Speaking Loudly About Human Liberty

A Loudly-Delivered Homily

Recently this video, of a homily given by Father Sammie Maletta of St. John the Evangelist parish in St. John, Indiana, has been making the rounds of the Catholic blogosphere. Give it a listen, if you will.

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My reaction to this video was: “Thank God for this fine priest.”

Examining the reactions of other Catholics in the comment boxes, though, it’s clear that not all Catholics take this view. Some objected to the content of the message because of its political overtones. Others objected to the tone-of-voice: Too strident.

Why the difference of reaction?

Regarding the tone-of-voice, the difference is easily explained: If you think the issues at stake are vital ones and that the administration’s behavior is reprehensible, your own response will parallel Father Maletta’s. You will be loud in decrying the administration’s behavior. Not so, if you think the matter is trivial or the administration’s policy is acceptable.

In short, if you don’t like the homily, your dispute isn’t with the homily but with those, such as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, who think the policy is very bad and must be reversed at all costs.

I have already revealed my reaction, so you know my view: The policy is horrible. It is a direct assault on religious liberty in the United States. That fact, I think, has been amply discussed not only by Catholic bloggers but by the bishops themselves.

But there is more: This policy is the natural and necessary culmination of a longstanding creeping encroachment on human liberty generally. This creeping encroachment comes from the expansion of the Welfare State, and that was often undertaken with the endorsement of Catholic bishops.

Talk about unintended consequences!

Missing The Bigger Picture

This point is, I think, less well understood because it is easier to see when religious liberty is at stake than liberty in general. Take the HHS mandate: Its evils fall disproportionately on faithful and obedient Catholics. The fact that a particular religion is affected alerts us to the fact that religious liberty is threatened.

But what if the particular liberties affected were ones that Catholics shared with all other faiths, from Atheism to Zoroastrianism? Or, what if they were liberties which pertained only to doctors (of whatever faith) or day-care workers (of whatever faith) or artists (of whatever faith)?

Were that the case, we would still be talking about an assault on liberty. But the lack of a sectarian victim might allow the loss of liberty to pass “under the radar.” Would we notice it? Or would the fact that religious liberty was not specifically at issue blind us to the theft of our freedom?

It is good that the Catholic Church is finally aware of this threat to liberty, but it comes late. We should have fought the expansion of the Welfare State from the start, but we didn’t. Left-leaning Catholic bishops in America have been, with the best of intentions, blithely helping this process along since roughly 1930. Awareness of the consequences was delayed because until now, only private commercial enterprises and individuals had their liberties curtailed by the expansion of the Welfare State, and exemptions for churches kept the churches from knowing what it felt like.

Suddenly, Catholics who aren’t private business owners or struggling taxpayers are finally feeling it. Well, welcome to the party, folks. Sauce that’s good for the goose is good for the gander, and if it is within the Federal government’s just authority to compel business owners to include health coverage in employee compensation, then it is, by logical extension, within the Federal government’s just authority to compel business owners to include particular kinds of covered services.

Religious freedom is a subset of freedom of conscience, and freedom of conscience is a subset of that larger scope of liberty which we possess when our government forbears to use its compulsory power either to constrain our liberty to do morally licit things or to compel us to do morally illicit things. A Catholic has a right not to be fined or arrested if he chooses not to pay for abortifacients. Likewise, a business owner has a right not to be fined or arrested if he chooses to pay his employees in straight dollars, without including health insurance as part of the package.

When some Catholic bishops supported ACA (a.k.a. “Obama Care”), and when other bishops countenanced supporting it provided they were exempted from the mandate, they were saying to everyone not covered by those exemptions, “liberty for me, but not for thee.”

Hypocritical, no?

What Government Is and Does (and Cannot Legitimately Do)

Government are the hirelings of “We The People.” We delegate to them some of our just authority to perform certain tasks. They are our delegates, our proxies, our employees. That is what government is.

Government is also that organization in society to which we grant the power to use force to achieve its ends. That is what government does.

But God’s Moral Law sharply constrains the circumstances under which you may use force against your fellow man. In general, you can’t pull a gun on your neighbor. The exception is when your neighbor is executing an assault on you or on another innocent party, violating their unalienable rights or intrinsic human dignity. Then, you may use force to defend the innocent. Indeed, that is what our power to use force is for: To defend the innocent from unjust assaults on their rights and dignity. That is why God gave us that capability. But His Moral Law denies us just authority to use it for other purposes. Outside of that narrow usage, it is not morally licit.

And therein lies the rub: You have no just authority under God’s Moral Law to compel one of your neighbors to pay for another of your neighbors’ healthcare. And, having no such authority, you cannot delegate such authority to your hirelings. And government is your hireling.

Therefore government has no such just authority. When it uses force in such matters anyway, it is an usurper. When we vote to allow it to use such force anyway, we are blithely giving to Caesar what belongs to God. Worse: We are “giving” what was not ours to give! We are like a deacon or layperson who takes it into his head to “ordain” priests: We’re attempting to delegate an authority we didn’t possess to start with.

The Welfare State was allowed to expand because Catholics and others were being inattentive to the restrictions the Moral Law places upon our (and by extension, the government’s) use of force.

Left-leaning (which is to say, authoritarian, statist) Catholics thought it would be just fine to gradually chip away at the liberty of American society, so long as it was in ways they approved of, to add the compulsory arm of the state to projects they thought salutary.

But now the precedent has been set, and the president is capitalizing on it. The power was granted ages ago by the complicity of Catholics and others in those usurpations called “The New Deal” and “The Great Society.” The power is unchanged; only now, it is being exercised in a way that Catholics don’t like.

We would not have arrived at this point had the precedents not been set over the last seventy-five years. Were twentieth-century Catholics the friends and guardians of everyone’s liberty (not merely their own), then twenty-first century Catholics would have little to fear.

To Add Insult To Injury

There is another way the Welfare State has bitten us on the backside, and Father Sammie in the video touched on it: Socialism, in its varying degrees, tends to marginalize the Church in society. It is an impediment to the gospel of Christ.

Show me a country where the needy get their daily bread from government instead of from the Church and voluntary charitable gifts by their neighbors, and I’ll show you a country where:

(a) the needy don’t feel grateful for what they received, but only entitled to it;
(b) the productive don’t feel generous for what they gave, but feel their pockets were picked;
(c) class warfare is increased because of (a) and (b);
(d) politicians want to distribute ever more handouts, in order to purchase ever more votes;
(e) the impulse to voluntarily give to one’s neighbors is gradually eroded because one tends to think “that’s the government’s job”;
(f) as a consequence of (e) expanded entitlements do not augment private almsgiving, but gradually replace it, so that the needy are no better off, even when measured in absolute dollars;
(g) the impulse to give to the Church for its upkeep is simultaneously eroded because the mind tends to group such giving along with (e); and,
(h) the needy don’t see the Church playing much role in their lives, and are thus inclined to think that “all that religion stuff” isn’t really a matter of importance in their lives.

In short, under the Welfare State, man lives by bread alone.

Well, bread and circuses.

Well, bread and free condoms.

Father Sammie was right in what he said, and the tone in which he said it. Kudos to him. We could stand to hear more homilies like that.

But now that Catholics are belatedly sounding their cri de coeur, perhaps we could cry out this time for the liberties of everyone, and not just ourselves?


  • Cord Hamrick

    Cord Hamrick is a husband and father of three, raised an evangelical Christian in Southern Baptist churches. After years of lurking, questioning, and eventually opining in the Catholic blogosphere, he was received into the Catholic Church at Easter Vigil, 2010. Cord is a sometime church musician, former praise-and-worship bandleader, frequent songwriter and arranger, occasional guitar teacher, and — because one really must somehow pay the bills — a developer of web-based software applications. He lives in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, with his wife and three kids.

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