this religious freedom issue (which I never think about wrt Vatican II, honestly) goes hand in hand with how the tradinista and current Vatican movement may attempt to silence their opposition. Thank God Holy Mother Church stayed ahead of things when she embraced religious freedom.

  • John

    Considering that Americanism is a heresy and that, in the encyclical Imortale Dei, Pope Leo XIII condemns the idea “that each [man] is free to think on every subject just as he may choose, and to do whatever he may like to do; that no man has any right to rule over other men.” As the “foundation of that new conception of law which [is] at variance on many points with not only the Christian, but even the natural law”. I am very uneasy calling classical liberalism / Anglo-americanism a “noble tradition” from a catholic perspective. Perhaps rather we should call it “a fatal novelty of opinions”.

    • John

      If I am being perfectly honest, I had thought that I was quite the fan of your writing, both here on the Stream and some of the things I had read at Crisis Magazine, but the more I study this article the more suspicious I become of your reputation as an orthodox Catholic writer. You’ve called for argument based on reason, but rather than giving one you’ve just mocked traditional Catholic understanding. You’ve put “heretics” in quotes almost every time you’ve said it and then translated that as Christians who are not orthodox Catholics, as if protestants were not material heretics. You’ve put forward the conclusions of a very finely written article and acted as if their absurdities were self-evident, even though those conclusions were well argued for with annotations from magisterial authority and your criticisms were weighted only by us readers having a knee jerk reaction to side with principles which sound American. Worst of all, you’ve simply thrown out the execution of heretics as if it is some durogatory insult, even though the church clearly allowed for that under the papal states.

      You can’t simply list off positive rights in a patriotic tone then say that that serves as a defense of classical liberalism, and you can’t just throw out other’s conclusions surrounded with scare words and think that serves as a refutation. Thomism, not enlightenment philosophy, is the philosophy of the apostolic Church. If you truly want to have a discussion based on reason the thomists will be ready and able.

      • Zmirak

        Read my “Myth of Catholic Social Teaching,” where I argue that the range of the Magisterium is narrower than many Catholics, including apparently some popes, have thought. I didn’t claim that Pink was dishonest or unintelligent, merely that his conclusions were repugnant. They are also radically at odds with what every pope since the Council has said about religious freedom, most notably St. John Paul II. If the church really does ever admit that Pink is right, and that the post-conciliar witness to religious liberty was essentially a sham, then it would have to do without me. I never adhered to that, don’t believe it, wouldn’t defend it.

        • John

          That you are more assured of your opinion on the nature of religious liberty than you are of the judgment of one with the authority of Jesus Christ and his church is problematic firstly because those conclusions which we know on Faith are more certain than those conclusions we know through reason (if it really came down to it, as you hypothesized, the only moral and rational thing to do would be to submit your understanding to that of the church), and is problematic secondarily because the existence of some stand alone positive right to religious liberty, which is generally given no better argument than “we hold these truths to be self-evident”, is far from being obvious in the terms themselves.

          As a side note, study of these issues would be easier if you gave more specific references than “St. John Paul II”.

          • Zmirak

            Read John Paul’s apology for the sins of Christians against other Christians. Also everything he or Paul VI or Benedict ever wrote or said about meaning of DH. Or read Dignitatis Humanae, and see if Pink’s strikes you as an honest reading of the document. Also your argument is circular, in case that matters.

          • John

            I am in the process of studying the declaration and papal teaching on religious liberty, and I thank you for the resources.

            For the sake of preventing anyone from following your criteria for leaving the Church (either because of this issue or others they may be having) I will lay out my argument more clearly so that they may see weather it is circular or not.

            1. A conclusion that is known on faith is more certain than a conclusion that is known through natural reason.

            2. Any solemn judgment of the church is a conclusion known on Faith. (Due to the authority of the church to speak on matters of faith).

            3. A solemn judgment of the church is more certain than a conclusion from natural reason.


            4. A conclusion known on Faith is more certain than a conclusion from natural reason.

            5. That the church has authority on matters of faith is known on Faith. (Due to the historical authority of the scriptures and early Christian writings on the teachings of Christ, who himself has divine authority.)

            6. That the Church has authority on matters of faith is more known than conclusions from natural reason.

            Note that the second premise is known on the authority of the church while the fifth is known on the authority of Christ. The church is not using its own authority to declare it’s authority, rather Christ declares the authority of the church which further declares some dogma.

            Thus, if I say one thing, and the church declares my opinion anathema, I know more certainly that my opinion is anathema than I know I was right in that opinion.

            In other words, I am more likely to have been wrong than God is (and since God cannot have been wrong, I most certainly must be). I must, therefore, defer my judgment to his.

  • Gail Finke

    I’m reading this at lunch and don’t have time to do any research now, but that sure does not sound like anything Ross Douthat typically says. While those people and organizations may be real (I’ll take your word for it for now), they sound like the Catholic equivalent of the “alt right” — the core of which is a couple of guys with computers and no following to speak of, who have suddenly become the Frightening Future and are reveling in people suddenly taking them seriously.

    • Gail Finke

      Okay, I’ve read the RD piece, and I think this is a serious misrepresentation of what he said. His point is that current mainstream American Catholic thinkers and writers seem to have lost their steam — which I think is correct in many ways — and that other ways of Catholic thinking are emerging and duking it out. Among these, he says, are radical political leftists and people advocating “post-liberal Catholic politics” — he links to that Sancrucensis blog — and other people. This seems to me to be an acknowledgement of what is going on, not an endorsement of any of it. Here is the exact quote:

      “As a result a sense of disillusionment and homelessness among Catholic thinkers — younger ones, especially — has increased. It isn’t just that old 20th century approaches to Catholic politics — both the ethnic-Catholic liberalism of a Mario Cuomo or a Ted Kennedy and the Catholic neoconservatism that shaped figures like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio or Paul Ryan — seem like they’re out of energy and influence. It’s also that Western liberalism writ large seems at once hostile to traditional religion and beset by internal contradictions, making the moment ripe for serious Catholic rethinking, a new and perhaps even post-liberal Catholic politics. So far that new thinking includes revivals of radicalism on the Catholic left, where people pine for a pro-life Bernie Sanders and flirt anew with baptizing Karl Marx. It includes the lively debate over Rod Dreher’s recent book “The Benedict Option,” with its insistence that politics cannot save American Christianity and that some form of cultural separatism is essential for religious renewal. And it includes the various Catholic responses to Trump and to the revival of European nationalism — some of which imagine that out of the crisis of Western liberalism a new or different integralism, a more fully Catholic politics, might eventually be born.”

      I happen to think that our (in the West) secular politics is in the middle of a vast and contentious shift, to something that no one can yet predict. That Western Catholic thinkers would be influenced by this is to be expected.

      • Zmirak

        So which sentence in my piece seriously misrepresents Douthat? Quote it directly. Or explain why a defunct anonymous blog of totalitarians deserves to be taken any more seriously than some alt-right racialist cranks.

  • David Madeley

    Catholics didn’t need DH in order to protect followers of other religions from coercion. Coercion was permissable, but it was also permissable to tolerate religious pluralism if the common good demanded it. If we feel that religious freedom should have a more absolute footing than mere tolerance, that’s because none of us have seen a really dangerous heresy sweep through the nation. Imagine if everyone under 30 had joined the Heaven’s Gate Cult – would we have been obliged to respect their religious freedom? It will be interesting to see how this debate evolves if radical Islam ever poses a long-term threat to the social order. Or, if satanism or scientology becomes more powerful. None of these people will be very good dialogue partners.

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