A Deficient Definition of Liberty (The Catholic Right, a Series)
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sun Dec 30, 2007 at 01:51:03 PM 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

I got pounded by a nasty head cold this week. It had the unfortunate effect of putting me out of commission for a day or two. So, in the place of the piece I was working on (to be posted next weekend) I am reposting one of my recent favorites. After that, however I'll be posting irregularly through March (about every other weekend). This will allow me to work on two book projects I'm involved in.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Dec 30, 2007 at 01:52:51 PM EST

Many of the churches want people to follow THEIR standards, and often it isn't in the person's best interests to do so.    You know- "Give 'till it HURTS!"

It really irritates me when they say "Ought to do"- obviously it's by their definition, and I would argue that most of the time it only serves THEIR interests.

by ArchaeoBob on Sun Dec 30, 2007 at 03:04:11 PM EST

It's amazing when they say "the truth" so many fail to ask, Whose truth?

It our task to make that observation more vocally.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Dec 30, 2007 at 09:09:17 PM EST

The squabbling will start with whose truth should apply. We Catholics don't need to get involved with this, or to marry religion and politics. No doubt Weigel, Novak, and Neuhaus would find something negative or dismissive to say about Richard Hooker's  theology.

I hope you are feeling better, and a Happy New Year to you and your family. Good luck on the book projects.


by khughes1963 on Tue Jan 01, 2008 at 11:04:31 AM EST

And a very Happy New Year to you and your friends and family!

by Frank Cocozzelli on Tue Jan 01, 2008 at 07:55:25 PM EST

Thank you for this informative piece.... the threesome you describe are indeed very dangerous.  I have begun to try to outline why Christian (or Catholic) doctrine is incompatible with the American values of our founders.  (See my diary entry on the right hand column of this page titled, "Is Christian Doctrine Compatible With American Values?")  I would appreciate any feedback, whether critical or not.  Thanks and keep your articles coming.  


by TMurray on Sat Jan 05, 2008 at 06:30:54 AM EST

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