The Annulment of Liberal Catholicism

by Edwin Faust
April 16, 2012

It appears that the ill-fated marriage between liberalism and Catholicism is on the rocks. The Catholic bishops in the United States have been likened to the left wing of the Democratic Party at prayer. Now, the prayer meeting is breaking up.

The alliance between Catholic bishops and the Democratic Party has its roots in history as well as ideology. Many immigrant Catholics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, upon stepping onto the terra firma of the New World, were greeted by the outstretched hand of the local Democrat alderman. A symbiotic relationship developed.

The Democratic Party has always identified itself as the party of the poor, the working man, the underclass, and branded the Republican Party as a club for the middle and upper classes where blue-collar Catholics were not welcome.

The truth of these characterizations may be arguable, but their practical impact on the voting habits of Catholics has endured, despite the opposition of Democratic politics to Church doctrine. Even Barack Obama received the Catholic vote. Old habits die hard.

Obama opposed Church teaching on abortion, stem-cell research and homosexuality, among other things, but this did not prevent his being honored at Notre Dame University. Obama demonstrated how complete is the disconnect between what Catholics profess to believe and how they conduct their public affairs.

Now the Obama administration has incurred the wrath of the Catholic bishops of the United States by a Department of Health and Human Services mandate that would require Catholic hospitals and other institutions to provide contraceptive and abortifacient drugs in the healthcare packages of their employees.

Bishops declare they are outraged by this intrusion of state power into their domain. They demand exemption from the mandate based on freedom of conscience and First Amendment protections. Some pundits have pointed out that many Catholic institutions already provided contraception as part of their healthcare plans. So what’s the problem?

It has also not escaped the notice of social observers that the bishops have heretofore been reticent on the subject of contraception, to say the least. The vehemence of their reaction to the Obama mandate, therefore, appears disproportionate. The perplexity is understandable.

One way to make sense of the current situation is to view it in terms of power, not morals. The bishops may have tacitly ceded defeat in the battle against contraception decades ago, but a de facto concession is far different from a de jure one. The Obama mandate requires the formal surrender of ecclesiastic power. There lies the rub.

It is ironic that the line in the sand between Church and State has been drawn ostensibly over a moral prohibition that is largely ignored by most Catholics and about which their pastors have remained largely silent. It is as though the bishops have decided to march behind a long discarded and hardly recognizable battle flag.

Ordinary Catholics may be a bit bewildered, but they will likely grasp the fact that the principle of religious freedom has come under siege. Will this cost Obama politically? That remains to be seen.

The Obama administration does not show signs of worry. It may regard the whole thing as a scrap between like-minded allies. The Catholic bishops and the Obama Democrats are on the same page when it comes to government entitlements, which are fed by the redistribution of wealth. Both believe that charity begins in Washington, D.C.

But the bishops are now having the realization forced upon them that their autonomy rests upon their maintenance of the Church’s moral doctrine. They are beginning to see that the Church cannot be a coequal partner with a government that rejects and undermines its doctrine.

Of course, there have been good bishops who have championed Catholic teaching throughout their careers. But they are more the exception than the rule. Now, they may find their numbers swelled by their liberal colleagues who find themselves politically orphaned and driven to seek refuge in Holy Mother Church.

Will Catholics now be powerfully reminded that contraception is forbidden by their Church? Will there be a parish-level crusade against what the catechism describes as a grave sin? It seems doubtful.

Will the bishops realize that their identity is primarily religious, not social or political? Will they be forced to put into practice in public life the principle of non-contradiction: that of a thing cannot be and not be at the same time? One cannot be both a good Catholic and a good liberal Democrat.

The bishops are being forced to make a choice. They must stand up as Catholics, or stand down and bow their heads before the secular liberal leaders whose favor they have so avidly sought for so long. The defining moment has arrived.

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