Religious freedom: bleached, blanched, and rinsed out

George Weigel

Father Richard John Neuhaus put two Big Ideas into play in American public life. The first was that the pro-life movement (of which Neuhaus was an intellectual leader) was the natural heir to the moral convictions that had animated the classic civil rights movement (in which Neuhaus was also deeply involved). The second was that the First Amendment to the Constitution did not contain two “religions clauses” but one religion clause, in which “no establishment” (i.e., no official, state-sanctioned Church) was intended to serve the “free exercise” of religion. Neither of those Big ideas is welcome in today’s Democratic Party, in which Neuhaus (then a Lutheran pastor) was once a congressional candidate, and of which he remained a registered member until his death in January 2009.

Those who point out that the 2020 Democratic platform has the most radical pro-abortion plank in American history, and that the same platform promises to hollow out religious freedom in service to lifestyle libertinism, risk being labeled “culture warriors.” Well, so be it. “Culture warrior” is snark masquerading as thought. Facts are facts. And one of the sad facts of this unhappy political moment is that Neuhaus’s efforts to rescue the Democratic Party through two Big Ideas was frustrated because those two ideas got linked – and then rejected, thanks to the corruption of rights-talk that preceded, made possible, and was then accelerated by Roe v. Wade and its abortion license.

While Neuhaus’s interpretation of the First Amendment on religion has gained some traction in the federal courts (including, it seems, the Supreme Court), it hasn’t dislodged the alternative view in much of the academic legal establishment or the media. That alternative was baldly stated by Harvard law professor Lawrence Tribe in his constitutional law textbook. In the First Amendment, Tribe wrote, there is a “zone which the free exercise clause carves out of the establishment clause for permissible accommodation of religious interests. This carved-out area might be characterized as the zone of permissible accommodation.”

Ironically, Tribe agrees with Neuhaus on one point: there is one “religion clause” (even though the professor uses the conventional rhetoric of two such clauses). But in Tribe’s view, which has now been replicated in the 2020 Democratic Party platform, there is really just one “religion clause” – that which prohibits the state’s “establishment” of religion. Being tolerant to some degree, good liberals like Professor Tribe will try to find some wiggle-room to “accommodate” religious “interests” – much like the liberally tolerant would “accommodate” the “interests” of Flat Earthers. But only up to a point.

That point was drawn close to the bone by the 2020 Democratic Party platform, which rejects what it called “broad religious exemptions” that “allow businesses, medical practices, social service agencies, and others to discriminate.” What that means in plain English is that, under a Democratic administration allied to Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, the Little Sisters of the Poor will be compelled to provide contraceptives, some of which are abortifacients, to their employees. That, and nothing other than that, is what the Democratic platform promises. That is also the policy the Democratic candidate for president has said he would support. Does anyone doubt that his running mate (who seems to think the Knights of Columbus are a hate group because they espouse the understanding of marriage espoused by Barack Obama in 2008) disagrees?

This is Tribe’s First Amendment theory, turbocharged: the “religious interests” of the Little Sisters of the Poor (and evangelical Protestants, Orthodox Jews, Mormons, and all others who have religiously-informed, conscience-based objections to contraception, abortion, the redefinition of marriage, and the full LGBTQ agenda) do not fit within that “zone of permissible accommodation” that “the free exercise clause carves out of the establishment clause.” So those parties are out of luck – and out of legal protection, unless the Supreme Court comes to their rescue.

In this context, appeals to personal piety, rosary-carrying, and so forth ring hollow,  however sincerely felt that piety may be.

It is fatuous to dismiss concerns over the rinsing-out of religious freedom as the overwrought fretting of culture warriors. The commitments in the Democratic platform are plain, and there can be no reasonable doubt that those commitments will be given legislative and regulatory effect by a Democratic administration in league with a Democratically controlled House of Representatives and a Democratically controlled Senate. Those are the facts. They are not the only facts to weigh. But those facts should certainly bear on conscientious Catholic voting for all federal offices in 2020.

COMING UP: Christ at the center of the Council

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Conversations with Father Robert Imbelli have been a great blessing in recent years. I have rarely met a more even-tempered and gracious man: a true churchman who, in retirement after years of teaching theology at Boston College, tries diligently to keep the often-fratricidal subtribes of American Catholicism in some sort of conversation (if only through his e-mail account!). We’ve visited in Rome during several Synods and I remember with pleasure the tour he gave me of the Capranica, his Roman alma mater, where his fellow alumni include Popes Benedict XV and Pius XII.

I’ve had occasion before to mention Father Imbelli’s fine book, Rekindling the Christic Imagination: Theological Meditations for the New Evangelization. In that small gem, Imbelli made two points I’ve tried to make, doubtless less elegantly, in Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church and The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission. Where evangelization flourishes in the Church today, it’s because Jesus Christ – crucified and risen, the unique savior of the world – is at the center of the Church’s proclamation, worship, and service. And where evangelization lags or is moribund, it’s because of a deficit in Christ-centeredness.

In “No Decapitated Body,” a bracing essay published In the current issue of Nova et Vetera, Father Imbelli develops his argument for a more radically Christ-centered Church, sheds light on a host of current Catholic controversies and concerns, and does so with an authorial calm that nonetheless conveys his passion for Christ and the Gospel.

Why has the great promise of Vatican II been frustrated so often? In a word, according to Father Imbelli, because of apostasy: a drastic dissolution of the Christ-centeredness that theology sought to recover in the first half of the 20th century and that the Council affirmed. The greatest of Vatican II’s documents, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, begins, Imbelli reminds us, with the ringing affirmation, “Christ is the light of the nations.” And the entire Council, he suggests, must be interpreted through the prism of that confession of faith – “In many ways, the Council’s achievement could be read as a prolonged meditation upon the meaning and implications of Saint’s Paul’s confession – ‘For no other foundation can anyone lay that that which has been laid: Jesus Christ’ (1 Cor. 3:11).”

This seems to me exactly right. It squares with John XXIII’s intention for Vatican II. And it’s empirically confirmed by looking around the world Church today. Where the Council is interpreted in that Christ-centered way, evangelization thrives and the Church lives. By contrast, where Christ is not believed to be the unique way to God, the unique truth about God and us, and the uniquely life-giving savior, there is ecclesial desiccation. A rinsed out Christ substitutes for the Son of God who “came to cast fire upon the earth” (Luke 12:49); the Church falls into the culturally seductive trap of being a non-governmental organization in the business of good works; evangelization withers; local Churches die. This is most painfully obvious in Germany and other German-speaking lands, but it’s true across the full spectrum of Catholic life.

Father Imbelli explores how this forgetting of Christ shows up in various ways: in liturgy that does not begin from the premise that “the prime agent of the celebration [is] the Head of the Body,” on whom every sacramental act is totally dependent; in a dissecting room approach to the Bible and to preaching that does not convey the living presence of the one who is “the Word” (John 1:1) in the divinely-inspired Word of God; in attempts to set “doctrine” against “pastoral practice.” Certain voices in the Church incorrectly blame all of this on Vatican II. Yet it was the Council that taught that Jesus Christ is the one who acts in Baptism, the Eucharist, and the other sacraments, and it was the Council that insisted on the reality of God’s self-revelation in Scripture. As for the juxtaposition of the “doctrinal” and the “pastoral,” or “truth and mercy,” well, as Father Imbelli reminds us, the Synod of 1985 taught that “it is not licit to separate the pastoral character [of Vatican II] from the doctrinal vigor of the documents.”

Father Imbelli’s Nova et Vetera essay is a call to hope: that the Council’s Christ-centeredness will be recovered and made the engine of evangelization. That hope is well-founded, because that’s what’s happening where the Church lives.