Catholics Must Face Squarely the Dire Threat to Religious Liberty

Of the 427 weddings  in my  present parish during the past eleven years  (I have lost count of all the others), the band—for want of a better word—at the most recent reception was the loudest I can remember.  Conversation was impossible, so  some of a certain age complained loudly but not loudly enough and others of a lesser age laughed at their complaints. I have come to realize that for many of them, conversation as an art is an unknown thing.

This reminded me of the line about the morally tranquilizing effects of  “intolerable music” in  Solzhenitsyn’s  1978 Harvard Class Day address.  On another Class Day four years later, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta mentioned Jesus thirteen times, but the edited account of her speech in the “Harvard Magazine” gave no indication that she had mentioned Him at all.  The 1978 speech upset far more commentators than the offended scholarettes  in Cambridge who stomped their feet at Mother Teresa’s mention of virginity and the protection of unborn babies.  Rosalyn Carter responded  at the National Press Club in a speech reported to have been written by herself: “Alexander Solzhenitsyn says he can feel the pressure of evil across the land. Well, I do not sense that pressure of evil at all.”  She  added that Solzhenitsyn would not have accused America of shallow materialism if he had known about our many voluntary organizations that bring neighbors together. Evidently, news of those wonderful groups such as the United Way  had never reached the Gulag to cheer the inmates.  But what really made the lovers of intolerable music hiss Solzhenitsyn in 1978 was his warning:  “On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility. We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life.”

As he spoke,  Pravda, the newspaper named for truth, was still a megaphone for the lies of Moscow.  It censored his speech. Things have changed.  These days, the Pravda of the Russian Federation is quoting Solzhenitsyn. In an article (July 1, 2012), Xavier Lerma cited his 1978 address and went on to say that Obama is president because of America’s “immorality and materialism.”  Then the Pravda writer quoted George Washington: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”  The litany went on:  “Abortions financed through tax dollars now total 50 million babies killed. Their blood cries out to Heaven while Hollywood justifies abortion and some women call it a choice… The other half of America stands against this evil tide with constant prayer while their public protests are not completely shown by the American media.”  The writer invoked the contempt Lenin had for the beclouded liberals of the West sympathetic to him, whom he called “useful idiots,” and compared them to the present generation of obtuse Americans: “…these ‘useful idiots’ will still blame Bush for the economy, overlook Obama as they overlooked Clinton’s mistakes… The communists won while Americans smoked pot.”  

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In 2008, L’Osservatore Romano hailed Obama’s election as “a choice that unites.” Westerners got Obama wrong, as they also got others wrong.  At Mussolini’s rise to power, the Dean of the College of Cardinals, Vincenzo Cardinal Vanutelli, said that the Duce  “had been chosen to save the nation and restore her fortune.” Churchill early on had called Mussolini,  a “Roman genius, the greatest lawgiver among men,” and Roosevelt referred to him,  perhaps with a timbre of Hyde Park condescension, as “that admirable Italian gentleman.”  But when Pope Pius XI  learned the facts, he flung burning indignation at the Fascists.

That is the lesson: It is possible for those accustomed to the insulation of rank, to come to their senses.  It is even possible to find a Becket or two among them. But in the French Revolution it  was easier for the Abbé Gregoire to set up a Constitutional Church docile to the new social order, while the faithful clergy went to the scaffold or became galley slaves in Guyana.  To avoid turning into some sort of neutered National Patriotic Church,  Catholics must witness to the government that human rights are of natural law and are not doled out by the state to citizens who obsequiously request them.  Passive resistance to the suppression of religious liberty is obedience to the law of natural order.  This will test the mettle of the faithful.  As the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigna, said in an address at the University of Notre Dame:  “…martyrdom may not necessitate torture and death; however, the objective of those who desire to harm the faith may choose the path of ridiculing the believers so that they become outcasts from mainstream society and are marginalized from meaningful participation in public life.”

If the Church is to be prophetic in our toxic culture, truth must trump dilettantish ideology.  That means freeing the Church from the deadweight of a self-perpetuating bureaucracy myopic to threats on the horizon.  Benedict XVI has said: “The bureaucracy is spent and tired. It is sad that there are what you might call professional Catholics who make a living on their Catholicism, but in whom the spring of faith flows only faintly, in a few scattered drops.”

Consider how the archbishop who chaired the draft committee for the 1986 pastoral letter of what was then the National Conference of Catholic Bishops,  “Economic Justice for All,” considered Reagan morally derelict. The letter’s flaws were addressed by laymen who knew about economics, such as William Simon, J. Peter Grace, and Michael Novak.  The document was mercifully put to sleep by John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus.  In 1983 the NCCB had also opposed Reagan’s foreign policy in another pastoral letter, “The Challenge of Peace” whose prescriptions would have helped to fortify the Berlin Wall. A prominent Irish bishop was sympathetic to it and refused to shake Reagan’s hand during the president’s state visit to Ireland.  Subsequently, that bishop was obliged to leave his country for  South America, the archbishop responsible for the letter on economics retired in unhappy circumstances from his archdiocese which eventually filed for bankruptcy protection, and the silver anniversaries of those tarnished pastoral letters have passed in silence.

When free people vote against their own freedoms, they pull down the columns of a free society on themselves, the way Samson brought down the temple on his own head. The first column to collapse would be the First Amendment right to freedom of religion. Naifs who thought this could not happen will be startled when the Church has to close charities, hospitals, schools, and even parish churches if they are subject to tax intimidation. In the long run, this would be far more disastrous to our civilization than looming fiscal chaos, and international belligerence provoked by foreign perception of our domestic lassitude.

Since so many voters rejected sound warnings, at least a beacon of honesty now shines on the Catholic Church in the United States. The 70 million or so Catholics were a Potemkin Village, and the number of faithfully practicing Catholics are a small portion of that number.  On November 6, the Protestant vote went for Romney over Obama 57%/42%, while the Catholic vote went for Obama over Romney 50%/48%,  Those who hoped that immigrants would bolster the Church must consider the 71% of Latinos who voted for Obama, an increase of 4% since 2008. Actually, everyone has suffered from the neglect of catechesis in the past forty years. Catholic universities and Religious orders were allowed to become engines of dissent. In one of our nation’s most respected seminaries, after a debate before the last election on the role of conscience in voting, only 19 out of 52 of our future priests supported Romney. Long before he became pope, Benedict prophesied, “The church will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning.”  As Leviathan’s lions begin to roar, the nominal Catholics will skip out of the arena. Roman Catholicism has become for baptized pagans a neuralgic kind of Cute Catholicism, with  leprechauns, mariachi bands and Santa Claus instead of confession, prayer and fidelity to doctrine.  But behind each leprechaun St. Patrick stares, and behind every mariachi band Our Lady of Guadalupe weeps, and behind every Santa Claus Christ himself judges.

Catholics could have saved the best in America and they can only blame themselves and their promotion of an entitlement culture  for the collapse of the temple and its moral distress:  redefinition of marriage,  family breakdown, politically correct speech,  contempt for chastity,  a record low birth rate, and destruction of infants.  As William Butler Yeats wrote in “The Second Coming,” quite likely in reaction to the Russian Revolution of 1917:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

We are not a Christian nation now. In 1783, Washington spoke of “our blessed Religion” and on D-Day Roosevelt prayed for “our nation, our religion, and our civilization.”  This would not be allowed in our secularized culture. Shepherds of the faithful cannot charm into reason the forces that now preside over our nation. We can dance to Caesar’s intolerable music but he will call the tune. We can feast with Caesar but he will soon feast on us. We can laugh with Caesar but he will soon laugh at us. Risus abundat in ore stultorum. There is abundant laughter in the mouth of the foolish.


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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