A Deficient Definition of Liberty (The Catholic Right, Forty-one in a Series)
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sun Oct 14, 2007 at 10:39:15 AM EST
The neo-orthodox Catholic Right often define liberty as "what one ought to do." But this narrow definition raises a very troubling question for those of us who value the separation of church and state: By whose standards are we to decide what "one ought to do?"
Catholic Rightists Michael Novak, Richard John Neuhaus and George Weigel are trying to tell the world it should be an orthodox Catholic standard.  Of course, they could never get away with that religious supremacist claim outright. So, like their Protestant co-belligerents of the religious right, they say that's what the Founders wanted.

They are not the first to arrive at such a view. Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, S.J. (1904-1967) believed that Catholic doctrine is compatible with the thought of America's Founders, particularly based upon their various allusions to natural law-derived self-evident truths. Murray so firmly believed this that fifty years ago he claimed in the second half of the twentieth century Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism would increasingly influence national morality. But there was one catch: Murray desired that they would all do so through the filter of Catholic natural law principles.

Now the neo-orthodox triple entente of Neuhaus-Novak-Weigel are  moving well beyond Murray's belief; they are working to make it a reality. And that is because they are not ordinary Catholics; as Garry Wills points out in Head and Heart, they are evangelical Catholics.

But as evangelical Catholics, they face something of a dilemma: How to make America a "Catholic" nation without aggravating their evangelical Protestant allies.  Obviously, they cannot come right out and proclaim that the separation of church and state should be abolished so that a strident interpretation of Catholic morality becomes the cornerstone of American law.  So, with that ultimate goal firmly in mind, they seek to back into that dream.

What exactly is their game plan? This excerpt of a review of Damon Linker's book The Theocons descries it perfectly:

Neuhaus has long believed that Roman Catholicism is in a unique position "to propose the American proposition anew." George Weigel agrees by recalling the words of Archbishop John Ireland who believed that God wants Catholics in the United States "to make America Catholic." Neuhaus and Weigel do not advocate that the American state religion should become Roman Catholicism. They want our political institutions and principles to be spiritualized-catholicized. Evangelicals and fundamentalists rely on quoting biblical texts, which has no appeal to those who do not believe in the Bible. So Weigel argues the superiority of Catholic natural law that serves as "a philosophical foundation on which virtually all men and women of good will could participate in the ongoing argument about the American experiment and its foundational consensus."

And as I noted in Part Thirty-seven of this series:

Novak gives lip service to keeping church and state separate. However, his underlying desire is clearly to make neo-orthodox Catholic morality the standard even for non-Catholics. His views on embryonic stem cell research as well as abortion illustrate this point perfectly well. To do this, he brings inaccurate uses of moral relativism into the mix. He never really explains his view of pluralism while narrowly defining "liberty" as "the freedom to do what one ought to do." Such a definition is common among the neo-orthodox of the Catholic Right.

Pulling off this canard, however, requires a good deal of revisionist history. The cornerstone of their revisionism is Murray's erroneous claim that America was founded on Catholic natural law principles. Garry Wills (as I noted last week) has recently written that such an idea "...would have made Adams and Jefferson snort with derision."

Indeed, there was no direct infusion of St. Thomas Aquinas' view on natural law in Enlightenment thought. Further modifications and revisions by others took place in the interim.  In fact, the Vatican did whatever it could to sabotage its liberal legacy of tolerance.  As an American Catholic I am astounded by the audacity (and intellectual dishonesty) of these men.

But the forgotten monkey wrench in the works of their argument is Anglican theologian Richard Hooker (1554-1600). He is someone that anybody who wants to effectively refute this Neuhaus-Novak-Weigel revisionist contention should get to know.

It is undisputed that Hooker expressed greater concern for religious tolerance than his Catholic contemporaries, openly writing that even those who did not accept his Anglican faith were worthy of salvation. More importantly, there is no doubt that Hooker's pronouncements on tolerance had a direct influence on Enlightenment thinker John Locke.  Locke, in turn, heavily influenced the thinking of the framers of the Constitution.

Yes, Hooker, like Aquinas, drew heavily from natural law principles.  But he went further than Aquinas on another key issue: church hierarchies. Unlike Vatican dogmatists, Hooker believed that God is more concerned with the individual person and is ultimately indifferent to Church governance--a very radical thought back in the sixteenth century and still so today in the minds of the current Vatican and her neo-orthodox supporters. More importantly, Hooker's thought on this point helped to erode the power of authoritarian royalty in the march towards to liberal democracy.

But beyond the ridiculous claim that the Founders were crypto-Catholics, the neo-orthodox definition of liberty remains deficient.  The legacy of freedom is much different than what the likes of Neuhaus, Novak and Weigel think we ought to do: especially when, in turn, "ought" is defined by the subjective beliefs of a particularly strict interpretation of one religion. Liberty is the ability to pursue happiness as long as the actions of one person does not result in harm to others.

Liberty is also the ability to question the validity of long-held dogmas.  And of course, here in America, not even my fellow Catholics should be forced to do what a small number of neo-orthodox natural law adherents believe we "ought to do."  That wouldn't be liberty, but its very antithesis.

The Catholic Right: A Series, by Frank L. Cocozzelli :
Part One  Part Two  Part Three  Part Four  Part Five  Part Six   Intermezzo   Part Eight   Part Nine  Part Ten   Part Eleven   Part Twelve   Part Thirteen   Part Fourteen   Second Intermezzo   Part Sixteen   Part Seventeen   Part Eighteen   Part Eighteen   Part Nineteen   Part Twenty   Part Twenty-one   Part Twenty-two   Part Twenty-three   Part Twenty-four   Part Twenty-five   Part Twenty-six   Part Twenty-seven   Part Twenty-eight   Part Twenty-nine   Part Thirty   Part Thirty-one   Part Thirty-two   Part Thirty-three   Part Thirty-four   Part Thirty-five   Part Thirty-six   Part Thirty-seven   Part Thirty-eight   Part Thirty-nine    Part Forty




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I know that all this talk about Enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke and Richard Hooker can be as delightful as getting a kid to eat his vegetables, but it is still necessary.

I recently read about a study that explained that American kids aren't as tall as their European counterparts because the former doesn't eat as many vegetables as the latter. Instead our kids are eating more junk food than they ought to and thus, becoming shorter than our European friends.

Think of reading the Enlightenment philosophers as the vegetables necessary for growing our thoughts. It will give us the necessary ideas to better tackle the revisionist "historians" of the Religious Right.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Oct 14, 2007 at 10:43:01 AM EST

That is also part of the reason why European kids are taller.  Quite a few other countries have a much higher standard of living than this country- and those that do have things like Universal Health Care and Living Wage!!!  I also understand that a lot of them also have more time off from work!  (IMO, good evidence that the "American Way" is the way to wage slavery!)

__________

You might  find it interesting to note that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick "said Thursday the prospect of both major party presidential candidates favoring abortion rights is evidence the Catholic Church must more forcefully project its voice on the issue."  (Lakeland Ledger, October 12, 2007).

Maybe the people who wouldn't vote for Kennedy were right after all...

Some of my colleagues have seen what it is like to live in countries where the Catholic church dictates behavior.  At least one lost a relative because of the prohibition against birth control and abortion.  The abusive and dictatorial control exerted over their lives (by the South American RC church) even drove a couple of people I know from Christianity!

I don't know which I have bigger problems with- the autocratic structure that now exists in the RC church, or the abusive cult activities of the more fundamentalist groups.

BOTH are in error.


by ArchaeoBob on Sun Oct 14, 2007 at 03:02:20 PM EST
Parent

A.B., the whole point of the analogy was not about all the causes of decreased growth, but of the importance of being familiar with the Enlightenment thinkers in order to refute historical revisionism.

As for your statement, "Maybe the people who wouldn't vote for Kennedy were right after all..." I cannot agree less. Because JFK specifically put the Constitution before the desires of today's Vatican neo-orthodox proponents, that made him (at least as far as the separation of church and state is concerned) qualified to lead the entire nation. McCarrick is making statements like that simply because he is losing this battle among ordinary, everday Catholics. It is a desperate pronouncement.

Finally, I share your frustration with Christian dogmatics of all stripes. Taking a page from Garry Wills, the idea is to balance the more strident religion of the heart with a more reasoned, more enlightened religion of the head; all while not using state power to coerce anyone's subjective moralities on everyone else.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Oct 14, 2007 at 04:26:15 PM EST
Parent




As Garry Wills noted in his essay on our faith-based administration, we seem to be in full flight from the Enlightenment principles that motivated Locke and the framers of the Constitution. I rather think that Weigel, Novak and Neuhaus believe rather too strongly in American exceptionalism, a belief they share with their Protestant Christian Right political allies. They rely upon the ignorance of their readers and help to fuel that ignorance with their pronouncements that the United States is
"a Christian nation." In spirit, I think their real spiritual and political ancestor is Pius IX.

Sad to say, I think a lot of students, and adults are not familiar with the real viewpoints of Locke and his fellow political philosophers, including the framers of the Constitution. They believe the pronouncements of David Barton as if they were gospel truth. This reminds me of one of Father Leonard Feeney's claims that George Washington was received into the Catholic Church on his deathbed.

Interestingly enough, Pius IX, a thorough reactionary, condemned Archbishop Ireland's endorsement of American Catholicism. Ireland had his own problems. His poor treatment of Father Alexis Toth caused Toth and a sizable number of Eastern Rite Catholics to leave Catholicism for Russian Orthodoxy. Please don't get me started  on how the hierarchy and papacy are in a full-scale retreat from Vatican II.

Kathy

by khughes1963 on Sun Oct 14, 2007 at 09:40:13 PM EST

If we are to redirect our efforts back towards both Enlightenment principles and the aggiornamento spirit of Vatican II, we must again reintroduce their legacies into the daily discourse. That is something I am trying to accomplish (or at least, help ignite) with this column.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Oct 15, 2007 at 07:26:02 AM EST
Parent



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