“Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.”
—James Madison, Federalist #10
When I write about the killing of innocent human beings through abortion, euthanasia, and destructive stem-cell research, I try to resist the temptation to stray into other social and political issues. But the attempt by the Obama Administration’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to force Catholic institutions to adopt contraceptive insurance for their employees forces us to view the life issue on a larger canvas.
Last spring many hoped that the issue would soon become moot when it seemed that the Supreme Court was about to strike down ObamaCare in whole or in part. But the Court’s announcement in June that the act does not violate the U.S. Constitution destroyed that comforting illusion, making it all the more urgent that we look at the broader context of what has been taking place in Washington. It involves questions of civil liberties, long-time political alliances, and, what concerns me most, an issue about the size and scope of the federal government. I want to survey some of these issues and their connections to the current struggle.
Birth Control, Abortion, and Religious Liberty
Administration spokesmen keep saying that its mandate is all about “birth control.” But that is manifestly untrue. It is slightly ridiculous that I have to go back to high school biology to make this point, but that’s the way things are right now; so here goes. Birth control means doing something (or, in the case of natural family planning, refraining from doing something) in order to expect that sperm will not reach an egg during a woman’s fertile period. That is birth control. Whatever you may think of it, it does not kill human beings. But the contraceptive mandate does involve killing, because it also covers abortifacients like Ella, a so-called “morning after” pill. Here we are not talking not about sperm and eggs but about the killing of a tiny member of our species who has already been created by the union of a sperm and an egg, even if she’s only a day old.
Both the logic of it and the facts surrounding it go further. If Catholic institutions can be forced to be complicit in killing day-old humans, why not hundred-day-old humans? Anyone who followed the long course of ObamaCare sausage-making in the 110th Congress will know how frantically its backers worked to beat back the so-called Stupak amendment, which would have explicitly banned abortion from the health insurance program. In one of the saddest events of this period, the amendment’s author, Congressman Bart Stupak, along with his fellow “pro-life Democrats,” caved in, settling for a fragile, malleable executive order that some states have already been caught ignoring. It is simply impossible, then, to accept the Administration’s oral assurance that it has no intention of using ObamaCare as a vehicle for extending abortion funding nationwide. What other reason could it have had for fighting off a simple no-funding amendment, essentially the same kind that Hillary Clinton had allowed in her health-care bill in 1993? Indeed, the very logic of “preventative services” in ObamaCare points the way to abortion. What better way to prevent babies than killing them in utero?
The birth control/abortion mandate is also tied to the religious freedom issue. It is not a recommendation, or an invitation, or a temptation to violate one of the tenets of the Catholic religion. It is a mandate. Whatever non-Catholics—or Catholics, for that matter—may think about contraception, the issue is whether a state may compel people to provide it. This is the issue that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) keeps emphasizing, and it is one that should concern Americans of every religious persuasion. If the state can compel Catholics to pay for birth control, it can ban kosher slaughtering (as it has in some Scandinavian countries), punish Evangelical Protestant ministers for condemning same-sex marriage (as it has in Canada), force any mandate or prohibition down the throat of any religious group. Thoughtful people of all faiths recognize that the Catholic fight is their fight. As former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister, put it, “In many ways, thanks to President Obama, we’re all Catholics now.” All of us, Catholics and non-Catholics, and whatever our differences on birth control, owe a tremendous debt to the USCCB for sparking widespread resistance to the mandate. In many ways, thanks to them, we’re all bishops now.
Left and Right Critics of the Bishops
Alas, some Catholics on the left have opted for neutrality or even sympathy with the other side, and some Catholics on the right seem to take spiteful satisfaction from the whole affair. Washington Post writer E.J. Dionne, a self-identified Catholic, at first expressed something like anguish over the mandate (“Obama threw his progressive Catholic allies under the bus”). But he quickly got back in line with the Administration after its empty “accommodation” of February 10, which continued the mandate but said that the insurance companies had to pay for it (pretending not to notice that the insurance companies would pass back the cost in higher premiums and that many Catholic institutions are self-insured). Now Dionne declared that the Catholic bishops must decide whether they want to “to defend the church’s legitimate interest” or “wage an election-year war against President Obama.” Throwing down the gauntlet, he added, “do the most conservative bishops want to junk the Roman Catholic Church as we have known it, with its deep commitment to life and social justice, and turn it into the Tea Party at prayer.” For him, the bishops’ protest really amounts to a threat of partisan political warfare, and he, being a good Democrat before anything else, was fighting back with his own threat: If you bishops don’t shut up, I will hammer you with the charge of being “the Tea Party at prayer.” Does that kind of talk frighten the new generation of Catholic bishops? I don’t think so.
More nuanced was the reaction of the editors of America, the nation’s leading Jesuit magazine. “For a brief moment,” the editors wrote, “Catholics on all sides were united in defense of the freedom of the Catholic Church to define for itself what it means to be Catholic in the United States.” But, the editorial continues, the Administration’s “accommodation” of February 20 essentially met the bishops’ objection, and now they should talk with the Administration in “a conciliatory style that keeps Catholics united and cools the national distemper.” Instead, by continuing the struggle and getting into the “fine points” of policy matters, the bishops are involving themselves in matters of prudential judgment, better left to the politicians.
The America editorial has a lighter touch than E.J. Dionne’s piece; there is even a plaintive can’t-we-all-get-along note in it. But its innocence is far more alarming than Dionne’s thuggishness. Citing what it calls “fundamental principles of Catholic political theology,” it holds that, since there are two competing rights claims in the dispute, women’s health and religious freedom, Catholic rights theory “assigns to government the responsibility to coordinate contending rights and interests for the sake of the common good.” And that is what the government did in this case. It did “what Catholic social teaching expects government to do—coordinate contending rights for the good of all.” You may need to reread these quotes. The Jesuit editors of America are saying that “government,” i.e., the Obama Administration, should have the sovereign authority to settle the dispute. But the government is one of the parties to the dispute! This is like asking one of the litigants in a legal case to decide the case for the court. Yet the editors insist that this is one of the “fundamental principles of Catholic political theology.”
Paul A. Rahe, a professor of history and political science at Hillsdale College, criticizes the bishops from the opposite end of the political spectrum. Rahe is one of the main contributors to Ricochet, a conservative-libertarian blog. On February 10, the day that the Obama Administration issued its revised version of its contraception mandate, Rahe wrote a long piece in Ricochet entitled “American Catholicism’s Pact With the Devil.” As the title suggests, Rahe’s thesis was that “the bishops, nuns, and priests now screaming bloody murder have gotten what they asked for.”
The weapon that Barack Obama has directed at the Church was fashioned to a considerable degree by Catholic churchmen. They welcomed Obamacare. They encouraged Senators and Congressmen who professed to be Catholics to vote for it.
Rahe complained that in his lifetime the American Catholic church has lost much of its moral authority. It has done so largely because it has subordinated its teaching of Catholic moral doctrine to its ambitions regarding an expansion of the administrative state. In 1973, when the Supreme Court made its decision in Roe v. Wade, had the bishops, priests, and nuns screamed bloody murder and declared war, as they have recently done, the decision would have been revered. Instead, under the leadership of Joseph Bernardin, the Cardinal-Archbishop [sic] of Chicago, they asserted that the social teaching of the Church was a “seamless garment,” and they treated abortion as one concern among many.
Passing over some of the more hyperbolic rhetoric in his piece, his case against the bishops seems to rest on two contentions: First, the bishops and the rest of the Catholic clergy should have “screamed bloody murder” immediately after Roe v. Wade in 1973. Instead, under the leadership of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, they came up with the “seamless garment” doctrine, which treated abortion as merely one concern among many. Second, decades ago the Catholic clergy concluded a “pact with the devil,” and so now they have “gotten what they asked for” because “the weapon that Barack Obama has directed at the Church was fashioned to a considerable degree by Catholic churchmen.” Let’s examine each of these contentions.
Screaming Bloody Murder
As Timothy A. Byrnes shows in his detailed account of the period (Catholic Bishops in American Politics, Princeton, 1991), the Catholic clergy did—quite literally—scream bloody murder after Roe v. Wade. Shortly after the decision, the bishops declared “as emphatically as possible, our endorsement and support for a constitutional amendment that will protect the life of the unborn.” In the following year no less than four cardinals testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of that amendment. In 1975, in their most ambitious undertaking, the bishops published a “Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities,” an elaborate document setting forth a strategy of education, pastoral help for women who had had abortions, and a “public policy effort” aimed at curbing them. And in the 1976 presidential elections, the bishops held the feet of both candidates to the fire on the abortion issue. Jimmy Carter, the Democrats’ nominee, tried to wriggle out by arguing that on the whole Democrats were actually more pro-life than Republicans because of their longstanding support for social programs against hunger, disease, drug abuse, and so on. The bishops were having none of that, especially not Archbishop (later Cardinal) Joseph Bernardin, President of the USCCB. (It had a different name at the time.) Bernardin agreed that human life can be threatened in a variety of ways, but added that abortion is different because it is “a direct assault on the lives who are least able to defend themselves.” The politicians, both Democrat and Republican, were clearly intimidated. The planks of both parties were mealy-mouthed on the issue.
Then, four years later, something else happened—and didn’t happen. What happened in 1980 was that the Democrats, who had been waffling, now came out squarely for abortion. Their 1980 platform declared it a “fundamental human right” and called for federal funding of it. What didn’t happen was an expression of outrage from the bishops. They said nothing for three years. The USCCB’s next pastoral letter, in 1983, was not on abortion but arms control. Joseph Bernardin, now a Cardinal, did discuss abortion in two major speeches at Catholic universities in 1983 and 1984, but now folded it into his famous “seamless garment” metaphor, making abortion approximately equal to a variety of other social injustices that did not involve the direct killing of innocent human beings. Bernardin’s new position was not much different from Jimmy Carter’s in 1976—when Carter tried to argue that the Democrats were actually more pro-life than Republicans because they supported more social programs, a sophism that Bernardin stoutly rejected at that time. In sum, Paul Rahe is flat-out wrong in his charge that the bishops had failed to forcefully protest in the immediate aftermath of Roe. But his mistake is in his timeline: The bishops had indeed “screamed bloody murder” for six years after Roe; then they stopped, and when they started again three years later, it was in a lower key and a softer tone.
Rahe’s second criticism of the Catholic clergy, that they had made some kind of Faustian bargain with liberal politicians and are now reaping the bitter fruits of it, requires a longer answer. We need to take a backward look at the relationship between Catholics and the Democratic Party.
Catholicism and Social Justice
When the first large wave of Irish Catholic immigrants came ashore in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and other coastal cities in the 1840s, they were welcomed by Democratic Party functionaries, who recruited them for their votes and their services to the party, rewarding them with food, fellowship, rent money, and sometimes regular paying jobs. Thus began the historic ties between the Catholic Church and the Democratic Party. By the 1960s, even as some of these old ties were becoming historically and economically obsolete, a newer bond was added that found particular favor among younger, better-educated Catholics. It was not ethnicity or the prospect of material reward that bound this new generation to the Democratic Party. It was ideology, in particular the ideology of “social justice.”
Social justice is not the same as “charity,” which (as the root of the term implies) is given out of love. Justice, on the other hand, entails rights. Americans believe that all human beings have the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is not charity for government to protect those rights; government must do so, for the rights come from God. But—here is the hard part—what exactly is encompassed within these broadly-worded rights? Now we enter the realm of prudential wisdom. Statesmen and citizens must argue out the content in the public square. In the 1950s and early ’60s, the civil rights movement made a compelling case that Southern racial segregation constituted a gross violation of liberty, and that national action was required to amend the situation, since the Southern states were run by segregationists. Also in the ’60s, Michael Harrington and others made the case that the continuation of poverty and hunger in an affluent society constituted a national scandal that required a national solution. By the end of the decade, the American Catholic Church had enthusiastically embraced these and other social justice causes.
As it happened, during the last century the same theme of social justice had also worked its way into the Democratic Party. It actually started four years before the 20th century, in 1896, when the Democrats fused with the Populist Party and nominated William Jennings Bryan for President. The Populists believed that greedy capitalists, who had gotten rich by cheating and exploiting “the plain people” of America, caused poverty. Bryan’s campaign caused a considerable stir, but he was badly beaten by the Republican, William McKinley, and Populism quickly faded into obscurity. Its main successor as a reform movement was Progressivism, which emerged out of the reform wing of the Republican Party. While the geographical base of the Populists was in the farms and small towns of the South and West, the Progressives appealed mainly to urban intellectuals in the East and upper Midwest. One of those intellectuals, Herbert Croly, wrote an ambitious and prolix book called The Promise of American Life that became the virtual bible of Progressivism. In Croly’s view, the Bryan Democrats were right to diagnose the problem of poverty in America as partly the result of America’s class divisions. Where they went wrong was in their solution to the problem—a grab-bag of miscellaneous reforms, from direct election of senators to monetary tinkering—that never came to grips with the underlying cause of the problem. The real problem was our decentralized and disorganized political system, a crazy-quilt pattern of differently-run state and local governments combined with a weak government in Washington. It was the perfect recipe for political impotence and “drift,” letting the nation be pulled this way and that by clashing interests and the contingencies of history. What America needed was a united, purposeful government in Washington headed by a powerful executive, a president who possessed at once the knowledge of governing and the personal charm to make government interesting to the masses.
The American people are absolutely right in insisting that an aspirant for popular eminence shall be compelled to make himself interesting to them, and shall not be welcomed as a fountain of excellence and enlightenment until he has found some means of forcing his meat and wine down their reluctant throats.
The great corporations and banks were not necessarily enemies of the American people; properly tamed and managed by an administrative state, they could actually serve the public interest; but they needed guidance and leadership. By the early years of the last century, this general thesis was popular among liberal Republicans. Theodore Roosevelt read Croly’s book, loved it, and summoned him to his estate on Long Island. In 1912 Roosevelt ran as a Progressive when the Republicans renominated President William Howard Taft. Roosevelt lost, of course, but in the meantime Progressivism had begun migrating away from liberal Republican ranks to the intellectual leadership of the Democratic Party. Woodrow Wilson, the victorious Democrat in the 1912 election, called himself a Progressive, and, though his version of it differed from Roosevelt’s in theory, in practice it assumed many of its features, especially during World War I.
After Wilson left office in 1921, the Democrats had to endure more than a decade of conservative Republican rule in Washington, but they made their big comeback in 1932: Franklin Roosevelt was elected president and the Democrats enlarged their majority in Congress. Roosevelt promised a “new deal” for the American people,” but he left the term undefined. Once in office, his New Deal turned out to be an ambitious program of public works, price controls, public assistance, and business regulation. Dozens of government agencies, from the Federal Housing Administration to the National Labor Relations Board, increased the size of the federal government 90 percent in the first eight years of Roosevelt’s presidency. This marked a major turning point for Democrats. They now were committed at once to social justice and to a greatly expanded central-government strategy for achieving it.
By the 1950s then, the need for strong centralized government had become the default position in American politics, occupying what New Deal historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. called its “vital center.” Even mainstream Republicans accepted it, if rather cryptically. In 1952, Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, calling himself a champion of “modern Republicanism,” won the Republican nomination against conservative Senator Robert A. Taft. Once in office, Eisenhower created a new cabinet department of Health, Education, and Welfare (predecessor of HHS), presided over expansions of New Deal programs such as Social Security, and established a national program of interstate highways.
So the Republicans, at least the moderate wing of the party, went along, but there was never any doubt that the political force driving the expansion of government was the Democratic Party. When they returned to the White House in the 1960s, activist government in Washington came into full flower. The Great Society established a giant welfare-state apparatus that President Lyndon Johnson promised would make poverty obsolete by 1976. In his five years in office, he increased the size of the federal government by 30 percent and presided over a huge increase of entitlements that inflated the size of government for years to come. Stripped to its causal essentials, the Democrats’ master narrative was stark and simple: America’s destiny is to realize the highest degree of social justice, and that will require the exertions of a strong central government.
Catholics, Democrats, and Abortion
Very much attuned to that narrative were the idea people of the American Catholic Church, especially its new class of leaders. The priests and nuns who had marched in civil rights demonstrations, the earnest young Catholic writers who rummaged through centuries of Catholic social teaching to give a specifically Catholic inflection to Progressive thought, assumed as a matter of course that the federal government was the only reliable vehicle for wide-scale implementation of social justice, and that the best political engine for powering that vehicle was the Democratic Party. By 1970, when this new class of Catholic men and women reached positions of influence within its hierarchy, the Catholic Church in America could be recognizably caricatured as the Democratic Party at prayer.
But then came Roe v. Wade, the snake in the garden. It tempted politicians to throw up their hands and say, “What can we do? The Supreme Court has spoken.” Democrats were especially prone to that temptation because the rising feminist movement had made its home in their party, and the right to abortion was their idea of social justice. The point came, then, when many Democratic politicians had to choose between the Catholic Church and mainstream feminism. (“Feminists for Life,” a breakaway organization founded in 1972, has attracted many adherents and has a promising outreach program in colleges, but possesses little clout in the Democratic Party.) The Democrats made their decision in 1980: They were now the abortion party. And the bishops fell silent.
Today, with a new generation of John Paul II appointees in control of the USCCB, it looks as though it may have recovered some of its spine. The seamless garment is not much spoken of anymore (except from local pulpits), and in 1998, the bishops’ pastoral letter came close to repudiating it. Yes, the bishops wrote, programs addressing racism, poverty, and the like should indeed be pursued. “But being ‘right’ in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding a direct attack on human life.” (Their emphasis.) Still, it will take many years for the bishops of the Catholic Church in America to earn back the respect that was once accorded to them from politicians in both parties, and in the meantime the gigantic state apparatus, the Leviathan fed for more than 70 years on ever-expanding government programs, is turning on them. It would devour them if it could.
The Leviathan State
A few statistics may give us some sense of how big it has grown. Since the beginning of the last recession (December 2007), during which the private sector shed more than 7.5 million jobs, the total federal government workforce (excluding census and postal workers) has grown by 11.7 percent, adding 230,000 jobs. President Obama’s 2012 budget proposes an additional 15,000 federal jobs, including 4,182 additional Revenue Service employees, 1,054 of whom will be used to implement ObamaCare alone. In 1960, there were roughly 57,000 employees working in federal regulatory agencies; today there are about 290,000. When the first issue of the Federal Register, the official record of new and proposed federal regulations, came off the press on March 14, 1936, it was a 16-page booklet. In 2011, the Register came to 80,000 pages; in one account, ObamaCare has already added another 13,000 pages of regulations, and it has hardly begun. The U.S. Tax Code has tripled in the last decade. It now runs to 3.8 million words. The instruction book for the 1040 form now runs to 189 pages; in 1937 it was three pages. The growth of big government has been a bipartisan phenomenon. As I mentioned earlier, when Republicans finally regained full control of the White House and Congress in 1953, they continued many of the New Deal programs and added some of their own. In the 1970s, President Nixon signed into law new civil rights and environmental programs. In more recent times President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind education program federalized K-12 education to an unprecedented degree, and his Medicare prescription-drug benefit was the largest entitlement program created since the time of President Johnson.
When does the government growth reach the point of excess? It is hard to say. All we know with certainty is that, with each administration, government has grown larger, at some periods dramatically, at others more gradually, though it never reverses itself. With Obama’s stimulus and other expenditures, it has added five trillion dollars to the national debt, bringing the debt to $15.1 trillion, more than the entire debt of the Eurozone and the U.K. combined.
Not being an economist, I have no idea whether these increases will bankrupt the nation. What concerns me are the political and moral dangers they pose. Every dollar of revenue collected by taxing or borrowing helps the government hire more bureaucrats to write more pages of regulations. In the process it has a tendency to stoke up their presumption and arrogance. Take the case of Al Armendariz, former South Central Regional Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), overseeing five states. Here he explains the methods he was using to insure compliance with EPA regulations.
It was kind of like how the Romans used to conquer little villages in the Mediterranean. They’d go into a little Turkish town somewhere, they’d find the first five guys they saw and they’d crucify them. And then, you know, that town was really easy to manage for the next few years.
Armendariz is a former administrator because he was fired after a video of these remarks went viral on YouTube, embarrassing the higher-ups at EPA. He’s gone but not forgotten, because many of those crucified by him insist that Armendariz was simply giving voice to established EPA policies. One suspects that there are many more like him at work in the federal bureaucracy, who will probably not change their M.O. but keep a tighter leash on their tongues.
There is a place for an active federal government. Racial segregation in the South could not have ended without the strong arm of the Justice Department. Social Security and Medicare have helped older Americans to live out their lives in dignity. The Federal Highway Program enabled millions to escape crowded city apartments for homes in the suburbs. Our air and water are much cleaner than they were half a century ago because of federal environmental regulations. And so on. No reasonable person should want to go back to nineteenth century “Social Darwinism,” which the President has accused Republicans of espousing. But all these advances carry costs—not just monetary but political, social, and moral costs. We have to think about the damage done to what sociologists call our “social capital,” the nongovernmental networks of friends and neighbors, parishioners and fellow club members, who work together to benefit the community. Each well-intended law requires executive orders for carrying it out, which in turn leads to the further empowerment of government officials at the expense of private individuals and groups. Individually, the cost may be trivial—a store-owner, for example, may be required to do something that he may or may not have done on his own—and the social benefit may be worth it. But when whole shelves of federal laws and regulations pile up over many decades, they take a toll on the nation’s social capital. When Alexis de Tocqueville came to America in the 1830s he was amazed at the spontaneity of social groups that could be formed instantly to deal with local problems ranging from obstacles to traffic to poverty and illiteracy. In Democracy in America, a two-volume work reflecting on his experiences, he wrote, “In no country of the world do the citizens make such exertions for the common weal.” Most of this effort comes spontaneously, without government assistance or uniform codes.
Uniformity or permanence of design, the minute arrangement of details . . . must not be sought for in the United States; what we find there is the presence of a power which, if it is somewhat wild, is at least robust, and an existence checked with accidents, indeed, but full of animation and effort.
Years later, shortly before his death, de Tocqueville wrote The Old Regime and the French Revolution, a book about his native France in the late eighteenth century. By that time, he wrote, the central power in France “had succeeded in eliminating all intermediate authorities and since there was a vast gulf between the government and the private citizen, it was accepted as being the only source of energy for the maintenance of the social system, and as such, indispensable to the life of the nation.” He added that such notions had worked their way into the minds of ordinary people “and were implicit in their ways of living . . . . It never occurred to anyone that any large-scale enterprise could be put through successfully without the intervention of the state.” Are we at that point in America? Have the “intermediate authorities” in America atrophied to such a degree that it never occurs to us that we can accomplish anything important without the help of the state? Please God not yet, but a number of recent studies, from Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (Simon & Schuster, 2001) to Charles Murray’s Coming Apart (Crown Publishing, 2012) have documented the steep decline in America’s social capital since 1970.
It is cruel and silly for Paul Rahe to charge that the Catholic clergy have “gotten what they asked for.” They didn’t ask for ObamaCare, and they certainly didn’t ask for the contraception mandate. But in their almost single-minded pursuit of a social-justice agenda, especially since the 1960s, they may have inadvertently encouraged the growth of a Leviathan State that now threatens to destroy the vitality and independence of all mediating structures, including those run by the Catholic Church. The present confrontation over the contraception mandate grew out of the fact that the 2008 presidential election put people with post-Christian social views into key positions in the federal government. The agenda of these public officials includes “reproductive freedom,” “marriage equality,” euthanasia, condoms for kids, and who knows what else. It turns out, then, that a government big enough to enact social programs favored by the Catholic Church is big enough to openly war against centuries of Church teaching.
Resisting the Leviathan State
There are resources inside the tradition of Catholic philosophy for resisting big government, even if they’ve suffered neglect in some quarters. The neglect is evident when we have the Jesuit editors of America magazine announcing that the “fundamental principles of Catholic political theology” lead us to the conclusion that “government” should be the arbiter of a dispute it is having with the Church. I don’t remember that principle of Catholic political theology, but I do remember others. One of them, with the clumsy name of “subsidiarity,” was first developed by Pope Leo XIII in the 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, later encouraged by Pope Pius XI in 1931, and more recently by the bishops themselves. It holds that if a governing activity can be done as well at the local level as by a central authority, the local level should be its preferred locus. Moreover, since humans, being social and political animals, don’t always need to be guided by government, the ordering of human relations should be done wherever possible through voluntary associations. As I mentioned earlier, Alexis de Tocqueville thought he saw much of that in the America of the 1830s, especially at the state and local level. Perhaps the editors of America should take a fresh look at de Tocqueville’s classic work on Jacksonian America, finding in it some glimpses of subsidiarity in action.
The other principle of Catholic political theology I have in mind is a much older one. It began with Jesus’ response to the Pharisee who asked whether it is lawful to give tribute to Caesar: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.” For 20 centuries this principle of dual authority has survived repeated attempts to reduce it to a monism. That does not preclude cooperation between church and state in projects of mutual interest—education, medical care, relief of poverty, and so on. But it does mean that representatives of the church must deal very cautiously with those on the other side of the table. It is fine to come to the table with good will and good manners—bishops never err in that respect—but as equals, not as supplicants. And certain matters should never be on the table, especially those affecting the Church’s freedom.*
It follows from this that a certain kind of etiquette ought to prevail when representatives of church and state meet with each other. The generally philo-Catholic attitude of the last century’s Washington politicians may have produced an excessively cordial relationship between the two estates. One thinks of the annual Al Smith dinners, where presidents and would-be presidents roast and backslap each other as they confabulate with clergy, pundits, and celebrity lawmakers. In the current era this may be drawing to a close—on two occasions, in 1996 and 2004, neither presidential candidate got invited, apparently because of flare-ups on the abortion issue. And that is as it should be. Is it possible that Obama thought he could roll the bishops on the mandate because, on the basis of his reception at Georgetown and Notre Dame, his charm would be enough to subdue them? Whatever the case, I would like to see a somewhat cooler atmosphere prevail when prelates meet with politicians. In the language of old-fashioned diplomacy, I would think that a “correct” relationship would be enough. If Jesus was right to draw a distinction between the respective “things” of God and Caesar, it follows that our shepherds need to keep a sharp eye out for people who want to grab things that don’t belong to them. This requires great attentiveness and sobriety, because some of those people have learned to wear the clothing of our flock.
* Unfortunately, an exact reversal of that principle occurred at one point after the issuance of the “accommodated” mandate of February 10. In Cardinal Dolan’s account, staffers from the bishops’ conference met with the White House staff and asked if “the broader concerns of religious freedom—that is, revisiting the straight-jacketing mandates, or broadening the maligned exemption—are all off the table. They were informed that they are.” (His emphasis.) It should have been the other way around; it should have been the White House staffers asking the bishops’ representatives whether the issue of religious freedom was on the table. To which their immediate and obvious answer should have been “no!”
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George McKenna is professor emeritus of political science at City College of New York, author of The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism (Yale, 2007), and co-editor of Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Political Issues (McGraw-Hill, 2013), now in its eighteenth edition.