The Catholic Thing
Against the Netherworld Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Monday, 18 June 2012

Timothy Michael Dolan has been described as “America’s pope,” and that seems fine, at least until an American actually becomes the successor to St. Peter. Cardinal Dolan is certainly among the most pastoral bishops the American Church has ever known, and for a man as good-natured as he, 2012 must be an annus horribilis, given the extent to which leadership of opposition to the Health and Human Services Department’s contraceptive mandates has fallen upon him as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

No doubt you’ve heard him speak about the reasons for the Church’s dissent. He has been especially good at emphasizing that the battle is more about religious liberty than about any purely doctrinal matter – a hard thing to do in thirty-second sound bites or even in six-minute interviews, which is why Cardinal Dolan has written True Freedom: On Protecting Human Dignity and Religious Liberty, a 99¢ e-book of just over 5000 words that will be available for download beginning tomorrow.

The title and subtitle come in part from Leo XIII’s Libertas, an 1888 encyclical in which the pope describes true freedom as that which protects human dignity; as “stronger than any violence or injustice” that would oppose it. And this must be on the minds of all American Catholic bishops as they contemplate how to approach civil government’s increasingly militant embrace of the culture of death.

Thus the remarkable recent statement by the USCCB, one sentence of which seems a clarion to civil disobedience: 

If we face today the prospect of unjust laws, then Catholics in America, in solidarity with our fellow citizens, must have the courage not to obey them.

How many bishops may end up in jail for refusing to comply with one or another anti-Christian law is a matter for conjecture at this point (we face an election that may render the issue moot – for a while), but what’s clear is that we’re witnessing a sea change in episcopal accommodation with secular authority – long overdue in a polity that tolerates the killing of its most vulnerable citizens and encourages the abandonment of its most cherished institutions. Our bishops really do have backbones.

It’s well known (or should be) that Cardinal Dolan’s academic specialty is Church history, specifically the history of Catholics in America, but in True Freedom he emphasizes the broader American story, finding in the current battle to keep faith in the public square echoes of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr.

When he criticizes “modern political and legal theory [for holding] that only neutral, utilitarian principles can provide a basis for public policy,” he’s not just echoing Catholics such as Richard John Neuhaus but also those leaders of the Civil Rights Movement – and those whom the leaders cited, such as Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, all of whom based so much of their public writings and speeches on an understanding of natural law. They risked their lives – some lost their lives – defending the proposition that our most basic rights come not from men, whether noble or base, but from God. 

That’s what makes our rights inalienable: “They cannot be taken away,” Cardinal Dolan writes, “by any state, power, law, or choice of individuals.”

I mentioned Leo XIII above, but the pope to whom Cardinal Dolan most often refers is John Paul II, especially in citations of Evangelium Vitae (1995), in which the pope calls for “a general mobilization of consciences and a united ethical effort to activate a great campaign in support of life.” The word mobilization is becoming ever more essential. 

We must, Cardinal Dolan insists, “move the culture,” and he understands that doing so is a lot like turning an ocean liner: “a gradual, incremental process.” But what is the Christian mission, if not that? It’s a process, he writes, that necessitates reevaluations of pragmatism, utilitarianism, and consumerism: the “passionate drives for having and doing.”

In contrast, think of those hundreds of thousands of Poles who heard John Paul II speak on his return to his homeland, and who kept interrupting him with shouts of “Give us God! Give us God!” An officially atheist culture was again becoming a culture of believing. And think of what that meant to the unbelieving communist government of Poland.

As Cardinal Dolan writes:

Such a culture of death can only thrive. . .in a world in which God has been excluded, and in which everyone can evade the responsibility of solidarity by claiming to define his or her own morality. Personal freedom – the ability to do what I want, when I want, because I want to do it – is seen as the only absolute value.

Our task in America is the encounter not just with a hostile regime but also slothful secularism and ill-informed Catholics. Cardinal Dolan doesn’t cite the passage, but reading his fine essay, I was reminded of Paul’s warning to the early Church (2 Timothy 4:3-4): 

For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosity, will accumulate teachers and will stop listening to the truth and will be diverted to myths.

The cardinal, it must be noted, ends True Freedom in a much more upbeat way. Here clearly is a man who never loses sight of Christ’s promise to Peter (Matthew 16:18): that, having founded His Church, “the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”

Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, a senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is the author of six books and is a former Literary Editor of National Review.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (9)Add Comment
written by Grump, June 18, 2012
I watched a good portion of the USCCB conference in Atlanta and liked the way Dolan ran the show with both humor and grace. He looks and sounds like the kind of guy you could sit down and have some beer and pretzels with. When he was profiled on 60 Minutes awhile back he came across as a wee bit too jolly but still managed to get in some zingers. He reminds me somewhat of Bishop Sheen, who always enjoyed and could tell a good joke during his wonderful telecasts.

I remember one where he deliberately cocked his zucchetto to the side to make a point about man's ability to laugh and elicited howls of laughter from the audience. I would imagine the Lord loves a good joke, too, since He made so many of us.
written by Felix, June 18, 2012
The USCCB's fight against the HHS mandate is weak. This should not be reduced to merely a fight of religious liberty and conscience rights, but must also include a fight against the evils of abortion and contraception itself. It is the government's duty to promote and enforce as much as reasonably possible the Natural Law as explicitly mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. Contraceptives are a violation of Natural Law in that sexuality is primarily intended by Nature's God for procreation. Contraceptive devices used to be illegal in this country. Now that it is legalized at the very least the government should not be promoting or funding it. It is NOT Health Care, health care is to treat disease (a disorder in nature), fertility and pregnancy are not diseases. It does not even fulfill the Health Care law's own definition of "preventive services" which are treatments and services intended to prevent DISEASES. The US Bishops have been negligent in effectively teaching the faithful about the evils of contraceptives for over 40 years, this HHS mandate is a direct consequence of inadequate teaching from the pulpits, CCD classes, RCIA classes, and marriage preparation classes about this issue. It's time that the entire clergy wake up and do their jobs.
written by John Hinshaw, June 18, 2012
I love Cardinal Dolan and fully support our Bishops' efforts on behalf of our religious liberty. However, I would change one line in this article: "Our bishops FINALLY have backbones".
written by Sue, June 18, 2012
Fulton Sheen would not have countenanced the moral fogginess of most of the documents issuing from the (non-canonical) USCCB. Sheen's humor was always alloyed with razor-sharp, incisive critique of the collectivist mentality, which is also the primary threat today.

Some of the fogging I'm referring to are the issues of illegal immigration and also adoption services. If they cite adoption services as a religious freedom issue, why are they running away from it by closing down adoption services? Doesn't sound like much "courage disobey...unjust laws".

As for immigration, I am sure there are oppressive laws against immigrants, but the erosion of rule of law and the corrosiveness of the welfare state are what is being promoted by illegal immigration. To bring immigration under the mantle of protection as "religious liberty" is disingenuous.

One more item for concern is that the religious liberty issue is not somehow hijacked and turned around to grease the skids for Sharia law in America. If USCCB had a track record for ideological purity it would be one thing, but its "Faithful Citizenship" guide was almost a blueprint for the Obama election in 2008.

Fortunately, the Catholic in the pew can safely ignore that which issues from the USCCB as it is not a canonical authority. One can only hope his bishop has the same discernment and ability to think, and act, for himself, as the brave underground clergy in China do.
written by Jon S., June 18, 2012
I sincerely hope that Cardinal Dolan will provide the leadership that the Church and America need. However, I will be pessimistic until I see him doing more to turn the ocean liner of the culture of dissent in his diocese and the USCCB, e.g., enforcing the mandatum at Catholic colleges, excommunicating pro-abortion Catholic politicians, etc. As Sue has pointed out, the religious liberty issue does not exist in a vacuum. May Cardinal Dolan end up being remembered more like Saint Athanasius than like bishops who have unwisely chosen "accomodation with secular authority." May each of us do the will of God in these trying times.
written by Thomas C. Coleman, jr., June 18, 2012
Thank you, Dr. Miner for writing this excellent column and of igniting this thoughtful discussion. I'm sure that we are all grateful for Cdl Dolann's courage and pray for victory in this clear battle between good and evil. I have no way of knowing how aware Cdl Dolan is of the realities that Sue, JonS., Felix, and Grump mentioned. Down here in the trenches many of us see chaos in the ranks of what should be the church militant. Many of us have witnessed parishes in which those responsible for "faith formation" are themselves moral relativists to whom the expression non-negotiable is totally alien if not anathema. Perhaps this is just the time for a man with presence and personality like Cdl Dolan. But it is June and time is awastin'.
written by H. (Bart) Vincelette, June 20, 2012
Many significant facts are ignored herein. What is "non-negotiable", is the diversity of beliefs, opinions, perspectives & ideologies, in any democracy/republic. Religion has never been denied a place in the public square, but it needs reminding from time to time, that it doesn't own the public square. It will likely be generations before religious conservatives finally grasp the notion that freedom of religion doesn't involve the right to deny, diminish, or eliminate; the rights of others.
written by Amadan, June 20, 2012
What a farce. Leo XIII condemned Americanism 6 months after Cardinal Gibbons went to Rome to make a case for it.

Now, Cardinal Smile is peddling "Religious Liberty" and Abraham Lincoln. Sigh
written by Jeannon Kralj, June 20, 2012
"Leo XIII condemned Americanism 6 months after Cardinal Gibbons went to Rome to make a case for it"

So true. There is something seriously wrong with "Americanism." It places "freedom" and "freedom of conscience" and "civil liberties" about obedience to God and His Church.

"Religion has never been denied a place in the public square, but it needs reminding from time to time, that it doesn't own the public square."

There is no freedom under God and reference for the dignity of each individual soul until and unless Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God OWNS the public square.

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