Against the Netherworld

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 the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.