“Religious man was born to be saved, psychological man is born to be pleased.”
“The rules of health indicate activity; psychological man can exploit older cultural precepts, ritual struggle no less than play therapy, in order to maintain the dynamism of his culture. Of course, the newest Adam cannot be expected to limit himself to the use of old constraints. If “immoral” materials, rejected under earlier cultural criteria, are therapeutically effective, enhancing somebody’s sense of well-being, then they are useful. The “end” or “goal” is to keep going.” ― Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud
By requiring all public and private institutions to include contraception and abortion “services” in their health insurance plans, President Barack Obama has infringed on the right to religious freedom of those citizens whose religion proscribes the use of or complicity with contraception. And, after Obergefell, it no longer seems outside the pale of future possibility that Catholic priests will be forced to officiate over same-sex marriages. But, although Catholics and other Christians may defend themselves against these rulings in the name of religious freedom, religious freedom is, simply, not absolute, and thus an integral Christian cannot “win” this way. Effective defense against the present and future, nihilistic onslaughts must involve a stance that is founded upon something absolute.
American Mormons are legally prohibited from practicing polygamy, even though The Book of Mormon permits it; American Hindu women are forbidden to commit suicide on the funeral pyres of their husbands, notwithstanding their tradition’s commands; and pagans and Satanists cannot sacrifice human beings, no matter what the devil demands. Religious-freedom infringement occurs quite a bit in American legal practice, and it makes sense that it does; for, those in charge of securing the common good of the community, as well as the rights of individuals, have the right and obligation to ban practices that are a direct and serious threat to it. Religious freedom, in the realm of practice at least, is not an absolute right, and so must be balanced with the competing rights of others in light of the overall common good. In short, religious practices can legitimately be proscribed.
Of course, in this case, the right of Catholics not to be forced to provide contraception, directly or indirectly (the “compromise” position of the Obama regime doesn’t change things morally), and not to be forced to preside over or in any way support same-sex marriages, is absolute, and neither competes with any other genuine rights nor poses a threat to the common good. But such a right is not absolute if it be grounded in nothing more than religious liberty. As Humanae Vitae and the Catholic moral tradition teaches, it is the use of contraception itself that hurts people’s bodies and souls, can kill baby humans, and damages the common good of the family and the society at large. And, of course, same-sex marriage destroys both the flourishing of persons in the family, especially children, as well as the ontology of creation. These are practices in which one should not be forced to be complicit, not because they contradict one or more religious beliefs, but because they are, in a word, evil, they offend God, damage persons, and destroy the common good. Yet, the right not to become complicit in objective evil has been judged by the competent authority to interfere with the overall good of the American political community and the competing right of others to have what they consider vital health services included in their health insurance coverage, and with regard to Obergefell, wedding cakes by pizza parlors on demand. And in reaction to both the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate and the Obergefell decision, the American Catholic Bishops and Catholic public intellectuals, for the most part, have couched their public protest in terms of religious freedom.
Perhaps their choice of argumentative discourse serves as the most effective, short-term strategy to defeat this particular government mandate and Supreme Court decision. But I am afraid that if we do indeed “win” using this strategy, it would only be because the Obama/Kennedy regime conceded to the Bishops’ terms out of a pragmatic, self-interested calculus—perhaps just to increase the chances of getting reelected, or of biding time for a more unequivocal victory in the future for “the liberty to define one’s concept of existence.” Again, the real, fundamental issue is the evil of contraception and sodomy, and the threat these and our cultural of sexual license poses to the temporal and spiritual good of human beings. Another issue that is sidelined by the public Catholic’s rhetoric, which I would like to discuss further in this article, is their own public, moral and spiritual authority, the political influence of the Catholic Church in America. As I shall try to show, the long-term effects of playing the religious-freedom card might be disastrous for both Catholics and non-Catholics.
It is understandable why the American Catholic Bishops would protest that the religious freedom of Catholics is being infringed upon, but it is not understandable why they should think that a protest articulated in terms of religious freedom would be sufficiently effective to prevent such attacks, and worse ones, in the future. It is not understandable as both a judgment of prudence and of principle, for it appears to presuppose ideas about the nature of politics and the relation of Church and state derived from the secular Enlightenment, not the theological Tradition of the Catholic Church. By desiring to protect with state power their godless, therapeutic culture, with its cultic religious practices of baby-murder and sexual perversion, President Obama and the HHS and Justice Anthony Kennedy and Obergefell are trying to unify church and state, as it were, a principled union Leo XIII explicitly taught as the political ideal and which was not changed at Vatican II. In other words, the Obama/Kennedy regime is, in spite of its Rawlsian-liberal rhetoric, promoting a particular conception of the good, not merely advocating more space for the exercise of individual rights. It is attempting to inculcate what it considers “virtue” and to promote the “well-being” of human persons. These are, all things being equal, Aristotelian and Thomistic moral and political goals, however perverted, and they indicate a non-liberal role and influence for comprehensive conceptions of the good transcending the merely private and sub-political.
In other words, though their evaluative moral scheme and worldview are mistaken, and the particular values they deem good are, in truth, wicked, by seeking to rid the political culture of a practice they deem evil and vicious, and not merely infringing on someone’s rights, the Obama/Kennedy regime is, to this extent, behaving in a manner more in line with traditional Catholic political philosophy and theology than that implied by the Bishops/Catholic intellectuals’ classical-liberal-Lockean rhetoric!
The truth is that we live in an officially “therapeutic” state, in the Rieffian sense of this term, with the old revelatory “god-terms” and religious “interdicts” having been replaced at some point in the 60s with the Freudian “self-terms” terms and their obligatory transgressions. In other words, in spite of the First Amendment, and our delusional insistence that we have a multicultural and pluralistic culture, there is an established religion and culture in America, one embodying a particular conception of the sacred, namely, the sacredness of unfettered, individual human desire in its pursuit of worldly and psychological well-being. The HHS and Obergefell decisions reflect the desire of those in power to make this established religious and cultural outlook more official by defending it with state power, so much so that it is no longer willing to tolerate public practices that threaten its hegemony, such as Catholics witnessing against the good of deliberately sterile sex by refusing to offer “free” contraception and to condone God-condemned unions. In a perverse sense, then, the political authorities are simply doing their duty to protect the common good, therapeutically understood, and to help people attain well-being, as they perversely define it. And if it takes rewriting or abolishing the First Amendment to protect the common good of a satanic, God-transgressing liberty, and the common good does take precedence over individual goods, all things being equal—well, they are going to do it!
Thus, the main political problem with HHS and Obergefell is not their infringing on religious freedom or individual rights, for these are not absolute, as we have said, but that the American regime subscribes to and is motivated by the wrong religion and cult. One might concede this point and still protest their un-American desire to make this cult publicly authoritative, but this is also wrongheaded. It may be un-American, but perhaps that is a virtue in this regard. There really is no such thing as a private cult, just as there is no private culture, and, as Catholic social teaching maintains, anyone in a position of political authority has the right and obligation to promote the common good as he sees it, within limits imposed by the natural law and Divine Positive Law, the genuine rights of persons, and reasonable constitutional and legal restrictions upon his employment of coercive force.
When Catholics argue for their right to religious belief practice, that argument is necessarily heard by other Americans in Lockean terms, in which “every religion is orthodox to itself,” and in which the sole power and authority over all matters pertaining to the things of this world is the secular state. Religion is, by this definition, strictly otherworldly, and there is no non-subjectivist way of knowing the truth of religious dogma or judging between conflicting doctrines and practices. In other words, religious relativism is the official lens through which all judgments on the proper bounds of church and state are made in America—ab initio, as William Cavanaugh, has argued. If religion is private, idiosyncratic, and otherworldly, not public, truth-embodying, and world-implicated, it cannot have an authoritative, public role in ordering common life. Defined as a private cult claiming no authority over anything but its own private doctrines and practices, perhaps the Obama/Kennedy regime might concede the Church and its institutions the right to its rather bizarre and barbaric proscription against “responsible sexual activity” and its outdated preference for “gender-dictatorial marriage,” but it would never do so for a Church defining herself as the Mystical Body of Christ and demanding from this regime and all governments the libertas ecclesiae, that is, a liberty prior to, and higher and more privileged, as Dignitatis Humane makes clear, than the generic religious liberty accorded to persons, due to the Church’s unique divine identity and mission.
Indeed, the Obama/Kennedy regime did not decide to offer a compromised position for any other reason than self-serving pragmatism, with some ideological lip service given to a radically individualist conception of the right to “conscience,” meaning, in this case, the right for Catholics to believe in a cruel, sex-hating, gender-totalitarian god, and to play-act in accordance with their fantasy. Are the Bishops satisfied with the Church over which they rule being characterized and treated by the state as nothing more public and authoritative than some superstitious debating society, as long as it can continue to enjoy tax-exempt status and some private freedoms of conscience for its members? Is this truly libertas ecclesiae?
Again, I think the Bishops and all Christians of good will should try to win this battle using any moral means necessary, and perhaps using the purely practical strategy of appealing to liberalism’s own principles might work—this time. But I fear that playing the religious-freedom card alone won’t work again. The Bishops need to make a straight-forward public declaration of the immorality of contraception and sodomy, as well as the Church’s Divine authority to make such a declaration (an authority bound up with its divine identity that has been made evident by definite signs in the world and therefore cognizable by unaided human reason). They should make clear the obligation of all political authorities to privilege the libertas ecclesiae (while supporting the religious freedom of all). And finally, they need to uphold the natural law, the common good, and the rights of God, and not merely common consent, custom, and the rights of man, as the ultimate legitimizing ground of the employment of coercive power. Without such declarations, the religious-freedom rhetoric may have the effect of securing Catholics the right to refuse contraception coverage and cooperation with same-sex marriage, but it would promote, indirectly, the secularist political liberalism that has led to the nihilistic culture of death in the first place.
Do the Bishops want to send the message to President Obama and Justice Kennedy that their main sin is not being Lockean enough, in not adequately respecting the sacred “wall of separation” between church and state, in mixing politics and religion? Yes, President Obama and Justice Kennedy are being bad liberals in not respecting the freedom of religion of some citizens, but they are, more importantly, being bad men in promoting objectively evil practices that destroy souls and the common good of persons. Do Catholics and other Christians want to pressure other Americans in power to be merely good liberals, even if that would win Christians a short-term reprieve? Should not the Bishops and all men of good will who see through the liberal shell game consider more carefully the long-term benefit for our country, the Church, and the West of declaring the truth, in and out of season, especially when it is becoming quite clear that, notwithstanding Benedict Opt-Outs, anything short of mass, nationwide conversion to the Gospel can save America now?
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