This is what the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church forgot. In the 1930s, the majority of the bishops, priests, and nuns sold their souls to the devil, and they did so with the best of intentions. In their concern for the suffering of those out of work and destitute, they wholeheartedly embraced the New Deal. They gloried in the fact that Franklin Delano Roosevelt made Frances Perkins – a devout Anglo-Catholic laywoman who belonged to the Episcopalian Church but retreated on occasion to a Catholic convent – Secretary of Labor and the first member of her sex to be awarded a cabinet post. And they welcomed Social Security – which was her handiwork. They did not stop to ponder whether public provision in this regard would subvert the moral principle that children are responsible for the well-being of their parents. They did not stop to consider whether this measure would reduce the incentives for procreation and nourish the temptation to think of sexual intercourse as an indoor sport. They did not stop to think.
In the process, the leaders of the American Catholic Church fell prey to a conceit that had long before ensnared a great many mainstream Protestants in the United States – the notion that public provision is somehow akin to charity – and so they fostered state paternalism and undermined what they professed to teach: that charity is an individual responsibility and that it is appropriate that the laity join together under the leadership of the Church to alleviate the suffering of the poor. In its place, they helped establish the Machiavellian principle that underpins modern liberalism – the notion that it is our Christian duty to confiscate other people’s money and redistribute it.
At every turn in American politics since that time, you will find the hierarchy assisting the Democratic Party and promoting the growth of the administrative entitlements state. At no point have its members evidenced any concern for sustaining limited government and protecting the rights of individuals. It did not cross the minds of these prelates that the liberty of conscience which they had grown to cherish is part of a larger package – that the paternalistic state, which recognizes no legitimate limits on its power and scope, that they had embraced would someday turn on the Church and seek to dictate whom it chose to teach its doctrines and how, more generally, it would conduct its affairs.
I would submit that the bishops, nuns, and priests now screaming bloody murder have gotten what they asked for. The weapon that Barack Obama has directed at the Church was fashioned to a considerable degree by Catholic churchmen. They welcomed Obamacare. They encouraged Senators and Congressmen who professed to be Catholics to vote for it.
I do not mean to say that I would prefer that the bishops, nuns, and priests sit down and shut up. Barack Obama has once again done the friends of liberty a favor by forcing the friends of the administrative entitlements state to contemplate what they have wrought. Whether those brought up on the heresy that public provision is akin to charity will prove capable of thinking through what they have done remains unclear. But there is now a chance that this will take place, and there was a time – long ago, to be sure, but for an institution with the longevity possessed by the Catholic Church long ago was just yesterday – when the Church played an honorable role in hemming in the authority of magistrates and in promoting not only its own liberty as an institution but that of others similarly intent on managing their own affairs as individuals and as members of subpolitical communities.
In my lifetime, to my increasing regret, the Roman Catholic Church in the United States has lost much of its moral authority. It has done so largely because it has subordinated its teaching of Catholic moral doctrine to its ambitions regarding an expansion of the administrative entitlements state. In 1973, when the Supreme Court made its decision in Roe v. Wade, had the bishops, priests, and nuns screamed bloody murder and declared war, as they have recently done, the decision would have been reversed. Instead, under the leadership of Joseph Bernadin, the Cardinal-Archbishop of Chicago, they asserted that the social teaching of the Church was a “seamless garment,” and they treated abortion as one concern among many. Here is what Cardinal Bernadin said in the Gannon Lecture at Fordham University that he delivered in 1983:
Those who defend the right to life of the weakest among us must be equally visible in support of the quality of life of the powerless among us: the old and the young, the hungry and the homeless, the undocumented immigrant and the unemployed worker.
Consistency means that we cannot have it both ways. We cannot urge a compassionate society and vigorous public policy to protect the rights of the unborn and then argue that compassion and significant public programs on behalf of the needy undermine the moral fiber of the society or are beyond the proper scope of governmental responsibility.
This statement, which came to be taken as authoritative throughout the American Church, proved, as Joseph Sobran observed seven years ago, “to be nothing but a loophole for hypocritical Catholic politicians. If anything,” he added, "it has actually made it easier for them than for non-Catholics to give their effective support to legalized abortion – that is, it has allowed them to be inconsistent and unprincipled about the very issues that Cardinal Bernardin said demand consistency and principle.” In practice, this meant that, insofar as anyone pressed the case against Roe v. Wade, it was the laity.
I was reared a Catholic, wandered out of the Church, and stumbled back in more than thirteen years ago. I have been a regular attendee at mass since that time. I travel a great deal and frequently find myself in a diocese not my own. In these years, I have heard sermons articulating the case against abortion thrice – once in Louisiana at a mass said by the retired Archbishop there; once at the cathedral in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and two weeks ago in our parish in Hillsdale, Michigan. The truth is that the priests in the United States are far more likely to push the “social justice” agenda of the Church from the pulpit than to instruct the faithful in the evils of abortion.
And there is more. I have not once in those years heard the argument against contraception articulated from the pulpit, and I have not once heard the argument for chastity articulated. In the face of the sexual revolution, the bishops priests, and nuns of the American Church have by and large fallen silent. In effect, they have abandoned the moral teaching of the Roman Catholic Church in order to articulate a defense of the administrative entitlements state and its progressive expansion.
There is another dimension to the failure of the American Church in the face of the sexual revolution. As, by now, everyone knows, in the 1980s, when Cardinal Bernadin was the chief leader of the American Church and the man most closely consulted when the Vatican selected its bishops, it became evident to the American prelates that they had a problem – that, in many a diocese, there were priests of a homoerotic orientation who were sexual predators – pederasts inclined to take advantage of young boys. They could have faced up to the problem at that time; they could have turned in the malefactors to the secular authorities; they could have prevented their further contact with the young. Instead, almost certainly at the instigation of Cardinal Bernadin, they opted for another policy. They hushed everything up, sent the priests off for psychological counseling, and reassigned them to other parishes or even dioceses – where they continued to prey on young boys. In the same period, a number of the seminaries in which young men were trained for the priesthood became, in effect, brothels – and nothing was done about any of this until the newspapers broke the story and the lawsuits began.
There is, I would suggest, a connection between the heretical doctrine propagated by Cardinal Bernadin in the Gannon Lecture and the difficulties that the American Church now faces. Those who seek to create heaven on earth and who, to this end, subvert the liberty of others and embrace the administrative entitlements state will sooner or later become its victims.
Earlier today, Barack Obama offered the hierarchy “a compromise.” Under its terms, insurance companies offering healthcare coverage will be required to provide contraception and abortifacients, but this will not be mentioned in the contracts signed by those who run Catholic institutions. This “compromise” is, of course, a farce. It embodies a distinction where there is, in fact, no difference. It is a snare and a delusion, and I am confident that the Catholic Left, which is still dominant within the Church, will embrace it – for it would allow the bishops, priests, and nuns to save face while, in fact, paying for the contraception and abortifacients that the insurance companies will be required to provide. As if on cue, Sister Carol Keehan, a prominent Obamacare supporter who heads the Catholic Health Association, immediately issued a statement in which she announced that she is “pleased and grateful that the religious liberty and conscience protection needs of so many ministries that serve our country were appreciated enough that an early resolution of this issue was accomplished.”
Perhaps, however, Barack Obama has shaken some members of the hierarchy from their dogmatic slumber. Perhaps, a few of them – or among younger priests some of their likely successors – have begun to recognize the logic inherent in the development of the administrative entitlements state. The proponents of Obamacare, with some consistency, pointed to Canada and to France as models. As anyone who has attended mass in Montreal or Paris can testify, the Church in both of these places is filled with empty pews. There is, in fact, not a single country in the social democratic sphere where either the Catholic Church or a Protestant Church is anything but moribund. This is by no means fortuitous. When entitlements stand in for charity and the Social Gospel is preached in place of the Word of God, heaven on earth becomes the end, and Christianity goes by the boards.
It took a terrible scandal and a host of lawsuits to get the American Church to rid itself of the pederast priests and clean up its seminaries. Perhaps the tyrannical ambitions of Barack Obama will occasion a rethinking of the social-justice agenda. The ball is now in the court of Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, who has welcomed the President's gesture without indicating whether it is adequate. Upon reflection, he can accept the fig leaf that President Obama has offered him. Or he can put Sister Keehan and her supporters in their place and fight. If he wants to regain an iota of the moral authority that the Church possessed before 1973, he will do the latter. The hour is late. Next time, the masters of the administrative entitlements state won’t even bother to offer the hierarchy a fig leaf. They know servility when they see it.